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On Getting Old(er) in Tech

dondenoncourt profile image Don Denoncourt ・11 min read

After years of scoffing at talk of prejudice in the information technology field -- as a white male with good hair --, I'm starting to call prejudice against my being old(er). It's true: age discrimination is a real thing.

Since 2008, the number of age discrimination complaints has grown to around 25,000 a year. Some may argue that everywhere we turn these days, someone is complaining about something being unfair. Alright. Let's not just take complaints into account. But rather, let's look at the average age of IT workers at well-established companies. Facebook: 28. LinkedIn: 29. Google: 30. To put that into perspective, the average age of all U.S. workers is 42. Well above the average age at these companies. Even Mark Zuckerberg once publicly said, at an event held at Stanford: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.”

By my clock, it's 3 till 60, so, yeah, I'm starting to get touchy about this topic. Having the insight that white -- mustache -- hair brings, I'm in a good position to debunk the younger is smarter philosophy. Allow me to point out what I've done throughout my decades of work -- yes, decades plural -- to stay employable, and share with those of you who are getting older (which is everyone), what you can do to avoid being put out to pasture once you pass 30.

No Country for Old Men?

“Younger people are smarter. Balderdash. So that means companies shouldn't hire Sandi Metz, Kent Beck, or Uncle Bob Martin? All 30-year veterans. “They're just anomalies. Not in my experience.

Six years ago, with the help of John Staler, I developed kettlerusa.com. I did the Groovy and Grails front-end, and John did the RPG back-end. John is one of the best programmers I've ever worked with. Yet, John has been around for... quite a bit. Let me put John's age into perspective with a quick story: I'd regularly test checkout by buying kettlerusa.com's cheapest product: ping pong balls. I'd often forget to cancel my orders, which resulted in the delivery of numerous packets of ping pong balls to my house. Anyway, Captain Kangaroo was a popular children's TV series from 1955 to the mid-'70s. The Captain regularly had ping pong balls dropped on him as a prank by his moose friend. One day, I made a Captain Kangaroo reference to my growing stock of ping pong balls. I assumed John had watched the show. But, when I saw that he was confused about the reference, I described the sight gag to him. John responded: "Don, I grew up without a TV. It was the early ‘50s." That's right, not only was John pre-Node.js, pre-Ruby, pre-Java, and pre-Internet, he was pre-television. Yet, you aren't going to find a better programmer -- RPG or otherwise. Not even including the self-proclaimed "smarter" 30-year-olds and younger.

Yeah. OK. So he's RPG. Want an example where the programmer codes in something other than “antiquated RPG? How about HTML5, JavaScript, and C#? Then, read my blog post on Jim Stanicki, the guy that got me into this field back in the early ‘80s.

20 Years of Experience Versus 1 Year 20 Times

When I hear someone say they have 20 years of experience, I wonder if that's really true or if they merely had 1 year of experience 20 times. I've known too many developers that used the same techniques they learned in their first year of employment for the entire span of their career. I found this to be true in the IBM AS/400 RPG marketplace with 40- and 50-year-olds, but I've also found it to be true with 30-something Java developers. In the early 2000s, I traveled the country teaching Java seminars to RPG developers. I had expected that those RPG developers would be familiar with modern modular RPG programming techniques, but what I found was that most of them were still using old-school RPG. They had stopped enhancing their core skill set -- much less acquiring new ones. Then, between 2008 and 2010, I was training Java developers at Circuit City on Groovy and Grails. These folk were mostly late 20s and early 30s, and they were just fine sticking with good-old, write-everything-yourself, don't-bother-with-frameworks, Java.

My point is certainly not that these younger developers were smarter. It's that many programmers let themselves grow stale. And the bigger problem is, after doing the same year's worth of experience ten times, many programmers forget how to learn. Not only can it be extremely hard to catch up with ten years of technology, it can be next to impossible if you've forgotten how to learn.

If you plan on being in the IT field for more than 10 years, you need to be a lifelong learner. I've always been a lifelong learner. I've learned and developed with numerous programming languages, frameworks, and strategies. As a result, I've honed my learning skills. Case in point: I've been told that you can't learn a second language when you're in your 50s. I'm here to tell you: that is false. I started teaching myself Italian when I was 52. Now, I read and listen to novels written or spoken in Italian on a daily basis, and I'm way past “conversational Italian. And so, for me, learning another programming language or framework is a piece of cake.

Only as Good as Your Last Two Years of Accomplishments

Kent Beck has suggested that, with consistent use of pair programming, the capabilities of programmers don't differ much after two years of experience. Understand that this is in an environment where techniques and skills are seamlessly shared. An environment where the secrets of veterans become common knowledge. My take-away, when I first heard this decades ago, was 1) pair and otherwise compare myself to other developers as often as possible, and 2) don't think that my decades of experience guarantees marketability or warrants higher salary.

I often say that I'm only as good as what I've accomplished in the last two years. I could tell you about all my accomplishments over three decades, such as replacing the use of a System/3 punch card system with the AS/400, writing a Cobol debugger, or…. Ah, I'm boring you. What you do care about are things I did in the last two years. Things like: learning and developing with ElasticSearch, configuring multiple applications on AWS OpsWorks, setting up Docker for multiple client applications, converting Rails 2.x applications to Rails 4.2, upgrading Ruby 1.9 to 2.2, and making more effective use of Git and, more specifically, GitHub.

Forget my age. I'd be willing to bet that my list of accomplishments in the last two years rivals any 20-to-30-year-old's. The perennial question then is: what am I going to say are my accomplishments two years from now?

How Developers Can Make Those Two Years Count

Learn, adapt, and learn some more

Treat this year as if it were your first year as a developer and assimilate everything you can. Reclaim the energy you had in your first year of coding. Regain the drive you had to prove to yourself and to your employers that you were “all that for this IT field. Resume reading about tech, playing with new techniques, and persuading others to teach you. Reacquire the excitement of collaborating on newfound knowledge with other developers. Be a lifelong learner and investigate all forms of learning, including:

Podcasts

Webcasts

Magazines and newsletters

Online interactive courses

  • I was a Rails instructor for CareerFoundry, but there are hundreds of options available.

Conferences and seminars

  • Try to get to one conference a year. Understand that you often learn more in conference hallways than you do in the sessions.
  • If you can't get to conferences, take advantage of the fact that many sessions are available online. I recommend confreaks.tv/conferences as it lists sessions from dozens of conferences.

Blogs

  • Follow a few quality blogs -- like the Corgibytes blog and Giant Robots Smashing into Other Giant Robots -- where you're notified of new posts.
  • Have your own blog and post regularly. Everyone comes up with solutions to problems or has an opinion that others would benefit from. Plus, writing a blog post solidifies your knowledge.

Also take the time to discover and leverage what kind of learner you are. Do you learn best from books (that's me) or do you need a classroom environment? Are you an audio learner? Whatever your learning style, try to learn something new every day.

No work is an opportunity to learn

Being between jobs is no excuse for not learning new technologies. You don't have to be employed to get experience. Do your own internet startup. Platform As A Service (PAAS) hosts, like Heroku and AWS, can be free or almost free. Come up with some goofy idea and flesh it out. Put it on GitHub as a public repository so others will see it. Do the whole cycle from backend database and maybe some NoSQL and a simple front-end. Later move that front-end to a single-page app like Ember or React or Angular. Add checkout with credit card processing.

Here's a bad idea for a startup, but one that would give you loads of real-world experience: Virtual Lemonade. Create a site where someone can use their phone's current location to see what lemonade stands are available. That means you'll need Global Information System (GIS) enablement and a database of stands. You'll need server-side code and then client-side. And then, you'll need to provide the ability for kids to register their stand with your service. Maybe give them notifications of a traveller looking for a stand so they can say they are open. You may not become the next Zuckerberg, but you certainly will pick up a full gamut of marketable skills.

Be and look fit, but don't worry about looking younger

I don't think, as some career counselors recommend, that you should try to look younger with hair dye or plastic surgery. What you should do is exude energy. To remain relevant in an industry that seems fixated on youth, it's crucial to be spirited. And an overweight 50-something wheezing smoker does not suggest vitality.

A year or so ago, I was attending a two-week training session with about a dozen 20- or 30-something developers. The training was on the 22nd floor and, every day after we came back from group lunches, I'd always take the stairs. The first day or two, one or two of the kids would join me, but I got no repeats. It's pretty hard to be considered a has-been when they can't keep up with you.

Don't go overboard just to prove a point. Be yourself. Only, your best self. Fitness can be as simple as a daily brisk walk. Maybe stuff in your earbuds and listen to a tech podcast on that walk. I watch webcasts while on the crosstrainer at the YMCA, and I listen to podcasts while unicycling. I prefer lunch workouts because it clears my head in the middle of the day, and I'm refreshed when I get back at it in the afternoon.

I don't believe you should go to extremes to look younger. I could look younger simply by shaving my white mustache off (the hair on my head is full with only a few flecks of grey). But I earned those white hairs and wrinkles; they're badges of experience. I once had someone say to me: “The eighties called, they want their mustache back. “Well, I quipped, “This mustache is from the eighties, so I'm keeping it.”

Be interesting

I don't care what age you are, if you're a couch potato, I guarantee that you will elicit boredom in an interview. Be interesting... to yourself. Everyone benefits from hobbies. It doesn't matter if others think your hobby or passion is odd or a bit off. For example: I keep bees and ride a unicycle. I also know civil war reenactors -- which you'd have to pay me to do --, but I find these people fascinating. I'm sure, if you don't already have a hobby, you have interests that you just haven't turned into hobbies. Having a hobby is essentially a fun form of lifelong learning.

Be upfront about your age

I feel that you should provide clear indication to potential employers what your general age is so you can weed out age-discriminatory employers. Do you want to work in an environment where they look at you as dead weight or one that values your energy and experience? Here are the first two sentences from my cover letter to Corgibytes: “Your team is looking for someone with ‘7+ years software development experience' and a ‘Polyglot programmer with skills in 5+ programming languages and 2+ frameworks.' How about 7+ years of C/C++, 7+ years of Java, 2+ years of PHP, and then 3+ years of Ruby (not to mention 7+ years of RPG and Cobol, otherwise, you could do the math and guess my age). So I gave a tongue-in-cheek account of my age in the first paragraph.

Take a cut in salary for new opportunities

I have taken big cuts in salary three or four times in my career. I'm talking 10-20 thousand dollars a year. And not because I was out of work. I left existing jobs because I did not see myself growing technically in those positions. I've also turned down big salary jobs because I felt they'd stifle my technical growth. Some of my job changes ended up, arguably, being bad choices as they ended up being dead ends, but I make sure that I always walk away from a project with accumulated and marketable knowledge.

I've seen too many people lock themselves into technologies (like Lotus Notes and Domino) and find themselves unmarketable after spending 10 years in that industry. Even if you have a high-paying salary, don't let the tech world pass you by. Be sure to be up on the latest technologies. And, if you can't do that at your current position, maybe it's time to move on.

Be Forever Young

As I mentioned earlier, yes, age discrimination is here and real. Our bodies get old and some -- like Zuckerberg -- will use that against us. But the biggest mistake would be to compound that by letting our minds and spirit get old as well. That is where we can stay "young."

Bob Dylan said it best:

"May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay forever young"

"May you grow up to be righteous

May you grow up to be true

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous

Stand upright and be strong

May you stay forever young"

"Forever young, forever young

May you stay forever young"

Note that when Bob Dylan released his 33rd album, Together Through Life (which climbed to number one in Britain), he was 68 years old.

Posted on by:

dondenoncourt profile

Don Denoncourt

@dondenoncourt

Don evolved as a developer during the early days of the Internet: from C and C++, through Java and PHP, and finally to Ruby and Rails. He has published several books and hundreds of articles. Don leaves a long trail of successful projects ranging from a Cobol debugger to K-12 online education, retail web sites, and even a social shopping app.Don is a learning addict. Besides continually honing his technical skills, he taught himself Italian and is currently working on fluency. When not writing code, Don can be found riding his unicycle, reading novels in Italian, spending time with his grandchildren, or taking his German Shepherd and Sheepadoodle for walks.

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Discussion

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Great article, as a tech journalist (and not a developer) I love talking to older tech people are they generally simply more articulate and better at explaining things. They've often taught tech (either formally or informally and they thus bring fantastic communication skills to interviews etc.

Anorher reality of getting older that I'd like to share is career change. I jumped careers at an older age after moving countries and finding my previous role (running an environmental charity) unsuitable.

As a relatively new journalist I decided to focus on IoT (with a smattering of AI, med tech etc) and I did things like attending conferences and meetups, podcasts and webinars, reading whitepapers etc. My first few interviews I had no idea and no doubt sounded highly incompetent but I persisted. After a while I felt able to offer commentary and opinions, not just reporting per se. I now write for two publications, am an in-house journo for an IoT company in Shenzhen and do other bits and pieces of copywriting. I'm far from rich but I prove that it is possible to get jobs in tech (it is a bit sector after all) as an older newbie.

 

Thank you Cate. I listen to your podcasts.
I probably will be writing and speaking more on Ageism in tech. I spoke at QConNY 2017 this Spring on it and InfoQ just published: infoq.com/articles/tech-oldies-hiring

 

I'm wondering whether this is an issue more for people who are applying for full-time jobs and long-term contracts.

As someone running his own IT service consultancy in Sydney, I'm finding that I'm getting better leads, and getting into conversations at higher levels than even six or twelve months ago. As I write early in 2017, I've never seen it so busy at this time of the year (mid summer, when Australia is collectively relaxing on the beach).

One differentiator for me is that I'm playing down my hands-on technical skills, and finding that business experience (breaking out of the IT silo) is something that seems to be getting the attention of the market.

Perhaps this is unique to Australia, where I am based, but over 50s are often well equipped to see the expensive problem and frame it in non-technical terms that resonate with decision makers.

  • Anthony English Happy to chat one-on-one if you would like. Reach out via Twitter: @anthonyenglish
 

Part of the problem is getting in the door. I've had to shorten up the resume and I'm in what should be the hottest market in the world. SF Bay Area, iOS developer with 7 years exp. If the demand for mobile devs can't overcome ageism, then we have a real problem.

I'm likely to start a mobile enterprise business because the job market seems to be closed off. I've done it before, but I really wanted to focus on software development and less on the business of software development.

 

Nice! The article is good but it touches many difficult subjects.

age

Most of the companies (especially non-tech ones) will always hire averages (too young, they don't want to waste their resources to teach the new generation), too old they are afraid they will ask for special conditions, usually higher paychecks or they will want to do things in their ways, not the company way (not change).

I think remote jobs will mitigate this problem in the long run, the young ones get nervous or have strong feelings about their old peers. Some problems like "afraid to speak your mind on meetings" are accentuated because of these feelings.

. > 40yrs old have more problems to find work in most fields, across the globe.

same 1y of experience

This applies to any age. Change is difficult for humans. It's the most difficult thing to do for our brains, most of the devs will stay stuck for a long time in just 1 technology, even in 1 version of a language.

Learn, adapt, and learn some more

I will just add "human interaction", meetups, clubs, beers, just talk with other peers.

remaining developer

From what I saw & read in my limited experience, developers after 5-10yrs of exp they switch to management or other leading roles, writing none or less code. Is this a natural trend? How did you survived?

I wish to do the same, be a developer with 30ys+ of experience, not a manager with coding experience.

 

Nice post, Don! I'm also solidly into my 50's and have, in the past 5 years, worked in companies where I was among the youngest and oldest in the room (more the latter than the former, though). Despite being in a number of consulting and management roles, solving problems with code is still what brings me the most joy. I recently passed the 35th anniversary of my first Hello World program in BASIC on an Apple ][, and most recently have learned how to build apps on Roku devices using their BrightScript language and environment. I do have to say that the one thing I find the most funny is developers with maybe a couple of years' experience being absolutely certain that vim/emacs/some-other-editor is the "one true way" to build software. :)

 

I get around age/gender discrimination by giving everyone the same entrance criteria.

1) A pre-contract assessment where they need to complete a technical challenge
2) An on-boarding phase (3 months) where all candidates go through a structured weekly program of learning/feedback and assessment.

So long as the candidate's contribution matches their salary expectation everything works out fine. Age doesn't need to come into the equation.

Oh and we don't do interviews!

 

Lolz. So true, thanks for the article. I've been programming since I was 13 and worked in the valley all my career. I too saw those engineers who ossified in one technology generation but I learned the latest tech on my own time so I could stay relevant over a 30+ year career.

The ability to maintain mastery over 30+ years is harder than for a single generation alone and is proof that us "old engineers" have the chops needed for just about any challenge. We've made all the mistakes and can discern "shinny things" from real technology/trends.

The one area where we may be lacking is the ability to know what young people will think about a product/service. That is what user testing is for...

Thanks again for the thought provoking article.

 

Really excellent post Don! You should watch @nukemberg's talk from the last @devopsdaysTLV youtu.be/jEgPbOMgKqk - specifically the part about domain expertise and how that takes 20 years to cultivate. Seasoned professionals.

 

Thank you. Sharone.
I did watch that presentation. It was excellent. I put a summary on the ageism in tech Slack channel and the corgibytes.com internal slack developers channel.

 

I found this article at the perfect time! I am making plans on my own transition after 15+ years as a tech writer on the corporate side. And I've been through 2 RIFs and survived many others. Thank you, after reading your story -- I know that I can focus, set goals, be nimble, and -- be happy!!

 

I am very happy the piece gave you additional enthusiasm. Be addicted to change.

 

There are many more younger devs than there are old ones. Every year the number of new developers entering the work force is more than the previous year. So the average will always tend towards younger. There are just fewer older devs to employ.

Older devs are in high demand, but only for high level positions. And they cost a lot more, so the hiring process is more rigorous.

See the last graph on this page: offerzen.com/blog/how-long-does-it...

It gets exponentially more difficult to find a job as your salary expectation goes up.

You'll do fine as you get older, as long as you make sure you don't fall behind and have your skill set become irrelevant. If you keep on top of your game, your years of experience will put you in a completely different class than junior and mid level devs.

 

I appreciate your article. This is something that I have recently discussed within our office. Having worked with developers of all age ranges and determination. We tend to focus on the negative stereotypes and not giving chances to those that have continued to adapt.

I completely age discrimination is real and have experienced it from a different perspective when applying for a leadership position. Due to my age there was an assumed lack of experience that was an immediate disadvantage.

I hope we collectively can fight back on this and ensure that value a person can add to the company is the main reason for employing them.

 

Kyle:
Thank you. And you might consider joining the Slack channel: disq.us/url?url=https%3A%2F%2Fslac...

 

One of the best articles that I've ever read. Maybe by my moment, by my context. 2018 is coming and I am just thinking about the new languages and technologies that I want to learn. Meanwhile, I keep surrounded by lazy young people, that lost the passion for the area.

 

Julio:

I'm take aback by your compliment. Thank you. You have added fuel to my New Years resolution to write more. Subsequent to the Getting Older post, I did a series of articles on InfoQ that have been well received.

 

Great stuff. I couldn't agree more. I am the oldest person in my company and I happen to be a dev. But, like you say, I still love learning the new tech, figuring out how to solve problems with it, and spreading that knowledge around. It seems backward that in an industry where experience matters, too much of it can be a bad thing...

I think this will get better as more devs get older.

Thanks again for the post.

 

Thank you. I am really glad I read your article. It made my day!

 

thank you. I have a continuing series in InfoQ.com on aging in tech.

 

Sounds like Zuckerberg is trying to sow seeds of division. Too much of that going around already. We're all individuals.

 

Good grief, this is one article that I wish I could have written.

Great stuff, thanks for the encouragement.

56 years old and going strong.

 

Great article! I have been conference averse in the past but your observation that you "learn more in the hallways" makes me reconsider.

 

Hai imparato l'Italiano a 52 anni? Complimenti!

Eheh, great article, I'm very (very) young and I often think how I will look like as a JS developer in 20 years.

 

Beh, io solo provando. Ultimamente io sono stato imparando Python and Django tra italiano libri and video (e.g. autori Marco Beri and Marco Buttu.) Grazi per tuo complimenti.

 

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