IT careers for the older geek woman

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question.

Okay, I’m an older geek woman (turned 39 this year) who’s done some time on helldesk, and is currently studying for a BSc in Computer Science and Games Technology (double major). I started the degree because I’ve been applying for jobs pretty steadily, and I’ve been sent along to interviews on a fairly regular basis where I’m able to answer the questions, and I figure I come across as competent, but I never actually get the job, and neither do I hear back about why I didn’t get it. I’ve started to work on the default assumption that I’m disadvantaged in the IT market by being too female, too old, and suffering from “Not Pretty Enough” (I am not and never have been a pretty little thing; any attractiveness I have comes from my mind). I also have chronic depression, which means I really don’t want to be in a situation where I’m constantly attempting to push gravy uphill with a fork in regards to getting my abilities recognised.

Realistically, what would my career path options be?

Commenters, just a caution on this. A lot of people here work in IT, so a lot of people may want to comment. Great! But actual stories of non-traditional entry into IT are going to be much more useful than “well, I graduated at 22 and went into a graduate program, but here’s a theory I just came up with on the fly about what I’d probably try if I was in the questioner’s situation…” Did you yourself enter IT in your thirties or forties (or when older again), particularly as a woman or outsider? If not, have you seen someone else do it? If not, do you know of any studies or resources?

Also, please watch for privilege in your comments. Volunteering IT skills, participating in networking or common-interest groups, developing FLOSS and so on all take privilege of various kinds. If these are part of your recommendations or your own experience you can share them, but don’t imply anything like “well, if you really wanted to work in IT you’d…” or “well, if you were really passionate about IT you’d be…”

Update: please also indicate your geographical location(s) as precisely as you feel comfortable with. The IT job market varies a fair bit around the world and the questioner and other women in her position may want to weigh your advice according to conditions in their local area. (Special note to people in the US: shorthand for your cities like “SF”, “LA” and “NYC” are not always well understood outside the US.)

11 thoughts on “IT careers for the older geek woman

  1. Laurie

    As someone who went through school all the way past post-grad in a non CS field, then came back, I have to say temping was a great doorway for me.

    A good temp agency will place you not just on your resume but on your talents. I had a series of short-term assignments and two long-term ones (longer than 3 months). The second placement asked me on for 6 months and I kept quietly mentioning how much I’d like to stay; when a job opened up I was the only one they interviewed.

    There are plenty of bad temp experiences of course; the recruiter is the key. When you go in to sign up, find out if there’s a recruiter who’s specific to IT placement, talk to them, pick their brain to see how IT savvy they are and make sure to talk yourself up like crazy and call at least once a week.

  2. Rune

    I talked to someone in hiring about this case; his take was mostly that once she has finished the degree it will be astounding (his words) if she isn’t hired shortly thereafter. Finishing the degree is important and that combination in particular will be highly interesting to the right companies. A lot of companies place a lot of weight on finishing the degree.

    In my own recent job-hunt I found that it’s typical for companies to not talk to anyone they interviewed except the person they finally hire. Another friend of mine, also in hiring, admitted that such a lack of response after the interview(s) is rude and inconsiderate, but it’s typical, so I wouldn’t read anything into it about individual employability or lack thereof.

  3. Alyse

    I am exactly the same age as your questioner, and have no formal IT training, but plenty of skill. I am currently an IT manager at a small owner operated company. This is what worked for me: I took a lower level non-technical job, but made it clear in my interview that I had technical skills. Many small owner operated companies have no IT or one of the owners does it. I started stepping in as my position and time allowed to help support the owner doing the IT work. Eventually they phased me out of the job I was hired for, and promoted to IT. 3 years later, I have managed a huge amount of expansion, given a lot of opportunity for growth and education and creating my down department.

    I can’t promise that this will work for everyone. But I knew a bit about the company going in, and starting in the other position let them learn about my technical skills and how I worked within the company.

  4. Kate

    This is an anecdote about my mother, so if I’m a little vague or you are interested in more info, feel free to ask and I can pass on any information.

    My mom graduated in the 70s with a computer degree (it was a business degree with a specialization in computer science, so less specialized than what the questioner is working on) and worked in IT a small company when she was younger.

    When her kids were small she worked various part-time positions, a little freelancing but mostly she did the full-time mom thing.

    When she went back to work full time (in the early 90s, she would have been late 30s) she started working on the floor as a “pit boss” at a rural casino (person who over sees dealers). From there she applied internally, moving into accounting (which she had some experience in) and then eventually into the IT department itself. She had to take some training programs along the way in order to catch back up (I was born in 87 so between 87 and ~96 there was a lot of developments in programming).

    I don’t think initially she expected the pit boss job to lead back into her field, by 96 both my brother and I were at school full time so she needed an in back into the job market so she started with one of the largest local employers.

    Since my mom works at a casino (on reserve land in Canada) she isn’t in the same field (I’m assuming because of the program of study that the questioner wants to get into game design) and I get the impression that her corporate culture is a little bit different than a lot of tech departments. Most of the programming team is women. I think they’re a team of about eight or ten and at least five of those are women.

    I don’t know that this is helpful. As others have said the advanced degree will probably help a lot but for my mom there was a lot of luck and a lot of job hopping until she got where she wanted to be. If there are specific questions, let me know, I can pass them on to her to answer herself.

  5. Trix

    It’s not clear from the question what the LW is applying for in terms of positions. Is it sysadmin, programming, DB administration, other? This makes a difference in terms of points of entry.

    As an administrator, I had no IT experience before my late 20s. I then talked my way into a helpdesk job with an IT outsourcer in 2000, who actually provided training (MCSE). From there, I quickly moved into desktop support and was engaged in NT administration within a year or so. This was in London, but I have worked in NZ and Australia.

    I had no tertiary quals at all until last year, but I think it may help with getting a foot in the door, but experience would be better. I think a much more useful set of quals, if you want to work as an administrator and possibly a DBA, is to get vendor certifications – MCSE, RHCE, CCNA, etc etc. Obviously, if you’re trying to get work as a programmer, tertiary quals in CS are very desirable.

    I am certainly not girlie-girl and pretty – I’m pretty damn butch, actually – but I have not experienced any issues with my presentation style. I wear suits when appropriate (i.e. job interviews), and I’m afraid in terms of getting your abilities recognised, you DO need to blow your own trumpet a bit. I think this is an advantage where men get trained to do so, and women often do not. It’s not about bragging – and should not tip over to that – but making it quite clear where your competencies lie. If you’re not motivated to discuss your skillset in a positive way, why would they want to hire or promote you you?

    One thing that I believe all techies should be wary of is saying “I’m technical, why should I deal with POLITICS or SELLING MYSELF?” Politics is just a way of describing how people interact with each other and get things done. Yes, dealing with people may be more or less complicated depending on your role, but we all have to do it. Demonstrating your skills is also all very well, but discussing them works better with some people (and obviously you can’t demonstrate much at interview time). It’s not about “selling yourself” as explaining why you’re well-suited for the role. So while dealing with people may not be a major component of your work, it still is a component, and should be handled as a reality of the situation.

  6. Betsy

    What worked for me was open-source experience (though I understand this path isn’t available to everyone), willingness to be taken on on a trial basis at first (ditto), luck, and a strong code sample.

    I had a fairly nontraditional background – set-painting – and no degree of any sort, because I’d dropped out of college when I started getting a lot of gigs and had run out of money (and, uh, mental health) while trying to go back to school for a more traditional CS education. One thing I found interviewing, which may or may not work for other people with nontraditional backgrounds, is that it was okay for me to play my background up – the people who were turned off by me saying “here’s what theater taught me, and here’s why it makes me an awesome fit for this job too” tended to be the people who were never quite going to get over my background anyway, and the people who responded to that line of selling-myself tended to respond *really well.* Nontraditional backgrounds can be a little polarizing, but don’t be afraid of trying to use that to your advantage?

  7. John

    Most of the programmers I’ve known with non-traditional backgrounds were recruited by friends and relatives, so it may be best to target companies where you know people (and network at events in your area to get to know more people in companies). Some of them worked their way up from less technical jobs, like several of the posters here, so build on your helldesk experience.
    When I was around your age, I once got feedback from a recruiter that a company had turned me down as “not fitting their age and salary structure”, i.e. they wanted to hire people at a first-job-out-of-college rate. Companies might find it hard to work out whether you’re expecting to start at a salary level usual for someone with the level of programming experience typical for someone of your chronological age, but now that more people are going to college `later’ in life, you can probably push a “fresh graduate, PLUS other advantages” angle.
    Let unusual non-CS skills show through; at one job I got, for example, they told me that “Clean driving licence (Heavy Goods)”, rather than just “Clean driving licence”, on my CV, made it stand out, so put anything like that in — foreign languages spoken, anything like that. OTOH, at an interview which I didn’t get, I could see they lost interest as soon as they heard I had any interests outside work — which probably meant it would have been an unpleasant place to work as I was no longer a green-behind-the-ears 22-year-old fresh graduate by that stage.
    And if you’re suffering from “Not Pretty Enough” you won’t be suffering from “Too Pretty” and being dismissed as an airhead. But in my (mostly UK) experience, techie recruitment doesn’t seem bothered about appearance.
    I suspect you’ll have to hide the depression quite thoroughly, and be upbeat at interview time; even as a former chronic depressive myself, I probably wouldn’t hire someone who seemed very negative at interview. (I wouldn’t hire someone who seemed unrealistically positive, either.) This is hard when you’re depressed (and it seems that society pressures women against doing it, too) but show a level-headed understanding of your own abilities — and don’t say “I’m a fresh graduate –but I’m older”, say “I’m a fresh graduate — and I’m more mature”!

  8. lsblakk

    I just graduated from a software development program a year ago, a mature student at 30. My background leading up to this was very non-traditional and non-programmer. I found that capitalizing on the opportunities that are available to full time students was very useful – internships (paid) and co-op (paid) got me the experience on my resume that helped me get into companies that would probably not have considered me for a full time position based on my resume alone – my resume includes managing a kitchen and being a nanny…

    I was also very fortunate to have a teacher in my program who created classes on open source development and got us connected with open source projects to work on – I work for one now, Mozilla. When I hear about the barrier to entry that is not having time to volunteer for open source projects I am grateful that I was able to do my “volunteering” for course credit since as a full time student with a job I would never have had time otherwise. Doing these courses got me experience in the community and I worked hard to show that I was a good candidate for a paid internship. The internship led to contract employment in my last year of studies and then to a full time job right out of school (at 34). It was a little strange to be the 32 year old intern who is a returning student to a college in Ontario when all the other interns are 20 and from MIT or CMU but it was worth any moment of discomfort because I’m very happy where I’ve ended up.

    I highly recommend grabbing the opportunities that are reserved for students while you are a student (at any age) since they get you in the door at companies that have way higher expectations of a new hire. As an intern you are permitted to poke around and see what interests you, learn as you work in a way that is not extended to full time employees (but should be!), and as a mature student/intern/employee you’ll get a chance to show off your transferable skills gained from experience in the workforce – this is something that not even the most precocious 20 year old can offer and it can be a great way to distinguish yourself to a future employer.

  9. cwhit

    I finished a masters at 39 in 2006, background in English literature but over 10 years of experience doing Web application development. The degree certainly helps you get past HR, but it’s more important to look at it in terms of building a network. Isblakk is right on; use the connections in your program as much as you can, while you’re in the program and when you’re finishing up and starting to look for work.

    I was introduced to the company where I’ve been working full-time since 2006 by someone who taught one of my courses; without his help, it would have been much more difficult to get my foot in the door. I was working half-time throughout my program and didn’t have the luxury of taking low-paid internships or doing volunteer work, but I did change jobs, from one that reflected my “old” skill set to one where I was able to do more in the direction I wanted to go in the future. I managed to make that switch by working for the new employer on a full-time, paid summer project (foot in the door thanks to my graduate program), then agreeing to stay on half time for the following year.

    My non-traditional past had a lot of advantages in interviews; I’ve got a lot of “soft” skills that are in short supply with fresh grads. I can tell you from being on the *other* side of the interview table more recently that “not pretty enough” issue is a non-issue (at least at my company) when we’re in need of a good software engineer. It’s much more important to project confidence in your technical skills. And if you can also show maturity and good communication skills, which are extremely important when you’re working on a team, you’ve got a real leg up.

  10. spz

    An ex-colleague of mine originally was a librarian, but she developped an allergy against printing ink (talk about tragic if you love books :$).
    She had been looking after the library’s server so took the offer of a 18 month training to become a Unix sysadmin to get her a new qualification not involving ink. That training also had a 1 month internship near the end, which she did at the company I was at, and in the team I was leading at the time. She had good common sense, was reacting calmly and confidently to upset or confused customers (something that can’t be expected really of someone in their early twenties) and was soaking up the necessary (and rather specialized) technical knowledge at a satisfying speed, so we hired her the moment she was done with her training.
    The point being, I guess: internships are worthwhile, and so is looking for a job that requires some life experience (i.e. perspective) in addition to technical skill.

  11. Jen

    I would recommend you look into opportunities at educational institutions. I’ve spent time in various capacities (from IT office support to web design and coordination) at higher ed institutions as well as more traditional (both corporate and small agency) environments, and I’ve found that educational environments are often more accepting. I was not able to finish my undergraduate CS degree, and am currently going back to school as a single mother and full-time worker. The amount of flexibility and understanding at my current workplace (part of a university) is amazing. I don’t feel being a woman or mother is a liability, which is wonderful. Of course, this varies from location to location, but I think targeting IT opportunities at places like this might be worthwhile.

    I wish the questioner the best of luck!

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