Starting a computer career as a 40-year-old
April 11, 2010 2:00 AM   Subscribe

Will my age be a disadvantage as a computer graduate looking for work?

I'm thinking about doing an MSc in Information Technology (conversion course for graduates with arts/humanities degrees) at a university in the UK and trying to find work in the I.T. field. My previous work experience includes office administration, journalism and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). I've already learnt a little about web development as a hobby, but I've also thought about database administration or networking as possible areas to get into. I don't have the relevant experience or training, so I'm considering further studies. However, by the time I finish a course I will be over 40-years-old. I accept that I will only be able to apply for entry-level jobs when I complete the degree, but I'm also concerned about ageism in the I.T. industry. Do you think employers are likely to favour 20something graduates over mature graduates such as myself?
posted by wyn to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Will you have a better story to tell during the interview than the 20something who fell in love with technology from the first time he put his hands on a computer, and just couldn't stop exploring it? That's what matters.

I know a few people who got in later than you're planning to; they tend to be in areas like business process improvement, consulting, training, more than really hard core tech. You might have an edge there, especially having teaching experience. I'd probably be skeptical about hiring you as a network admin or a DBA (not really so much for the age, but if you'd tell me you love e.g. networking, I'd ask why you didn't start 20 years ago); but IT is a huge field with many different roles.
posted by dhoe at 2:28 AM on April 11, 2010

The biggest problem you'll face will be demonstrating ability; I've seen several people at interview who retrained to get into IT (both younger and older) and the problem is that the knowledge only goes skin deep; they've got the certificates or degree etc, but don't really grok a given field with any depth yet; which will be a problem if you're looking to go into networking, sysadmin or DBA roles. I'd look at you with a certain amount of skepticism, same as I'd look at any fresh faced graduate with a shiny new degree and no field experience. It's not your age per-se, but that I'd suspect you'd bought into the notion that IT is a pot-o-gold career where you don't actually have to be any good and all you need is a few pieces of paper to wave around and you're golden. It ain't the dot-com boom years any more, and IT hirers are suspicious these days.

You're ready to go in at entry level positions which is good, though - be prepared to explain why you're prepared to take a pay cut from whatever you were doing before, assuming that's true. I'm not certain the MSc is necessarily the best route at this point; you already have a humanities degree, but your biggest weakness is practical skills, and the MSc wouldn't fix that.

I agree that your best bet would be to aim more towards the business management of IT, possibly getting in via the training route, as those are both areas where you can deploy your existing skills to advantage.

I would focus on an area you like the look of, be it web development, virtualization (vmware, citrix, and hyper-v are BIG these days) or whatever, and get some core certification skills in that particular area. It'll be cheaper and much quicker than a MSc, and I think would immediately give you marketable skills. Ideally, then try to get some real-world experience deploying them - use them at home, work with a charity in your spare time, get involved with a GPL project or two (as documentation guy if nothing else), or even train up to trainer level in those skills and go straight into freelance consultancy or training with an agency.

The techie side IT is not an academic field, where particular pieces of paper are respected. Yes, there are certain minimums (i.e. degree) and certain skills need certificates, but what really, really counts is skills and experience in the relevant area. Focus on getting those specific skills relevant to your target is the key.

The other option is IT middle management; skip the techie side of the skills altogether, and go immediately the business management skills route. Bluntly, the money is far better, and from what I've seen in IT management over the years, management competence isn't particularly required either, and no understanding of IT is required whatsoever. You might luck out and get the odd manager that actually knows what he's talking about, and you try and hang onto them like a limpet. As a journalist and office admin, your skillset seems pretty well suited to that role and would require minimal retraining.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:30 AM on April 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

The two above answers hit good points: finding the right field, and telling your story. Your story needs to hit on why your years of experience in [previous industry] will be a huge benefit to new work in [IT subfield]. Looking at your background, for example, I would work it into creating productivity tools (I was the lackey doing the administration work, so I can lay out and code a reasonable and fool-proof workflow!).
posted by whatzit at 4:52 AM on April 11, 2010

I'm also concerned about ageism in the I.T. industry. Do you think employers are likely to favour 20something graduates over mature graduates such as myself?

It depends on the position, but there's no way it's a universal negative, so do not fall into the mental trap of thinking you are disadvantaged.

I screen/hire hundreds of IT people (among other types) per year, and on average, I would have to say that I get a positive first impression from most older applicants. Young people in technology, like young people in most fields, are just so much less reliable, and are much more likely to jump to the next good offer, leaving an employer or project in the lurch. I suspect that statistically, they are less likely to suddenly move across country, too, though I have no real data on that.

In addition to reliability, applicants also tend to use better judgment (no surprise, again) and are better at dealing with stressful situations. Common sense is pretty rare in the young.

So when you get to job-hunting time, I would think about those sorts of things and choose positions that fit: employers that seek high levels of trust and stability (mental, emotional, financial, you name it) may just prefer mature applicants.

For example, if I was a mature IT job hunter, I would stay away from help desks and web firms, and instead look at school administration offices, non-profits and NGOs, and legal/accounting firms. All these places need DBAs, network people, and other IT pros, and many are likely to find an older applicant attractive. They may also be more stable places of employment than the average (and fungible) 'hot' IT employer.
posted by rokusan at 7:05 AM on April 11, 2010

[few comments removed - back it up and try again please]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:19 PM on April 11, 2010

I've seen explicit and some implicit age discrimination in SF dot coms. Whether this generalizes to other areas, I don't know.

The explicit was from a hiring manager who wanted a "young, single guy" for a sales position. The implicit was a hiring manager who wanted someone with a steep upward trajectory (which is much easier to achieve when you've not been working long).

So yes, you have an uphill battle at some companies. It's not right, and it's not legal, but it certainly exists.
posted by zippy at 6:16 PM on April 11, 2010

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