Getting a Programming Job When You’re Over 50

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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.

Image Credit: StockLite/Shutterstock.com

Comments

17 Responses to “Getting a Programming Job When You’re Over 50”

June 09, 2016 at 8:37 am, Surak said:

I am thoroughly disillusioned. I have a Ph.D. in math, and was an adjunct university instructor for years. After that opportunity dwindled away, I completed a M.S. in applied statistics (including programming in SAS and R) and graduate business certificate, and began accumulating numerous additional certifications in SQL and other areas.

Two years and 200 job applications later, I haven’t been able to land a job in industry, even at entry-level. They say I’m “overqualified” or “underqualified”. My significantly less qualified – but younger – classmates have six-figure paying jobs. The reason is clear.

Consulting has not – yet – been as lucrative as I’d hoped. I’m likely headed back to academia. Meanwhile, lots of companies have lost an employee with a huge skill set and passion for learning, integrating, and communicating.

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June 09, 2016 at 9:37 am, MC said:

I concur with Surak on every point. It is frustrating to be considered overqualified – does wisdom and experience count for nothing these days? What is with the trend of “we want someone with experience but not that much experience”?

People, go watch the movie, “The Intern”.

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June 09, 2016 at 11:28 am, Tim said:

It appears that there are too many people for the number of jobs on earth. Since the political economic infrastructure does not seem to be able to adapt and create enough jobs, and people don’t want to change that, it’s clear that we just need fewer people. A world war, pandemic, or epic natural disaster that wipes out half of the human population should do, so support pro-war and anti-public health politicians and maybe in 5 years there will be enough jobs for all the survivors. There were lots of jobs in Europe after the plague passed through in the 1300s.

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June 09, 2016 at 12:17 pm, Mike said:

I am a youthful 56 with 37 years of experience in Aviation, project management, research, data analytics and life. Can’t even get a response from UAS companies.

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June 09, 2016 at 1:48 pm, Jacques Gambu said:

The problem is that there are too few jobs. Entrepreneurs are not benevolent. They do not create jobs to help their fellow citizens earn a living, they create jobs in the hope of becoming rich or richer. Progressive taxation creates a disincentive to create jobs. The only way to get out of the current economic stagnation is to make taxation less progressive.

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June 09, 2016 at 1:55 pm, dwfAustin said:

I have empathy for anyone on this post or in fact the U.S. ( that hasn’t just moved here with a STEM Visa and had a job before they even arrived in the last 5 years ) that are looking for work for any length of time. It’s daunting. (Fill in blank) People from _____are immigrating to the U.S. in droves and the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the 100 + companies that have a permanent recruiting office in their country. The competition is stiff, there is no doubt about it, and although Elisabeth wrote a lovely article it doesn’t help when someone writes about how you should dance for a 25 – 30 year old in an interview. Convincing said person that despite someone’s geriatric looks that, yes, this over 50 person, with a M.S. or Ph.d in respective tech field, can actually learn and not wear a drool bib. I know everyone has some and this is my bit of advice to anyone over 50 looking for a job is stay away from companies where the hiring manager is less than 30 years old, the age spectrum for 95% of the employees is between 24-30, and finally it is an exciting tech company where everyone wants to work. There are some good programming and IS jobs out there for people over 50 they just might not be glamorous. Surak, MC, Mike and Tim God Bless you guys. Good luck.

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June 09, 2016 at 3:36 pm, gotoman said:

I am 52 almost 53 have been out of work as a computer tech/help desk/network admin. sense Aug 29th. I have a great resume’ that has been reworked by several people to help me. I have been on approx 25 in person interviews. The experience I have a across a broad range of tech support. I have personally actually seen an interviewers chin drop when I walked in. This person continually stated they had people of all ages but as I was walking out they were having a Thanksgiving pot luck and not a single one was over 25. I have went back to get some new certs like Comptia Security+ and soon CCNA. However I fear for my future. I don’t like it when people ask a wide variety of questions that elude to age. Can you bend down to pick up this several times a day. What kind of physical activities do you do when not at work, what do you think of working for a manager or with coworkers that are less than half your age. I do my best to not say anything that would make me look bad however I show my emotions through my skin color. My fair skin turns bright red when agitated even if I don’t say anything. I had to contend with interviewing with people from India after loosing my job to offshoring to India. DON’T let this to lead you to racism. I went to my friends and discussed this and realized I had to address it and I now have no anger towards the people. But hiding the angst towards my former company is a different matter.
I guess what I am ranting about is does anyone know of a support for males that have been displaced in this manor. I am really happy the person in the post was able to get support but is it there for us males? God bless everyone.

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June 10, 2016 at 7:58 am, GW said:

I concur with commenters here. I am 56 (almost) and have been searching for tech work for five years. I graduated among the top people in my class and have a passion for computers that is unmatched. My skill set is no less than others half my age who have gone on to outrageous fortune.
One thing that is under mentioned here is the fact that our industry is saturated with MS types who now have to accept entry level positions to survive. Let’s face it. If you have the choice between a BSIT and an MSIT for the same money you will go with the higher degree every time. So here is a good solution.
VOTE! We have a golden opportunity this fall to usher in a new era for America. To expand business to sectors that are yet unexplored. We can provide a way for us to help ourselves to a better future. It is all up to you fellow citizens but you MUST make your voice heard. It doesn’t matter who you vote for so long as you vote. It DOES make a difference.

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June 10, 2016 at 12:48 pm, Larry said:

I was out of work 5 months in 2015. I took classes at the local community college given by Damian Birkel, author of “Job Search Checklist” , and joined his support group “Professionals in Transition”. I also used the excellent resources that GOODWILL provides for the unemployed. The last resource I would recommend is the social media site LINKEDIN where I published my resume after I polished it up using the guidance of Damian and the GOODWILL professionals. I was contacted through LINKEDIN and hired at an increased salary. I just turned 66.

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June 11, 2016 at 12:18 am, Leo said:

This article is misleading and does nothing but promote false hope. I have a triple major which includes computer science, recent CISCO certifications, all of the available CompTIA certifications, and am a certified MENSA member. I can get through all of the phone interviews and be a finalist for almost every position. As soon as the company learns I’m 56, I am disqualified. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice. This is the “new normal” economy. The only places for a worker over 50 Is at Lowe’s or Walmart. They want someone in their 30’s or an H1-B guest worker from India. Any hiring manager would have his head on a platter for hiring someone my age.

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June 11, 2016 at 6:50 pm, fred said:

Harder to connect with people 10+ yrs younger then yourself. Different views, different experiences, different sense of what’s important. Focus on the connection .. that thing which gets one person hired over the other.

Tech has changed in that the knowledge and capabilities required have dropped significantly … though people may pretend it’s the same … but it isn’t. In my view tech is no longer a worthwhile pursuit in terms of a career. Lots of people are becoming aware of that.

My suggestion, if you have a lot of experience … dumb yourself down a bit. If the job doesn’t require a higher level of expertise … no point showing that off.

Tech jobs, especially computer science … is history in terms of a career … best to stay away from it.

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June 12, 2016 at 1:04 pm, Kobe Mauz said:

Agree the story is misleading. Even over 40 you are rejected as a developer. No indian manager will hire you. Their caste system considers developers failures if their not in management by that age. Nobody really wants to write code anymore really. Over 50 lets be honest we are not as quick as we were or have the energy to work long hours. In these modern times we should be ready to change careers a few times. Everyone is looking for C programmers now… Go figure. Not even the indian firms know what a device driver is anymore

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June 14, 2016 at 7:06 am, Don't feel Old said:

I’m 58 and I have been a contractor at a large energy company on and off for 15 years. After a VERY long hiring freeze, a position opened up and I was eagerly encouraged to apply for it by the group’s manager. I did, interviewed and was told, “You’ll hear by next week.”
What I heard was they hired the young man with a B.S.for a position that has been reduced (by corporate) to an entry level customer service position. This gentleman will be bored to tears when he discovers that there will be no network trouble shooting nor any Active Directory work. That’s what happened after they hired the intern with the B.S. in System Engineering eighteen months ago. This is his replacement.
Interns are considered employees and get first crack at any position opened.
Smh

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July 28, 2016 at 9:00 pm, Steve said:

To quote the WHOPPER – the only way to win, is not to play.

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August 19, 2016 at 5:12 pm, Dill said:

With all that experience, why don’t you all get together and start your own tech firms. If the kids are doing it, you can do it too…

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September 05, 2017 at 5:50 am, Dave McLoughlin said:

52 here. I get sick of puff pieces like this article that tell you to modify your resume and get a recruitment managers attention. They give some heart warming examples of a couple of people who got a job. It’s great giving this advice to people who could out-think you in their sleep, like they never thought of their resume or interviewing technique themselves. It’s quite patronising really. Ageism, like sexism and racism are firmly entrenched in the ITC industry here in Australia and if you haven’t moved into management roles by 40 you are going to find the going harder and harder. I am sick of being interviewed by children with NO understanding of anything I talk about regarding tech telling me they will submit my resume, but If something else comes along they might put me on that instead. I can have a great interview and then get told later I am too senior or I don’t have enough Linux (just one example) or some other BS like that. That is what I have to listen to when I have been doing System Admin in Linux/BSD for 20+ years an can run circles around most young guys and gals using these operating systems. I think what happens is although I do well in the interview with the people there, I will get shut down because of my age after other people (hiring managers and higher management) find out my age.

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September 07, 2017 at 7:00 pm, TheCorporateCriminals said:

>>the only way to win, is not to play.

That is what I have done. I quit my job (at 57) after realizing that making less money each year and “accepting” benefits and bonus cuts was the new standard business practice.
With a commute that was 2.5 – 3 hours (round trip) every day, and $5000 a year spent just going to work, including lunches, gas, trains tickets, parking. etc.
This just doesn’t work when you will NEVER get a promotion to the next salary grade level (this was common for decades). Each year people who haven’t been terminated, effectively make less money, as they do more work and have less benefits. Tech jobs are VERY replaceable, you have noticed.
Disrespectful and/or dishonest managers (if you are an over-50 white guy in this environment you are pretty much laughed at) are the NORM. For me it was no longer worth mind numbing boredom and petty harassment and diminishing compensation. I am lucky to have made money for two decades as a contractor when the pay was either great or very good.

The Tech work has changed to mostly productivity tools in many large companies (Banks, Insurance, Health Care etc).
No one had interest in my C, Server programming, UNIX script etc. It’s all changed and one takes whatever repetitive work is given to make a salary.

The H1B Corporate crime against american workers has driven down wages and destroyed employment opportunities, as it was intended to do. They fire hundreds of experienced and dedicated workers in a single department, replace them with inexperienced low wage foreign workers. Then your patriotic billionaire corporate CEO heroes tell the Congress that there aren’t enough skilled American workers to fill their glorious “hi-tech” positions, and ask for MORE H1B visas.
This is driven by corporate America NOT the government.

Open your eyes, people. If you are over 50, the American corporation sees you as trash to be taken out to the curb. They see you as useless. Sure keep saying your prayers, that will change everything.

Find another career and fast. It’s over. Renewable Energy, Health Care, or how about plumbing?

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