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Surviving (and Thriving) in the Tech Economy

The best ways to show your value in the workplace.

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Phillip Toledano / Trunk Archive
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The popular perception of a tech company, whether it's a household name or a startup, is that the founders are not yet 30. They've already garnered a mountain of money for what may (or may not) be a great idea. They're not very interested in how things used to work — and by extension, not very interested in your experience.

Is there any advantage, then, for anyone in their 50s to try to prevail in such an environment? Is attempting to thrive a realistic goal? Actually, it is. I, for one, landed very unexpectedly in this world when I was 35 — and 33 years later, I'm still in it.

"How do you deal with everyone else being so young!” my similarly aged friends ask. “Aren't they too entitled? Isn't it stressful?” Yes, it can absolutely be stressful. Among other things, I had to override some assumptions I held about my previous status as a manager and leader. Past experience, even past successes, don't count for much in this extremely now-centered universe.

I've complained about, and sometimes had to overlook, slights I've felt as a seasoned employee. Age discrimination pops up in countless ways, woven as it is into corporate assumptions about performance, promotions and benefits.

Although many believe that the modern tech workplace is designed largely for a youthful workforce, I'm convinced that people over 50 can bring a lot to the tech table. So, when I weigh the pros and cons of tech-related employment, the pros still win. The lessons we've learned, the people skills we've gained, even the hard knocks we've suffered all become very useful in a fast-paced chaotic setting.

It's going to be easier for you to be successful if you can roll with a few key principles. These principles can help you live your best life, no matter what the job. With all that in mind, here's your cheat sheet.

Open is the norm. This goes not only for seating plans, but also for the flow of information. Collaborative learning and doing is the norm. If you like working alone and don't want to share till you feel done, you might not enjoy this openness. Pride of ownership, and control of process or outcome, don't win you any points. The advantage of collaboration is that you can accumulate buy-in along the way, not to mention get insights from people with expertise you don't have. Better to limber up to ask for help, and don't forget to offer it. (The trick here is not to mind if your offer isn't always taken. Overlook it and keep demonstrating your willingness to collaborate. It will be favorably noticed.)

There's no playbook. Big tech companies do have processes and standards, but they may not be clearly documented, and they are definitely not codified in a big binder. Information and procedures don't tend to stay static. Pay attention to what you must follow, at least for now, and note the repetition or other pain points you might fix. When you're familiar with the place you can suggest improvements, and take the lead or collaborate with others to implement positive changes.

Your experience matters, but don't lead with it. There are jobs in tech companies that need your operational experience (and your hard-won EQ is invaluable even if no one mentions it!), but you're also expected to always be learning. Tech employers want to see how well you approach real-time issues with creativity and savvy, not how you've always done it. Your hard-earned smarts are an asset, but don't stop with what you already know.

Seniority is not about age. Younger people, sometimes decades younger, are going to be in positions of authority, including over you. Do not spend time at work complaining about this. (Gripe at home, if you must.) Get to know each person you deal with individually and meet on common ground to get work done. And save yourself some time: avoid calculating their age relative to yours. (Were they even alive when you were in school?.) It may amuse you, but it truly doesn't matter now.

Show your good nature. You might not have chosen karaoke for the team outing, but team socializing might require you to give it a whirl. Your effort, however tentative, will reinforce that you're a good sport, and part of the group. And (as you already know) being good-natured matters in a crisis, when everyone has to pull together quickly in tense situations. Your teammates and colleagues will value this quality that comes naturally to you.

Build your brain trust. Make connections with people from across the business to give you perspective and guidance about the company culture, jargon and approach to doing things.

Your inner circle — a handful of trusted contacts — is wonderful for reality-checking, navigating political potholes and understanding how the whole enterprise functions. These are assets you will carry with you.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. In a report marking the anniversary, Victoria Lipnic, then acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, observed that today's older workers (and she recommends ditching that term in favor of “experienced workers,” by the way) “are more diverse and more educated than previous generations. They are healthier and working and living longer.”

As if to underscore how you can fit into the technology landscape, Lipnic concluded that “Age-diverse teams and workforces can improve employee engagement, performance, and productivity.” She's right. Do all you can to play your part.

Karen Wickre is an author and consultant in San Francisco. Her book “Taking the Work Out of Networking: Your Guide to Making and Keeping Connections That Count” (Simon & Schuster, Galley Books) comes out in paperback on October 29.

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