Thirty years ago, when tech was taking off and few colleges offered computer science degrees, I started my first job in IT. I was a liberal arts grad living in the Boston area. Tech was growing faster than universities could develop computer science departments, so many colleges in the area offered something like today’s boot camps to help open doors. I managed to get my foot in the door of an IT team by working as a legal secretary Monday through Friday and sitting in day-long computer sciences classes on Saturdays.
At the time, women in tech had some additional challenges, but the biggest was imposter syndrome — the feeling that while were succeeding at our jobs, somehow we were not “real” techies. Luckily, there were enough women mentors—and enough men and women working together to figure out ever-changing technologies—that our technological backgrounds didn’t matter as much as what we were able to learn on the job.
In our twenties, many of us were striving for our first management position. Some of us wanted to move to the next stage of our careers, and some of us were just really competitive. Some feared losing their entry-level jobs. Others feared that a management track meant drifting further away from tech. None of us feared getting old.
Now, in our fifties and sixties, we’re often older than the next person in the entire company by at least 14 years. For the most part, those who’ve survived decades in tech are our friends who became VPs. Most of the middle managers got laid off and switched careers.
I’ve been laid off only twice in my career. The first time I was too young and inconsequential, and the last I was too old and overpaid.
The rest of us are like the fifty-somethings we knew early in our careers— people no one really hangs out with, who sit alone, who come and go quietly each day, and who eventually disappear without a goodbye party. I’ve been laid off twice in my career: at the beginning and near the end. The first time I was too young and inconsequential, and the last I was too old and overpaid.
I left the first job with an air of optimism and a lot of fear that I’d chosen the wrong career. I left the last job fearful that my career had just ended. I teased my younger manager, saying that I was leaving the industry to bake muffins at Wegmans. To his credit, he felt awful.
Within two weeks, I was working for another old friend as a government contractor. As it turns out, this is where most of my age group is working now. For us, Amazon coming to our back door doesn’t mean the prospect of new jobs in Northern Virginia — it means hope that government employers will have even more room for older tech workers.
It’s too easy, and not entirely fair, to blame our failures on our unwillingness to adapt to new technologies. While staying at one company or working with one technology too long can make it difficult to adapt to a new job, even the most willing older tech workers end up on the wrong side of a technology argument at least once. We’re tagged as the blockers opposing the disruptors. Our younger colleagues have to convince us that technology can be delivered on a move-fast-and-break-things basis, that quality assurance is optional, and that automation is the way of all things. In my most career-suicidal comment to a young manager at Amazon, I quipped, “Well, I suppose you can either have a team of eight DBAs [database administrators] or eight developers to automate their jobs.” Some of us remember how operational jobs like database and system administrators have evolved from the bad old days of programmers carrying pagers on nights and weekends.
What puts the older tech worker — or any older worker, for that matter — at risk of premature retirement is the loss of someone who cares about our careers, or who even sees a point to us having careers. (As younger women, our colleagues — usually men — asked us whether that first or second baby meant early retirement.)
Even a manager with the best intentions can run out of patience more quickly when working with an older employee. Where once we could take a few months to ramp up in a new position, we now hear comments like, “Well, at your experience level I would think you could learn this faster.” Mistakes are less excusable because they can’t be chalked up to youthful inexperience or impulsiveness — or being human.
It’s hard to be silent when younger managers are on a dangerous trajectory.
The loss of a common frame of reference with coworkers and managers complicates our lives even further. To be good at anything, people must be willing to try and fail. But it’s hard to be silent when younger managers are on a dangerous trajectory. When you’ve learned too much from your mistakes and seen so many trends come and go, it’s difficult to say nothing as you watch a young team struggling with problems you faced decades ago. You can only wait and watch the trial and error — feeling a little helpless, and very useless.
Aging in tech is equally hurtful to men and women. I’ve known men who have had to move far from their families in order to keep their kids in college. I’ve known others who’ve had to sell the family home and uproot everyone to run out the retirement clock. We’re all aging too quickly, and a little painfully.
When I look at the industry today, I wonder two things: where did my peers go, and where are the young women who will replace us? The earliest programmers were women, as programming jobs evolved out of clerical positions. Today, few grads — male or female — can pass through a resume screener without a computer science degree, but so many girls opt for other careers after being discouraged by AP computer science in high school. Men and women who make it to computer science in college are weeded out by esoteric engineering or math classes, without which they can’t continue.
As an older women in tech who’s earned confidence via experience, it’s especially hard to watch my younger sisters shy away from asking tough questions for fear of being dismissed by louder, more confident men in the room. It’s even harder to see other women trying to get ahead in tech by adopting the gladiatorial behavior of some of these men. Perhaps that comes from learning to survive crazy-rigorous computer science and engineering programs — yet the diversity that women brought to the table was never about gender, but style.
I used to think age limited only those careers that depend on physical ability. An older doctor, lawyer, or teacher was not as uncommon as a 60-year-old construction worker. Thirty years ago, when our careers began, we thought staying employed was simply a matter of constantly adapting. I know it’s not fair to accuse an entire industry of intentionally excluding workers over 50 — and yet, where are they? Most of us want to learn and adapt, and many of us have.
What excludes us is the culture of tech. It’s young and it’s male; it’s very fast and a little reckless. For all their innovation, brash and headstrong young leaders sometimes dismiss ideas that run counter to the culture. And though most tech companies earnestly struggle to be inclusive, we never imagined how much that culture would one day sideline us.