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You Asked, We Answered: Is It Harder Out There for Older Developers?

By: Nikki Carter
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This post originally appeared on Fullstack Academy's blog.

Coding bootcamp is an elephantine commitment at any point in life. Whether you’re fresh out of college or already established in your career and considering a change, putting your life on hold for a few months in order to dive headfirst into learning programming is not a decision anyone should take lightly.

But we especially understand why mid-career folks are so apprehensive about their chances of success in the tech industry. Will a coding bootcamp truly give you not only the technical skills you must have to get hired, but also those all-important professional connections you’ll need to actually make it in a new industry? Will tech companies seriously consider hiring you—who might seem “overqualified” with your years of other industry experience—as a junior developer? How will you compare, in the eyes of hiring managers, to younger job seekers?

We’re Jackie and Natalie, two of Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program’s career success counselors, and we’re here to answer those questions. Together, we have a near-decade of experience in the recruiting space, and we work hard every day to help students prepare not only for technical interviews specifically, but for the hiring process as a whole. Our goal is to help calm your anxieties, so you can start feeling confident about your prospects in tech.

The Upsides of Being a Seasoned Developer

Not only is there a high demand for skilled developers within the tech industry, but there are in fact considerably fewer barriers to entry here than you’ll find in other fields. (That’s not to say there isn’t ageism in tech, but we’ll get to that later).

Developers have hard skills and get the opportunity, during the interview process, to demonstrate those skills--so focus on your programming know-how first and foremost. Keep adding to your portfolio and drilling coding challenges and algorithms so your skills will be evident. Only then, once you’ve proved your technical abilities and moved forward in the process, should you pitch your previous experience as a bonus to differentiate yourself from other, less experienced candidates. Employers looking for well-rounded candidates will appreciate your work history and the unique perspective you can bring to the team.

Here are some other advantages you have as someone who’s already worked for several years:

You’re an Established Professional

If you’ve been successful in prior capacities—especially leadership roles—you’re coming into the job search with proof that you’ve got important skills: You work well with others, you know how to communicate, and you can manage your time effectively. Oftentimes employers have a hard time determining whether a candidate with hard skills will also have soft skills—will be respectful, collaborative, growth-oriented, etc.—and your references and track record in the workforce will serve as a testament to these traits.

You’re Comfortable with the Job Search Process

No matter how experienced you are, interviews can be intimidating. This is particularly true for technical interviews, which can make even well-versed programmers sweat. However, we’ve noticed something during our on-campus hiring days: Grads with previous work experience seem the most at-ease during interview rounds—and they often make better use of networking time than do less experienced grads.

You may also have a leg up when it comes to negotiating job offers, since you may have been through the process before and may already be comfortable confidently and respectfully asking for what you want.

You’re No Stranger to Networking Across Industries

As we mentioned above, experienced students are often better able to maximize networking time than those who are totally new to the job search. You’ve had time to learn firsthand that the best jobs come from connections, so you’re more likely to get involved in the industry and actively work to expand your network.

Tech communities like Stack Overflow bear this out, as researchers have found that older programmers—who’ve had the time to develop specific interests and build confidence in their ideas—are far more active than their younger counterparts. Having worked in a field other than tech means you’ll have both your previous industry connections and your new bootcamp network to draw from as you look for work. That’s invaluable, especially since by now tech itself touches nearly every other industry out there. We’ve seen students with exactly these kinds of inter-industry connections successfully leverage their networks to learn about great opportunities and ultimately secure good jobs.

What’s more, let’s say you previously worked in a non-tech role in finance or education—this means you’ve got a good understanding of the challenges and products within those industries. So now, if you’re comfortable remaining in that field, you’ll have both the industry know-how and the technical skills to transition to the tech role you’re looking for. Your familiarity with that industry can set you apart from those just entering the job market with no previous industry experience at all.

You Add Something Unique to the Team

We’re always pushing for more meaningful diversity metrics within the tech industry. Many times we focus on the need for more women and people of color in programming roles (and rightly so), but diversity also means diversity of age and experience. In the past, we’ve recognized the workplace communication app Slack for increasing diversity through smart hiring practices, a huge factor in the company’s success. "Hiring people who do not look, talk, or think like you can allow you to dodge the costly pitfalls of conformity, which discourages innovative thinking,” write experts David Rock, Heidi Grant and Jacqui Grey of the Neuroleadership Institute. And hiring workers from various age brackets is another way employers can increase the number of distinct perspectives at the table.

Tips to Find the Right Job (and Company) for You

Of course, we can't prevent or predict the unconscious (or even deliberate) biases some recruiters may harbor. As such, we have some general tips for crafting a resume that sidesteps potential biases, as well as advice on how to find a company that feels like the right fit for you:

1) Focus your resume on the last 8-10 years of your work history, even if you’ve been working for decades.

Every employee grows over time, finding their strengths and letting less interesting paths drop. And of course technology advances daily. Knowing what kind of employee you were 15 years ago, or what kind of systems you worked with in the early 2000s, won’t tell potential employers very much about what you bring to the table now. Make recruiters’ jobs easy: Show them first and foremost who you are and what you can do in today’s world.

2) Highlight only the most relevant experiences.

Most hiring managers have too much going on to have to connect the dots between your previous career (or careers) and your new programming skills. Use your resume to paint recruiters a clear picture of the kind of cutting-edge developer they’re looking for. You can always pepper in more previous experiences once you’ve made it to a second- or third-round interview, but your most relevant work is what will get you there.

We advise graduates of all ages and backgrounds to minimize at least some aspects of their resume in order to make room for their new tech projects—like the three projects you’ll complete during Fullstack or Grace Hopper—which demonstrate to employers that you’ve got what it takes to solve problems and be a programmer. Again, you want to make sure that employers focus on your strongest experience, the work most directly tied to programming.

3) Emphasize a willingness to learn new things.

There is a common—and erroneous—perception that older workers are entrenched in their habits and thus will be resistant to learning and trying new things. In reality, older programmers are likely to use their previous experience in ways that make them keener than their colleagues when solving issues.

More mature professionals may also have to address the perception that their tech skills are more “outdated” than those of younger tech workers; in your case, you can point to the fact you just graduated bootcamp as evidence that your skills are relevant.

You can get ahead of both of these biases by calling attention to your passion for learning throughout the interview process. Again, you just finished a demanding coding bootcamp, which is solid proof in and of itself. You may also want to be clear about your expectations: If you’ve got a decade of experience under your belt, recruiters and companies might assume you won’t be happy in a lower level role, so let them know up front that you fully understand you’ll be starting as a junior-level engineer and building your new career from there.

4) Seek out companies who value diversity and inclusion.

Look for companies that are transparent about their desire to hire experienced workers; specifically, companies that publish reports on their internal diversity and inclusion metrics, include diversity in their mission statements, or perhaps feature images of people of all ages in their recruiting materials.

Software producer Atlassian is a great example of the type of company we’re referencing. In 2016, the company released an age breakdown of its workforce: 13% of 1500 employees were in their 40s, and 2% were in their 50s. Almost every team had a member who was 40+ years old.

Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity & Belonging, remarked that “older people tend to be better at solving more complex, deep-rooted problems, because they often have a deeper level of understanding about current systems gained over the course of their careers. It’s when . . . very different ways of thinking come together, diversity of thought, that teams are able to reach their true potential.”

Another good indicator of a company’s culture is what they offer in terms of paid family leave and flexible work schedules. While not every woman wants to have children, many women are working mothers or plan to be eventually. And parents are more easily able to share responsibilities--reducing the traditional burden on women--when fathers also receive time off to care for a new baby, or have the flexibility to arrange their work schedules around pick-up and drop-off duties or sick little ones. Same-sex couples, of course, deal with these same issues, but also potentially with surrogacy, in vitro, or adoption costs, so that guaranteed income throughout your time off may be even more vital.

Generous family leave is an indication that a company sees its employees staying with the company over the long term and respects their changing needs, while a lack of paid family leave may indicate that a company is targeting younger employees or mostly single men, or at least doesn’t evision themselves having a team that would need such policies.

5) Listen to your intuition when it comes to finding the right fit.

This advice is a bit less tangible than the others, but it’s no less important. It’s crucial to tune in to the way different companies make you feel, and to understand your own needs. Sure, having craft beer and kombucha on tap is a perk—but is it your kind of perk? If you’re more in the market for, say, a flexible work schedule or the option to telecommute, it’s okay to look for and communicate exactly that.

India Amos, a Grace Hopper Program graduate who turned to bootcamp because she was ready for an official career change, is grateful to have found a company who considers her experience an asset. At a recent alum panel, she told us, “When I had the phone screen with the company I’m working with now, the recruiter was actually excited about my past experience. Not everybody is, and coming in as an older person entering an industry that’s very youth-oriented, I did feel like there was some age discrimination. It’s very hard to quantify and prove, but I felt like it was there. Ultimately, I found a great position, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” Though India felt her age made it a bit harder to land a job, it didn’t stall her search; she got hired in the same amount of time it took younger members of her cohort to find their first post-bootcamp jobs.

Ultimately, you are the only one who can decide whether a particular opportunity is right for you. Throughout your job search, don’t lose sight of the value you’re bringing to the table and what your needs are. As one developer blogged, “Employment is a negotiated relationship. Like it or not, you are negotiating from the moment you start interviewing, while you’re on the job, and until the day you leave. You are trying to trade valuable work for money, learning opportunities, and whatever else your goals are.”

We Are Your Advocates

With all of this talk about highlighting your strengths and doing what you can to sidestep others’ biases, it’s important to remember that all the work of dealing with discrimination is not solely on you. There are hundreds of companies who actively value diversity of experience, offer flexible work options for employees with family responsibilities, and would absolutely welcome you with open arms, as they have many other Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program grads. And you do not have to work for any company that doesn’t offer a welcoming, inclusive culture.

At Fullstack and Grace Hopper, we recognize our responsibility to build relationships with progressive companies and to advocate for bootcamp students like you. That’s how we can ensure you get the most out of bootcamp—but also how we can make tech a better place for all of us.

All in all, we don’t believe age is a higher barrier to entering the tech industry than any other—race, gender, sexuality, class, educational background—and in many cases, it makes you a better candidate than you would be without the perspective you bring to the table. Our more seasoned students have had great success using their prior work experience as a positive differentiator, and have gone on to enjoy satisfying careers after bootcamp.

We hope we’ve answered your questions and eased your concerns about joining the tech industry as an experienced professional. Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program will work with you to reframe your experience in a way that not only makes you feel more comfortable, but also potentially gives you a competitive edge. Apply today to find out for yourself what you can achieve.

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