Ageism, IT, and Jobs

The answer to a skills deficit is education and practice, the answer to prejudice is community.
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor
Here's the askbloggie request:

Dear bloggie:

I am in a rut and was hoping you could help me. I know you are busy and I will understand if you choose not to reply. I just hope this email gets to you and you do actually read it.

I chose to email you because, quite frankly, I don't know who else to turn to. I can't speak openly to other IT guys in my workplace.

I have been a fan of your blog and your writing for a few years. I keep a copy of your "Using Linux in Your Resume" article on my cork board and refer to it regularly when updating my resume.

My email to you is to ask some advice as to how to get out of this rut I have dug myself into. Here is my situation. This is my seventh year in IT. I am a senior support IT guy. I like IT and want to stay in it. I get a very good salary where I am. But my problem is -- I do nothing. I am bored out of my mind day in and day out. There is no work for me. I just sit around thinking of things to do to occupy my time. This has been going on for almost 2 years now. I am desperately trying to leave to go somewhere else where I actually do work.

My problem is, I can't get any other job. And it's a two fold problem. Firstly, I am a senior IT guy. I am over qualified for level 1 support jobs. I also can't afford the pay cut. But it seems that I am under qualified for other jobs at my level and especially senior jobs. I have been bombing one intervew after another. And the truth is, it's becuase I haven't done that much at the job I have been at.

I read books and attend seminars on other technologies. But at the interviews I fail. And I think it's because I don't have the real world hands on experience with the products. I just have the genereal overview of what the books teach. So the technical interviewers stump me when they throw real world scenarios at me that someone with my years of expeirence should be able to handle.

Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.

Signed: trapped in my job

Dear trapped:

Ok, so you're getting to the interview stage but not getting the jobs?

Let me tell you two stories. First, there's one about my friend John. John's an HP-UX sysadmin for a local company. He's competent, got his head screwed on straight, comes to work every the morning and always gets the job done. Great, except he can't get a better job to save his life -in large part because his boss loves Windows and deprecates his abilities, doesn't assign him to new projects, and doesn't promote him to to his own colleagues. I've been telling him to quit for years, but he's comfortable where he is because they pay well and it's a "no suprises" job.

Secondly, I once argued that a group of employees at a Winnipeg company whose IT managers had left them trapped in the System 36/SSP world for at least a decade after the thing was widely recognized as obsolete should launch a Worker's Compensation Board claim. They didn't have the stomach for it, but I saw their inability to get work after the company went under more as management's responsibility then as theirs: after all, they had done everything asked of them, but management had failed to take their career needs into account - and had, at least in my opinion, intentionally stuck with obsolete technology as a way of reducing turnover in IT.

I think you're facing something similar: your bosses have to know you're wasted in your present role, and their failure to do something about that borders, to my mind, on criminal dereliction because they have a responsibility to you. Unfortunately I'm not aware of anything in the law, on either side of the US/Canadian border, that bears on this so it is clearly going to be up to you to do something about it.

You've been trying to get out, getting the interviews, but then bombing out. You say this is because you fail the interview tests when they throw real world scenarios at you that you should be able to handle, but can't.

I'll bet you can and it's the interview process and environment that's throwing you off. Now the reason I say that is because there are really only two kinds of things they can throw at you in qualification interviews, and there are "always right" answers to both kinds.

The purely factual ones come up if you get into a position where you've gotten to the interview by claiming expertise and they want to see if you really have it. If, for example, you're applying for a programming job with a Solaris software developer you'll get questions like: "What does the def statement look like in Greenhills to use the SPARC SIMD instruction set?" (None needed) or "How would you structure a function, in Java, to compute the greatest common divisor of a pair of integers?" (a recursion: if (a == 0) return b; return gcd(a, b%a))

If you get hit with these, don't babble: trust yourself enough to think it through before answering and if you really don't know, say you don't know and move on.

The real bottom line on these, however, is simple: if you don't have the expertise, don't apply for the job. And there's a corolary: if you were competent with earlier generations of the tools the employer wants expertise on, say so up front. Tell them you were really good with K&R C on NCR Unix VR3, that you've read about and think you understand more recent developments but don't have much hands on experience with that technology, and leave them the decision on what it means in terms of start-up costs on hiring you.

So what's the always right answer to a question like: "Can you sketch a Forth program to verify an ATA drive bay for a SATA drive?" Honesty: don't exaggerate your qualifications, admit what you don't know, commit to learning, and sell what you do know.

The judgement/action interview scenarios are more management focused and are designed to see if you can use. or apply, specific technologies or ideas. For example: "How do you find and stop all unauthorized wired or wireless access from inside the company?"

You should know this has something to do with MAC address authentication, but you can't know the specific technologies the employer has in place, the DHCP/Mac address policy for visiting laptop users, or whether they recycle network cards from failed PCs -so tell the interviewer about the things you don't know, mention some software that does some of this, (e.g. Cisco does some of everything, usually badly -:) ) and talk sensibly about what you'd have to find out, and where you'd look for the information, before taking action.

Bottom line: you need to know what to do, and where to get the information you need on doing it with whatever technology the employer has or needs to get, but you do not need to know which IOS facilities to invoke or which buttons to push to do that.

None of this stuff applies to human interaction or judgement scenarios of the kind you get in management interviews: "Milly says she'll file a sexual harrassment suit if you don't get Rube to stop giving her the best assignments..."; but if someone posits a specific technical scenario and asks you for the solution steps, it's always right to admit you don't know - provided the job you're applying for is genuinely within your range and you show that you understand the generic issue well enough to go about getting the job done.

So what's the always right answer for these? "I don't know, but I know how to find out and what issues to worry about."

Now all of this assumes you have a level playing field: the jobs you're applying for are appropriate, your boss doesn't secretly sabotage your efforts (I know one IT manager who makes it policy to badmouth current and former employees as a way of reducing turnover), and you're not sabotaging yourself by doing something inappropriate -like bringing a Tadpole to an interview at Microsoft.

And that leaves you with two possible reasons for getting lots of interviews and no jobs: first, you really could have a skills deficit; and, second, you could be a victim of ageism or other prejudice.

The answer to a skills deficit is education and practice, the answer to prejudice is community.

If the job you want involves a technology you don't know, or simply requires a facility you don't have because you don't practice enough - then go get the experience or education you need.

Volunteerism works well for this: go find a hospital, a community organization, or a political campaign that is big on needs, low on money, and go help them. Take responsibility: not "can I help with your website?" but "I've a got a web server, time, and commitment to your goals. Here's what i can do to help..." They won't put you in charge of the crown jewels (usually the membership list) on day one, but they'll be results focused and you can earn their trust by being yourself, being honest about your goals, and delivering the results they need.

Remember, nothing will force you to stretch your technical skills more or faster than a bunch of unreasonable users whose satisfaction you actually care about.

Formal education can be valuable too, depending on what it is and how it applies. There's a non obvious bit to this, in that SOX has made some useless certifications valuable again. For example, training certification in Oracle tuning may be pretty meaningless for you, but may meet an employer's SOX control criterion. It's sad but true, most American public companies are being forced by their auditors to prove IT staff certifications - so offering that kind of employer a bunch of certifications having nothing whatsoever to do with your job may be just the ticket for getting the job -not because they apply to your new job or actually mean anything, but because they'll let your new boss tick off some boxes on an audit checkoff list.

Enrolling in long term professional qualification programs like Canada's CGA or CMA programs can provide real long term value - look carefully at your own needs and abilities, decide what works, and then act.

Ageism, the belief that young people make better employees than the middle aged or older people, is rampant in IT. Few want to admit it, but most IT managers want to hire people who are younger then they are, who will not question their decisions, who fit into age and cultural groups assumed to be "Windows friendly," and who are perceived as willing to put in long hours for minimal non financial rewards. Remember, weak people hire weaker people - and the weakest people in the workplace are young, are under qualified, have trouble with English, or just don't get socially involved.

The answer to prejudice in general and ageism in particular, is community. Look deep into the psyche of your average late twenties, early thirties, IT manager - particularly the Windows kind - and his deepest, most secret, fear will be of being found out as a fraud -and just the sight of your older face will trigger subconscious memories of negative judgements by parents and teachers.

Now, of course, the people who know you, know better -and that's really the answer: get more people to know you, not as an older face, but as a "good guy;" as someone like my friend John, who's got his head screwed on straight and gets the job done.

So how do you build a community around yourself?

From inside your present job you do it by finding a niche, and making yourself known for it. Do your colleagues use Windows? Great, set up Linux on your home PC and start teaching other people how to use it on theirs - become the go to guy for home Linux users in your existing community and square it with the bosses by doing it on your own time and gear.

Become an expert on something; it really doesn't much matter on what. Find something you're good at and enjoy, then become the local expert on it. Communicate your enthusiasm, and the community will build itself either around you or to accomodate you. Either way, you win -and they win too.

Getting involved with an open source project can help, but often doesn't. The problem is that the internet both facilitates community building and takes away the value of locale - meaning that it's like working from home: you'll get lots of new contacts and learn a lot, but your new friends won't actually know you and they'll be spread across too large a geographical area to be value to you in job hunting.

Building communities outside work is much harder than doing it inside your current company or field. Volunteer work helps. Training and education are playgrounds for socialization. Join things, work at making new contacts.

Join a business card exchange (aka a professional group), and shake lots of hands while siding with majority views on the latest speaker: you know the game, go play it.

One option to consider is moving right out of your present job to one that forces you to build community. Know some recruiters? there's high turn-over in their industry, so have them talk their bosses for you and become one: you'll soon know every employer in town - More importantly, they'll know you.

Communities beat prejudice by adding factual knowledge and creating social counter presures. Get to the interview stage in your job hunt with a community behind you, and your next boss will have heard good things about you before the interview - meaning he'll go into it looking for a reason to hire you, not a reason to skip to the next file.

And did I mention that it helps to be lucky?


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