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How should older programmers respond when interviewed and 'confronted' with questions similar to "we are a young bunch, will you be able to fit into our culture?".

What about the experience an older programmer packs? (says it all really)

[edit] Read this on slashdot - whoo-haa - we're like wine! ;)

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I can't tell you how to respond, but I can tell you how not to respond. Do not breakdance. –  dannywartnaby Sep 30 '10 at 14:29
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It's okay to breakdance if you precede it by saying, "I think I'm gonna dance now." –  Paddyslacker Sep 30 '10 at 18:48
    
hey! it's all I can do not to let my false teeth clack when I talk & to keep swallowing so I don't drool on my chin & not to complain 'bout my arthritis & how fast everybody is driving these days & can you speak up please ... :) –  slashmais Sep 30 '10 at 19:25
    
Quantify "older"... –  Randall Schulz Oct 1 '10 at 20:48
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no you have to say Hammer Time! –  Preet Sangha Oct 2 '10 at 5:36
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14 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Well, that's a legitimate question. Some older people can get along with younger people really well; others, not so well. You can be very good at what you do, but still not fit in will with the group who's doing it with you, and that can be bad both for you and for them.

I'd say, forget about "what about all my experience?" You wouldn't have gotten to the point in the interview where they're asking about fitting in if they didn't think you were qualified. Interpret this as "we think you're pretty good, but we want to make sure you don't end up working somewhere where cultural and communication issues will make it a miserable experience for you, and for us."

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+1 this is a great answer. It would be easy to feel a bit affronted by a question like this, but that doesn't mean their intention is to be insulting. It's a very reasonable question and one to think about as we all get older. –  bedwyr Sep 30 '10 at 15:02
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@Jay: It IS a valid question - my only problem (if you can call it that) with the question is that it seems not to regard productivity, but more aimed at some kind of socializing effort –  slashmais Sep 30 '10 at 19:41
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@Jim: I seriously don't see how age is relevant in an interview re: culture. It's attitude/behaviors of the culture. It's OK to say "We tend to goof around a lot...". "We work odd hours.." "We socialize outside of work..." That's culture. That's not age. Let's turn it around. What if the question was "We are a bunch of single guys, will you (the married guy with kids) fit in here?" "We are a bunch of white guys, will you (the black/hispanic/other) fit in here?" "We are a bunch of males here, will you (the female interviewee) fit in here?" Is this still "acknowledging a difference"? –  Jay Oct 4 '10 at 19:13
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Actually I'm pretty sure it is an illegal question. –  HLGEM Oct 5 '10 at 20:31
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Age doesn't matter - attitude/personality does. I've worked with people of all ages in relation to me over the years and it always those with a chip on their shoulder that I couldn't get on with. –  ChrisF Oct 5 '10 at 20:50
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Challenge the person who asked the question to a game of foosball.

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I'd show them a bunch with photographs depicting me with young girls at a party, saying "look, I get along great with younger people"; even if I don't get the job, at least I've made them envious.

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"we are a young bunch, will you be able to fit into our culture?"

Possible answers (aside from Pierre's brilliant one):

  • Why not? I invented it.
  • Sure, maybe I can help y'all to learn some manners
  • [laughing] I don't think showing yer butt-crack qualifies as "culture"
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If someone asked me a question like this, I would not consider taking their job. It's a discriminatory question and that indicates a bad place to work to me. I've been asked questions like this (not this exact one) and in my twenties (when the question was "do you think you as a female can work with all these men?"), I would have not been so adamant that the question indicated a bad place to work. I've seen a lot more since then and know this kind of question is a giant red flag. If people of all ages, sexes, sexual orientations, religions etc. can't work together without it being an issue, then something is very, very wrong in that work place.

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Just say:

"no problem, I'm good with kids"

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Why this is downvoted without any comment ? Come on boys/girls, please be constructive. –  user2567 Oct 1 '10 at 11:48
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@Pierre: I suppose they think you as a pedophile :-) –  bigown Oct 1 '10 at 18:25
    
Seriously ? Let me change that. –  user2567 Oct 1 '10 at 18:47
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Life is so complicated ;) –  user2567 Oct 1 '10 at 20:37
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@Pierre 303: The employer's concern is probably that an older programmer is not very willing to adapt to new technologies or concepts, so I don't think mocking the question would help somebody get the position. However, it's probably an appropriate answer since the question is illegal and should really be reworded not to be discriminatory –  Juan Mendes Dec 6 '10 at 17:33
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Part of that experience should be include the ability to work with a broad cross-section of people.

But rather than answer the question, I would be inclined to respond with "What do you mean?"

What is the "culture" being referenced? Is this another way of asking will you join us at the watering hole after work, the golf course on the weekends, etc?

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I think you need to start by asking them what it is about their culture that makes them think that someone with experience wouldn't fit in.

If it's because the younger people are a bit gung-ho, or seen to be more driven, then use this to your advantage - you could bring some stable, methodical thinking and experience to compliment the bluesky, bright ideas and potentially hazardous thinking of someone with less experience.

As someone who has recruited scores of staff over the years, I'd never ask the age question in an interview. Age should never really come up - normally I'd be looking for the level of experience someone has got (e.g. hardly any experience for a Junior role, but bags of enthusiasm) and whether they can communicate!

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Wow, I'd get smacked by HR pretty hard if I asked a question like that and they found out. Most interviewers are smart enough to avoid something potentially discriminatory like that, or at least phrase it differently to be less obviously ageist. Like "We tend to work pretty late, would this bother you?"

So, deflect the question to something positive (like all questions that might offend you):

"I don't care about the age of the people I'm working with. I just care about the skill they use for the job. We can always learn from each other no matter how much experience and skill we have. There's always something new to learn."

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I'd be tempted to say, "My lawyer will be delighted that you asked that." (I wouldn't, but I also wouldn't accept a job at such aplace either unless I was destitute.) Utterly stupid to ask such a question and then give the guy a way to sue you if he doesn't get hired. –  HLGEM Oct 5 '10 at 20:33
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@HLGEM: yes, I'm still amazed that the 'this is legitimate' answer is top. I knew ageism was a problem in our industry, but didn't expect the entire community on a volunteer site to say 'yeah, that's ok'. I've said all I need to on this one, so I'm gonna let it lie. –  Jay Oct 5 '10 at 20:53
    
For the "we tend to work pretty late" I pull out a calculator and we figure out that at 12 hour days with the occasional weekend day he's making approximately as much per hour as a cook at McDonalds. –  Patrick Hughes Jul 17 '11 at 17:36
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There are strict laws (in the US at least) about discriminating on age. This kind of question can easily lead to a law suit. In any major corporation, you would not be allowed to pose this question as you have it.

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That question is not, strictly speaking, an age question, and Human Rights commissions and courts are not necessarily on your side. It's dangerous, but I've seen worse go unpunished. –  David Thornley Sep 30 '10 at 20:01
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"Do you think you will fit in with the culture here" is a valid question, and is actually irrespective of age. –  Dean Harding Sep 30 '10 at 23:07
    
The OP's full question started with "we are a young bunch, ..." which makes it pretty clear in my opinion what they mean. And as for strict laws, I have completed online public applications with the company's logos on them that flat out ask your age. Employers don't seem too intimidated by these kinds of laws. –  Bill Heller Jul 17 '11 at 5:43
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I can act like I know everything and have a false sense of entitlement with the best of them ;) Maybe it's my teaching background, but I prefer a mixture. Can't say all my coworkers felt the same about me - F'em (Was that cool?).

To some point, I guess we're all either too young or too old. When you want to try new things, you're considered reckless and inexperienced. Stick to things that have worked and you're not flexible or creative.

But what is it that 'old programmers' do that prevent them from getting along with younger people? I'm guessing those individuals probably don't get along with anybody. Maybe more mature people are just more likely to put up with their crap? It could be the longer / irregular hours? Fewer meetings? Complicated coffee machines? Pants on the ground?

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I'd say one of three cases exist:

  • There isn't a problem.
  • The young guys have a problem with older people (and it's not the candidates fault).
  • One of them has a problem (and the age difference isn't it).

If there is an issue of age coming from the young end, I'd be willing to accept that it's caused by naivety. Alternately (and if it's going the other way, I'd strongly suspect) the age difference needn't be the root cause and one of the people might not get along no matter what. E.g. a lack of respect for experience or a patronizing assumption of inexperience, neither of which actually needs a difference in age.

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I'd ask if they knew what they were getting. If you pair a younger and an older person, there is going to be friction. That can be good or bad.

If you want to stabilize a young genius (you know the type: Reckless, fearless, prone to making "small" last minute changes to code that is about to be installed in production), then pairing him with an experienced buff can make things easier for everyone. But both people must understand what the goal of this setup is. Otherwise, they'll just freak each other out.

If they know the shop knows they lack experience and want to learn from you, good. If they have no time, just need another pair of hands and there is just 0.2% blood left in the adrenaline system, things will become unpleasant eventually (you will seem to be "slow" while they will look "stupid" to you).

From my personal experience: I once worked with a guy who was 30 years my senior (not retiring next year but not too far off, either). He knew the system while I was pretty green. OTOH, when I found something that was important, I would bug him to fix it until we could do it. That meant we never broke the critical things during production hours but we also started to change things; older people lean towards "if it works, don't touch it" which causes the whole system to rot. So it was win-win but mostly because our manager clearly stated "I want you two to work together so we make progress but not the wrong kind."

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Why do you think "if it works, don't touch it" principle causes the whole system to rot? I know what you ment, but by putting it like this you're saying "if everything works everything should be changed". –  Rook Sep 30 '10 at 18:56
    
@Rook: Because in reality, "work" means "isn't broken". Example: You know that some setup is brittle. Since it <s>works</s>isn't broken, you leave it alone. Now you do something else which is brittle because of the original setup. Eventually, a third thing is added and "suddenly", the whole card house breaks apart. If you invest 10-20% of the time into cleaning up "non broken" things to make them more stable, you enhance health of the whole system. The downside is that every change has a chance to break something. But those will be easier to fix than when you wait for a catastrophic failure. –  Aaron Digulla Oct 4 '10 at 7:34
    
Yes, I undestood your meaning the first time. What I objected was the somewhat inappropriate choice of wording. –  Rook Oct 4 '10 at 11:15
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I think as long as you can show you're a team player, and come across as friendly in interview, it shouldn't be a problem. To be honest - they've got a good idea of how old you are from your CV - so they've already part made up their mind that it won't be a problem.

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