Aging gracefully as a developer
May 6, 2015 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm a web developer. I'm almost 40, and I'm starting to wonder how much longer I can expect to sling code in the trenches with the youngsters. I mean, I still have a number of years of relevance left in me—but it's hard to imagine that I'll remain competitive as a developer as I enter my 50s and 60s. I need to start thinking about the long game. So...what does the long game look like?

Now, I do my best to keep up with the start of the art. But web tech has become exponentially bigger, more complex, and more fast-moving over the last 15 years—and I no longer have the energy to spend hundreds of hours of free time keeping up with all the latest technologies. Don't get me wrong—no one's thinking about putting me out to pasture quite yet. I'm just trying to come up with a plan so I don't end up in that situation.

One option is to start transitioning to more of a strategic/management type of role. (This has been dangled in front of me a couple of times—actually, it's being dangled right now.) But, honestly, I kind of despair at the thought. The business world has never been a good fit for me—in fact, I chafe at business culture, and it's caused me a lot of unhappiness over the years. Writing code is what I'm good at, and it's what makes me happy. Sitting in meetings, playing politics, talking to clients, listening to jargony BS, reading and writing reports and budgets—ugh. If staying relevant as a developer in his 50s sounds difficult, then becoming yet another out-of-touch, middle-aged middle manager sounds like it would drive me to suicide.

Honestly, I'm totally open to the idea of changing careers entirely. Working as a programmer has kinda killed my love of programming—which used to be one of my main joys in life. But I have no idea how to change careers, especially since I have no university education, and no real other skills. I do have an analytical and inquisitive mind, decent (non-fiction) writing ability, a love of science and technology, a penchant for creative problem-solving, and the ability to navigate and devise complex abstract systems.

tl;dr: All I really want to do is write code, but I'm getting nervous about getting older in a young person's game—and thinking that maybe I need a change for the sake of my mental health anyway. Have you navigated something like this? Please share your successes (and failures) with me. Thanks.
posted by escape from the potato planet to Work & Money (15 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in my early fifties now and still holding my own in the development game. Most of my co-workers are decades younger than me, and often know much more but I manage to keep up. I'm currently a QA lead on an AngularJS project doing Protractor test coding and managing two other test engineers.

How have I kept employed? I went to grad school in my forties. I've kept up on my skills via tutorials and code school and such. I've worked hard at expanding and caring for my network. I go to tech meetups fairly often which does double duty of expanding your network and learning new tech. I've tried hard to not be an asshole at work and be a reliable employee.

I have no idea if all that is going to keep me employed for the next fifteen years but it's worked so far.

As for going into management, I've thought about it but it seems so risky. You get out of sync with the technology so quickly and in my experience managers get fired way more quickly than engineers.
posted by octothorpe at 6:25 PM on May 6, 2015 [13 favorites]

What about making an effort to keep up with contemporary frameworks? You don't have to buy into each and every one. If it sounds good, buy in, learn it, and if it sounds transitory argue against it. Half of them are crap. You watch these things come and go and you get wisdom, what scales, what doesn't. You gain speed, you lose analytics. You know some shit. You can lead a bunch of programmers and be a programmer yourself, or you can lead a department and set them on to problem X. Programming is a love match. If programming is what you love, programming is what it should be. I have not observed a substitute.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:26 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wait: also. Humility. There will be twenty three year olds who just learned the programming equivalent of Esperanto, and it will be annoying because they'll proselytize and annoy everyone around them with their conviction that they have resolved the platform questions of the last forty years.

If you are the person who can pick something useful from that, help them along, and also not kick them in the head, you are contributing seriously and meaningfully in the long term. You get to be Wise. Frameworks come and go. Let's discuss what an analytics nightmare we have in non-relational databases. You just need to sit and watch that stuff. It sounds like you know what gives you pleasure and I think you should organize your life around that, and the fact that you've even asked the question put you ten miles ahead on that road.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:32 PM on May 6, 2015 [11 favorites]

I moved away from programming and hands on work to be a business analyst. All that stuff you dread? It's what I do day in and day out. I tell the programmers I work with that I actively consider it one of my main core duties to do my job well enough that they don't HAVE to be dragged in to those meetings. I see my role as going to those meetings, those calls, playing those games so that they don't have to get distracted and can have several solid consecutive hours a day to code.

And I'm good at what I do and I don't mind the games and the politicking, and I've been told I'm good at them. But I miss coding something terrible sometimes. I miss being hands on. I miss using my brain in that way. There aren't a ton of people over 40 who are still coding where I work, but those that are do occupy a place of respect, because you have seen things come and go and understand that the new best thing ever maybe isn't (star schema databases, anyone?).
posted by RogueTech at 6:53 PM on May 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

My father was coding until he was 70 (retired fairly recently).. He was in a less fast-moving sector than web programming (worked for banks), to be sure, which might be one answer. Basically, he had a ton of knowledge on a slow-changing system that didn't attract a ton of newcomers because it was less flashy, even though it paid fairly well.

He'd still be working today if they could lure him back, he retired by choice.
posted by thefoxgod at 6:55 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also I'm about your age and I'm not very worried yet. The question is whether the supply of competent programmers will ever outpace demand. So far it is has not, and so most of the programmers I know in their 40s, 50s and 60s are employed.

Unlike some fields of course I don't expect my pay to go up from here, and quite possibly it will go down, either because my age will make me less attractive, worldwide supply of programmers will go up, or the money thrown at tech will decrease.
posted by thefoxgod at 6:59 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd be less worried about becoming technologically out of date, and more worried about continuing to fit in with office/programming work culture. But if you're 40-something now and holding your own against 23 year olds pulling daily all nighters and frequent bar crawls, you're probably good for the next twenty years.
posted by instamatic at 7:16 PM on May 6, 2015

My dad is 65 and had been working for the last 5 years as a consultant for a company transitioning to a newer language (he's been doing it long enough that the original language was new while he was working). Now that that project's over, they hired him as an employee and he's project manager for testing the new stuff and some other stuff -- he's still coding, but also in charge of some other (younger) people. It's a good balance for him.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:39 PM on May 6, 2015

I'm a dev in test at a government funded non-profit. At 44, I'm one of our younger coders (on a team of 30).

My impression of the various government agencies I've run across is that they tend to be a little bit older, and a little less interested in the platform-of-the-week.
posted by underflow at 8:44 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Can you get things done? You'll be fine. A Terrible Llama nailed it. Perform. All the new-school trends and magic bullets and parlor tricks and big ideas in the world don't stand up to solid code that meets requirements--especially if it's delivered on time.

Also, age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.
posted by ostranenie at 9:00 PM on May 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

DoD work could be a refuge - especially classified projects. The code-bros often don't have the ability to get a clearance, nor the patience to craft secure code in a constrained ecology - they don't give out log-on-as-a-batch-job like candy.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:46 PM on May 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm in my late 40s, and have been more in the management trenches than the actual coding game all my life.

as for coding (based mainly on second-hand experience), I don't believe we get that much dumber as we age. God, I hope not. Yeah, there's an end-stage where the grey matter may not function as well, but in your 40s? Pffft. There are a LOT of people coding in their 40s. The reason younger guys are doing more fast-moving stuff is it's riskier and they're trying a lot of different things. And lots of them do not make it, or find they have switch gears a few times, like anything else. But they evangelize about %thing and make you feel like you may be missing something by not keeping up with it.

I don't think we get that much slower; we get more advanced gigs in some particular environment that requires us to get really good in those one or two things that make up that world. Better gigs typically do not require as many break-neck all-nighters (which I'll cheerfully admit I can't handle as well as I did 20 years ago). To me this is a Good Thing.

Look at it this way - web dev is more complex than it used to be, and it's going to keep getting more complex. However, the young guys that I know do NOT have ALL the job skills to be good at all of it across the board. As things get more specialized (and the projects get larger), you're going to see more division of labor in SEO, PPC, UI, UX, Design, Front End, Back End, etc. I work for a firm that's growing and we're actually learning that lesson pretty rapidly - as our projects get bigger we don't need more interchangable team members, we need more specialization to be competitive at the weight we're now punching.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:15 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was in a similar position around 2003. I decided I wasn't going to compete in the web programming game. I got a job in a straight client/server environment with a small company. They value my experience and my willingness to pick up business domain knowledge.

Just this week, someone was telling me about a COBOL shop. Old technologies don't disappear, they just keep as low profile.

I have to say, however, I wouldn't get off the escalator as early as age 40. I was about 55.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:55 PM on May 7, 2015

I'm 38. At my last job, I did pair programming with some smart guys in their early twenties. Here's what they're definitively better at:

- Scanning a text window for a specific piece of text. Often they'll find it even before I've Cmd+F'd.
- While debugging, suggesting 20 guesses at the next thing to try in ten seconds.
- Making stuff work (for some definition of "work") through sheer force of will and grinding.
- Being impressed by technology claims presented on a Bootstrap site.

(And I do think these were smart people that will get better.) So, I don't think there's any need to panic about competing with younger people as a group. Just like there's better and worse programmers our age, there are better and worse programmers in their twenties.

Maybe there are workplaces where the perception is that younger people are better programmers. But you can either avoid those places, or via pair programming or code reviews, demonstrate that you know things about building software in general that maybe 25-year-old React.js guy does not know. The more you communicate, the more respect you'll build. Latest framework details, which may play a large role during an interview, will fade in prominence the longer you work with people.

At my last two jobs, I said that I don't know that everything about the particular stack they were working in, but I have built reliable software in many different contexts. They were fine with that and believed me.

All that said, I'm thinking of tipping the guiding-to-pure-solo-coding ratio in favor of more guiding in my next job, but I have definitely known older people that just code who are doing fine.
posted by ignignokt at 12:05 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to be clear, I don't mean to say that those are the only things young developers are better at – they're the only things they're always better at.

Another key to aging gracefully is to always treat adults as adults, even when they're wrong. The same way condescension lead to poorer working relations when you were 25, it will lead to poorer working relations now.
posted by ignignokt at 12:16 PM on June 3, 2015

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