How older workers can thrive in IT

Are technology jobs too often wasted on the young? As Silicon Valley strives for diversity, age is becoming a critical focus.

How older workers can thrive in IT
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Mark Zuckerberg's infamous foot-in-mouth statement on the importance of being young and technical ("young people are just smarter") landed him in a lot of hot water. But regardless of whether you believe that technology's best left to the young generation or you think that it's wasted on the young, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, there's no question that it becomes ever more difficult to find a job in tech the older you get.

But as Silicon Valley struggles with its exclusionary image, recruiters and hiring managers are including age -- in addition to gender, race, ethnicity, education and work history -- as an underrepresented group that deserves consideration.

"There's some well-worn stereotypes about the white, male, under 30 and Stanford-educated brogrammers in the IT industry. But women, underrepresented minorities, anyone at all ages can thrive in the industry. When we hire, we're looking for things like passion, intellectual curiosity, aptitude, attitude and integrity. These are all transferrable skills that can be applied from any background," says Tarsha McCormick, head of diversity and inclusion at global IT consulting firm ThoughtWorks.

Ageism isn't just an issue for older tech workers, either, McCormick adds. It can apply to young and entry-level workers who aren't seen as seasoned or experienced enough, and therefore aren't capable of doing the same work as their colleagues.

"We see this when women are tasked with getting coffee or doing administrative tasks, for example -- age isn't just a factor when you're over 50, it happens at both ends of a career," she says.

So, how can you survive and even thrive in IT if you're faced with disbelief or discrimination because of your age? Aside from a lawsuit or plastic surgery, there are some basics all IT workers should be doing throughout their career that can help, including education and continuous learning, finding ways to prove your skills and mentoring and coaching.

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Continuing education

"You should never stop learning. And there are so many ways to do that now, that it's almost impossible not to find opportunities: coding bootcamps, community colleges, internships; many companies are offering sabbaticals, work-sharing and job sharing programs to allow their workforce to gain critical skills -- take advantage of these programs," says James Stanger, senior director of product development at CompTIA.

Certifications are another way to show potential employers that, regardless of your age, you have the chops to perform in their organization, he says. Credentials like certifications, as well as blind coding challenges, offered through platforms like HackerRank and CodeFights, are another way to bypass the unconscious biases many IT workers who aren't white, male and young encounter in the hiring process, Stanger says.

"Certification gives everyone a lingua franca through which to talk about skills and your experience. It's a shared language that everyone understands. That benchmark means that these hiring decisions can be skills-based and it can level the field so that anyone can participate," he says.

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Network, network, network

Networking and professional organizations can also help; meeting with like-minded colleagues and friends can not only offer moral support and guidance, but can tap workers into professional opportunities, says McCormick.

"Volunteering is a great way to keep skills up-to-date and to find out what other roles are available for your skills. If you can, volunteer with organizations that let you work with colleagues, friends, acquaintances who have a different background, are of a different ethnicity, age, sex or gender, because it can really open your worldview as well as provide professional opportunities," she says.

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Culture check

ThoughtWorks actively searches for talent outside the standard Ivy League, white male, under 30 demographic, but also has a number of internal programs to help foster diversity, McCormick says, including two centered around age and work experience.

The first is aimed at professionals with less than two years on-the-job experience who begin as associate consultants. These employees are paired with a coach who works with them to develop their skills over a six-month period, and has been incredibly successful at increasing hires of women, Black and Latino/a talent, McCormick says.

The second is for more seasoned hires, who are paired with an onboarding buddy to show them the ropes and better gauge where their experience can be applied through the organization, she says.

"We also leverage a number of employee resource groups driven by our employees. We have a women's networking group, an African-American networking group; these can provide great outlets and support structures for our employees at all ages, and helps to create safe spaces where concerns can be shared and issues brought up and addressed," McCormick says.

As a job-seeker, looking carefully at an organization's culture and its position on diversity can help make sure you're increasing your chances of landing a role; whether or not programs like these exist can be very telling, says McCormick.

Be a thought leader

Freelancing, blogging, speaking and consulting also are options for IT professionals who don't feel they fit into the youth-centric IT landscape, says Stanger.

"It's really about connecting to the community of others. Almost anyone, at any age, in IT can have the facts, but the benefits of age and experience are all about your perspective on the facts and being able to assert your opinion and your wisdom because you've been there, done that," he says.

For companies looking to improve diversity in all areas including age, McCormick says the first step is investing time and energy to do it right, and not shying away from difficult conversations. "Those tough conversations are necessary if you want to move the needle. Be patient -- the changes aren't going to happen overnight, and you have to keep chipping away and you'll see the results," she says.

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This story, "How older workers can thrive in IT" was originally published by CIO.