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How to be old in tech

By Lisa Smith · April 30, 2020
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I'm Lisa Smith, I'm an engineering manager for Zapier's developer platform, and I'm An Old. I've been working in tech since before there was a Google. In a previous life, I was a librarian. The kind that touches actual hard-copy books.

I've been working on inclusion and diversity issues in tech for nearly as long as I've been working in tech, and—as An Old—I recognize that tech has an ageism problem. Much like sexism and racism in the workplace, ageism affects not only the person being discriminated against but also the larger company culture. It deprives the company of needed perspective and the tools and staff they need to innovate.

Before we go on, the sobering news: old in tech is 41. A survey from Indeed indicates that 82 percent of the tech workforce is 40 and under. Nearly half (46 percent) is 35 and under.

82 percent of the tech workforce is 40 and under.

This means that, unless you're Gen Z, you're closer than you think to being old—or you're already there—and you need to have a plan. While you can't automate your future, I do have a three-step process to help you stay relevant and get all the jobs.

Learn things

The older you get, the more you might feel like you've learned everything you're going to learn. Old horse, new tricks, all that. But especially in tech, a field that is constantly changing, there's always something more to learn. So figure out what you want to learn, and there's absolutely a way to learn it.

What should you learn? I'd ask you: what do you want to learn? What's fun? And what can you learn while still doing your current job? Try asking a teammate what they're working on and if you can shadow them a bit. Use any professional development funds you have for classes, books, and conferences. Out of budget? Apply for conference grants. Volunteer to be a TA or to help run a conference or mentor at a hackathon. Helping others learn is a great way to pick up new skills and reinforce skills you already have.

Meet people

Of course, you can't do everything in a silo, or the skills you learn won't add any value to your career. You have to meet people. You can do this in person or online—whatever is feasible for you. And the communities you join don't have to be tech-focused: just find a group that shares common interests and join them for events.

Yes, I'm describing networking. But wait! I know that networking gets a bad rap as a buzzword, but, really, it's just meeting people and talking to them. If you're introverted or don't like talking to people, here's a handy tip: ask them a question about their work. They'll do all the talking, and you can pick up lots of tips. Networking boils down to making connections—between people, between people and ideas, and between people and opportunities.

When I was a librarian at UNC, I went on a bus tour organized by Chancellor Michael Hooker, and that's where I met my first online boss. Networking. When I started my local chapter of Women Who Code, one of our first location sponsors was a company I ended up working for. Networking. At my first Women Who Code event, the speaker was from Zapier—and here I am. Networking!

It might sound like random chance, and it sort of is: you happen to be in the right place at the right time. But as with all games of chance, you improve your odds by doing it a lot. So do everything you can to meet a lot of people.

Apply for jobs

If you're old and in tech, you might be counting your blessings, thinking, "I'd never be able to get a job in tech if I applied today." You look at job descriptions and think you're missing loads of the skills that are listed. Now, I'm not saying to ignore job postings, but we all know that plenty of job descriptions are ridiculous laundry lists—nobody has 100% of the items in a job description. Those lists are aspirational. You can learn on the job. I'm working on getting companies to stop writing those kinds of postings, but in the meantime, I encourage you to apply to anything that looks interesting and/or challenging.

icon of job application with magnifying glass

Example: I got a PHP job with no PHP experience because I built the sample app and crushed it. I got a React job without having written any React professionally because their requirement of three-to-five years experience wasn't realistic—those folx would still be at Facebook and probably not interested in moving to North Carolina. After I showed them a JavaScript framework adoption and abandonment chart that looked like the Himalayas and leaned into the fact that I had a proven track record of language acquisition, they hired me.

I'm a self-taught coder with a non-linear career path. I started out at library school (yes, that's a thing), and came out as a catalog librarian. I had always loved code and computers, so I taught myself HTML and landed my first job hand-coding HTML using tables without CSS (yes, that's also a thing). I worked at a newspaper as the overnight news converter: I cut up production PDFs into JPEGs and made an online version of the newspaper. Then I became their online coordinator. I had a weekly column, I edited stories, and I managed the online community, where I picked up Drupal. When the paper folded, I worked as a UX developer for a cursed government project. And then I was a webmaster at a hospital, a full-stack LAMP developer, a front-end developer theming content management systems, a front-end engineer for a custom digital printing company, and now, here I am: engineering manager.

Basically, I've had a thousand jobs. And that's a feature—not a bug.

Organizations worth your time will understand that. I was able to bring something from every job I had to the next job, even if it was that I never wanted to do that other thing again. My non-traditional path gives me a range of experiences and empathy that can benefit any company.

Zapier is a great example of a company that supports non-traditional pathways to tech: we value experience over education in our hires, and we don't ask for resumes because they only tell part of the story. That openness to non-traditional pathways is a great way to foster all sorts of diversity, including Olds like me.

You may not want a thousand jobs, but you can stay relevant and employed with these three easy steps: learn things, meet people, apply for jobs.

Stay in tech, stay connected, and join me as An Old.

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