Today’s interview is with job search success story Jeff Shaevel. I met Jeff in Austin Digital Jobs. He shared his story as a 58-year-old job seeker and he impressed me so much, I wanted to know all the details. He graciously agreed to share his philosophy and advice about how to navigate a successful job search.
Jeff, I know that you worked at Dell for 24 years before your recent job search. For context, can you please summarize your career history for us?
My degree is in Computer Science and I was very interested in Artificial Intelligence in college. I worked at GTE Laboratories my senior year (and after graduation) doing programming for speech recognition. However, the 80s weren’t a great time for AI as expert systems and similar technologies were providing disappointing results for businesses. So, I became a technology consultant for Arthur D. Little, working for ways to bring AI to the USPS and then working as a general programmer for a while (as an IBM contractor) before deciding I wanted to get into Dell.
Dell didn’t have much of an IT department in the early 90s, so I actually came in through sales! I did that for a few years, keeping my eye on their progress in IT. Then came a chance. The project manager for Federal Sales was frantic that the contractors he hired to build the “GSA Schedule on Disk” (software to order systems for the government, delivered by bulletin board before the Internet existed) failed to deliver working software. They had all the artwork and general framework, but NO code. I said that if they got me off the phones, I could have it up and running in 2 months, in time for the major government buying season. It was built in Macromedia Director (precursor to Flash) using ActionScript, a language I didn’t actually know. I buckled down, learned what I had to, and made it happen. On time and fully functional. My “real” career took off from there.
When you launched a job search, were you still employed by Dell or between jobs?
I left Dell in May 2017. I knew that with the recent merger with EMC they would be moving jobs like mine completely off-shore. I accepted the RIF and used my severance and savings to enjoy a sabbatical for about 15 months.
How long was your job search and what is your new job?
Near the end of August 2018, I decided to get back into the job force and start searching in earnest. I started getting interviews almost immediately and I landed the new job on October 17th, just short of two months of searching. My new position is as the head ServiceNow/ITIL developer for the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). While I hadn’t seriously considered working for a non-profit at the start of the job search, it was immediately apparent in my interviews that this was an infinitely better fit for my personality than working for a giant corporation. My impression is that stepping away from behemoth companies—or even hungry startups—who focus on speed and competition is a great way to find places that are open to people with life experience.
Were you concerned about ageism when you launched your job search?
It’s reasonable to consider these things a bit to see if there might be ways to minimize potential bias, but I also think there is a danger of too much strategizing. Having a strategy to “manage” prejudice around one trait or another can lead to looking artificial or forced. I prefer to be unapologetic about who I am and what I’ve done because I know the world is big and the right job on the right team in the right organization is out there somewhere.
You credit your philosophy about life with your success at landing a new job. Can you please describe your approach?
Over the years, a number of principles have come into play that I believe have made a difference in my ability to find work. Anyone could apply them, but the details will be unique to each person. That’s why I emphasize that there isn’t any “magic” — no three words to add to your resume to guarantee an interview, no special site to apply to, no can’t-fail interview technique, etc. Instead, there’s a series of questions focusing on an attitude that drives my approach:
First, do you see yourself as a cog in a machine or as a person? Most people would probably say they naturally think of themselves as a person, but virtually all of the resumes I’ve seen lately look like a loose collection of buzzwords, thin bullet points, and search terms that only a bot could love. I understand that resumes these days are often put through an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), but eventually it’s going to be read by a person. Make sure that you come through as a person with a story to tell, not just a collection of titles and keywords. My resume probably looks a bit old-fashioned, following almost none of the modern advice, such as having a section of just keywords, but I find that interspersing lists of technologies (and keywords) as part of the descriptions of projects makes the resume more readable and natural.
A corollary of this is that I had no problem stopping discussions with recruiters who clearly only saw me as a list of skills to fill tasks. Don’t let the impersonal nature of many recruiters beat you down. Remember, you’re interviewing them as well. Every interview with a recruiter or company is an opportunity for a fit. Eventually, I became friendly with one simply because it was clear she understood the story behind the person and was excited to find something for me. She wasn’t the one who ultimately found my new job, but she kept opportunities flowing. Another way this attitude helps is by focusing on “being you” vs. “selling your skills.” Make sure your personality comes through strongly with every letter, call, and interview.
Second, have you aimed as becoming an “Elder?” Everyone gets old, but not everyone becomes an “Elder,” by which I mean an older member of the community who is respected for their wisdom and guidance. Ageism so permeates our culture that we almost never discuss strategies for aging while we are young enough to make deliberate choices. Too much emphasis is placed on keeping age at bay physically (e.g., exercise) or hiding age (e.g., cosmetics) or maintaining mental acuity (e.g., brain training), but almost no attention is paid to what kind of personality you want to have that will serve you well later in life. Have you embraced teaching? Are you nurturing? Are you a repository of experiences that can guide and illuminate? Do people outside of work seek you out for advice? If so, be sure that your resume shows this and make sure your conversations radiate with the feeling that you’re so much more than just a set of work skills.
I’ve been fortunate to have many Elders as mentors throughout the years, so I’ve been surrounded by models of wisdom (and maybe a handful of negative examples). As they helped shape my skills in public speaking, or mentored me as managers, or taught me art or cooking, I took from them not just the training, but their manner and have spent my life embracing the best of what I saw so that I could “pay it forward” when I became their age. I encourage younger folks to embrace all the benefits of aging. Not only will it make for more deliberate life choices, but will help fight systemic ageism by raising awareness of the power of Elders in our lives. For older folks to whom this may be a surprise, there’s still hope! Spend some time reexamining your life and look for examples where you may have adopted some of the Elders’ ways without noticing. Or perhaps you noticed but were conned into hiding it out of fear. Let everyone know that you are worthy because of your age, not despite it.
Lastly, do you fail enough? I’m not suggesting that your resume or interviews focus on failure (although it’s good to have at least one story in your hip pocket in case you’re asked for an example in an interview), but rather that you try as many experiences outside of work as you can to find out the boundaries of what you can do. As Arthur C. Clarke said,
“The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.”
By deep-diving into subjects outside of your profession, you’ll likely discover new talents (or new ways to apply existing ones) in addition to a delightful catalog of failures. In my case, with various measures of success and failure, I’ve explored sketching, the game Go, public speaking, and acting.
This advice is really only the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of things that go into shaping and presenting the best version of yourself, but they often better explored with a career coach who can get to know you and help personalize your approach. Try to find someone who realizes that your story is unique and may not fit the templates recommended by “best practice.” (I’m available for consultation, lectures, and workshops.) But above all: always be you. Someone somewhere is looking for you.
Tech has a reputation for being even more ageist than other industries. What advice do you have for older workers who want to thrive in tech?
In addition to the thoughts above, I think one very important attitude adjustment is to not absorb any “internalized ageism.” The industry is fraught with impersonal hiring practices and dismissive views towards older workers. Unless we find a way to change that, the best we can do is avoid playing into it. If you feel like you’re encountering ageism, move on. Don’t waste time with the shallow, the hurtful, the petty. Don’t keep score by how many applications never got answered, or how many recruiters you’ve turned away. Stand tall, and know that it’s a big world out there. And someone somewhere is anxious to meet you. It doesn’t matter if there are 10,000 failed interviews before the successful one. You don’t need 10,000 jobs; you only need one.
What else do you wish I had asked that you think job seekers should know?
What goes unsaid between the lines here is that it is possible to do everything above and more but still struggle to find your place. There may be some hard truths; your specific area of tech may have changed over the years and you may need to study to fill in the gaps. It may also be that the nature of the field has changed and no longer matches your style or experience. I was a BMC Remedy developer for decades and actually thought that there would be lots of jobs available for that narrow development space. I found, however, that when I hunted for such positions they were mostly short-term contracts with lots of travel that don’t fit my current needs. Fortunately, my last project gave me a few years training on ServiceNow, which brought up many more opportunities. But if I didn’t have that, I’d be seriously considering getting certifications in other languages or platforms. Or maybe even considering something other than tech. My husband has a degree in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon but after years of struggling to find a code shop that fits his personality, he’s considering training for a new career in the health industry where he can be a more direct help to others.
Don’t be afraid to alter your goal. In some instances, it might be “settling” for something, but a bit of introspection and applying the above may also open up vistas you never dreamed of.
Jeff Shaevel is a Senior Developer specializing in ITIL and Service Request Management (SRM). After working 24 years at Dell, Inc., Jeff landed a job as the head ServiceNow/ITIL Developer for the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). He is also an accomplished actor, public speaker, chef, pianist/composer, artist, and Go player/organizer who at 58 years old has no idea what he wants to be when he grows up. Jeff lives in Cedar Park, TX, with his husband and two cats named Botox and Fen-Phen. To contact Jeff about a job search consultation or workshop, please email him at email@example.com.
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