An Open Letter to Employers in 2021
Being in tech over 40 is not leprosy
In many ways, I feel like Rip Van Winkle waking from my long slumber to a world I don’t recognize. Of course, I realize that I’m to blame. It doesn’t make the situation any better or easier to deal with.
You see, the last time I applied for a job and went through the process it was a different time. Back in those days, it was pretty routine. A resume provided a summary of who you were and what you’ve done while an interview usually solidified the deal.
Hiring managers were allowed to make decisions. They didn’t always get it right, but there were ways to rectify the situation. Business carried on.
In the intervening years, it doesn’t mean I haven’t switched jobs or stayed static. Heavens no. I had plenty of positions. But they were usually obtained through a healthy professional network.
But, as with so many people in our age of Covid, I found myself adrift and looking to shift gears. That jolted me into the Thunderdome Arena of automated systems, hiring managers, HR requirements, culture tests, personality tests, interview upon interview, and of course the blackhole of unilateral correspondence. The default outcome being a curt yet legally and politically correct email that finds its way into my inbox informing me I was not a good fit. Or the company just decided to go in a different direction.
However, as with any behavioral training, it’s easy to recognize the signs when they are presented.
Usually, if I successfully navigated the pitiful excuse for a candidate management system — really, you guys should seriously reconsider how potential employees get their first taste of your organization beyond the slick website — I’ll get my first interview.
This interview has been almost universally with a low-level HR staffer. I get it, you don’t want to waste expensive resources on what will likely be chum destined for the reject tank. But, you should at least make an effort occasionally.
And that’s where this story takes its turn.
The zoom call initiates, the audio goes on, and the camera comes into focus. As the 20-something staffer looks up from the busy work to view my smiling face the first time, there is usually a stifled horror that comes across their face. Grey hair.
It’s a reaction that is subtle but unmistakable. About what I would expect if I had “Toby Keith 4-evar” tattooed on my neck. We go through the obligatory small talk and 9 times out of 10, that’s about where things end with your company.
I anxiously await my generic email knowing I’ve wasted what precious minutes and hours remain in my dwindling life getting that far in the process. At least that expectation is usually satisfied in about the time it used to take for something ordered from television to be delivered (4 to 6 weeks for those of a generation who’ve never not known Amazon Prime).
But, on the occasions I’ve made it past the initial screening, I’d love to say things get better. They really don’t.
As part of my re-evaluation of post-Covid life, I’ve tried to deliberately step back. Instead of leading companies, I have been wanting to build things. Work in tech again. Something I take pleasure in.
This confuses and confounds most of the mid-level managers. Why would someone not pursue a C-level existence in order to be an analyst? It’s a Gordian Knot of logic that cannot be unwound.
So, technical interviews become a dance of filtering and finding flaws or gaps. In almost all cases, salary expectations come into play. Not on my end but on the manager’s.
“You don’t want this position — you want one that’s more at your level…”
“You do realize this is a mid-level salary?”
“You know the entire staff is considerably younger, right?”
These statements and questions I can accept. Again, it’s the shock of grey hair.
The ones I cannot are those that already put me out to pasture. As if my role in life should be relegated to playing canasta with my fellow ancient ones and picking up some social security supplements by greeting the denizens of my local WalMart.
At 46, I’m not quite there yet. But, there we are.
Technical interviews usually run into a game of trivia.
“What obscure function of a specific piece of software will provide me with an optimal outcome for some random hypothetical?”
“What is the right menu item on a drop down from last week’s revision of service-du-jour will trigger some widget?”
“Oh, your code sample is for python 3.9.4 — we’re on python 3.9.6. Guess you’re too old to learn…”
And so on.
Here’s the problem. Let’s call this a freebie since if you were to hire me as a consultant to talk about these things, it would be incredibly expensive.
Your system is broken.
Your system is trying to find a perfect fit for a perfect, ideal situation. You are trying to hire the person who just left the position along with all their gained knowledge and experience with your dysfunction. You are also trying to hire someone with the lived experience of a 50 year old who is right out of college.
Your entire process is designed, not to see potential benefits in hires or recognize what they can add, but instead just patch a hole.
This method fills seats, but you do not grow. You do not evolve. And you pass over a lot of candidates who could make substantial contributions.
A great candidate should not be a hard patch, but instead be like expanding foam. They will fill the space and then expand out to leave a mark on the entire organization.
Yes, your culture will change as more voices get heard from different backgrounds and experiences (aka diversity), but all cultures change. Not all change is bad. Not all risk is bad. Not all grey hair is bad.
So, now you know the problem. A lot of other job seekers are in the same boat all with their own “grey hair”. Stop over looking those coming to your door.
Get out of the way of your own processes and procedures and start to think about your search for talent. It’s out there and often no farther than your reject bin.