Volume 32 Number 2
Age Before Beauty: Success and the Older Developer
By Krishnan Rangachari | February 2017
I often counsel older software engineers who fear they are “too old” for the tech industry. I’ve had hiring managers tell clients that they’re “too senior” or “over-qualified” or “too expensive.” And I’ve had companies say outright that they’re looking for “impressionable developers” or “software engineers under age 25.”
In the technology industry, with every additional year of experience, it’s easy to feel that your employability diminishes. I’ve found a few tricks that have been effective for software engineers.
There’s a myth that one must list all of one’s experience on a résumé or LinkedIn profile. This is unnecessary. A résumé is a marketing snapshot of experience, not a biographical record to be preserved by historians. And as a snapshot, it should emphasize your fit for the company to which you’re talking.
So, if you’re 45 years old, leave out your experience until age 30 or 35. Instead, showcase the last 10 to 15 years. If you do get asked to describe your earlier experience, share the truth briefly. An interviewer may ask just out of curiosity, not to “trap” or “expose” you.
Timing Is Everything
If you’re showcasing only your most recent work experience, leave the dates off your education altogether. For example: If you’re listing work experience from only 2006 to 2016, it’s confusing to show a college graduation date of 1985. It makes people wonder what you were doing during the 21 years in between! My advice in such a case: Leave off college graduation and attendance dates.
Mind the Gap
You don’t need to mention every job that you’ve ever had. Say you went through a rough patch of underemployment and you worked at a retailer for a few months—it’s fine to leave that job off your résumé. In fact, doing so makes your résumé more focused, eases your interview prep and simplifies your story for the recruiter.
If you feel insecure about, say, a six-month gap on your résumé (you need not), just leave those months out on the résumé. So, instead of saying Job A went from “December 2014 to January 2016” and job B went from “August 2016 to Present,” it’s OK to say that job A was “2014 to 2016” and job B was “2016 to Present.” If you do this, be consistent and remove months from all other dates and date ranges in the résumé.
To avoid the “over-qualified” label, downplay your job titles so you don’t seem too senior for the opening. For example, if you’ve been a Principal Software Engineer and you’re applying for a “Software Engineer” position at a tiny start-up, just list “Software Engineer” on your résumé.
Also, if you manage a division of 60 developers and now you’re interviewing for a smaller company, describe your job as “managed a staff of senior software engineers.” Don’t say “managed an annual P&L of $10 million for a 60-developer business unit.”
And here’s a tip: If you’re trying to decide between wording something in a way that gets you a job (but feels wrong) and something that may not get you a job (but feels more right), choose what feels more right. Always err on the side of truth.
My older clients unnecessarily age themselves with how they dress. I highly recommend working with a fashion stylist to have a wardrobe that’s chic and bold. It may be one of your best investments.
This doesn’t mean that you start dressing like Justin Bieber. What’s important is that you think carefully about how you dress, feel authentic in what you wear, get others’ feedback on how you come off, and are careful to avoid looking “too old” or “too stiff.”
I often tell my older clients that their biggest concern isn’t the hiring manager; it’s their own loose lips. Only “talk shop” about technical topics—and even then, do so with reticence. Ageists may unconsciously interpret talkativeness in older developers as pre-senility, but in younger developers as enthusiasm!
Also, avoid talking or asking about “family” concerns—insurance, benefits, vacations—in interviews. It’s easy to get a sense of how lifestyle-friendly a company is without being direct. Those questions are fair game once you get an offer in writing.
Plan to Win
For older developers, competing with 21-year-old engineers can be a losing battle. Experience and “wisdom” only get you so far.
In this industry, especially for individual contributor roles, the key is to double down on sharpness. Do this with over-preparation for interviews, over-familiarity with the latest frameworks and tools used by the company, over-researching the company and its products, over-crafting compelling anecdotes for behavioral interview questions, and over-cultivating physical and mental vitality through exercise and meditation.
Krishnan Rangachari is a career coach for software engineers. Visit RadicalShifts.com for his free career masterclass. Visit ByteshiftResumes.com for his résumé reinventions.