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Forty-one. That’s when you’re officially considered “old” in most tech circles—at least according to a recent Indeed survey making the rounds on LinkedIn. These survey results are, unfortunately, not surprising: at almost every tech company I’ve ever worked, there have always been murmurs from my female colleagues, especially, about the dearth of models for being a woman in tech after kids, after 40.
In February, a friend invited me to a webinar titled “How to Stay Relevant & Resilient: Overcoming Ageism in Tech” because he knew that I’m the Managing Editor here at Jumble & Flow. I immediately signed up. In many industries, your 40s are when you’re just beginning to hit your professional stride. In tech, it’s when women start getting edged out. The webinar presenter Lisa Shissler Smith, Engineering Manager at Netflix and Director at Women Who Code, has been talking to women for years about how to remain relevant in tech as you age. After her very real, very grounded talk, I reached out and had to ask, “Is there hope for middle-aged women in tech?”
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
Current age: 51
Job title: Engineering Manager at Netflix and Director at Women Who Code
I’ve kind of always wanted to be in tech. But, I first went to library school, and took all the information science coursework. Information science wasn’t an accredited degree at the time, and I’d spent — let’s just say — a non-inconsiderable amount of money on my education. So, I thought I should get the accredited degree. Two of my aunts had been librarians and I thought they were super cool. So, I became a librarian.
When I started working as a librarian, everybody that met me was like, “Really?” After a time, I began to suspect that there was a job-person mismatch. At one point, I was told during a performance review that I had a big personality and that was not prized in academic librarianship.
While I was working at UNC in the late ’90s, I had the opportunity to go on this chancellor-sponsored trip called the Tar Heel Bus Tour. The UNC faculty would zig-zag across the state, eat a lot of barbecue, and see all parts of this state where we all worked. The very first day, the chancellor sat down next to me on the bus — no pressure or anything. Before he was chancellor, he was a philosophy major, so he had a way of asking these really incisive questions. We’re sitting there chit-chatting for a while, and we started talking about search engine technology. It was the height of Ask Jeeves, if that tells you when this was! After a time he looked at me and asked, “Lisa, can I ask why you’re working a job that seems almost exactly opposite of what you really want to do?”
I answered, “Sir, that’s a fantastic question.”
On that trip, actually, I met the person who would give me my first job in tech. I taught myself on the job what you could know about tech at the time, which you could still wrap your arms around. Somebody took a chance on me, and I learned. I would take something from that job and apply it to the next job.
But, somewhere in there, I became a mom. And, that was not a thing that my job was into. I worked for somebody who was not a parent by choice, and didn’t really understand parenting choices. When I recognized that, I left that job, and I became a trailing spouse. The father of my children was a golf course superintendent. We moved around a lot, and I would just have to find work wherever we were.
Once I worked in technology long enough, I recognized it was somewhere I got a lot of joy. After I’d had several tech jobs, somebody asked me, “If we had the space to turn somebody with leadership experience into a manager, would you want to do that?”
Since I go around telling people to take chances and apply for jobs that feel like a stretch to them, I kind of had to say yes. I’ve found that nobody’s born knowing how to manage, but I really enjoy when I can help people find their path and direct their energies in ways that are productive.
All these transitions were less reinventions and more evolutions. Being able to take a thing and leverage it for your next thing is how you stay resilient in tech and in life, too, really.
Don’t be afraid to try for something that doesn’t seem exactly aligned. For instance, I got a PHP job without ever having written a line of PHP professionally. I just had fun working on the sample take-home assignment and demonstrated enthusiasm and potential.
If you do something that excites you, then, yes, lean into that and do more of that. Like, I love solving problems with code. Code can be rewarding when everything else in your life is uncertain and falling apart. Code behaves in predictable ways and only does what you tell it. There’s always been an excitement and adventure with code that I can build this thing and then somebody else can use it.
I was a librarian because I like bringing people and information together. And, that’s still what I do. If there’s been a throughline of my career, it would be helping people leverage information in strong and powerful ways. When you do the thing that excites and moves you, it doesn’t feel like a re-invention. It doesn’t feel like a giant job. It feels fun.
For me, I had to tell a compelling story about how a non-linear career path is an advantage: I can draw on other experiences. I’m more well-rounded and versatile. Also — I don’t want to say there’s nothing new under the sun, but — you can see patterns. Pattern detection is important in life in general, but also, on the job, if I know something about the structure of this thing, if I know how to solve a problem with code, I can apply that to other parts of my life.
I’ve been able to tell people the story about a time I got the job: They were looking for someone with three to five years of React experience. At the time, React was only about three or four years old. So, anyone who qualified was probably still working at Facebook. But, React is just one tool. It’s a current tool, but it’s just one tool.
I was able to tell them, “Look, do you want somebody who only knows this one thing? React? Or, do you want somebody who has learned a bunch of different languages in all different settings? Someone that, in two years when React is not the hot thing anymore, you’ll have someone who knows all these other things.
Tech is very — just like everything else — very cyclical. “Oh, the new great thing is here!” And, in two years, we’re not using it anymore because: reasons. Being able to evaluate situations and see what’s important, that’s what people who have been working for a long time bring to the table. They’re able to say, “This is very similar to these things that we did over here. And here’s the lesson we learned from that.”
Just because they didn’t do this specific thing doesn’t mean they haven’t seen something kind of like it.
I’ve taken chances on things that were out of my comfort zone. But, then, for some reason, I still feel like I should be automatically equipped. I’ve been reluctant to ask for help when I probably should. When I was a first-time Engineering Manager at Spreedly, I was dealing with a really interesting communication issue. I kept thinking, “I can fix this! I can solve this!” Problem is when you’re dealing with other humans, they’re murky and imprecise. You can’t always fix that.
But, I learned some things about myself from that situation. I got a coach, and it helped to have some external observation on a system, you know? Saying, let me describe this for you. You tell me where I’m going wrong. What did I miss?
I was called “Office Mom” at one of my jobs, which was a combination of both ageism and sexism as I was the oldest staff member in the office and the only woman engineer. At first, it was kind of warm, comforting. But, then, I realized, “Oh wait, now you don’t take me seriously because you think I’m your mom. I’m an engineer here just like all these other guys.”
That said, I’m fortunate that I’m 4-foot-11. I have easily colorable hair. And, so people tend to think I’m younger than I am. I don’t disabuse them of that notion.
I think the aha moment for me was when I was working as an engineer. I had to ask myself, “Do I really want to have to invent myself over and over every two or three years? When there’s new technology out there, I’m going to have to learn it. Is that a thing I want to keep doing? Does that bring me joy anymore?”
And my answer was, no, it’s kind of exhausting. I’d rather help coach people and help them find their place. Keeping up with technology was becoming more of a chore and less of an exploration.
That’s a really great question. The problem is that we have so much institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. They’re well-worn paths, right? It’s easy. I read something that really impacted me that said the fact that I’m a woman isn’t a problem in tech. The problem is that there’s institutionalized sexism. The problem isn’t that I’m a person of color. It’s that there’s decades and decades of racism baked into our whole system. So, it makes a difference to see that I’m not the problem.
There’s an inflection point now where people are recognizing that this system exists and people are comfortable enough calling it out. However, if you don’t find a place that is actually willing to change and understand, it can be toxic and exhausting. And, you end up with the stories like what’s coming out of Mailchimp. Where these big places are having their reckonings. Those folks from those places are now traumatized and have taken on well beyond the emotional labor of existing as an underrepresented group.
I think you have to know you’re going to have to fight against these systems. You have to decide personally what your limits are before you burn out. I worked at a place where I was essentially the only champion of inclusion and diversity, and there wasn’t any indication that anything would ever change. So, you have to decide what to take on because you can only fight for so much.
At another time, I lived in a place where it was super hard to be Brown. It was exhausting, and so I moved, because I could stay here and try to change hearts and minds, or I could live someplace where this is not as big a deal. There are places where you don’t have to prove your existence every day. Where you can focus on other stuff.
No place is perfect, of course. But, you can find balance in what you’re getting out of it. As long as you’re getting what you need, you can put up with a lot of bullshit, frankly.
When it feels like it’s all sticks and no carrots. You know what I mean? You’re going from this terrible situation to this awful situation you can’t fix. It feels like you’re slowly sinking in quicksand.
You have to know your own “life-fatigue level”, too. If you have a lot of other stuff going on, your threshold for putting up with nonsense is going to be a lot lower. Both my children have epilepsy. One of the things that lowers their seizure threshold is fatigue. If they’re tired, they’re going to be much more prone to having seizures.
We’re the same: if you have a good support network and other supportive things in your life, you can put up with a lot more nonsense. But, if you’re all alone and struggling and feel like your voice isn’t being heard, your tolerance is going to be different.
My children both started with absence type seizures where they would just be gone for a few moments. As a result, they don’t have a great concept of linear time, which makes them extremely flexible. They’re like, okay, I’m not really sure why we’re here, but this is what we’re doing now. We’re going to go with it. The flexibility to just assess a situation and orient yourself quickly and get moving has been wonderful.
They’re also relentlessly cheerful children. My children will wake up singing and that can get you through a lot. If your attitude toward a thing is positive, you’ll find the positive in it.
Also, knowing your limits. The thing that gets us through is draconian bedtimes. We’ve always had really early bedtimes because sleep is medicine for epileptics. So, other people might have like 1,000 after-school extracurriculars, but that doesn’t work for us. You have to find the lane that works for you.
To me, work-life balance is being part of a team that has your back because life is always going to happen. And, you’re always going to have to deal with it. Knowing that you can deal with life and not worry about what’s happening at work, that’s work-life balance. It’s not the number of hours necessarily, or how you structure your work. It’s knowing you can step away from your work when you need to.
Finally, my kids handle their epilepsy with a grace I’m certain I couldn’t match. They aren’t ashamed of who they are and they’re a quiet resource for other humans. Like, my oldest daughter, one of her classmates had a seizure in class and all the other students were very freaked out. She got up in front of the class without anyone having asked her to and said, “Look, he’s still the same friend that you knew yesterday. Nothing’s different. This is just a thing he’s going through right now. And if you have any questions about what it feels like, ask me, because I’ve been doing this for a really long time.”
This is fifth grade and no one in her class knew she had epilepsy. I don’t know that I would’ve had the confidence to just stand up and say that. Thinking about what that other person was going through was more important to her than not talking about it. And, that’s what I try to do.
When I talk to women in tech and try to help them find their place, I try to say “Here’s a place where I’ve been for a long time. Know that I’m here for you.” That’s what Women Who Code is all about. I try to set up those support networks for people who don’t have them.
We’re going to be losing a lot of really important knowledge. People who’ve been through this before who are calm, measured, determined to get through it, and know that we can get to the other side of it. People who know this is not an insurmountable problem. This seems like a really big deal now, but in six months we’re going to have to deal with something else.
People with a broader range of experiences, too, tend to be more empathetic. Because they’ve experienced the thing, they have perspective. They don’t say, “I’m experiencing it this way, so clearly that’s everyone’s experience.” If you discount experiences different than yours, you’re missing the fact that there’s a fully balanced perspective.
Finally, tech is not literal backbreaking work. It’s not physical labor. People can work in technology far longer than they can work in probably any other industry. And now that we’ve all seen that we can work from home, we shouldn’t have this hesitation to employ people for a really long time.
Nobody’s really explained to me why it’s important for tech workers to be young. I will grant you that startup life is not for everybody, but not everybody works at a startup.
I’m hopeful that people who’ve had access to technology all of their lives can recognize how it can be leveraged for good. So, I’m hopeful that as millennials age and move through the workforce, they’ll recognize where they could apply just a little bit of thinking to make everybody’s life better.
The thing I’m marveling at right now is appointment setting for vaccinations. Everybody’s doing it completely differently when we should probably come together on a system for that. It feels like we’re doing so much extra work, you know? It feels like there’s gotta be a better way. So, I’m hopeful that somebody who’s experienced tech all of their life will say, “No, it can be easier than this.” And, everybody will benefit from that.
This actually came from a talk that I gave to women in engineering at NC State. These were obviously people just starting out in their career, I wanted to tell them, “Hey, you’re at the beginning of this and I want you around for a really long time. So, here’s how to enter the profession and stay around for a really long time.” Then, I started to recognize that people who are in the profession need that information too. And, people who are approaching a certain age, definitely need that too.
No matter who you are, staying in tech requires that you stay up to date and continue to grow at all times. That’s probably the same for many professions, but tech is constantly changing. I think it’s important for everybody to think about that. You might want to think about, “Where do you see yourself going?”
I’m not a big fan of the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question because, honestly, had somebody asked you that in 2015, would you have gotten that right? I don’t think anybody would have. But, you do need to be able to determine what is important to you, so that you can aim yourself at those things. Where are you going to aim? You can plan a longer arc that way.
Hannah Shadrick Hummel was 12 years old when she saved up her allowance to buy The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. She’s fancied herself a writer ever since. These days, she mostly writes for the internet: content designer for a grocery retailer by day, and managing editor at Jumble & Flow by night.
If she’s not writing, she’s reading. Probably romance. Or, a cookbook. Hannah spends most weeknights in the kitchen making gluten free ginger scones — because Hashimoto’s — while watching the Great British Baking Show. She never misses her two daily walks in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two rescue dogs, Basil and Samantha.
Hannah Shadrick Hummel
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