Jennifer Houlihan, Author at General Assembly Blog

Going Back to School at 40+: The (Mostly) Pros & Cons

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On the first day of school, I wasn’t used to wearing my new big red backpack. Within five minutes of walking in the door — late — I had managed to swing it around, knock over a glass of water on the table behind me, send a flood toward my teacher’s materials, run out of the room to get paper towels, and somehow get lost on my way back to the classroom.

I was 54 years old and just starting my User Experience Design Immersive at General Assembly.

My grandmother used to say, “If you eat a bug for breakfast, nothing worse can happen to you the rest of the day.”  I closed my eyes and hoped she was right as I sank into my seat next to a tiny 20-something personal trainer.

Grandmas are always right. The personal trainer was friendly and funny and just as new to the tech curriculum as I. General Assembly’s well-documented ethos of inclusivity went well beyond race and gender, and I felt genuinely welcomed as an older student. The course itself was a transformational one. My learnings at GA sent me into a new career in UX design that has been far more fulfilling than I expected — I’m proud to say that I’m now also part of the GA instructional team.

But my concerns about heading back into the classroom as an adult learner were real, and took time and effort to overcome. Sure, I had decades of experience in nonprofit management, even leading tech organizations… but I hadn’t been in a classroom as a student since grad school, nearly two decades before. Did I even remember how to study? I was used to getting a good night’s sleep (knock wood) and not plugging all-nighters. ( Do “the kids” even call them all-nighters anymore?) I was comfortable using technology, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between a megabyte and a megabit without sneaking a look at Wikipedia. And while I’d heard of Zoom, the first image that came to mind was a bunch of PBS kids in striped rugby shirts (“I’m Houli!”)

Going back into the classroom in your 40s and 50s can cause a lot of anxiety, from uncertainty about whether your hard-won professional background is the right fit for a course of study, to concern whether you’re up to both the pace or the technology.

Are you the same person you were on your first day of high school? No. But that’s a good thing. Read on to see why this may be the best time in your life to learn and master the skills you need to change careers successfully.

Your Energy is Different

A recent article in Forbes  quoted healthcare CEO Angela Bovill’s answer to a question she’s frequently asked: “Why do you hire people over 60 to be on your team?” Bovill’s response is a powerful one. She says, Having older people on staff creates a calming force for an organization. There is less panic. They have seen a lot and are less jittery, less anxious than they may have been earlier in their career.”

A piece from the AARP  — an organization that knows something about the group in question — goes even further:

“Researchers at the University of Kentucky surveyed large and small companies to assess how employers evaluate their older workers. The respondents said that workers 50 or older are more reliable than the younger generations; they show up for work on time. They have a stronger work ethic, too; the younger worker is more likely to arrive late and leave early. Older workers’ experience makes them better able to manage problems and respond to emergencies, and it makes them valuable mentors to younger people in the firm. Plus, they know how to deal with people and provide better service to customers.”

Your life experiences and earned perspective can help you keep moving toward your educational goal, where others may give up. Consider the story of Brenda Echols, who went back to school for a master’s degree in nursing at age 58. Brenda says, “My biggest challenge was overcoming breast cancer while working on my degree. It almost took me out of school, but when I thought about it and talked it over, I decided to hold on and hold out as strong as I could…Being a student helped me maintain my focus during my challenges. My dream sustained me, along with family and friends. I never missed a beat.” 

“Some of my most dedicated, organized, and successful digital bootcamp students have been single moms, who have made an art form out of prioritizing and delegating.”

Your Brain is Different

As a returning older student, you’re probably not going to pass for a digital native (a term coined by educator Marc Prensky to describe someone born after 1980), but you have other very significant strengths.

  • You’re more likely to know what you want to do, and you’re ready to focus. Your commitment to continued learning makes teaching a pleasure for instructors and can inspire younger students. You’re also experienced at juggling multiple high-stakes commitments; some of my most dedicated, organized, and successful digital bootcamp students have been single moms, who have made an art form out of prioritizing and delegating.
  • Older learners tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity and subtle distinctions between complex concepts. In my experience, more seasoned students are less likely to ask narrow questions like “Will this be on the test?” and more likely to ask broader ones, like “Why is this important to know?” Instead of passively attending lectures, older learners actively engage, seek relevance, and look for ways to apply their learning to real-life situations — great practice for job interviews.
  • As we grow older, we tend to become stronger at tasks that demand crystallized intelligence. The ability to use previously attained information, facts, knowledge, and experiences to solve new challenges comes with time. This ability to conceptualize new contexts is incredibly useful and frequently seen in adult learners, but virtually impossible to teach.

Side note: Prensky has since abandoned the term “digital native” in favor of “digital wisdom.”

“In the near future, the most successful products and services will likely be built and designed by older adults with a keen understanding of and lived experience within the 40+ plus demographic.”

Your Opportunities Are Different (& Better Than Ever)

The coming “silver tsunami,” also known in more positive terms as the longevity economy, ranks as one of the most significant forces shaping the U.S. economy and society. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that individuals 65 years and older will account for more than 21% of the country’s population as soon as 2030. Older Americans live longer, on average (cheers for that!), and remain active in the workforce.

The next adjacent age group is deepening its relationship with work as well. In 1994, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of working Americans age 55 or older was just 11.9%; by 2024, that number is expected to rise to 24.8%, at that point becoming the largest age cohort in the workforce.

Of course, older Americans represent more than a portion of the workforce; they’re also an enormous, growing market for a variety of products, goods, services, and experiences — many created or enabled by technology. The benefits of the diverse workforce that so many companies are striving to create include advantages that only come from hiring older workers. In the near future, the most successful products and services will likely be built and designed by older adults with a keen understanding of and lived experience within the 40+ demographic.

Numerous studies demonstrate that older, tenured people are more successful entrepreneurs, more reliable workers, and more profitable employees. Contrary to popular belief, not all startup founders and visionaries are fresh out of college: a Kauffman Foundation study found that 26% of all startups in 2015 were created by people ages 55–64; in 1997, the figure was just 15%.

The Downsides & Upsides

Age bias, or ageism, is still a real issue. It can be hard to find an internship or apprenticeship if you haven’t just graduated with an undergrad degree.  In addition, imposter syndrome, the feeling that you’re inadequate or a failure despite an abundance of evidence that you are both eminently qualified and undeniably talented, comes for us all. It can be discouraging to the point of debilitation, if not countered with persistent hard work and support from family and friends.

For experienced professionals accustomed to scheduling their days (and their coffee breaks), it can be an adjustment to go back to a conventional academic schedule, and  accredited educational schools like General Assembly are appropriately rigorous about timeliness and attendance. The new guidelines about public contact during the age of COVID-19 means you won’t just be learning the software programs on your syllabus — you’ll also be learning how to navigate a virtual classroom, how to access materials and tutorials online, and how to schedule class projects with teammates in different time zones — while remaining in the safety and comfort of your environment.

The good news is that GA is one of the pioneers in remote learning, long before the pandemic, and we continue to evolve. We’ve continued to make significant investments not just in core technology, but also in curriculum development and instructor training.  Our classroom instructional teams are experts in the latest techniques and best practices to make your student experience seamless, engaging, and fulfilling — both online and in person.

If you look at it one-dimensionally, there are definite concerns you could worry about when pondering a return to the classroom after an extended time away. However, if you look at the opportunity with a growth mindset, a commitment to lifelong learning, and undertake it with clear eyes and trusted support, the sky’s the limit.

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Need more encouragement? Consider this quote: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.” (This was, in fact, not my grandmother, but rather French philosopher Michel de Montaigne in the late 1500s.)

Not convinced by philosophy? Consider science: studies show that as many as 85% of things that we worry about don’t come true.

Even if some of your worries actualize, my grandmother advises that you write everything off as a bug before breakfast. Kick imposter syndrome to the curb. Use that big, agile brain of yours. Learn something new and change the world. We’re ready to help you create a career you’ll love.

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How to Get a Job in Tech

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Shifting careers to move into a fast-growing field like technology can be a smart investment in your long-term professional success. The hardest question for most career changers is not whether to make a change — it’s where to begin. This is especially true if you are considering entering a field you’re unfamiliar with.

Luckily, the path to getting a job in tech with little to no experience can be a simple and direct one if you follow a few basic steps.

1. Develop a Growth Mindset

First, keep in mind that your perspective can determine how successful your career change process will be. It’s worth taking some time at the start to get into the right frame of mind. If you’re looking to get a tech job, the key is to develop a growth mindset

Having a growth mindset simply means believing that new skills can be learned and mastered. No one was born knowing how to write code or build web applications! Everyone, no matter how naturally talented, was a beginner once. Every app or device you use was created by a team of people who had to learn and practice new skills on their way to creating something awesome.

You’ve been a beginner in the past too, and have learned all kinds of complex things, from typing or riding a bike to playing an instrument or making a work presentation. So give yourself space to learn, regardless of your age or experience.

In tech, progress never stops. There will always be a new tool or programming language to master. Just know that every new program that you get under your belt will make it easier to master the next one, whenever it pops up.

2. Know Why You’re Making a Change

Why do you want to get a job in tech? It could be that you’re curious about how things work and the code that makes it all happen. Maybe you’ve grown up with digital devices and can’t imagine life without them. Or, perhaps you’re looking for a stable career that will allow you to better provide for yourself and your family. You may have wanted to move into a tech career for a while, and the timing finally seems right to make the change.

There are no wrong answers here. The important part is to have a vision you can go back to on rough days to remind yourself why you want to be a tech professional, and give yourself a motivational boost of energy to keep going.

3. Name Your Goal

The key to this part of getting your tech dream job is to be clear about where you want to end up once you learn the ropes. There are all kinds of exciting job opportunities in tech, and one or more are sure to be a great fit for you.

If you’re a creative problem-solver, a web developer or software developer position might spark your interest. If you’re interested in something more concrete, software engineer or data engineer roles could be where you will excel. Do you enjoy finding patterns and connecting dots? You may be exactly the person a tech company needs as their new data scientist. Interested in solving mysteries? Cybersecurity could be the field for you.

As you become more familiar with the responsibilities of these roles, you can also begin to narrow down your preferred type of workplace. A deeply resourced multinational enterprise company can be just as satisfying as a career destination as a scrappy innovative startup in a field you really love. Choose what makes the most sense for you and your reasons for setting the goal identified in step 2.

4. Start Right Where You Are

Now you know where you’re going; the next step is to map the route to get there. The good news is, you don’t need an MBA or any other formal degree to be successful in your new tech career. You don’t even need to have a technology job to start getting tech experience!

In fact, you may be able to start getting tech experience at your current job. Consider volunteering to help update a small business’ website, interview shoppers about your store’s app, or shadow someone in your IT department as they troubleshoot a problem. Information you get from these “practice” opportunities can help you decide what new skills you want or need. Check with your HR team to see if your company offers tuition reimbursement or any upskilling or reskilling programs that you may qualify for.

There is an abundance of virtual training possibilities for those who prefer a self-study program. From free YouTube videos to paid options like Coursera and LinkedIn Learning, there’s no shortage these days of convenient and affordable ways to master new skills at home and at your own pace.

Interested in learning alongside a team? Consider participating in a hackathon as a subject matter expert on an issue close to your heart, and watch up close as tech professionals work together over a fast-paced weekend to build a solution to a pressing problem. Or reach out and pick up some projects through Catchafire or a local site like LendaHand and start building your emerging tech skills while helping make the world a better place.

Learn better in a classroom with live instruction? Reputable companies like General Assembly and CompTIA offer a variety of programs designed specifically for adult learners, and with schedules and topic areas crafted to meet both your needs and the demands of a hot job market. Programs are offered both online and, where permitted, in person on campus. Financial aid and payment plans are often available for students who qualify; there’s no need to take on crushing amounts of debt for a conventional four-year degree when a rigorous 12-week bootcamp can give you the skills, tools, and support you need to be a competitive tech job candidate.

5.  Connect with Community

How are you supposed to find your first tech job when as many as 70% of job openings are not advertised? With a strong network, you can hear about those “hidden” jobs before other candidates do.

Networking doesn’t need to be a negative experience. Consider it a way of learning about your new industry and community by connecting with human beings who were once in your shoes. Most people enjoy helping people the way they were helped on their journey. As long as you treat people with kindness and respect, and not simply as a means to an end, you’ll begin to grow your reputation as a smart and curious person who would be a pleasure to work with.

Online communities can be as powerful for networking as in-person events. With so many networking events happening virtually, you can connect with hiring managers, tech recruiters, and other potential employers from Silicon Valley to New York City and beyond, often for free. Check out sites like Meetup and search for the topics that interest you; from Python to Ruby to HTML, there’s a meetup to meet your needs.

You’re seeking ways to connect with tech industry professionals as someone new to the field and eager to learn. So polish that resume, post it on job boards, read a few articles on how to optimize your LinkedIn profile, and put yourself out there. Once you start writing code, even if it’s for a class project, share it on Github. Leverage social media to connect with future colleagues and maybe even find a mentor.

Volunteering and being of service is both a great way to learn and a great way to meet new colleagues in the tech industry. Consider joining a professional association or two, even if you are just starting out. Get involved in Slack channels, LinkedIn conversations, Twitter feeds, and attend a few conferences, whether they’re virtual or in-person.

Initiative, curiosity, kindness, and hard work will set you apart as a strong interview candidate for your first tech job. The more tech talent you begin to have in your circle, the more likely it is that you’ll begin hearing about relevant job openings — and your new friend may even be able to get your application directly to a hiring manager.

Conclusion

You can land your first tech job with no experience as long as you’ve done the right research and preparation beforehand, and are willing to put in the time and effort to master new skills. A commitment to lifelong learning and a clear idea of what you want to do and where will help ensure your success, no matter how you choose to study. Take the time to consider free and paid training options, in-person and remote programs, and volunteer opportunities as you design your learning plan. And, start connecting with your future employers and colleagues early through networking and social media. A new career is waiting for you — take your first step toward it today.

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Are Coding Jobs Boring?

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When you think about a new career in coding, what comes to mind? Do you imagine working behind the scenes at a movie studio or fashion house? The deep satisfaction of improving a life-saving medical device? The systems and engineering mindset needed to build the dashboard controls for a new smart car? 

Maybe you’re thinking of a workplace where projects are different every day, like an ad agency building websites for global brands. You may even have an app idea that could really change the landscape, if only you knew how to make it. Whatever you think a coding career might be, you’re probably right — unless you think it’s boring.

Of course, every job has its boring moments, as well as stressful ones. The good news is, once you become a proficient coder, you can begin to explore and decide on the types of coding projects that will help you thrive for years in your new career. The idea is to choose a career path that’s the right fit for your particular working style.

The variety of industries that hire programmers and developers is endless, from the energy industry to retail operations to manufacturing to social causes. The software your dentist uses to view your x-rays; the app that you use to order takeout; the computer in your car that lets you know your coolant is low; the playlist that syncs your phone to your home audio system — all of these cool innovations were made possible by teams of professional coders.

Remember, writing code is not the only programming skill out there. The individuals who built those solutions to everyday challenges have lots of different titles, from web developer to mobile developer to software engineer, or even data scientist. All of them work with code in their own ways and have their own career paths, with their own obstacles and rewards. With so many career options that stem from a shared set of programming skills, the last thing the coding field could be called is boring. The real question is, is coding the right fit for you?

Do you like learning new things?

Neuroscience reveals that our brains have something in common with technology: neither our brains nor tech are fixed, but are instead constantly changing and evolving.

Experienced senior developers are constantly studying to learn new coding skills, as new programming languages like Python become widely used, and new applications are found for existing fields like machine learning

Fortunately, you don’t need a computer science degree to start a new career programming career. Many coders and developers are self-taught, using free or low-cost resources available at their local libraries or online such as Stack Overflow. Some seek out learning opportunities at their current jobs, like volunteering to help maintain a business website or install a new database. Still others invest in themselves by signing up for a coding bootcamp with live instruction, real-time code critiques, and built-in networking opportunities.

In the end, the programmers who are most successful in this field are the ones who continuously upskill and stay current with new developments in tech. What does this mean for you? It means that a demonstrated commitment to lifelong learning and a growth mindset can be the key characteristic that sets you apart from other candidates for that first junior developer job!

Are you good at solving puzzles?

Can’t get enough of jigsaw puzzles, riddles, and crosswords? Your ability to quickly see patterns and solutions where others do not is a quality that could serve you very well in a software development or computer programming career. Successful engineers and developers have a great eye for detail, an essential skill in a field where a single misplaced bit of punctuation can stop an elite billion-user app dead in its tracks.

Is it stressful? Not for you, because you thrive on pursuing solutions when others have given up, and find it deeply rewarding to help a team resolve wicked issues that no one could fix alone. Every bug is an interesting coding challenge, and every update a chance to make something good into something even better.

Are you a musician?

If you think composing and arranging music is fun, you’re likely to find programming to be fun as well, and a good fit for your skills. Studies show that playing music can help people learn more quickly and create more elegant and creative solutions to complex problems. Trained musicians and successful coders tend to share certain core competencies: a good memory for details, the ability to sort and prioritize an incredible amount of information, and the skill to recognize and tweak patterns. A musician with programming skills can be a great team asset, proficient in both creativity and code. There are even coding courses and workshops designed especially for musicians. Who knew?

Every musician understands the importance of practicing scales before you play your first concerto. In a line of work like programming, a great way to learn is to practice writing bits of code over and over, then begin to string those bits together in sequence until you’ve composed something wonderful and new.


Consider what makes you thrive in a workplace. There will be stressful days and boring days in whatever field you choose, and to stand out in any field requires hard work. But if finding patterns, solving puzzles, or taking small perfect bits and then using them to craft something larger and much more complex sounds enjoyable to you, buckle up — a new programming career may be exactly the path that’s meant for you.

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