I was on the phone yesterday with a senior level hiring manager from a potential new client, and she said something I hadn’t heard in a long while.
“We love older programmers.“
When I speak with CTOs and hiring authorities about their dream hires, some are more cautious than others when stating their preferences. I’m not a lawyer and don’t know specifics on the rest of the world, but here in the U.S. we have laws that try to prevent discrimination in hiring. Some company representatives will describe ideal candidates to recruiters in conversations that could be approaching a somewhat gray line from a legal standpoint, and in these cases a recruiter should clarify that he/she will present all qualified candidates regardless of whether they are a member of some demographic.
We read so much on ageism working against the most senior in the industry that sometimes we forget that there are firms that prefer some gray hair. The problem, of course, lies with the numbers. As I said, I hadn’t heard a strong desire for hiring the most senior level resources in a long time, and we generally don’t see companies using language in ads that would tend to attract older applicants.
Job specs penned by HR or internal recruiters may describe the company as being young and having energy without any disambiguation as to whether the reference is to the employees themselves or the newness of the organization. “We’re a young company” can have more than one meaning – maybe it means “we’re all 22 years old,” or perhaps it means “we’re in an incubator and angel funded.” We may read about established and stable companies, but how often do you see a reference to a “mature team”?
When we look at company websites that show photos of their entire development teams or just a few select profiles, it can give a sense as to the type of culture the firm is trying to portray. These are usually smaller companies and startups with photo choices varying from the serious and dignified to goofy costumed photo booth style shots that are rather shamelessly trying to appeal to a younger audience.
Maybe it’s because I’m in my mid-40’s, or maybe it’s because of the ageism I hear about (and defend my clients against with words) in my resume writing business, or maybe it’s because I spent 15 years running a Java Users’ Group that had its share of gray hairs, but I’ve always been sympathetic to the plight of the older developer. It’s refreshing to hear someone state that they are welcoming to the most senior talent, and I hope to hear that more in the future.
Another day, another article about age and technology. The comments of these articles usually escalate into some generational war played out with mythology and anecdotes regarding relative energy levels and productivity, work hours, the value of experience, and general competence. These discussions usually make no progress, while some useful topics are ignored.
As someone who has been around programmers (and ran a Java Users Group) for about 15 years, I often guide senior technologists in marketing their skills. When doing business with clients, I find myself advocating on behalf of older coders regularly. During the first dot com boom multiple six-figure job offers were dealt to anyone at any age who could spell J-A-V-A, but the landscape is much different now.
Most companies I’ve worked with give candidates of all ages a fair shake, although I’ve witnessed some who have been less friendly to industry veterans. For firms that need additional justification for hiring older workers, here are a few additional considerations that may go beyond the more common topics of discussion.
Recruiting – So your efforts to scale your team came to a screeching halt? Inevitably the friends and family network dries up and firms rely on internal recruiters or outside agencies to identify talent. Although young hires may be more connected due to early adoption of social networks, older workers usually come with established professional networks. These contacts are not just other senior engineers, but will also include younger former co-workers. When you consider the costs of recruiting (not to mention the costs of a bad hire), the ability to tap into the network of highly experienced engineers might even justify paying a higher salary.
Beyond just the network a senior engineer may possess, having experienced talent on staff will appeal to young candidates who understand the value of learning and career development. A predominance of junior engineers will typically scare off older applicants, and it’s also likely to be a red flag for some subset of the young. Graduates are typically encouraged to find a career mentor, and they will seek experienced professionals to serve in that capacity.
I generally advise my clients on employing some senior level engineers who are strong coders but will also serve a secondary purpose of attracting other less experienced hires. The term I usually use is “hire magnets“, and those magnets may fit a few different profiles. The magnet could be a recognized authority on a topic, an involved tech community leader, or simply a knowledgeable and charismatic developer who enjoys sharing knowledge.
Fad recognition – Industry experience may give engineers a sharpened ability to sniff out the difference between a passing fad and the genuine article when considering new technologies. This of course isn’t by rule, but once an engineer has seen enough shiny things being hyped by marketers and evangelists it should theoretically become easier to evaluate trends with less bias. Hires with this skill may save a company time, money, and many developer hours.
Less performance unknowns – Older engineers with a documented work history, a list of credible references, and demonstrable work experience should be easier to vet than juniors coming from their first or second job. The ability to rely on past performance to predict the future is a benefit, though never perfect.
Retention/stability – Employee retention is a serious concern and cost for many firms, with demand for talent contributing to turnover. Older engineers and those with families should be less likely to consider relocation for new positions, which limits their other employment options to local or regional opportunities. Although both junior and senior level engineers may have bills to pay, the breadwinner concept changes perspective and may result in satisfied and fairly-compensated developers staying put.
Senior level developers often reach a point where compensation plateaus and money ceases to be an incentive to change jobs. Employees less driven by dollars are surely driven by something. It could be something as simple as proximity to their home or a desire to solve complex technical problems, but competitors are less apt to change these factors and often need to compete with pay.
From my experience, most engineers see fewer significant increases related to job change around their 15th year in the business, and by the time someone reaches that level of seniority it isn’t unusual to have once taken a pay cut. Junior level talent in competitive markets view job change as the most reliable means to salary increases, while the relatively minor compensation differential for senior engineers may not outweigh the uncertainty of a new employer.
Unique situations – There are some scenarios that happen in development shops that are nearly impossible to replicate in a classroom or lab setting, and the ability to face the unexpected comes from being there. This could refer to crisis management when a server goes down, handling difficult customers, or knowing how to navigate office politics. Prior exposure does not guarantee preparedness, but should make the second experience less shocking.
On-the-job learning – Older engineers may now be on their second or third set of platforms and corresponding tools. Developing the ability to learn new languages and tools in a work environment is a skill. It is quite valuable to know how much (or how little) to read before starting a project with an unfamiliar component, or which methods are most effective for you when seeking knowledge.
Any that I missed?
As a recruiter who is about to
celebrate (as if recruiters celebrate such a thing) mark fifteen years in the technology industry, I am starting to see that many of the contacts I made back in the late 90’s are now having some concerns about ageism during a job search. Any failed interview for older software professionals may cause a raised gray eyebrow and a thought that age and not their skill was a factor in the decision. Companies that freely apply catchall terms such as “overqualified“ or “not a cultural fit” in a rejection only serve to cloud the engineer’s mind and cause him/her to wonder if these are just the politically correct or legal code words to signify “You’re too old for us”.
Much has been written about older professionals being dogged by myths surrounding work effort, production, energy, and whether employees with families are more likely to work less. Start-ups are often portrayed as testosterone-and/or-alcohol-fueled code marathons only welcome to young males, which hurts the many start-ups that are not. But even hiring managers who have read studies and evidence that debunks these myths may still be guilty of judging candidates based on perception, so another blog post about why all companies (start-up or mature) should consider hiring older workers may not be helpful. The goal of this post is to help these more experienced candidates maximize their chances of being considered for jobs, and to make sure they are evaluated based on their skills alone during interviews.
Just as you would find at a nightclub, ageism starts with the person at the door. During a job search, the doorman is the person screening resumes. Therefore, the resume is the first item of consideration when trying to combat the problem. Let’s look at some common resume mistakes that expose candidates to ageism.
Mistake #1 – Your resume does not need to include every position you have had in your life, and it doesn’t even need to list every position you have held in your field. This is by far the most common way that candidates expose themselves to possible ageism. If you have been in the industry for over twenty years, the work you did at the beginning of your career is hopefully quite different than what you are doing now. Trim down your resume to a manageable size by eliminating jobs that are the most dated and least relevant. Although there is nothing wrong with removing outdated experience, add the phrase ‘Additional experience provided upon request‘ if you feel it necessary.
Mistake #2 – The ‘Education’ section of a resume does not need to include graduation dates. The graduation date is arguably the easiest and most accurate way to put an age number on a candidate, using the formula
Age = (current year - graduation year) + 22
By including the date of graduation you are simply making it easier for them to discriminate. When hiring managers or recruiters see dates that seem like the distant past, they will do the math in their head subconsciously and label you with a number. “This guy graduated in ’81? That makes him, what…54?” Don’t put the date on the resume if you feel that your age could be used against you. This isn’t dishonesty (putting an incorrect year would be dishonest). There are several details about you that are not listed on your resume, and graduation date should not be required.
Without a graduation date, the formula for quickly approximating age generally becomes
Age = (current year - year of hire at earliest job listed) + 22
If you consider the point listed in Mistake #1 and you decide not to list early and irrelevant job(s) right out of school, and you also do not list your graduation date, you can potentially take years off of your perceived age.
Mistake #3 – Your resume does not need to include every technology that you have ever used. A resume of a very senior engineer could potentially contain an impressive and lengthy list of technologies in the skills section if he/she were to offer a comprehensive inventory of the various hardware, tools, languages, operating systems, databases, protocols, etc. that have been used during the span of their career.
Keep in mind that certain technologies or buzzwords are likely to trigger a visceral reaction based either on the age of the technology itself or how that technology is generally viewed by the industry. Languages that are out of favor in today’s programming culture are probably the most common issue. To have experience over a long period of time and with several tools is undoubtedly valuable, but unless a technology has significant relevance to the jobs being sought the risk of including these details may outweigh the benefits.
If you followed the advice above regarding your resume, the next step will be interviews. In interviews, you want to make sure not to play into any of the myths or the fears that are commonly associated with the hiring of older workers. Below is a list containing many of the most stereotypical generalizations or assumptions common to ageism and how to best avoid them.
Older hires will not be able to put in hours. The availability issue is more closely associated with start-ups that may require more office time, and this perception is amplified when a start-up is staffed primarily with young, childless, and single employees. Being honest about your desire for work/life balance is best for all parties involved, but don’t let the interviewers assume that because of your age or family situation that you are only able to work 40 hours if you are indeed open to more. Clarify the amount of time you are willing to commit to working in or out of the office to prevent false assumptions.
Older hires will retire soon. Answering the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” with “Retired in Florida” is probably not the best answer, but honesty about your expectations is always best. Don’t let the employer assume that you are planning to retire soon if that is not the case. If you can not afford to retire in the near future, it may be helpful to let a hiring manager know that fact in order to allay this potential fear. The amount of time technology professionals of any age spend at any one company is lower than it used to be, so having an older employee on board for three to five years could have value to the company that is not much different than the average tenure of a young hire.
Older hires have low energy or are less productive. Older candidates should be more aware of their perceived energy level and body language during interviews. It’s good advice to job seekers of all ages to try to schedule interviews during the hours of the day that you feel you perform best and are most alert. Be sure you are well rested, fed, and look alive.
Older hires have dated or irrelevant experience. Eliminating some of the older experience on the resume helps showcase current skills while avoiding the appearance of stagnation. When giving anecdotal answers, try to focus your material first on what is most relevant and most recent. Referring to projects that ended thirty years ago is not advised unless the lesson learned was incredibly valuable.
Older engineers only want to manage. If you have been in leadership roles but are looking for something more hands-on, you must make that very clear during interviews and in initial correspondence when applying for a job. The assumption will always be that employees expect more responsibility as their career progresses, but many software engineers simply want to stay in the code and are not interested in managing. Don’t let your interviewer assume that you want to manage if you do not. A willingness to mentor employees while also being hands-on will add to your potential value.
Older engineers are less teachable and may have strongly reinforced bad habits. This line of thinking is amplified if the candidate has been in the same professional environment for many years, and the suspicion is that engineers become overly accustomed to a single way of working and won’t easily adapt to new ways. If you have had the same employer for a long time, try to emphasize any major changes that took place during your tenure and how you were forced to learn new things or leave your comfort zone. If you were an agent for change, be sure to bring that fact up during conversation.
Older hires will not be a culture fit. Culture fit is something older engineers probably didn’t hear much about in the beginning of their career, and ‘not a fit’ can be used as a blanket term for rejecting candidates without having to give a specific reason (which potentially exposes a company to discrimination lawsuits). Try to learn about company culture before the interview so you can at least be aware of their values and the image they want to convey, even if that image is not really who they are.
Stay relevant. Keep up to speed on what technologies are popular with the cool kids, even if you do not use them on the job. If you have time to spend a few hours and tinker, that experience may pay off in your next job search. Knowing what others in the industry are doing is as simple as reading articles every few weeks.
Never stagnate. Older engineers that overstay their welcome at a company will have an incredibly difficult time finding work if a job search becomes necessary. When senior engineers are the victim of layoffs after being employed for 15 or more years, a long and difficult job search is often the result. Being stuck in the same role with the same technologies at the same company for a long stretch could become comfortable, but it will not be an asset when changing employers. Your first loyalty should be to yourself and your career, and not to your company. In my experience, older professionals that have not stayed at any job for a long stretch (>10 years) have the most prospects.
Keep a positive attitude. Many engineers are quick to actually dismiss themselves as candidates due to age, and they don’t even bother applying to companies they feel will reject them based on ageism. Other candidates have self-defeating attitudes about their plight or their perceived inability to improve their situation. Do not fear rejection, and learn from mistakes made during job searches.
Share your knowledge. Engineers that have a reputation as teachers, advisers, and mentors will always have an easier time finding work. Whether you write technical blog posts, present to user groups, or do informal talks during lunch, you will develop a reputation as someone who uses your experience to make your teammates better. Think of your experience as a positive asset for a new employer, and be known as someone who is always willing to guide younger technologists.
Be open to non-traditional employment options. Job trends and careers have changed drastically over the past 30 years, and the traditional ‘graduate college → get job → retire with pension‘ progression isn’t realistic today. If you haven’t already, give consideration to contract/consulting work, contract-to-hire or alternative employment options. Older professionals may find that ageism is less common in temporary hire situations.