Professionally Speaking

Generation Gap

The issue of ageism in today's IT arena.

I’m a UK citizen and recently became an MCP with Networking Essentials, NT 4.0 Server and NT 4.0 Workstation and hold a diploma in PC repair. I’m 66 years old and consider my skills above average. I also have a good understanding of batch programming and NT scripting. I was prepared to take the rest of the MCSE exams, but an employment agency told me that I’d be wasting my time and money and that it’ll be hard for me to get a job. I’m thinking of taking a course in Visual Basic 6.0 so I can get a job. Please advise.
—Name withheld by request

Wow — this certainly isn’t the standard, run-of-the-mill question! I have all sorts of questions, but I guess my answer doesn’t depend on any of them — it’s just curiosity. Here in the United States we have something called Social Security, originally intended so that people your age wouldn’t have to work. Do you really have to work? Wouldn’t retirement be better for you?

Aha! Didn’t that sound familiar? Very quickly I fell into the same trap that you’re running into. We’re conditioned into thinking that people older than a certain age, whether it’s 55, 60, 65 or older, shouldn’t be working — they should be retired, enjoying their “golden years.” Well, most people are capable of doing interesting, productive, rewarding work until they choose not to, whenever that might be. I’m not talking about senior citizens who work at McDonald’s a few hours a day, mostly for company and something to do. I also don’t include the old curmudgeons who start every sentence with “In my day…” and proceed to tell you why everything new is bad. I mean people who’ve been dedicated employees, staying current in their field or moving into new and challenging areas. Employers are always saying they want knowledge and experience. Well, folks, knowledge takes less time than experience — and we’re losing a huge pool of experience by ignoring older workers. And don’t tell me that their experience isn’t relevant. Yeah, the tools have changed, but — ultimately — we work with people, not just machines. Basic people skills never grow stale.

Now, before you start wondering what all this has to do with you, I’ll jump down from my soapbox, interrupt my attempt to change the world, and try to deal with the question. There are some major questions that I have to ask you. Namely, what do you want to do? Why are you taking all these courses? What do you envision as the end result? Do you reallysee yourself as an entry-level programmer?

Many MCPs, those studying diligently for their exams, are just entering the workforce. A large number, however, are entering this field as a career shift. I hope that, at this stage in your life, you’re not preparing for your first job. So the critical question: What did you used to do?

Is Your IT Career Stalled?
If you have a career question you’d like Greg and Steve to tackle, send email to [email protected]. Put “Pro Speak Question” in the subject line. We’ll select questions that seem applicable to a large number of readers.

What is the relevance of that, you might ask? Well, in every job — in fact in every life situation — you gain knowledge and skills. Sometimes these are too specific to be applied elsewhere. For example, if you were a plumber, you might have learned the specific melting temperature of solder (knowledge) as well as how to connect an under-sink, water-filtration unit (skill) — not very helpful to most MCSEs. But you also learned other things such as how to get along with customers, how to record your work time accurately, and how to manage your boss (or your business, if self-employed). These are the types of skills that do transfer to other situations.

A number of former military officers are entering the IT field thinking that nothing from their previous life has any relevance now. I advise them that there’s a lot that they can carry over, such as learning how to survive and prosper in a large bureaucratic organization; these officers also offer project management and leadership skills. Just because we deal with computers and data doesn’t mean that everything else we’ve learned is irrelevant.

One more piece of practical advice — you might first have to apply your new knowledge and skills in a volunteer situation, with the goal of becoming so indispensable that you’re added to the paid staff. Everyone wants free help, but if your contribution becomes central to the mission of the organization, they should protect themselves by giving you employment.

I wish you luck on this new adventure, and I hope you’ll let us know how you make out.

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.


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