Ageism in IT and how to deal with it

The author: Anya Stetsenko is an IT-recruiter, entrepreneur, and simply a happy woman. She has been managing Indigo recruitment agency since 2007 and has been bringing new IT-businesses to Ukraine. She is educating beginner recruiters and professionals in HR-IT. She loves traveling and fills vacancies everywhere from Japan to Antarctica.

The more I was ruminating about age in IT — by reading articles, speaking with recruiters, business owners, and professionals between the ages of 30 and 60— the more I have come to understand that this topic has become mature for me. Advice concerning age is relevant when you, yourself, have gone through all the stages of a career and can share your experiences. The last thing I want is to slip into poor advice à la “smile and the world will smile you back” or “buy Converse shoes and start your Instagram account.” I will sincerely try digging deeper and relying on the 10-year experience with clients and job candidates of Indigo recruitment agency. 

Let me be clear right away: when I talk about target audience “a little above 30”, I mean 40, 50, 70, and even older. For such an attitude, I am grateful to geology, as geologists have come to understand everything about life. They believe that nothing significant has happened on earth for the past few million years.

Relevance of the problem: Is there one?

If we pay closer attention, we can see that, according to DOU, the average IT employee hasn’t gotten younger or older. It can be explained by the fact that the industry is growing, and every year, the influx of young professionals is increasing, which distorts the bottom line age group.

The youngest professionals in Ukraine are layout designers and representatives of non-tech positions (HR, PR, and sales). The oldest are top managers, system administrators, and project managers. 

For those under the age of 30 — 75 %, over 30 — only 25%, while 31-35 years — 17%, 36-40 years — 5%, and 40+ — 3 %.

We used to think that the prime of the career occurred around the age of 45. In IT, this usually takes place at around the age of 35. Isn’t it disturbing?

Why does business implicitly (yet often explicitly) prefer 23-year-old seniors? I am not among those who agree that it is easier to pay younger employees less and make them work overtime without paying while motivating them only with a tennis table and a company flag above the corporate coffee machine. 

Why does business choose such people? Let’s start with the most important: the number of professionals under 30 prevails. This is why all the processes for motivation, social benefits, and management approaches are naturally tailor-made for these people. 

Nothing personal. Just that this is 75 % of the Ukrainian IT labour market. Often, these folks are more open to experiments, changes, and a faster pace. However, there is good news in this regard. Even three pieces of news.

There is no law in the Ukraine to protect people over 40 against ageism, as for example the law in the USA, which has been implemented for more than half a century. Why is it good news? Because we all probably know that our career lies in the area of our own responsibility and not under governmental control. 

Even better news: we certainly have it easier than our parents to find a place in the digital world. Our children will have an easier time.

Great news! Modern society is deeply polygamous. Before, one used to live at one place, build a relationship with only one person, chose one profession for lifetime. Now one can live a dozen lives during just one lifetime. It is possible to become Junior Developer at any age, which is, to my mind, simply perfect!

Job search for professionals over 30: practical advice

At any age, a job search is like an old lame grandma’s recipe of your favourite cakes. Every detail has its purpose, and it is worth sticking to the recipe, because an inch here and there will change the flavour.  

You know the step-by-step tutorial better than me. I just want to make it clear that these pieces of advice are for those who managed to find their calling at the beginning of their career (e.g. coding, testing, project management, recruitment, etc.) and want to develop themselves further in the context of this one and only profession.

Here, everything seems to be logical and clear. In your 20s and 30s this recipe seemed to work. Why has it stopped working over time? Because at some point, this is not enough. If at the beginning of a career everyone favourably counts on the fulfillment of potential, over the years people tend to begin evaluating the results we have achieved instead. Considering this, I want to ask you about something. If you are sitting now, please stand up, turn around, and look at your workplace. Did it, by chance, get covered with moss? If so, stop reading this. Run away from the swamp. 

Are you one of those folks who sits silently on the bench; everything seems fine for you, because the salary is higher than average and they promised cool bonuses after three years? Or do you think that frameworks kill creativity, and you’ll write better yourself? Some acquaintances of mine still write in Flex, administer Lotus Domino, or don’t recognize object-oriented programming. 

A long-standing experience, changing over the course of decades, simply doesn’t exist in the modern world, but especially in the world of technology. Old age doesn’t come with an age limit on the passport, but with your belief that the grass used to be greener, sausage tastier, people smarter, and projects more interesting. 

So, create a nice CV, polish your profiles wherever possible, including, LinkedIn, GitHub, and Stack Overflow. I won’t tell you how to do it. It is a must have skill. May Google help you.

And a couple of words to follow up:

  • Please, don’t flirt with employers and don’t hide your age. If the employer is bothered by the age indicated on your CV, they are not the employer for you. Be professionally generous: write a blog, speak at conferences, invest in education, or coach interns and juniors. Stop sticking to old achievements, such as gold medal at school, or 1st place at the 1973 math competition.
  • Take some action to get invited to an interview. Use your personal network: former colleagues, interns, and readers of your blog who work on cool projects. Don’t hesitate to remind them about you. Some companies often offer bonuses for references, so your acquaintance will not only bring in a smart colleague, but also earn enough for a new iPhone.
  • May advertising help you. Post ads on employment websites and use the power of social media. Spread the word in person among the recruiters you know. By the way, it is one of those times when you’d better befriend recruiters instead of jerking them off on the stage of a 23-year-old seniorship.
  • Send your CV to companies where you’d like to work, and not only to those where there are job openings. Simultaneously, seek means through acquaintances, because patronage always helps. And don’t forget about follow-up emails if you haven’t gotten an answer in a week or two.
  • Do the test task. Let your code, not your age, speak for itself. I know how most tech professionals treat test tasks, but it is a pay-it-forward. I haven’t met a single client who would dismiss a candidate with a test task. Especially if the point is to show your professional level on real examples.
  • Come to different job interviews — HR-screenings, technical interviews, interviews with a PM or a client representative are all important. 

Here’s another bottleneck.

Let’s start with a soft skills interview. In most cases, you will speak to a recruiter. Often we sincerely think our age impedes us from getting the desired position. How then are others supposed to see that your age is a benefit if you don’t personally believe it.

As recruiters, we often see scared people at interviews who are ready to accept the very first offer, even with low pay. A new recruiter won’t see the importantance (and she doesn’t have to) in the candidate’s groveling to the employer.

All these, “Yes. Sure. I am ready to work 7 days a week, 12 hours per day….What a great legacy code you have in your project, I have always dreamed to poke around such a code…” or even aggressive behaviour, “Girl. What the hell are you asking me?”… Recruiters won’t see the fear, stress, or despair you feel because it is so hard for you to find a job. Do you understand?

Here’s an important piece of advice. You might consider yourself not successful enough to get the job you want, because you are too old or don’t have enough experience; don’t have higher education, or have just returned from maternity leave. The first thing you need to do is not to look for a job, but to rebuild your self-perception urgently. Here’s a simple tip:

Take facts. Pure facts without opinions.
For instance, you are now 45, have two uncompleted degrees, a mortgage, two pre-school children, and have changed over 20 workplaces.

Write, or better videotape a story about yourself. At first, do it in the flow and see how it goes. Read the text or watch the video. It often happens that I hear sadness or regret in such stories.

Now, do the same but positively and with gratitude: “It’s great that I didn’t spend the best years of my life to gain useless knowledge in college. Here’s what happened thanks to this…The fact that I changed so many professions help me get around in different areas of life and business with ease… My mortgage keeps me motivated to earn and be productive…Especially because I have to manage many things before I pick up my younger daughter from kindergarten.” Don’t go to job interviews until you believe that age and experience are your strengths.
Technical interview

A lot of people fail technical interviews, because they get into a power play of code length with younger candidates; because their pride won’t let them accept a 50-year-old senior, currently knows less than a 23-year-old youngster. 

Programmers are lucky. You have pair programming, so it’s possible to sit beside a colleague to see what he/she is doing, in order to learn and share experience. Such a cool practice! It isn’t popular among other professions.

Why do many fail on any stage of interview? It doesn’t depend on age or appearance. Because you’re tired. You’ve burnt out; emptied out. Your eyes aren’t shining anymore, although it is so demanded for innovative business.

When do you have the energy and lifeblood?

When you do what you like and want
When you take care of yourself and live a healthy life (diet, activities, rest, sleep)
When you study and learn new things
When you get engaged in something beside work and family
When you know yourself and make time to be alone
When you stop taking everything seriously and start living by playing.

That’s it, we are almost finished. Here’s your job offer. Note, it can sometimes makes sense to accept a temporarily reduced income in order to gain experience for the future. Don’t compromise pay from the point of weakness, but from a point of strength: “I am consciously choosing the lower income, because it is a long-term investment in my career.”

What’s the main issue?

I might accidentally step into someone’s business, but let’s have a look at the bigger picture. Everyone says it is harder to find a job with age, but the truth is that it’s not a problem. The issue is that you need a certain income, which is both necessary, comfortable, and secured by salary. 

We are stressed, not because we don’t find a job, but because we don’t have enough of our safety cushion. So we start thinking (or maybe it just seems so) that there is no opportunity to stop, take a breath, look around, listen to yourself, and move on…or not to move on.

As children, no one was bothered with our financial literacy, and more often than not, we don’t teach our children about these things, in turn. We grew up in a country where your pension was, and still is, paid by the state. I hope you understand that this model doesn’t work. 

It is never too late to figure out more about it; find consultants, read books. Stop living from salary to salary, but start saving and investing, at any income level. Especially in IT. The earlier we begin to do it, the less stressed we’ll be after 30 and the more opportunities that will open up to us. 

Age — The perception of age — Time

Now, I need you to participate. Do you have your iPhone at hand? Open Notes or take a pen and paper. Let’s draw. It is said that fine motor skills improve memory.

Now, draw a line of 7 empty squares. In each square, write the following (in this order): Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat, Sun. Now, let’s imagine that this is our age. Monday stands for 0-10 years, Tuesday corresponds with 11-20 years and so on. Find the day that aligns with your age. Following this logic, I am now at the heart of Thursday. A day and a half is left to the weekend. 

Isn’t it sobering? How does it make you feel? This is a Western approach to age.

Now, draw a circle. Divide it into 4 slices, just like a pizza. The top left slice is 0, then 25, 50, and 75. That’s the Eastern approach. In India, age stages are perceived in that way.

From 0 to 24 — time to study, gain knowledge from the older generations, set moral values and find a direction in life.
From 25 to 49 — time for self-realization: it is the time to create family, raise children, gain wealth, get joy and pleasure from life, become socially responsible and help others.
From 50 to 74 — time to pass on the business and educate the younger generation.
From 75 + — time to get ready for the next stage. Seclusion, meditation, austerity.
Now you know what to do each day of the week. Everything is clear. I feel at peace with this image of the world in mind.

Suggestions to recruiters and young employers 

Recruiters. Dear colleagues, a cool recruiter differs from a common one by always questioning their first—and even third—impression about a person. Because they know perfectly well that every person is something much greater and deeper than those 5-7 key competences, which we as recruiters manage to check during a 30-40 minute conversation. Always! 

That’s why it is so important to be able (and willing) to see the real person. Every single time. At every occasion, whether it’s a meeting or a conversation. 

Around 12 years ago, I declined one candidate. A 40-something developer with an impressive mustache, he didn’t smile and was dressed in a worn sweater. I decided that he definitely wasn’t a good fit to my “young demonically developing” company. But as a person raised to respect older people, I conducted a planned 1-hour interview, gave advice on how to improve his CV, and for some reason told him about LinkedIn and the importance of fluent English.  

Then, he was gone. After some time, he wrote me to say that Google considered him a good enough programmer. He went through all the interview stages, got a visa, and would soon move to the USA with his family. He was grateful for my suggestions that made him think. 

Do you get the idea? This is our job as recruiters: to see people as they are, behind what’s written on the CV. 

Business. I completely understand your managerial perspective. We often witness situations like when a handsome 22-year-old client refuses to interview a candidate who indicates “above 30” in their CV. Why? Because “team lead is 27, our programmer is 38” and so on about how hard it will be for this person to fit within the young friendly team. It is almost impossible for the recruiting team to challenge this.

When I have time, I call the CEO or owner to ask, “Vasia, Petia. How are you? What did your team give you for present for your 45th birthday?” Then I say that I am very disappointed and tell them about this situation. It turns out that there is no ageism in the corporate policy. It just happened so.  

That’s why my advice for businesses is to look through and review the stats on your rejections and hires, systematically. Ask yourself the question whether or not your business is losing precious candidates simply because you haven’t formulated and explained the screening standards to your recruiters from the very beginning.

Conclusions

I don’t have them. Live long, wealthy, happy, healthy, and great lives. And remember, it doesn’t matter what we do. What matters is how we do it. Don’t refuse to look for your true vocation, no matter if your 20, 30, or 70.

Feedback