Prevailing Against Ageism in Tech


Although tech leaders have publicly vowed to tackle the industry’s ageism problem, the reality is that professionals with impressive résumés are still being let go or pushed aside every day. As technology journalist and author Dan Lyons recently told Dice Insights: “I wish I felt otherwise, but I don’t see any sign of it changing.”

Before you hit the panic button, it’s important to note that not every tech professional has been content to retire or ride off into the sunset on their fortieth birthday. Some have fought against ageism and actually won.

While there’s no magic bullet for fixing a broken system, below are some winning strategies based on tech pros’ personal experiences.

Stay Current and Stretch

Darrel Carver may have started out working on minis and mainframes running Unix-Sun Solaris, but the 57-year-old contract software engineer has stayed in demand by becoming proficient with the latest tools and technologies, including HoloLens, Oculus Rift, Unity, MVC, WCF, Web API, HTML5, jQuery, JavaScript, TFS, Azure and Xamarin.Forms.

However, skills alone are not always enough to justify his asking price. In fact, he concedes that “a company can hire two 20-somethings for my salary.”

In order to separate himself from less-experienced professionals, Carver touts his wisdom and the good judgment that comes from experience (and making mistakes). And he specifically targets projects that require deep domain skill, knowledge and expertise.

“I’m not really interested in working on the same projects over and over again,” he explained. “I’d rather go to a startup that’s in trouble or lead a team.”

Targeting roles and projects that require decision-making and leadership skills (as well as technical innovation) is a viable strategy for senior job hunters, since it’s harder for a younger person to demonstrate wisdom. That’s according to Peter Greulich, who managed to dodge the layoff bullet several times over the course of his 30-year career at IBM, and is currently an author and president of MBI Concepts.

“Use exciting words in your résumé and during interviews to show youthful enthusiasm,” Greulich advised. “Then highlight your maturity by talking about your ability to lead and guide younger professionals.”

Choose the Right Boss and Employer

Electing to work for a company that doesn’t value productivity or that doesn’t tie job security or pay to performance can leave highly compensated professionals susceptible to layoffs.

No matter how much you make, your boss should go to bat for you if you’re doing top-notch work, according to Greulich, who credits his IBM boss with saving his job several times, including a time that he took on a risky assignment and failed.

“Relationships that aren’t based on performance are cliques that can leave you vulnerable,” he added. “So be sure to ask about the evaluation process up-front to gain a better understanding of how retention decisions are made.”

Once you’re on board, become hard to replace by building relationships laterally, particularly with customers and business partners, and acquiring institutional knowledge.

“Even the smartest engineer can’t execute without institutional know-how, especially in a large organization,” Greulich said. “The more you know, the more secure you’ll be.”

And finally, don’t be invisible. The highest salaries in large companies typically get cut first, unless executives are familiar with you and your work.

Workaround Discriminatory Systems

Starting out on a contract basis can help senior professionals avoid marathon hiring processes that are skewed toward younger tech pros. For instance, Carver says that he usually receives a contract offer after a one-hour phone interview. If a prospective client wants to know more about his capabilities, he refers them to his ample library of project and database tables on GitHub.

Although he prefers the variety of contract work, Carver says that half of his gigs ultimately produce offers for regular, full-time employment.

“Age becomes less of a factor once you show a manager that you can do the work,” he added. “Performance can be a great equalizer.”

20 Responses to “Prevailing Against Ageism in Tech”

  1. Karen Mermel

    I agree. You can upgrade your skills easily but if you are older an employer finds it easier and cheaper to hire an H1B. It hits our economy when we lose so much since most of the H1B sends money home and pays no taxes. hi

  2. Lynelle N Phillips

    Once again these are males writing this article. Try being a 50 something woman in the tech field looking for a job. Especially after being laid off after 25 years of service. I’ve been looking since August. Oh, I get phone and face interviews, but in the end that young male who’ll accept a lower salary gets the job. I truly believe that most hiring managers take one look at me at the beginning of a face interview and have already made up their minds before the interview starts. Not only is age discrimination definitely in play but gender discrimination as well. And those awful H1B boys from India take up all the jobs as well. I’ve been hit by a triple wammy and feel doomed. Too young for social security, apparently too old to work, living on unemployment that will only last six months. What the hell am I suppose to do now?

  3. Andrew Nishimura

    Youth in a bottle from Walgreens, aka hair dye. Also, say something like “over 15 years experience” on your resume. Thus showing off your experience, but not dating yourself to the age of the dinosaurs.

  4. Designers over Forty

    This article makes it sound like the problem is high salaries or not staying current with the technology. But the reality is hiring managers and interviewers don’t want to work with over-forties. I’ve been to plenty of interviews where they loved my resume, the phone screenings went great, but when we met in person I was told I was too “senior” for the role.

  5. Over Fifty

    I completely agree with other comments and have experienced ageism numerous times. You get a great phone interview, go for in-person interviews which all go great, but everyone from executives to team members who interview you are in their early 30’s and younger; you don’t stand a chance in being the only senior person there.
    Here’s a tip for candidates: research the company’s management team and see how many of them are over 40 themselves! I have found better success when there are older professionals already working in the company, instead of trying to be one of the oldest yourself. And yes, stay current in skills and make sure you have experience that stands out above competitors.
    H1b is a definite killer and takes away thousands of our jobs a year. It has got to go!

  6. Its not true that H1b’s don’t pay tax. They pay tax just like any other citizen. They pay SS, medicaid/medicare, yet they would not get any benefit if they choose to move out of the country. Do not deride skilled people, but ask companies to change their hiring practices. The fact is that most of the tech jobs need fresh mind to come up with innovation, that’s mainly the reason why old people even though well qualified are not hired for tech jobs. Just two cents!!

  7. Keith Purtell

    The most practical solution I have seen is persuasion. What is most likely going on in the hiring manager’s mind is fear. She/he has heard wild stories: experienced workers don’t learn new things, that they rely on outdated tools, that they want to boss others around, etc. I was in an interview where the manager made a crack about experienced employees using carbon paper. These fears are strong enough to overwhelm the scientific mindset in technology. Think of ways you can reassure the person across the table. Send a clear signal you can be trusted to support their goals, that you are enjoyable to work with. Do this right up front before their mind goes into dark places.

  8. Interesting article, but confusing. As a consultant, I work with diverse group resources. I don’t dispute the statistics that this article which I assume this article based on, but I haven’t seen it. In practice, I haven’t seen ageism. In fact, I have noticed a significant number of engagements where I haven’t seen any twenty-something resources.

    I am almost 50; I don’t dare post my resume since I would be inundated with calls. I would say may interview to close rate (resulting in an offer) runs nearly 95 percent for years. I have noticed at conferences or work environments that gray hairs are well represented, while young resources are scarce? Many young professionals have approached me asking for help to break into the market. I have a very significant resume and charge top dollar. I don’t deny ageism, but I am trying to understand the difference in experiences? I think the article confirms what I practice: if you want senior compensation, you need superior skills.

  9. GiftCards

    My experience is inline with Ms. Phillips. Looking for tech work as a women over 50 has been discouraging and downright embarrassing. Although I have to say, being a female techie over the past 20 years, it’s always been a hard sell. Years ago, I actually had a hiring manager tell me that, although my qualifications were excellent and he thought to hire me, he wasn’t going to because having a woman in his department would “make the guys uncomfortable”. Presently, I can’t find work even though I have a BSEE, certifications, years of experience and not asking for a lot of $. It may be the time of year. However, I’ve found that women in technology, other than software development, have a much harder and longer time to get a decent job. I’m ready for a new career.

  10. still here

    Robert, I used to feel the same way, until I found myself without a job for the first time in decades. Then I started applying for job after job that I was eminently qualified for and never heard a word back. Only 1 in 20 or so would even bother sending a rejection notice. For the first hundred or so I just assumed that there were even more qualified or better matched folks getting in. But after two or three hundred, it started to dawn on me that something was not right. I started going back and looking up on linkedin some of the positions I had applied for. Often I would find the new person in the role I had applied for and it always turned out no, their backgrounds were not a closer match than mine. No their qualifications were not more impressive. They were indeed all much younger than I am though.

  11. Going strong

    Is it really about money (some above feel a younger person will accept less) ???

    Try expressing a lower salary expectation and see for yourself.

    My experience is it doesn’t help. It’s not money. The problem is that no one wants to manage their father 🙂 Seriously. And the age numbers scare the hell out of people under 40. So they are only semi-conscious or not aware of their prejudice – they are just acting off it.

    When I was in my 20’s, we were actively fighting against what people in their 40’s and 50’s represented: mainframes, rigidity, button-down style, resistance to change, and know-it-all-ism. We fought that battle and won.

    Now I’m wayyyyy less rigid than people in their 30’s. I’ve been through several generations of the-next-best-thing religiousity. At this time, I have my opinions but I know they are just that: my opinions.

    Once I’m working side-by-side with coders of any age, gender, nationality, etc., I find the differences disappear. I haven’t really felt much ageism on the job.

    Aside from the problems caused for me due to ageism, there is a huge social issue because we are losing a huge element of our tech workforce due to ageism in hiring. And there is self-ageism – a huge problem – where people take themselves off the playing field because they feel like they don’t fit in.

    I don’t have the answer but I recommend we take on ageism NOT as a discrimination issue but as a LOST OPPORTUNITY and WASTED RESOURCES issue. Everyone can understand that.

  12. The Old Guy

    I believe part of the issue is that the hiring manager(s) are twenty to thirty years younger than the potential “older” candidate. They may feel threatened by someone with the experience instead of seeing it as an opportunity to get a person with skills that potential would make the manager look good.
    I’ve been told many times I’m just not a good fit. Not that I don’t have the technical or personal skills; other words; your old.

  13. female over 60

    Lynelle, Hang in there. I am female, over 60, and it took me the better part of 2 years to find a job after I was laid off March 2014. I removed all references to graduation dates from my resume and any online profiles (career builder, dice, indeed, etc.). I dropped all experience except for the last 20 years. Some think you shouldn’t go beyond 15 years. It may help to take junior college courses to update skills. I did this and was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the students did not treat me like I had ‘cooties’. It did get hard to keep looking at the online postings and sending resumes into a black hole, but eventually it paid off. I did end up accepting a position with a 30% pay cut. But at least I’m working at a decent salary.
    I agree that the H1B program is being abused. Every recruiter, and I mean every recruiter that I spoke to asked about my eligibility to work in the US. I finally added ‘us citizen’ to my
    So, keep looking, be flexible as to position, salary and location if possible. Expect that it will take some time. Good luck.

  14. John Stone

    I’d be curious to see if there is a difference with ageism between people who do contract work versus those who are seeking full-time employment. Do people have more success if they are willing to travel from place to place? Employers are looking to kick the tires rather than commit upfront?

  15. Janet Jenking

    To John Stone:
    Most employers have little items in their job descriptions (or if you are actually lucky enough to talk/email with a recruiter) that says
    “LOCAL CANDIDATES ONLY”. They don’t want to look or hire from out of town. They won’t relocate or pay expenses. Those days are just about over unless you’re a 20-something. You can relocate yourself and spend thousands of dollars on moving, with no guarantee that you will be hired somewhere else. I have seen ageism in many states; it’s a national problem. Read “Disrupted” by Dan Lyons. He discusses just about every type of bad behavior that companies really do sling at older workers.

  16. Joe Dirt

    If you go back to school, no loans, as they can come after everything, including your social security. My Masters in Applied Computer Science awarded in the spring of 2008, and 30 years experience didn’t seem to help.

  17. TechWorker

    I’m saddened to see that you are out of work and frustrated with your search. (I was released about 2 months ago, so I haven’t lost my enthusiasm. . . yet.)

    However, I hope that by the time you are 40+ you have developed an extensive network of friends, ex-bosses and ex-co-workers that can help you to have a leg up on job applications. This is something that the 20-somethings don’t yet have.

    In my case, I have contacted all my former bosses and many ex-co-workers. I have received some very good leads for jobs. In several cases, my friend was able to put my resume in front of the hiring manager. I often received a cordial, “Not the right fit,” but I was at least given a shot.

    I believe that networking is key.

    Good luck to all of you.


  18. Darrel Carver

    Part of the question is are going for full time employment or contracting? Contracting is more about ecperience and skills, also they know they can easily cut you if the decide they don’t like you. At that point it is about your performance not your age.

    If you are trying to become a FTE the ageism jumps in. At my age I am not trying to launch a new career with a new company

  19. Full-time employment is a dead-end for experienced hires with 20+ years of experience.

    Unless you have
    -nurtured a referral network like an aspiring political candidate
    -groomed yourself into a management or leadership powerhouse

    almost all of the work that experienced hires will see are leadership roles working on things that are broken or not performing well.

    All hiring is risk-based: the risk of not having people to meet an objective, deliver critical results, or change something bad.

    Success as a 50+ candidate depends on finding what’s broken, having the capability and experience to fix it, and being able to sell someone on the idea that you can do it better, faster and cheaper than someone else.

    Big problems require accumulated skills and experience, little ones don’t. Big problems get premium pay. Just be aware that you can only work on big problems in spurts (projects), and then you need some recovery time. Also, you will eventually fix it or decide that it can only be fixed partially, at which time you will be unemployed, quickly (because you’re expensive). Note to save as much as possible to get through the next downcycle (which is when you start selling again). Rinse/Repeat.