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Rehabilitating Engineers of All Ages

Dave Fecak discusses career rehab for both the old and young, and draws parallels between the two processes.

· Agile Zone

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As a mid-40's recruiter/resume writer/career consultant with almost 20 years in the software industry, those who have been in my network the longest tend to be engineers between 35 and 60 with many hovering towards that range's northern end. Leading a Java Users' Group for 15 years helped me build relationships with the Java community circa 2000-01 (a mix of college students and C++ refugees) and a much different older demographic that generally makes up the Java community today. In brief, I know several engineers that would be classified as "older".

I probably muse on topics like ageism, personal branding, marketability, and employability more than most. I'm often called upon by engineers ranging from 55-year-old gray hairs to 20-30-year-old fresh college or boot camp grads looking for a consult to help them land their next gig or their first gig. Strangely enough, the employability issues faced by developers approaching retirement and those just entering the workforce aren't all that different.

Rehabbing Gray Hairs

Usually, the older engineers that approach me for a consult have been out of the game for so long that they don't know how it's played today. It's probably similar to a widow(er) or divorcee that got married in the 90s and is returning to the dating scene. Job search has changed dramatically since I entered the business, and someone who hasn't applied for jobs or interviewed in a few years might experience some shock in current practices if they aren't properly prepared.

With senior engineers, the rehab process usually starts with an inventory of their assets that will be leveraged during the search. These assets include the technical skill set, accomplishments, the work history, and anything that might be considered a marker or indicator by today's hiring standards. Many overlook indicators that employers will value, such as tech community involvement, independent learning pursuits, or small projects. What will get us noticed?

Then we look both backward and forwards. The look back is to determine the positive aspects of past positions and any mistakes that we don't want to repeat while considering new jobs. The look ahead is to define short and long-term goals, and how the next job will help in reaching those goals.

Those that have been struggling with a search usually have a marketing problem more than anything else — they are quite employable, but they simply don't know how to package themselves (resumes, public footprints) or how to even get that message received (the approach). They may be misinterpreting what hiring companies of today truly value, or which accomplishments are noteworthy. Revisiting the divorcee analogy, they're still wearing their 90s suits/dresses and placing classifieds in the newspaper.

It's helpful when I'm contacted a few months before a job search is to begin, which gives the person time to organize and beautify the job history while also learning a new trick or two that may be the difference between swipe left and a swipe right for interview. Being how quickly tech trends change, many will find themselves with a couple holes in their overall skill set that they can work on filling.

We may talk about setting realistic expectations. Experienced engineers often face some difficult choices when leaving one job for another, and part of my consultation may involve the likelihood of whether one might expect certain elements of their work situation (compensation, responsibility, benefits/perks, etc.) will improve or worsen with a move, as well as some discussions of how to minimize the impact.

Lastly, we will establish a strategy for how to get from A to B. What is the marketing plan, how will we implement it, and how will we measure results?

Rehabbing Newbies

Most new entrants to the job market have consumed a ton of material about the hiring processes of our industry's most prominent employers, and many have received a mix of good and bad career advice from family, advisors, friends, and websites. Those that approach me after months of poor search results have usually just repeated some basic mistakes or misunderstand the market, and these disconnects are often due to bad advice. 

Getting them ready for their first job search often requires adjusting their confidence to the appropriate level based on their qualfications relative to their peers. In my experience, there are as many that need a confidence boost as those that need to be taken down a peg. This news isn't always easy to hear for new entrants, particularly if they've spent considerable time and money to end up less marketable than they expected to be.

As with the older engineer, we inventory assets. At this level, assets usually amount to education, internships or relevant work experience, and perhaps some projects. Like the experienced engineer, usually there will be some discrepancy between their perceived value of an asset and the actual value. Those two years at Starbucks weren't as helpful as you thought. 

Since there is no past to revisit, we look forward in order to determine what types of roles will be the target and what roles may be at least acceptable. Setting job search criteria can be a bit of a balancing act. Grads may be steeped in debt and tempted to accept the highest bid without giving consideration to the long game. A 5K salary difference may seem significant, but it's not worth taking if the job won't provide learning and growth opportunity. 

New entrants often are unemployed or underemployed and have more time to fill in any skills gaps. Unfortunately, being able to demonstrate some level of skills with a new technology will also take most juniors more hours than it takes for their experienced counterparts.

Setting the job strategy will be the final step, though we typically won't have any network to rely on for support.


Much of the rehab process is the same for engineers regardless of experience level. Job search is often a private process due to the nature of employer/employee/co-worker dynamics, and job searches occurring in a vacuum may be prone to mistakes that a knowledgeable professional may uncover in minutes. Don't be afraid to get help.

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