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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 started 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, funny, and just as new to the tech curriculum as I was. 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 on wood) and not pulling 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 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 also 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 master’s 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.” 

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 from nontraditional training programs, who have made an art form out of prioritizing and delegating.
  • A working adult tends 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 life experience to solve new challenges comes with time. This ability to conceptualize new contexts is incredibly useful and frequently seen in older non traditional students 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 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 working professionals 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, a mature student or a working student in their 40s represents more than a portion of the workforce; that demographic is 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 strive 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 an older student is a more successful entrepreneur, a more reliable worker, and a more profitable employee. 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 recently graduated with a college degree or associate’s 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 when planning a career change, if not countered with persistent hard work and support from family and friends.

For experienced working 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 for your online program, 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 — in both online classes and in-person sessions.

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.

***

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 instead 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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User Experience Design Impacts Everyone — But What Is It?

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What is user experience design General Assembly

People often associate the term “user experience design” with visual design or the design of a digital interface, like a website or mobile app. But the truth is, user experience (UX) design is bigger than that, and it’s used across every industry, from software, to business, to schools, and beyond.

Successful UX design is why shopping on Amazon is addictive, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft took off, and binge watching TV shows from any number of services has become the best way to spend a weekend indoors — skillful UX design has made it insanely easy to do. Even physical spaces—from retail stores to the checkout line at Trader Joe’s to office spaces—are impacted by UX design. And during COVID-19, UX has played a pivotal role in how we envision safe return-to-work and school policies.

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6 Tips on How to Get a Job at a Startup

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How to narrow your focus, get a leg up on the competition, and look like the most prepared person in the room.

A job-search thesis is a great tool to tell people what you’re looking for in a job.

The following is an adapted excerpt from How to Get a Job at a Startup, an exclusive General Assembly eBook by startup founder and former GA leader Matt Cynamon.

Working for a startup company can be one of the most challenging, exhilarating, sometimes heartbreaking, and oftentimes fulfilling journeys of your life. But wanting in and breaking into this competitive industry are two different things. Landing an opportunity at a startup is about more than luck. There are terms to learn, steps to take, and a skill set to grow from to make you a candidate who stands out from an established crowd.

Whether you’re a recent college graduate, someone with 10 years of executive-level experience, recently completed a career accelerator program, or are just making a jump from a more traditional work background, there is a pathway to a dream job at a startup for everyone. While there’s no foolproof method for landing a job, we’ve compiled six proven tips that can help you narrow your focus, get a leg up on the competition, and look like the most prepared person in the room.

1. People can get you further than job boards.

One of the nice surprises about the startup businesses is how supportive and helpful some of the people are. In every city, leaders in grassroots startup communities host events, give educational talks, make introductions, and offer advice. These individuals can serve as your early guides as you start out on your journey.

If you’re just breaking into the startup world, you may not have a strong network to draw upon. That’s OK. Go to events, meet people, and listen. As a new entrant into the community you might feel like you have little to offer in return, but one of the biggest favors you can do for someone is just ask them questions about their work. Don’t be too forceful, but where appropriate, invite people for a coffee. It may seem intuitive, but being generally interested in others and what they do will help you foster relationships that aren’t only valuable, but fulfilling.

When it comes time for you to start applying, warm introductions from someone within the community will go much further than a resume submitted on a job board. Founders often cite hiring as the biggest obstacle to successfully growing their company. It’s a timely and difficult process that they love to circumvent with a nice, warm introduction to top talent (aka you).

One of the most common mistakes people make when trying to get introductions is assuming that if people don’t get back to you, hope is lost. Be prepared for repeated failure. Ninety percent of people will say they want to help you. Ten percent actually will. Why most people don’t follow through is due to a variety of factors, but just know it’s rarely about you. If you go into every conversation with this attitude, you will more easily be able to sustain your energy when your inbox sounds like crickets.

2. Polish your elevator pitch with a job-search thesis.

We’re living in an age of self-driving cars, private spaceships, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, on-demand everything — and startups often lie at the center of these innovations. It’s completely normal for someone starting on their journey to want to be a part of all of it. While you will encounter many people who are willing to help you in your job hunt, you need to make it easy for them to do so. To that end, nothing will get you further than clarity and focus.

When you tell people what you are looking for, you want them to think, “I know who you should talk to.” The easiest way to get there is to distill what you’re looking for into three distinct points. We call this a job-search thesis.

The best job-search thesis will contain:

  • Your desired company size.
  • Your preferred industry.
  • Your desired role.

For example, if you can tell someone at a cocktail party, “I want to work as a product manager at post-Series A company in the fashion industry,” there’s a good chance they’ll remember you the next time they hear about a PM role at a company that makes smart athletic gear. Speaking about yourself with that level of specificity will instantly make connections in the mind of whomever you find yourself talking to.

3. Got experience? Great. Not so much? Then make it.

If you are moving into the startup world from a career in a different industry or type of role, make sure to play up your relevant experience. If you feel like your job title really doesn’t translate to the position for which you’re applying, break apart the components of your current role into the factors that would be relevant at a startup. For example, if you were a lawyer then you likely have strong attention to detail, analytical problem-solving skills, an ability to explain complex problems to many stakeholders, a strong work ethic, and a history of achievement. These are all things startup founders would want out of product management. This exercise is especially important for more senior individuals trying to move into the startup world.

Of course, you don’t have to rely only on your previous experience — the best candidates never do. Fortunately, the rules around experience have shifted and there are ways for you to start developing skills within a given field even if you’ve never worked in that field before.

Even opening an account on Medium.com and writing commentary on the industry you’re interested in can go a long way. Coupling this level of initiative with your previous (or nonexistent) work experience is the best way to demonstrate your talents and potential. In addition to gaining relevant skills that will assist you in a new role, you’ll appear to be both passionate about the subject matter and a knowledgeable self-starter who practices it in your spare time.

Let’s say you’re really interested in doing digital marketing for a fashion tech company. For less than $50 you can start running Facebook advertisements for a friend’s T-shirt website, cultivating skills in running paid social media campaigns. If you want to do UX design for an eCommerce startup, you can publish a series of UX critiques about popular eCommerce sites on a blog. Engineers rarely depend on resumes alone anymore; they demonstrate their experience by publishing their code to GitHub. 

4. Do your homework. Then, do some more.

With a solid network, clear thesis, and foundation of experience, it’s only a matter of time before you start landing interviews. Most recruiters will tell you at this point to spend 12 hours preparing for an interview. We think that’s child’s play. You aren’t interviewing to be a cog in a massive corporate machine. You are being assessed on whether the founder or manager would bet the future of their budding company on you. Make them comfortable — and confident in you — by being the most prepared person in the room.

Find founders on Twitter, LinkedIn, or in the blogosphere and consume every bit of content you can find. The information you’ll find there is priceless because you will gain a deep understanding of how founders think and feel about the world. You can even head to Facebook and see if you have any mutual friends. Does all of this seem a little overboard? Perhaps, but startups expect a different level of commitment than many traditional careers. So if this sounds like a lot, you’ll be in for a big surprise once the job begins.

5. Play the numbers game. Ask metrics-driven questions.

In an interview with a startup, you really have three goal goals: 1) Clearly communicate why you’re capable of doing the job, 2) be the most passionate person in the room, and 3) ask the best questions. You certainly should ask standard interview questions, like “What makes someone successful in this role?” or “What will the first 90 days look like?” But what you really want to do in the interview is discover the metrics the company cares most about.

Sure, a company’s public brand may be all about changing the world, but we can guarantee that every night before they go to bed and every morning after they wake up, the person interviewing you is checking a dashboard with a handful of key metrics, such as cost to acquire a customer, lifetime value of a customer, net promoter score, or churn. When they leave your interview, they’ll probably check it again.

Metrics dictate performance, and in the uncertain conditions in which startups live, having insight into how well the business is doing is essential for a small team that has a lot of impact.

When you go into your interview, don’t be afraid to ask:

  • What metrics are you checking daily?
  • What metrics are you checking weekly?
  • What metrics are you checking monthly?
  • What do you see as the biggest levers for improving those metrics?
  • How are you doing against your goals?
  • How can this role help you get there faster?

The answer to those questions will give you everything you need to know to position yourself as the best fit for the job. For example, if you’re applying for a marketing job and learn in the interview that high product churn is keeping the founder up at night, you can follow up with an email with three ideas on how the company can immediately improve retention.

6. Pay attention to startup funding cycles.

Fundraising impacts everything about a startup, and understanding it can also serve as a huge advantage for you in your job hunt. When you read that a startup raised $15 million, it’s safe to assume it isn’t looking for a safe, high-yielding savings account to put it in. The company is going to put almost every cent to work by increasing marketing, improving the product, and, most importantly building the team it needs to take the business to the next level. There is literally no time when the ground is more fertile for you to land a job than immediately after a startup raises money. So it’s on you to stay on top of the news.

TechCrunch is an excellent resource for keeping up with fundraising news. The site will report on just about every dollar raised in the startup world. If you’re interested in a particular company, set up Google Alerts so you can be the first to know whenever a new round of funding comes in. If you want to be ahead of the curve, AngelList has a directory of all startups looking to raise their first round of funding. It’s also an excellent job board.

These tips are just a start — for more expert insight, download our free guide, How to Get a Job at a Startup. Discover firsthand tips on how to break into a startup career, clear up confusing industry jargon, and learn about important resources that will aid you on your journey. Good luck!

5 Things Great Product Managers Do Every Day

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Assessing-You-Products-Market-ViabilityMy favorite product managers are quietly powerful. Every day they take small steps that move their teams and business forward in a meaningful way. But they do it without a lot of hoopla, taking a confident yet unassuming approach.

After all, product managers have a lot on their plate every day. They are responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and feature definition for their product. It is a big responsibility that requires facilitating and collaborating with many different teams — both internal and external — without the formal authority to manage those teams. It requires a unique mix of humility and strength.

However, that quiet power does not mean leading product is easy. I realized early on that the daily life of a product manager is unpredictable, hectic, and sometimes very tough.

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Why Where You Work Can Be More Important Than What You Do

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It's time we rethink the idea of a "dream job"

In my work as a creative career coach since 2008, I’ve seen this over and over again.

I’ve seen my clients think they’re in the wrong profession, only to realize it was where they were — not what they were doing — that was broken.

I’ve worked with my clients on clarifying and prioritizing their non-negotiable work qualities, and the type of work they were doing was less important than where they got to do it, and with who.

As long as they were working with insert-certain-type-of-people here on insert-bigger-mission-here, their own responsibilities mattered less and less.

At first, I was surprised at this finding. I was surprised hearing an affirmative response to the question, “Is where you work more important than what you do?” But then I kept hearing it. Again, and again, and again.

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5 Reasons Adults Fear Going Back to School — and How to Get Over Them

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Adult learners fear going back to school

Taking a class can be a step toward that promotion you’ve been angling for, or lay the foundation for a full-on career change. But for many adults, committing to weeks, months, or even a day of lessons can be nerve-wracking.

It’s true: The back-to-school jitters are real at any age. Learning new skills often involves rearranging your schedule, planning for additional expenses, or combating the nerves that come with venturing out of your comfort zone. But if you can overcome these barriers, your potential will skyrocket.

Skilling up has innumerable benefits: It can give you a competitive edge in the job market; increase your value within your company; and, of course, keep you ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing tech environment. On a personal level, it can boost morale and give you creative inspiration. There’s truly nothing to lose.

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Making It in UX: New User Experience Designers Share Lessons From the Field

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UX Design Denver Jobs General Assembly Students

Every industry — from tech, to finance, to retail — needs user experience (UX) designers. These master problem-solvers work to create on- and offline experiences that put users’ wants and needs first.

Harnessing skills like user research, wireframes, and prototyping, UX designers have a unique perspective when it comes to understanding the interactions between users, business goals, and visual and technology elements. For companies, their work fosters brand loyalty and repeat business. For consumers, it means frustration-free online experiences, intuitive mobile apps, efficient store layouts, and more.

When you have the perspective of a UX designer, “you start to see design gone wrong everywhere,” says Beth Koloski, who has taught the full-time User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) course at GA’s Denver campus. “You stop blaming yourself for not understanding badly designed software.” She says she admires when someone gets design right because she knows “how incredibly hard it is to make something easy and seamless and actually get it out into the real world.”

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Experience doesn’t matter: Industry veterans and aspiring talent are equally qualified to break into digital marketing

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Digital Marketing Vs. Traditional Marketing Skills

All aboard! It’s never been a better time to embark on your digital marketing journey.

We all seek experience. Personally and professionally, experience captures what we’ve done and what we have the potential to do. In hiring, prior experience is used as a shortcut to qualify job-seekers for interviews, job offers, and higher compensation. This shortcut works well in steady fields where the practices of the industry rarely change. If someone has done it before, they can probably do it again.

But does this shortcut work in a field that is dramatically changing? Marketing is an occupation undergoing rapid change. Adults now spend six hours a day with digital media, compared to three hours a day in 2009. As consumers move social, professional, and personal interactions online, advertising has followed. 2016 was the first year that digital media overtook TV as the largest channel for ad spending. Successful digital campaigns now require proficiencies across a host of new platforms, and the question for veterans and aspiring marketers is: Does general experience in marketing still matter?

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How to Break Into Software Engineering

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What Is Web Development General Assembly Mike Dang

Learning to code is the ultimate career-booster, whether you’re looking to elevate your current skill set or make it your full-time work. Having software engineering skills can land you a job in nearly any industry, including tech startups, financial services, media, and beyond.

Coding knowledge is power — whether you’re an independent business owner, creative professional, or simply someone with an interest in the web. When you know how to code, you can build your own website and have full control over your web presence. If you work regularly with your company’s web team, you’ll be able to speak their language and improve communication — and you’ll be able to make some changes yourself instead of calling on them to do it.

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How Learning to Code Helped Me Grow as a Recruiter

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Learning to code

One of the best perks of working at General Assembly is that employees can take any part-time class or workshop for free. Last year, I took General Assembly’s Backend Web Development Course (BEWD) to learn how to code. As someone who works in Talent Acquisition at General Assembly, I thought this would be valuable so I could better understand our product offering. I also figured it would be easier to interview technical candidates if I understood the lingo.

Next week, I’m attending the Greenhouse Open, a three-day gathering of talent acquisition and HR professionals in San Francisco from May 25-27.  I am really looking forward to the “Programming for Recruiters” workshop with Michael Bouffard, VP of Engineering at Greenhouse, on Friday, May 27. I think every recruiter, especially one who speaks with engineers on a regular basis, should understand programming basics. As I prepare to attend Greenhouse Open next week, I’m reflecting on my experience taking BEWD and how it’s been helpful in my day to day role recruiting talent, as well as managing our systems and tools.

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