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Voices of Gatsby: The “O” Word (Or, Being Older in Tech)

Michelle Gienow
December 21st, 2020

Gatsby believes in cultivating inclusion and elevating the many members of our diverse community. Our new Voices of Gatsby series, publishing every other Friday, showcases and celebrates our users for who they are as they share stories from the tech life. True tales from the front lines, personal accounts of each of us came to be where we are today. Got a story to share? Visit the Voices of Gatsby info page to learn more and connect with us! Accepted submissions pay a $500 author’s fee, because we recognize and value the work  of writing — whether it’s words or code 💜.

For Gen-Xers like me looking to change professions in our late thirties and even forties, retraining for a career in tech looks pretty appealing.  Emerging technologies like cloud services, big data, and AI/machine learning have companies scrambling to hire able bodies to fill a plethora of newly invented positions.

Unfortunately it appears that not every body is considered equally able, however.  In an analysis of data gathered from more than 330,000 U.S. tech-sector professionals and job seekers, recent research shows that we lucky Generation X-ers get hired 33% less often than younger candidates with comparable skills and experience. Even once we do land an interview, there can often be a queasy sense of not quite fitting in. This is not imposter syndrome: I know I am good at what I do. But I have also had enough subtle but disquieting experiences with younger tech colleagues and community members to cause to me wonder if being old enough to remember when MTV debuted and the Berlin Wall came down makes it harder for others to see me as good at it, too.

Exhibit A: Right after finishing front-end boot camp, I went to a monthly meetup for junior web devs. As I look around for my classmates (we’d all made a pact to attend) I start to feel like the several dozen other people in the meeting space, all of whom appear younger, seem to be avoiding eye contact with me. Weird, but whatever. I keep looking for my fellow boot camp grads — time to celebrate, this meetup has free beer!  After a few more minutes, though, I notice a clutch of event organizers (I recognize them from the meetup page) are talking and looking over at me. Eventually, one of them clearly gets nominated to approach me. She comes over and says, politely enough, “Um, can we help you, ma’am?” The message being, What are you doing here, soccer mom?

Exhibit B: The episode troubled me enough to bring it up with a longtime friend who happens to own a digital agency. I asked him point-blank if I was going to find it harder to land a junior level developer job due to being more, ahem, age advanced than your typical twenty-something techie. He looked uncomfortable for a minute and then answered, “Yes. Yes you will….But that doesn’t mean you won’t get ever hired. It does mean that you’re going to have to work harder — and, I hate to say this, but also be better — than other applicants. But you’re already used to that. You’re a woman.”

The fact that he’s right doesn’t make it suck any less as a reality. While transitioning from journalism to JS I became close with a few other developers who also happened to be career-changers over 35. I started asking if they ever felt the same lo-fi you’re not quite like us vibe from significantly younger developers. The answer was an unequivocal “Yes.” It turns out we’ve all got similar stories about being treated differently because of the age differential. And it wears you down. 

Take for example my friend Dee, who is 42, smart, and ferociously hard working — I know this from mentoring her through front end bootcamp.  She recently applied for a paid internship to bolster her boot camp certificate and kickass independent projects.

The girl has been PM on multimillion dollar construction projects, fer cryin’ out loud, and can handle herself in all kinds of scenarios. But, she told me, she found herself stunned, furious, nearly in tears, when one of the managers interviewing her for the internship commented she was not a good fit because the opportunity was intended for “someone less experienced.” He couldn’t say “younger” — that would be age discrimination, which would be illegal. But it amounts to the same thing. Her reply was an attempt to be funny — she says she quipped something along the lines of, “But I am all kinds of less experienced!”  She got past the moment. But she also didn’t get the internship. 

I can imagine that it’s just as weird for the managers on the other side of the conference table or Zoom chat to realize they are significantly younger than the candidate before them. But we all need to get past the moment and look at the demonstrated skills, knowledge, and ability — not the outer package. 

There’s a happy ending, thankfully. Dee has since found a position that looked at her projects instead of her smile lines. Just as I did eventually land my own first tech job, at a startup where the founders were also Gen Xers. This meant we could skip the age diff awkwardness and also get each other’s pop culture references, so win-win! And now I’ve happily landed at Gatsby, the most accepting and psychologically safe workplace I’ve ever been part of, inside or outside of tech. The age distribution definitely still skews heaviest toward the 20s, but at Gatsby no one has ever made me feel like this matters.  What we have in common is more important than the ways we are different.

Because, ultimately, devs of every age do share one same essential trait: We all love making cool stuff with code. Even those of us whose first computer was a Macintosh Classic.




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Writes things @ GatsbyJS. Chaotic good frontend dev, caffeine addict, backyard chicken wrangler 🐓.

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