A Tale of Two Late-Career IT Pros (and the Vital Importance of Soft Skills)

When you've passed a certain age, soft skills are essential to staying in the workforce.

As a person whose long-term planning objectives include retirement in five more years, it's probably no surprise that your humble correspondent knows a lot of people in that same boat. Interestingly, in the last week or so, I've talked to two old friends about finding new jobs.


I've worked with both of them for 20 years or longer. In fact, I've written an equal number of books with each of them — on the order of four or five. Let me start my tale with a couple of introductions.


Meet the New Old Candidates, or Should that Be the Old New Candidates?


Both of my colleagues and former co-authors are quintagenarians (click the link if you need to look it up). Both have college degrees and 20-plus years of work experience, and have been earning six-figure salaries for the past decade or longer.


One comes out of IT operations in the oil and gas business, and has been a director of IT operations for a major chemical company. Says she: "Of all the jobs I've ever held, I enjoyed that one the most, but being on-call 24/7/365 was a grueling assignment." After getting out of the trenches, she earned certifications in security, audit, and governance, including CISA, CGEIT and CRISC.


For the past decade or longer, she's been involved in security audit and governance matters for a series of large companies. She's currently responsible for global security policy audit and compliance analysis and reporting for a major oil and gas (upstream) organization.


Candidate No. 2 is and pretty much always has been a software developer. He's got bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from a major Texas university system, and has been writing code — mostly Web related — pretty much since the World Wide Web and related developments really kicked off in the first half of the 1990s.


(Just FYI, the first web server in the United States came up at SLAC in 1991. By 1992-93, Rob McCool at NCSA had put together the HTTPd server that would ultimately provide the foundation for Apache and most other major Linux or Unix based Web server platforms.)


One of his early jobs had him working with SGML (which provided the original basis for HTML DTDs) with another person who would go on to work at the W3C and have a major hand in creating HTML and XML as we knew them then and know them today. My friend is still programming full-time, and has worked in many languages that include Perl, Python, Java, JavaScript, Ruby on Rails, and many, many more.


Why Look for a Job Now, At This Stage of the Game?


When you've passed a certain age, soft skills are essential to staying in the workforce.

Candidate No. 1 likes her current job, but has been at it for several years now. She feels like she's getting into a bit of a rut. In short, she's looking for something different, and a different milieu, if not also for a bigger paycheck and more responsibility. She's been a manager many times before, even though she's working as a senior individual contributor now.


She stumbled across a job that caught her interest, and is thinking pretty seriously about throwing her hat in the ring for that position after the holiday season is over. Given her prior experience and a broad range of soft skills that include writing, speaking, and working well with other people (subordinates, peers, and superiors) she'd be quite the catch for anybody smart enough to look past the greying hair.


Candidate No. 2 has been recently employed, but his two-year contract just ended a few months back. He's been casting about for other work, but is coming up against something of a dilemma. One prong is that while there's plenty of work out there, not too much of it pays what he'd like to earn given his many years of experience and his wide range of skills and knowledge.


The other prong is that at least half the development jobs are in start-up situations, where the hours tend to be quite long, and the workload fairly heavy. "I'm not sure I'm ready to work 100 hour weeks anymore," he says, reflecting on a career that's included half-a-dozen forays into start-up territory (at least two of those efforts went on to some success — but the time and effort required to ride such beasts is indeed taxing).


"I'm still trying to find something with the right mix of subject matter, workload, and pay," he adds, "and it means chasing down a lot of blind alleys."


He's lucky, though: CompTIA has put software development (particularly Web development, but also software developers, applications) in its "Top 5 IT Occupation Postings" list for the past 24 months and longer. So it really is just a matter of time before he finds something that meets his criteria.


Where Do Soft Skills Come In?


For many people — especially for those without substantial and in-demand IT skills and knowledge — the job market can be a cold and forbidding place. This goes double (or higher) for people in the last productive years of their careers.


Let me put it this way: the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics lists the age range for prime workforce members at 26 to 54. Once you cross the threshold on the high side of the range, finding a job becomes more challenging. But for late-stage career activity, soft skills are probably as important, if not more important, than technical skills and knowledge.


When you've passed a certain age, soft skills are essential to staying in the workforce.

Older IT workers are much more likely to be managing or leading others than working entirely solo as individual contributors. Even my two candidates, though individual contributors in name, had to work with many others — gathering data, undertaking audits, and reporting status for Candidate 1; and gathering data, crafting designs and architectures, and leading programmer teams to build them for Candidate 2 — to get their jobs done.


In their current or previous roles communication (both oral and written), leadership skills (getting other people to do their jobs, and do them well), and people skills (working through the sometimes byzantine bureaucracies and politics that larger companies always tend to include) have long been essential to success in what they do.


And that, dear readers, is why it's important to start or keep building soft skills at any stage of your IT career. They're already important and valuable, no matter whether you're just starting out (early career), settling into some role or niche (mid-career), or forging your mark on your chosen field of work (late career).


Over the last decade and more, I've written more than a dozen articles on Soft Skills for Gocertify. If you want to dig a little deeper into this subject, run this Google Search, and start reading. It will definitely help your career development and options, no matter what career stage you may currently occupy.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.