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Ask HN: Are there any opportunities for an old generalist?
40 points by daxfohl on Aug 12, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments
I've been working as an independent consultant for about 12 years. However, now age 40 with two young kids in tow, I'm looking for something more stable.

The crux is, while I'd want to get paid like a 18-year veteran of the industry, who would want to hire me for that? While I can write CRUD apps in about a hundred languages, do embedded, some FPGA, some image processing, some web UI, some tablet, some desktop, some data analysis, some magento, wordpress, AWS, Heroku, Haskell, etc., nobody is hiring with a need for "a little each of a bajillion skillsets". At best 3-4 are used in any one job. Also having worked primarily independently I don't have a ton of the management experience that is asked for in senior level positions either.

So while I feel like I've put in the time and I have the intelligence, have I completely painted myself into a corner? Even for consulting gigs, I feel like what I have to offer is not far beyond what a 2-year veteran with that specific skillset could offer, so how can I compete?

Granted I'm applying for jobs now and so it'll be a matter of supply and demand, but has anybody else been down this road? If you have and it sucks, can we make a general warning for other youngsters considering this path?

I am similar in age and experience, but I also always kept myself in some special areas (C++ is one) where I have deep experience and knowledge. You wouldn't believe how much companies need/want a person who can be specific in an area, but also has generalist skills for that oh shit times. Frankly, how you get a job is by tailoring your resume/cover letter and being good at what you do and learning fast.

Here is what I mean. Let's say you see a job opening for a person with 5-6 years of experience in language X and you are fluent in language X and have projects you can point to or experience you can share. Tailor your resume to point to those projects and don't use a chronology based resume, use a skills/projects based resume. This way you can tailor it to each position where you have relevant skills. This is marketing yourself and selling yourself. While I say tailor your resume, never lie, just highlight things that are relevant and that give them a reason to want to call and talk to you. Then the fact that you are a generalist and can answer questions on 10 other technologies and processes etc, will add value for you not detract and make you look wide and shallow technically.

And moving forward, carve out a niche for yourself that makes you special in some way, don't lose the ability to do multiple things, but focus in an area.

If you approach job hunting this way, e.g. you are marketing yourself, you will have far greater success and have a far better chance of commanding the higher dollar.

"Graybeard generalist" makes you a good fit for a lot of startups, maybe in the 5-20 employee size range. Your brief list sounds like you'd be useful in a company developing a web-connected hardware product of some kind... or "IoT" if you're feeling buzzword-compliant.

edit: Having alternated startups with big companies for about ten years myself, I feel like a startup environment can be "stable enough" for a father of young children. But you have to be willing to grill them during your interview process about burn rate and runway. A well funded startup can even be a good way to ride out a downturn for a year or two!

This is very true, startups can be a great place for people with a range of skills as long as they are deep enough in a few to really make an impact. Personally, after having been running my own companies and having been on my own for many years I recently joined a small startup. I am definitely the old guy, as I have 3 kids, 1 in college who is closer in age to my co-workers then I am. When I talked with the founders and team as a whole, everyone was totally straight forward, intelligent, honest and super concerned to make sure we all were on the same page. They gave me full confidence they were doing everything they could to do it right, and they are very transparent about what is happening and where we stand. That to me is what is important and you would almost never get that at an enterprise.

I would also argue that no job is guaranteed or "stable", they are there for as long as you can keep getting stuff done and provide value. And sometimes even if you can do that the position will still go away because of factors you cannot control. So in the end, you have to keep yourself marketable and pay attention to the little things happening around you. Yes, you can hide in an enterprise and collect a decent paycheck for quite a while, but that is just existing and not living or keeping yourself marketable and you are just as likely to get cut, if not more.

Agreed! We're almost at that point (5 employees, 1 of which has a kid), and need dev help on a broad array of problems.

I have been down that road. Freelancer for a long time (15 years)with a resume like yours. Lots of experience but not really an expert in anything. I got a full time job in a corporation a few years ago as senior engineer. I started there as contractor and showed leadership and architecture skills from the start so people noticed quickly that I am not just a coder but can bring something more to the table.

From my experience going through the whole resume sending and interviewing process you won't get much respect. You will be competing with fresh college graduates. Best is probably knowing somebody you have worked with and who is hiring.

Addition: That's the nature of the industry. Most of the current javascript, inverted binary trees hotshots will be dinosaurs in 10-20 years and face the same situation.

I wouldn't stop looking at consulting gigs just for bigger companies. A lot of them hire consultants then bring them on. you just need to show an interest in full-time, do a great job on your project and ask your manager for other things to work on.

I have, and it sucks.

When I was young, I'd get hired to do things I'd never even done before, because, "you're smart, and you'll figure it out." And I was smart, and I did figure it out. Yay.

When I became old, I'd only get hired if 1) I had generated explicit expertise in the area they were hiring for, and I could prove it, or 2) I was being hired by someone I worked with 20 years earlier who remembered me and that I was smart and could figure things out.

So the advice is: 1) go back in time and generate a huge network of people who can testify as to your general competence, they will help you keep making a living for decades to come or, 2) (if no time machine available) pick ONE thing, read everything you can about it and and practice it, and become an expert, so you can pass the interview in today's world.

As a good generalist, you can learn new things fast. But you'll have to do the learning before you get hired, not after.

Thanks, this sounds like my situation exactly.

I'm so not looking forward to tech interviews. Used to love them because I knew I could ace them. Now even though I might still be there (I'm 15 years out of practice with core algorithms) it's like "ugh we both know this has nothing to do with any task I'd actually be given so can we just move on please".

> now age 40 with two young kids in tow,

You are still a kid yourself. ;)

Don't sell yourself short. All that experience is valuable beyond the technical aspects. Just think of the soft skills and business knowledge that you have acquired. Also, you have demonstrated that you are open to learn new things.

> I don't have a ton of the management experience

But you have worked with a lot of managers and have learned the good and the bad from them.

> 2-year veteran with that specific skillset could offer.

Not everybody hires by buzzwords. I would say that the best companies hire the best "athletes" regardless of the specific skills.

1) You might underestimate your skills. There's no way for us to say. Apply for things you consider slightly outside your reach, see what happens.

2) Assuming you didn't underestimate - what skills do you want to focus on? You might be stuck in a local maximum, and need to travel in a painful direction for a while to improve your position.

3) Management skill doesn't matter for senior engineers. Leadership matters. As a consultant, you should have developed some skills in that area.

4) An 18-year veteran in the industry can make wildly varying amounts of money. Nothing except equity in a risky startup with high potential, <$100k in a high-prestige industry like video games or SpaceSomething, >$150K working for a large profitable company. Don't pin yourself to your age cohort, figure out what you think you're worth, and which place you'd like to be in.

5) We don't need a general warning. People tell "youngsters" all the time to think about their long term career. They ignore most of the advice, as they should. (If you're young, you're usually prone to take a lot of risk, because recovery is straightforward and easy, and it often leads to valuable experience).

At some point in their life, people realize that some of the advice now applies to their life. You're at that point when it comes to "plan ahead". No point looking back, that's not changeable - but look at all the planning advice now, with the benefit of 18 years of experience, and see what applies to you.

Embedded might be a good bet. First, it's a specialized skill that not many people have. Second, as everything becomes computerized, there's a fair amount of demand. Third, in many cases, 40-year-olds there are valued contributors rather than expected to turn into managers.

Personally, I don't know anyone who would hire someone like you, who knows a little bit about lots of things. Most businesses want someone to join their team to provide significant value without that value being overly-difficult to measure.

Saying, "I can do pretty much anything you need but I'm not particularly good at any of it" makes you an undesirable candidate.

Look at that list of skills you wrote down, pick one, and become passable at it - then you can start looking for jobs.

Hope this helps! Good luck!

> I don't know anyone who would hire someone like you, who knows a little bit about lots of things. Most businesses want someone to join their team to provide significant value without that value being overly-difficult to measure.

Yeah...my current job is like that (this is irony)....we need specialist for technology x. You will be responsible for ABCD.

First day in new job...you know what? We need someone who will handle y. Doesn't matter that you don't have so much skills with it.

6 months later....he is leaving and we need someone who will handover his duties. He is doing everything for everyone. But task are specialized and we dont have position for that. Something like highly specialized generalist (to be concrete: design, implementation of automated policies for config verification. Used Technologies: tcl, regexp, html, xml, perl for all kind of network devices from various vendors - multivendor support.)

So i do bit of everything but nothing so deep. My customers are mainly internals - account managers responsible for green results of weekly audit.

The same highly specialized bullshit was in my previous job - security team who provide multivendor support. You do everything but actually nothing in deep. At the end you have years of experiences in highly specialized business but dont know more than was required for your daily tasks plus something extra. And there is always what to learn.

Same issue is with programming jobs and frameworks. Company A use framework X, company B use framework Y. After two years you change company. You have to learn new framework and in the meantime Framework A changed (litle bit overreacting) and you are another usless specialized generalist.

So this not black-and-white (as many other things in this it business).

Another road to take might be to work for an IT contracting company - the type that hires out individual developers on a medium to long term contract basis. They'll be able to make the most of selling your skill set, and you get a stable paycheck.

Plus, many of those gigs will be long enough (even a few years) to let you add a bit of depth to your experience in a few areas that you can then sell as strengths when you're ready to move on.

You've likely touched a bunch of industry verticals. Pick one that is heavily regulated. Get a credential that has status with the regulatory agency. Sign on with a consultancy that needs someone who can translate tech-speak for corporate executives and ameliorate regulatory concerns through the power of technology. Boring but stable.

That's where I ended up. Regulated industries value experience more than let's say startups. And they have a lot of people who are stuck in a rut so you can quickly stand out as the innovative one.

In my experience (2 years at a medical device manufacturer) those people will drag you down into their rut and make sure you don't climb back out!

It depends on where you are but so far I feel that hasn't happened. But it's definitely a struggle.

You need to work somewhere where they have a small web team. Your expertise could help any company step up their web department.

I know people who work as web developers for shoes companies, furnitures companies, etc. and since they are a pretty much a "1 developer + 1 designer" team they need to be very well versed.

Understood, but sounds like the job I had in high school, not a senior position.

I'm not telling you to go at some small company to do CRUD.

Find a company that is growing fast and join them. They will require a new POS system, a better ERP. Their CRM is going to be out of date. All their stuff will be from 1995 and they will have no idea where they are supposed to go.

That's where a jack of all trade really shines. That or switch to management since you have a good understanding of everything.

Instead of asking us what you should do, why don't you look inside and figure out what you want to do, and pursue that?

At 40 years old you should know there are no right answers to questions like these, and life is what you make it.

Not asking what I should do. Asking what others have experienced.

In what way is this comment helpful?

I'd suggest looking for job opportunities in academia, or perhaps doing IT-related work for non-IT-related companies. These are the types of fields where "the computer guy" is expected to know and do everything.

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