Tech & Work

Put your experience into the right package

A former programmer who left the corporate world to run a small consultancy while raising her children is finding it difficult to land a permanent position. At 47, she believes her age may be an issue. Here's what we think might work.


Terryn Barill is an IT consultant in Princeton, NJ.

Question
I'm a 47-year-old woman with a degree in computer science. I’ve been employed in a variety of software-development-related work, but everyone seems to find that quite irrelevant because it was all completed 15 years ago. I quit a high-tech job in the '80s to raise my children and run my own small computer consulting and software business.

I didn't sit on my hands; I taught myself a lot of additional skills during that time. The trouble is that my business was a one-woman shop, so no one can vouch for what I did with myself during that time. I want to get back into tech. To update myself, I'm pursuing Cisco certifications, and I work part-time in various low-paying positions. Everyone around me (sometimes even those near and dear) seems to regard my efforts as quaint and amusing, but basically they consider me an unemployable washout (their patronizing attitude makes me sick).

By removing dates from my resume, I've scored interviews, but the minute they see the crow’s-feet, I can tell it's not going to happen. I haven't lost my drive or my energy or my brain. I know times are tough for everyone, but I've got a double whammy here. I can't even get an unpaid internship because I'm not a traditional college student. What specific advice do you have for me? Thank you.

—TechRepublic member


Answer
You’re right when you say that the economy is a major factor in finding a job, but ultimately, your problem isn’t your age. Your problem is that you need to package yourself for what you truly are: a woman with a breadth of skills, knowledge, and experience that can’t be matched by a recent college grad. There are three major elements to putting together your package: your resume, targeting the right position, and the interview.

The resume
You were on the right track with the skills-based resume, which emphasizes skills and experience over “time in.” Don’t include every job you've ever had. Focus on the relevant ones, including your self-employment. You don’t need coworkers to vouch for you; you successfully completed projects for clients, which can be listed (without client names, unless you have their written permission) or possibly included in your portfolio. If necessary, contact some of your old clients and ask them to serve as references.

When the AARP tested resumes with employers, it found it best for older workers to emphasize youthful qualities, like more recent experiences, cutting-edge skills, and continuing education. The organization also suggests eliminating years of graduation, which is a dead giveaway about your age. Emphasize current skills relevant to your job search; if you have additional skills that aren’t relevant, don’t mention them.

Another approach you can take is to break your knowledge down into component skill sets. What did you do (process-wise) 15 years ago that is still valuable today? For example, when switching from environmental to technology, I realized that several skill sets were transferable, and it was highly unlikely that many of my competitors would have extensive regulatory and audit experience. That becomes a big selling point working in regulated industries.

In tech skills, I realized that for those of us old enough to remember it, WordPerfect 5.x for DOS looks remarkably like HTML code. It enabled me to quickly pick up editing and validation skills, even though I’ve never bothered to learn to write HTML from scratch. The better you are at something, the more integrated your skills become. By reverse engineering and taking them apart again, you may find that you have more saleable skills than you thought.

Target the right position
Targeting the right position means having a plan. A written plan will give you both direction and motivation, especially if it includes a backup plan. Look at your resume and your component skill sets. What soft skills and supporting experience do you have that would be valuable today? Maybe you have knowledge of a particular industry, or have been through more integrations than you can shake a stick at. Focus on positions and companies that need a fuller range of skills and knowledge than entry-level employees can provide.

Target positions that are worthy of your experience. If you’re shooting too low, you’re competing against real youngsters; they come off as eager, and you sound desperate. Given your reason for returning to corporate work, I’d suggest targeting an engineering position.

If anyone asks, tell them the truth: Owning your own business puts you on a management track, and what you really want is to be back on the technical track. It’s an answer that sounds reasonable to HR, and it makes IT managers nostalgic for the days when they solved tech problems instead of people problems. By applying for engineering or more senior-level positions, you’re more likely to be competing against people within five to eight years of you, making your age less of an issue.

Tech employees in their 40s and beyond have advantages: There's something to be said for maturity. Young tech workers sometimes have inflated ideas about career advancement and often leave after two years. You have stability. Sell it. As long as you’ve maintained your skills, remain reasonably flexible, and don’t expect a higher salary and better benefits than equivalent employees, you won’t fall into the standard tech stereotype.

The interview
As you well know, mastering a technical interview takes more than just showing up these days. Here are some key points to remember:
  • Expect to be tested on your technical knowledge and skills.
    With so many people sporting paper certifications—MCSEs in particular—it’s no surprise that employers are turning to written tests to screen potential employees. Many companies have turned to online providers such as TeckChek to test job seekers.
    Companies may even ask someone to perform hands-on tasks as part of the interview process, said Jason Berkowitz, chief operating officer of Hunter Recruitment Advisors, a recruitment outsourcing company. "They could literally sit a candidate in front of the computer and ask him to configure it in a certain way," he said.
  • Do your homework and find out what the employer really needs.
    You can research the company at sites like WetFeet and Vault.com. Read the company’s press releases and review its Web site. Read up on the challenges of the industry. You want to be able to engage the interviewer in an intelligent dialogue about the specific needs of this company and how it fits into the industry.
    Whatever you do, don't say you don't have any questions about the company. You don't want to come across as a know-it-all, or as not being particularly interested in the firm. If possible, ask this question early in the interview: "What does the ideal candidate bring to this position?" Once you know that, you'll be able to explain why you fit the bill.
  • Display your soft skills, especially communication skills.
    Techies have a reputation for not being the best communicators. Do your best to work against that stereotype; technology pros who can clearly and easily explain technical concepts to clients or nontechnical managers are in high demand.
    Be specific in answering technical questions and tailor your answer to your audience. If you're asked how familiar you are with Linux, don’t just say, "I consider myself to be an expert." With HR, talk about how long you’ve worked with the operating system and how often you’ve used it. With the IT hiring manager, include the percentage of your time that’s spent on programming and testing and describe successful projects.
  • Avoid arrogance.
    Plenty of employers looking for technology professionals have seen one too many 24-year-olds who think they're worth $85K and don't see why they need to impress anyone during an interview. Don't be like them. Don't come across like you're doing them a favor just by being there, even if you fit all the job's technical requirements. Express interest in the job and talk about what you can do for the company. Employers are looking for people to come in and be a part of their team.
  • Appearance counts.
    Although this may not apply to you, another item you might want to think about is your interview appearance. Even in today’s enlightened environment, men get “distinguished” and women “age.” You’ve spent the last 15 years juggling a home, a family, running your own business, and upgrading your tech skills. When was the last time you updated your look?
    I know it sounds sexist, and it probably is, but as a woman who has walked the same path, I know that it is all too easy to keep doing the same thing with your looks because it’s easy. Next thing you know, you look older than you are, and that will count against you. It shouldn’t, but it does.
    So tell your hairdresser you want to look 10 years younger. Have someone at the cosmetics counter make you over. If everyone tries to help you shed 10 years, it’ll take off at least five. And it doesn’t matter how informal the company is. Stay conservative for the interview. You can wear T-shirts when you’ve gotten the job.

Other ways in
Since your IT training is fairly recent, start by contacting your training institution (in person or via e-mail and/or phone). Most schools have placement assistance of some type. Find out which companies are currently recruiting grads and ask for referrals.

Next, check out the contractor/temp market in your area. There are agencies that specialize in IT. To enhance your opportunities, register at several firms, but make sure they don’t all work with the same companies. If the IT market is particularly soft in your community, consider taking related types of assignments, such as technical writing or user testing. At least you’ll generate income and start building up a new reference base. Employers are often less picky with contractors than they are with new hires, and it gives you a chance to impress them with your good work.

Summary
There is a mounting pile of anecdotal evidence that age discrimination is IT’s “dirty little secret.” Startups and other high-flying tech companies want to hire young up-and-comers, if only to match their 35-year-old CEO’s image of a fast-moving company that is going places.

"Discrimination in hiring is the most difficult type of age discrimination to prove. There's not a lot of hard evidence,” said Laurie McCann, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation. "They send out resume after resume, but they're not getting hired. They know in their hearts it's their age."

While it may be truly horrifying to realize that you’ve been classified as a “mature worker,” the bottom line is that if you can put together a package that benefits a prospective employer, you can get that job.

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