When I first heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say “I’m an obsolete design” in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, I chuckled at the cinematic irony. Being in my late 30s now and with my own rusting skills to worry about, jokes about ageing careers no longer seem that funny.
If you’re a developer of a certain age who has witnessed children handle technology nowadays, you might just sympathise.
Children learn to use smartphones and tablets before they are 10. They learn how to download pirate movies in their early teens. Those who have an interest in programming will learn to code – sometimes with impressive dexterity – long before they step foot in university.
So, considering that developers below the age of 35 make up almost 70% of the programming workforce today, what can we oldies (so to speak) do to stay competitive face to the rise of these techno-youngsters?
Stay with me and I’ll tell you.
First off, accept the hard truth
I want to get the hardest pill to swallow out of the way first: being an older developer means accepting that your seniority does not make you special.
In other industries, knowledge is incremental. The more of it you accrue over time, the more valuable you are, and therefore the higher should your salary be.
But in tech, knowledge is perishable. If you learned your skills 10 years ago, there is a very real chance they are now obsolete, or at least obsolescent. Thus, in certain conditions it is quite possible that a graduate in computer science with two projects under their belt may be more valuable as a programmer than someone with two decades of experience who never bothered to update their skillset.
If you want to stay competitive, you must accept that your value reflects how relevant your skills are, and not how many years you’ve been putting them to use. If you call yourself an expert with PHP and you still haven’t learned to use Laravel, then don’t be surprised when your company replaces you with someone younger.
In brief – remaining competitive means that you can never stop learning. Learn while on the job, and when the job has nothing left to teach you, look for a different job. If you can’t learn on the job, do it in your free time. Stay in the loop about emerging technologies and make use of the free resources you can find online, or upskill with a bootcamp.
None of this is optional. To work in an industry which has innovation written in its DNA, continuous learning is basically part of the job description. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but if you don’t like learning new things, then tech is probably not for you.
Use your experience to your advantage
Your past programming experience may not keep you competitive – but your life experience will.
As your career moves forward and you cycle through different jobs and different teams, you will (or at least you should) gain a better understanding of the people you work with. You’ll get better at communicating, at dealing with bosses both kind and unkind, and at estimating and negotiating deadlines.
In other words, you will develop soft skills – and those are an example of non-perishable experience, even in tech. Use them to your advantage.
While soft skills are useful everywhere, they will give you a special edge in the job-hunting process. Try to understand your interviewer as a person, and use your improved knowledge of human nature to get on their good side. Be patient with their flaws (especially if they are younger than you are), and make sure to tell them about how well you got along with different teams, how you resolved conflicts, and how your experience made you a good element to have in a group.
Some say that age is just a number, and when it comes to interviews, that’s truer than most people believe. If you think of your age as a liability, that is how it will be perceived, but if you present it as an asset, then others will see it that way too.
Just remember that this framing depends on you. Highlighting the advantages that you gain from your age has to become part of your interviewing routine – and not something that you expect the interviewer to see by themselves.
Separate life and work
If you’re a developer in that over-35 minority and your entire social life consists in your interactions with your software development team, then you risk ending up depressed. You’ll be surrounded by colleagues who talk about going out drinking, clubbing, doing sports at high levels, having casual trysts, and all sorts of other things which may no longer be part of your lifestyle.
If you want to keep loving your job, then find things to love outside of your job. It can be something as substantial as family or as casual as painting Warhammer figurines.
The main thing is to make sure that your work-life balance gives you something to look forward to outside of the office. The rise of the Work From Home model should be helpful in this sense – you don’t have to spend your entire time surrounded by young bucks and their shenanigans.
Also, of course, make sure you take care of your health. Exercise regularly, and preemptively look after your back and your hands/wrists (the parts of the body typically jeopardised by a career spent sitting down coding).
This is something you should be doing regardless – it’s key to staving off burnout, for example – but bear in mind that what makes the young attractive to an employer is often their positive, can-do energy. Being genuinely happy and healthy is the only way you can really match that.
Whatever you do, the most important thing is to stay positive.
Age is a concern for many in the programming world (and for those on the outside looking in), but as more and more people learn to code and the profession gets normalized, it’s likely that the dearth of senior developers will eventually become a thing of the past.
It’s also entirely possible that your programming skills may naturally take you to a job title other than programmer – such as manager or team lead, which usually pay even more. And if you’re not interested in management, well, we have an entire article dedicated to what happens to developers who never go into management – and the options are many!
The tech industry is unorthodox when it comes to age, that’s true, but it doesn’t have to be ungrateful or ingenerous. Keep your skills up to date, learn how to negotiate teams made up of people younger than you, and stay positive – and you can be doing this job until the end of the 21st Century!