Robin Ryan, Best-Selling Job Strategist and Technology Job Coach, Talks about How to Land Your Next IT Position, Especially If You Are Over 40

During the dot.com years, IT professionals had their pick of some top-paying positions. Searching for an IT position today has become an entirely new ballgame with lots of different rules. The economic downturn has prompted many companies to do more with less, thus cutting the size of the IT staff or deciding to either outsource some tasks or send them offshore.  Seasoned IT folks and their younger technology savvy counterparts can find themselves competing for the same jobs. The higher you go on the IT ladder the fewer the positions you will find. Older IT professionals might feel that age will keep them from securing a good position. Meanwhile, IT professionals in the United States, in general, face competition from lower-cost IT professionals in Asia and Western Europe.

So what does it take for an IT professional, especially one over 40, to get his or her next good position? Enterpriseleadership.org turned to Robin Ryan for some answers. She is one of the nation’s top career coaches and best-selling career book authors. Based in Seattle, Washington, Ryan has coached many IT professionals, as well as conducted Boeing outplacement classes for laid off technical professionals. She recently came out with a book called, Over 40 & You’re Hired. Her other books include 60 Seconds & You’re Hired, Soaring on Your Strengths, Winning Resumes, and What to Do With the Rest of Your Life. She has appeared on dozens of TV shows including Dr. Phil, Oprah, and NBC Nightly News. Prior to starting her on firm, she was director of counseling services at the University of Washington.  Here is what she had to say:

EL. Because of the economic downturn, what is the first job strategy tip people need to consider if they want to find their job within a reasonable period?

RR.  What they should do and whether or not they will do it come as two different things. As a Seattle, Washington, resident, I have had much experience dealing with technology people from Microsoft and emerging technology companies. Most people have the idea that their next employer will somehow manage to find them. As a result, people have gotten used to being recruited. Now they have to get used to job hunting. You need a job hunter’s mentality. That is a big switch for people. No one is going to find you; you have to find them.

EL. It seems like many people go on the hunt by putting their resume on job boards or responding to jobs on those boards. So, is this how you become a hunter?

RR.  The listing of your resume on job boards is usually a worthless endeavor. Instead, you first need to identify the best resources for you to find a job. Sixty-three percent of all jobs result from networking. That means contacts, lots of them. Many technology people work in Fortune 500 companies. If you see a job opening on Cisco’s Web site, you will paste your resume into that job opening and hit send. You think you have applied to Cisco. Unfortunately, you have gone into Cisco’s cyberspace black hole. Most likely, recruiters will never find you because that company averages about 80,000 resumes a month. If you see an opening, the more effective technique would be for you to contact your network of people, and say, ‘Does anyone know someone who works at Cisco?’ Your network might consist of former employees, former employers, former co-workers, neighbors, friends, family, and alumni network or members of your professional association, such as the Society for Information Management (SIM). You contact those types of people and organizations For example, your neighbor who is a nurse may have a brother who works for Cisco. You want to cast a wide net asking that specific question: ‘Do you know anyone who works at that company?’

Once you have identified the person who works at that company, you then ask for a favor, such as, ‘I am applying for a job internally. Would you be willing to submit my resume through your intranet and send it to your human resources department? I really appreciate this favor.’ They are not endorsing you. They do not know you. They are just passing it along. By doing so, you bypass the 80,000 people who reside in cyberspace and you are being seen. You have just tapped into the hidden job market. When you do that, the recruiter will review your resume to see if you may or may not be a fit for that position. That is the best option you could possibly have. If you do not fit that job but the recruiter thinks you might fit another job, he or she might send your resume on to someone else. It is a more effective technique that going to Monster and pasting your resume. For IT people, Monster is the least effective job board. Dice is a better job board.

EL. Can you define some other networking techniques for IT people?

RR.  People need to get past the job boards to where they can reach out and talk to people at certain companies to see who needs, for example, a software engineer. Even if a company has a freeze on and if it is laying people off, the company may still be looking for someone with your skills. You will not see the listing on a job board because of possible internal backlash. The company might be doing a silent job search. Keep in mind, the company could be laying people off who no longer fit where the needs exists or have not performed to the required level.

A good way to network is to join a local chapter of SIM. You need to attend the meetings regularly. Part of networking includes talking to people, most of whom might be strangers. If you are an introvert, you probably would rather be shot in the morning than to talk to a stranger. Most technology people cannot stand the idea of talking to strangers. If this is the case, then you should look for other engineers, or other friends who you knew from your work. Ask them for names of people in their network. That may be easier. For example, you might want to find one or two other software engineers to talk to rather than trying to sell yourself to strangers at a conference.

EL. How do you feel about job fairs?

RR.  Job fairs do not provide an effective way for IT people to find relevant work. People can come away massively depressed. Who wants to be in a room with 5,000 people looking for a job? Imagine if none of the employers had what you wanted. If you do want to attend a job fair, then you should go with the attitude of looking for some job leads. Most of the time, however, you might see companies such as Hertz or Comcast. I doubt if you want to sell rental cars or take customer service calls for cable. You need to look for job fairs specifically designed as a technical fair.

EL. Is age still issue a big issue for people?

RR.  Age discrimination is difficult to prove in hiring. Certain organizations, such as hospitals and not-for-profits, make it easier for older people to land jobs. Many high-tech companies look for people who are up on the latest technology. They want people with fire in their belly and they still want to innovate. Some older people make the mistake of looking for a safe-haven until they are ready to retire, or they do not want to learn anything new.

Despite your age, you can still get a good job. You have to appear as if you still have something to contribute. Because a big gap exists between being over 40 versus being over 50, you, however, have to go about the process of how you present yourself differently.

EL. Can you provide an example of what you mean by this process?

RR.  As people age, they tend to become less enthusiastic and less emotional. You do not wear your emotions on your sleeve. When they are in a job interview, they appear to be more neutral. They refrain from saying, ‘ I am dying to take that on. I am willing to put in my 90 hours a week’. Some job hunters have told me ‘Look, I have done that 90 hours a week thing. I do not want to do that any more. I want to make the bucks, but I don’t want to kill myself.’ On the other hand, the employer might not want someone who is not going to work that hard.

You have to come across with what you can deliver, such as innovations, contributions, and results. You need to do some self-analysis about the results you have delivered during the past five years. Your resume should emphasize your five-year to seven-year contributions, such as serious results that drove revenues, increased revenues, saved time, saved money, or made money. Next, you have to look in the mirror. Realize you need to show enthusiasm. You need to show professionalism.

EL. So what are some of the ways that an older person can look more contemporary?

RR.  I recently worked with a 62-year old accountant who looked like he was stuck in a time warp. This rather stocky man had on a suit jacket and a white shirt and tie. The shirt was so tight around his neck that it made his face puff up. His suit did not look like something worn by a highly paid accounting manager at a Fortune 500 company. I suggested that he go to a good men’s store and select an entire outfit. Salespeople at these stores or at department stores, such as Nordstrom’s, can help select clothes that mask figure imperfections. Although he could afford a good quality outfit, he did not want to buy a suit because he would not wear it that often. I told him that his shirt was too tight around the neck. He insisted on wearing dress pants to interviews. I told him that a suit would minimize his pot stomach. The more serious he looked, the better chance he had of getting the job.

He became my client because he had gone on five interviews and never received a second interview. I am willing to bet that his appearance made it difficult for him to get passed the first impression a potential employer had to him.

EL.  Any more examples you can provide about how older people can improve the impression they give to others?

RR.  I had a 69-year old woman who was looking for a fund raising position. She had completely white hair, but her face radiated with enthusiasm. She could not stop smiling. She brought copies of projects she had done. She had ideas she wanted to discuss with these potential employers. She wore a nice fitting suit. She presented herself to the very best of her ability.

Engaging people come across as being interested in the world around them. Life has not burnt them out. You can start by reading newspapers and magazines. As a technology person, you should regularly read trade publications so you know what is happening in the industry. You also need to be able to have an intelligent conversation about technology trends.

EL.  What is the biggest problem many older technology workers suffer from?

RR.  Many older workers, especially technology workers, suffer from job entitlement. Some of them have become extraordinarily angry about being let go and having to look for a job. Their resentment fuels their anger. They can come across with the attitude of ‘What do you mean I am not the right one.’ Companies want to get rid of people like this. Instead, they need to come across with the inner personal skills that will make them an asset to a company.

People contribute less on the job as they get older. They lack the fire in the belly. Because they do not want to work as hard, they tend to slow down.  If you have not had an original thought in five years, do not expect an employer to pay you big bucks. If I pay you to be a software engineer, I expect you to come here and create.

If you want to sell yourself in technology, you need to be able to be a solutions person for now and for tomorrow. All types of technology companies offer exciting jobs. Apple will hire you if you are a smart, innovative 70-year old with great ideas and can lead a team. Unfortunately, they do not see many people in that age bracket with those skills. On the other hand, some people think they can quasi-retire to a job in education or in government. These organizations have stepped up their efforts to make sure people are productive.

EL. How do you feel about using social media to look for a job?

RR.  I welcome people to discuss this job-hunting approach with me. I have not seen it to be effective for mid-level to higher-level technology professionals looking for job. Forget Facebook! It is for kids looking for dates. Linkedin, on the other hand, wants to position itself as a network for job hunting and job searching. It has executive recruiters on it, but primarily job hunters use the site hoping to meet someone who might know someone and who has a job for them. It has not proved to be worth the time. I have suggested that people use the contacts they know as opposed to waiting around for three people they do not know. I also tell people to use their college network. Most colleges have good networks that will help alumni with their careers. For example, say you plan to move to Portland, Oregon, and want to know about the current climate for technology job prospects. You can connect with alumni who live in Portland. Although you do not know these people, you have something in common with them — where you got your BS or your MBA. If you really want to use a social network, then go back to your college and use your college network.

EL. How would you go about trying to sell a skill that you have not done in years?

RR.  Okay, say you are in quality assurance, but would like to get back to project management, which you have not done in five years. You first need to network with other project managers to get the lay of the land. What has changed and what has not changed? You might go online to the Project Management Association’s site. Read the site’s blogs. Look at upcoming conferences you can attend. Do not forget to check out dates and locations for local meetings. If nothing else, go to these venues and listen to what people say. If you are serious about project management, then perhaps you can take courses and obtain a certification in this area. If your certification has expired, then take a refresher course and take the exam again.