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So there’s this discussion about IT career path after age 35 which I find interesting. I’m not yet 30 at the moment, so I guess I’m all ears on this one. Background story of the discussion:
“All my friends seem to be moving towards a managerial role, and I’m concerned about my increasing age in a business where, according to some, 30 might as well be 50. But I still feel young, and feel like I have so much to learn. So many interesting technical challenges cross my path, as I manage to move towards larger and more complex projects. I am in higher demand than ever, often with multiple headhunters contacting me in the same day. But will it last? Is age discrimination a myth? Are there statistics on how many IT people move into management? I know some older programmers who got bored with management and successfully resumed a tech-only career. Others started their own small business. What has been your experience? Do you/have you assumed a managerial role? Did you enjoy it? Have you managed to stay current and marketable long after 35?”
And here are some interesting comments.
–Re:Oh my god, you’re actually serious???
My IT career didn’t even *start* until I was 32 or 33, it’s 20 years later now… and I’m doing just fine, thanks.
–Instead of carrying on as a one-man band –
Hire a few people. Delegate. Train them. As your projects get more complex – grow your team. Before you know it – you’re the boss of a sizeable team, able to manage several projects concurrently, whose portfolio grows exponentially. Unless of course you want to be pulling your own cart well into the ‘standard’ retirement age… Just a thought…
–Find a job you love
…and you’ll never work another day in your life.
The reality of the situation is that you’ll always find yourself doing something you hate, be it financial recordkeeping, slopping out the latrine or prepping the coffee machine for a hard day’s thinking. Sometimes a drastic career change means starting at the bottom of the ladder again, bringing back memories of your first job at 16 fetching and carrying for the fat cunt in his leather chair, for minimum wage and zero gratitude. Deal with it.
Speaking for myself, I was never one to be sticking it to “The Man”, I have always been “The Man”, and will be “The Man” until the day I die.
–Re:Find a job you love
It’s one thing that every job and every employer has their less than stellar moments, that’s what they’re paying you for. It’s another thing to run into a career dead end where your skills aren’t really in demand and you’re either unemployed, flipping fries because you can’t get a relevant job or clinging to a dead end job because the institutional knowledge you have is the only thing keeping you employed. Of course a lot of that is random chance for better or for worse, you’ll never who will or won’t hire you or if the shifting winds of the market will suddenly leave you without a job. But a lot of it also conscious choice, for example I once left a job primarily because I felt I was becoming too specialized in a particular tool. I felt that if I wanted to stay easily employable, I’d have to diversify. I couldn’t have gotten the job I have today if I’d stayed that path.
Another example is that really through no fault of my own I had to swap employers several times in a relatively short amount of time, I know I could explain it well in an interview but it raises flags if you’re just glancing through my CV. So now I’m planning to stay with my current employer to build credibility that I can commit and won’t just head for greener pastures in less than a year. That is quite deliberate management of my career and I’m actively aware that it’s not what I know I know that matters, it’s what I can convince others I know. For example in my last job part of the reason they hired me was certifications, I didn’t need those to do the job but they turned out to be very helpful in showing that I could.
I think your answer is a little simplistic, continuing a coding career might seem a good idea today. But what’s coming down river, is it heavy rapids and a waterfall around the next bend? That’s what he’s asking. It might be okay to become a truck driver today. It might be a lot less nice in 20 years if your job has been taken over by autonomous cars and you got no marketable skills anymore. Personally I wouldn’t worry too much about it, good coders will be in demand. But you might want to set your wage expectations correctly, it might not be way to earn the fattest paychecks as a 50-60 year old.
–Re:Find a job you love
the answer to that one is also simplistic: there is no job security in any industry in the Western hemisphere any more except HR management and front line social services. ANYTHING operated in the private sector is a case of looking over your shoulder every minute of every day, because there will be someone as paperskilled as you are but twenty years younger and twenty years lower down the salary expectation, then you’re out a job. For work in the public sector, your job security depends on how well you can cover management’s arses when shit goes south.
I work with someone who started an IT career in their mid 30s in an entry level (help desk) position. I’ve seen people retire from IT from the same help desk, the same as I’ve seen people advance to other parts of the company and other government agencies. At 28 I’m actually the second youngest on our team. When I say help desk that’s just the beginning too. We do production monitoring as well as being system operators.
You are NOT too old to start in IT!
Work for a medium sized/large, established company, not a startup run by kids. The only place I’ve ever seen agism is at startups where everyone is in their early 20s. They all think that they’re the bees knees, and that no one could possible know better than them, and because they never hire anyone older, they never find out that they’re wrong. At larger shops, you’ll find a lot more experienced people who know that age is a benefit, not a detriment.
Things that make me run away (as a guy in his late 30s with a successful software development career so far):
1. Organisations that don’t value skill and experience and instead only want to hire young (== cheap) people
2. Organisations that assume older and more experienced developers can’t use new technologies (!= choose not to use some new technologies, because they’re smart enough to see through the hype and prefer to rely on tried and tested tools instead)
3. Organisations that rely on buzzwords or certificates for hiring (== you get to work with the kind of people who rely on buzzwords and certificates to get hired)
4. Organisations that expect you not to have a fair work/life balance (== it’s not whether or not you have a family that we really care about, we just want people to put in crazy hours for no money, almost certainly because we’re incompetent at management and don’t realise this strategy rarely succeeds anyway)
Just avoid those four warning signs and there is plenty of work out there if you’re an older programmer who is any good (== you have N years of experience and the skill of a senior developer, not the same 1 year of experience N times and still the skill level of a junior developer).
I think I’d advise the reverse, at least in terms of company size. A small company is more likely to value you for what you do, rather than want to replace you because your salary has become “too high”. The small company I work for has a family feel to it, with zero office politics, but possibly not the same career advancement possibilities you’d get at a megacorp.
Perhaps startups are a special case; an established small company will be more stable. Or at least, your future is tied more to the performance of the company than the whims of those above you.
I ended up at a startup run by adults, actually in Silicon Valley. Contrary to the usual stereotypes, we do value experience and actually have a lot of engineers who are over 40. We have hardly anyone in a “management” role, so many of them had to make the transition from management back to actual development when coming to us. In fact, its only been very recently that we’ve hired any notable number of engineers who didn’t already have some post-college work experience under their belt.
Of course we function by having a relatively small number of good people, rather than a large number of mediocre people, so all that experience really does benefit our environment.
– Learn a “legacy” skill
I’m beginning to think the “eventualy move into management” when you get to your mid to late 30’s is just the normal development path in IT. I’m desperately trying to avoid it, myself, but as I get older I constantly find management jobs being thrust in my direction.
That’s working the private sector, of course. In the public sector, there was nothing to worry about, since nobody ever seemed to retire — I could’ve stayed a programmer well into my 50’s.
The alternative is to learn some skill that never seems to be fall out of use — I see tons of graybeards in my company that do nothing but maintain aging AS400 and larger mainframe systems all day.
Honestly, they seem to be the happiest of the bunch…
– Of course you can!
The companies that discriminate on age are not the ones you want to work for.
There are plenty of companies out there that appreciate the older worker has more experience and is willing to pay for that. Probably not startups but who cares?
Myself, I’m in my early 40s and run my own little consultancy and life is pretty good with no end of decent clients in sight just yet.
–You don’t want to work there
My advice would be not to go into management unless there is a way to keep your technical skills up. You won’t find the headhunters as eager to place managers, except the highly technically adept ones. If you let your technical skills rot, it may become more difficult to stay employed.
I’ve worked as a developer, architect, project leader and “director of development” (whoa) and I prefer the technical contributor roles — but that’s just me.
As far as the companies that appear to be “age-ist” — run away! A lot of that is done because the younger developers can be had for less money, they can and will work longer hours (usually because they don’t have a family or really any life outside work) and they just don’t know better. I can tell you from the times I have done “leadership” that I would rather have two skilled old-timers than four fresh-outs working on my team. The two old timers will almost always out-produce the four fresh-uts in terms of actual delivery and quality. So you get what you pay for.
–I Don’t Know How Universal It Is …
But it can happen.
I’m 43, and managing a group of software engineers at a streaming company; my peers range from early 30s to early 50s, but there are other managers and directors here who are (at least somewhat) older than that.
More importantly, though, there are engineers here who are older than me, and who you could argue are as senior as I am, or more senior (in either the “more people listen to them” sense or the “they get paid more than I do” sense). This company also has a strong belief that you shouldn’t go into management because you want a promotion or more money, so people who enjoy being engineers are encouraged to continue being engineers. There’s no salary cap on being an engineer, and for pretty much as long as I’ve been a manager here, I’ve had engineers reporting to me who made more money (sometimes, significantly more money) than I do.
Having demonstrated pretty decent Individual Contributor (IC) skills, my last two bosses have always said that if I ever got tired of management and wanted to do the IC thing again for a while, they’d be delighted to find a slot for me.
But that’s us. And we aren’t representative of the business, I suspect. We’re not QUITE the outlier — high tech company, Silicon Valley, ~16 years in operation — but we’re definitely not your 20-person SOMA startup running on Red Bull and testosterone.
I’ll tell you one life lesson my parents taught me, though, that has served me well: Figure out what you love doing, and do that. You’ll occasionally be buffeted off-course. That’s OK — get back on-course.
I’ve been married for about 7 years now; early in our relationship, when I was an IC in another company, making a lot less money, my wife argued I should be thinking about maximizing my family’s income and financial stability and go into management just because of that; she persuaded me, and I went into management at that company, and was profoundly unhappy. Finally, luckily, got laid off in 2009. We both learned our lesson, and these days my wife’s only rule is “pick a job that will make you happy; if we need more money I’ll go out and make it.” Works well.
– Be careful
It might seem enticing to move into a management job but it’s not for everyone. The skills that have made you an excellent programmer might not necessarily make you a good manager. I often use sports analogies to illustrate this. Look at all of the former outstanding athletes that have been utter failures as coaches and/or general managers.
The other thing to consider is this: if you are a good programmer it is probably because you really enjoy it and have worked hard at it to improve. Are you going to enjoy being a manager? Because if you don’t really enjoy it then those 2 hour meetings are going to seem like they last all day long.
I have tried my hand at management and it’s not for me. Most of the meetings seemed like, for me, a waste of time. I liked fixing code that didn’t work. I didn’t like fixing other peoples petty personnel squabbles. Lower and middle management can be a real wasteland. I looked around the room and I saw a lot of people that were not very good at what they did. Many of them seemed resigned to the fact that they were never going to get promoted into upper management. Many of them exhibited poor leadership and decision making skills. The worst part of it was all the politics and back stabbing. I just couldn’t stomach it.
So I decided to stick with what I enjoy and what I’m good at.
Having said all of that, it was a valuable experience. I admire good managers. It’s a tough job. If you are fortunate enough to have a good manager then count yourself lucky. Being a manager gave me valuable insight into the “other” side of business – the non technical side of it.
If you want to stay with programming you can. I know a lot of people in their 60’s that are working at it and doing well. Unfortunately, all of them are consultants. Age discrimination is real. But as a contractor, employers see you differently. Instead of being a medical liability you are praised for your experience.
– Still at it it at 56.
Started IT when I was 28 with just a high school education. Taught myself how to code. Now I am 56 and I am still coding. My current position allows a great deal of freedom on how I implement a solution and the IT department has been ordered by senior management to help me. I work directly for the end users and I know their business very well.
– 46 y/o independent consultant here
I have no interest in doing anything in IT besides programming and closely related tasks. Everything else bores me. I’ve been in several roles where I’ve had to wear various hats including BA, some project management, architecture, etc. and I couldn’t imagine doing any of that in a full time capacity. I suppose if you’re working at a company trying to advance your career, eventually you hit a wall where you can’t advance any further in a purely technical role, without either going into project management, management, or possibly becoming an architect. If you want to avoid that, and have an in demand skillset, one good option is to become a consultant. Of course it involves more risk, and a willingness to move around and adapt to different environments. But the advantages (besides more money) include having freedom to determine what projects you want to do, having a lot of variety, not having to deal with corporate politics and HR bs, and generally being able to focus more on the technical aspects of the project. Also consultants tend to be engaged because of their experience, so having been around the block a few times can be advantage. If you have the right personality and circumstances for it, then it’s definitely something to consider. If going completely independent is not for you, then there’s always the option to become a salaried consultant with an established company. You won’t have as much freedom to pick and choose projects, but there’s more stability, and you can still maintain that technical focus on a variety of projects.
You’d have to pry the keyboard and mouse from my cold, dead hands. 😉
A catastrophic health problem can change your plans overnight, at any age. Throw in that the older you get, the more likely it is to happen … and employers can do the math too.
I thought I’d be coding until the week I die. After a couple of years not coding (couldn’t use a computer because my retinas were messed up) I’m actually kind of glad that I can’t get back into it. The allure of the “high” from “getting into the zone” and doing awesome stuff in marathon coding sessions isn’t as attractive as it used to be anyway.
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