Ageism in tech is a much-discussed problem. The issues surrounding it are often less about skill-sets and more about the attitudes and perceptions of tech-company hiring managers, who are often younger than the middle-aged programmers they’re interviewing.
If you’re a programmer or developer who’s over 50, and you feel like you’re living through a tech-industry version of “Logan’s Run,” take heart: you can overcome prejudices and continue to do what you love.
Take the case of Linda Kukolich, a full-stack software engineer with a passion for machine learning, who was downsized after 27 years at Lincoln Laboratory. She hadn’t interviewed for a new position or updated her résumé in three decades, and the thought of looking for gainful employment was daunting.
After nearly three years of unemployment, Kukolich sought out help from reacHIRE, a company that works with older, highly-skilled women who are seeking reentry into the workforce after a long hiatus (or in Kukolich’s case, a career disruption).
“I had no idea how one got a new job in the current environment,” Kukolich said. “A lot of women in my cohort (at reacHIRE) were short on tech skills but they had all the human relations skills. I was the opposite. I have the tech skills but was lacking the how to get a job skills.” She started her process by learning to build the kind of résumé that gets a hiring manager’s attention.
According to James Stanger, a Web technologist and security consultant who works at CompTIA helping to develop its certifications, a solid résumé is a critical piece of the puzzle for older technologists. “It’s so much about learning how to rewrite a résumé and getting it to reflect your achievements,” he stressed. “Focus on your most current problem-solving skills, successful projects and new accomplishments and if you have an older win, show how that project demonstrates your creativity and flexibility.”
By successfully updating her résumé to feature challenges she faced, actions she took and the quantifiable results gained, Kukolich began to reorient her job search. Next, she focused on the interview process, another aspect of job-hunting that’s changed dramatically over the past few years.
Kukolich had no idea how to finesse the kind of in-person meetings that are largely behavioral, where employers look more for cultural fit than exact skill-set. “The whole idea of doing a behavioral interview was new to me,” she said, “so practice was really helpful. We did peer-to-peer interviews and covered all the things we were most afraid of being asked. If there was a negative story, it’s what you learned from it to make you better.”
As Stanger observes, employers are increasingly seeking employees who are not only flexible, but also capable of learning new skills. “One of the big raps of the industry,” he noted, “is that when an employer looks at people over 50, they assume that they’re set in their ways in terms of their work habits or how they think about work.” He’s often found that the opposite is true: older programmers use their experience in ways that make them more agile when problem solving.
“During an interview, you have to be able to communicate that, over the years, you’ve been able to listen carefully and understand the requirements and business analysis of a project,” Stanger advised, “and you then have to demonstrate how you were and are able to meet requirements, by adjusting how you think and use your skills to solve a problem. This proves that you can learn and change.”
Fit and flexibility may count more for an older worker than having the exact skill requirements (although your skills do matter—a lot). “A tools match was not the thing that worked for me,” said Kukolich, who, after interviewing at two companies, landed a job as a QA engineer at Fidelity Investments. “What worked for me was basically that my background matched the background they needed and the people at Fidelity were willing to accept that I was capable of learning.” Kukolich found that she didn’t have to know every detail of every tool, but did need a track record of being able to learn new things.
Stanger emphasizes that active, in-person networking is essential to finding the right job. “Work with fellow programmers to get introductions,” he suggested. “Get to know as many groups as possible and get as many introductions as possible.”
Don’t forget to line up your letters of recommendation, as well. “People that you know well, tell you things about yourself that you think are ordinary and they turn out to be special is a marvelous thing,” Kukolich said. “That was part of what gave me the confidence to succeed.”
No matter what your age, when you find yourself in front of the right hiring manager, you can succeed by leveraging the considerable breadth of your experience, and showing an aptitude for learning.