4 Reasons to Employ Older Developers

shutterstock_145156567

Despite legislation making it overtly illegal, ageism persists in the IT industry.

If you’re 40 or older, you’ve probably seen cases where younger developers were picked over older ones. It happened to me once while recruiting a programmer: After all the interviews, I’d narrowed the candidates down to a 28-year-old and a 60-year-old. Both were very good, and I thought the 60-year-old was better, but the senior manager tasked with the final selection picked the younger developer.

At times we’re told there’s a staffing crisis, that companies need to import more developers via H-1B, but the truth is that outsourcing and downsizing eliminated a subset of viable developers from the market. Those developers, in turn, had to figure out if they wanted to land another job, freelance, or leave the technology industry entirely.

With all that in mind, here are those reasons why you should consider hiring older developers.

Availability

In the U.S., the number of science and engineering graduates has barely risen in the past decade, according to the Wall Street Journal. Yet the need for developers has only risen over the past few years. In theory, that means a lot of older developers out there, ready for hire.

Stability

As developers age, they generally have less spare time due to family commitments. That doesn’t work for many startups, which expect “death marches” and 80-hour weeks in order to ship products. But older developers tend to be reliable and stable; facing less pressure to leapfrog up the career ladder, they often like to stay in the same job for an extended period of time.

Specialist Knowledge

The author Malcolm Gladwell once wrote that practicing anything for 10,000 hours (that’s 20 hours a week for ten years) is sufficient to master it. That might apply to Roger Womack, CEO of Sportdirector.co.uk, a one-person firm that produces the soccer simulator Football Director for many different platforms. For 30 years, he worked for a variety of game publishers; but in 2007, with decades of experience under his belt, he decided to publish his own game.

“The bar to entry is much lower with technologies like Unity,” he said. “I’d probably make more money now working for someone else than if I was going it alone.” But at 60, Womack has more than enough game-development experience to run a business by himself.

Developers need to master more technologies than they did three decades ago; in the early ‘80s, there were very few commercial languages other than COBOL, Basic, and assembly language. Today’s developers, by contrast, need to contend with version-control systems, build systems, XML, JSON, databases and SQL, not to mention various Web technologies such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript and server-side languages.

But older developers, having spent their careers learning new technologies, generally have a system for picking up whatever they need to know; a growing body of online tutorials helps with that. The biggest impediment, perhaps, is managing one’s time in order to actually learn how the software works.

Better at Office Politics

Any developer who has been around the proverbial block has probably seen his or her fair share of bad incidents in offices: favoritism, dead-end projects, poor leadership, technical debt, reshuffles, and, of course, the impact of layoffs. They’re adaptable, which is why bringing in a mature team member can anchor a team with a solid core.

Conclusion

I can think of few things as wasteful as discarding developers because of their age. I’ve yet to hear of anyone who has recruited an older developer only to regret it. If you’re on the quest for talent, throw the widest possible net.

Image Credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock.com

Comments

34 Responses to “4 Reasons to Employ Older Developers”

May 07, 2015 at 8:23 am, Old Dog said:

I was working two full-time jobs until January 2010 when I was laid off from both simultaneously. The only relatively stable employment I’ve had since then was one temporary contract (originally 6 months and extended to 17 months because they liked me and my work). The interviews I’ve had always result in an ambiguous dismissal and the few actual offers I’ve had have all fallen through under mysterious circumstances. Employers won’t even talk to me anymore. I’m 100% certain that it’s due to my age: almost 52 years old now.

What you say about stability, knowledge and so on is correct, but employers don’t want an “old dog.”

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 9:15 am, Bob Ziembicki said:

I have had the same experience over the past five years. You can’t say that I want more money for I am asking for less than half of my previous rate. I worked with Cobol, PLI, JCL, WebFOCUS, Six Sigma, Sr. BA, 1 Visas instead and ultimately appear to pay more.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 9:49 am, CRMMVP said:

Why is it that old dogs always seem to rescue young dogs out of tech trouble?

Thinking back, I remember some of the things “Young Dogs” have told me on the job.

For instance:
A Berkley IT Grad in my group told me he did not think this “Server Virtualization thing was going to take off” so he resigned.

A network Admin at a client told me ” I want to do Active Directory but I don’t want to use DNS”.

Another network admin at a client told me ” The backup software for our company SQL Database always told us in the logs that the backup was successful, but when we went to restore there was nothing there”

Another large client’s head of Network operations told me that he did not see a reason for an 18456 error because they could ping the server and so he did not see any problem.

Now, I did not beat anyone up about these Flubs, or try to get them fired but in the end it was the more experienced “Seasoned” person who got them out of trouble.

Judge for yourselves folks. A person who is a life long learner is going to continue to learn. That person (she or he) also has the wisdom to move with the flow of the tech world. Likely they are also business savvy and see the importance of using technology to increase the bottom line.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 10:11 am, FV23 said:

Let’s be honest here folks. It has nothing to do with who’s more knowledgeable, more experienced, a more competent worker, etc. It has everything to do with who the 20-something hiring manager thinks will be a good drinking buddy after work.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 10:29 am, GS313 said:

When I see stories like this, I get a little nervous. I am graduating with a CS degree and I will be 28. I feel that I am still very young, but apparently, the hiring managers have other ideas. This age discrimination issue is serious. :-/ It makes me wonder if I should even bother working for someone or just doing contract work and building my own products on the side.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 10:45 am, Bob Ziembicki said:

There is no ageism difference between contract and employee work….I have offered my services on a free trial basis….however they would still rather work with the younger less experienced choice.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 11:14 am, MC said:

If a 28 year old is concerned about this, we are REALLY in trouble.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 12:45 pm, Scott said:

When looking at a 5 year period, most companies seem to favor the 2 or 3 young people who leave and need to be replaced over the 1 older person who will be a stable force over that time period. When it comes down to it, the difference seems to be mainly dollars and cents.

For a guy in his late 50s like me, they are going to be paying more per hour in salary and benefits than they would for the 25-35 crowd. The instability and hidden costs involved in bringing multiple people up to speed doesn’t seem to enter into the equation.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 1:18 pm, TwilightCalling said:

28-year-old getting a CS degree? I’ll tell you what I wish someone had told me before I went back to school: stay out of the tech industry. Get your degree in business admin or the humanities instead. You’ll be much more marketable.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 2:10 pm, Steve said:

Who owns a lot of these companies? People over 50. Why do they permit a culture of age discrimination? Because they believe that only kids buy their products and only kids understand how to make a product marketable to other kids.

This idea about the teen-aged market has been around since the 1950’s. What companies fail to understand is that demographics have changed. The largest generation (baby-boomers) are no longer teen agers. They are now all over 50, empty-nesters ready to retire and ready to spend money on play time.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 2:11 pm, Cyndie said:

Thank you for this article. I am a software developer with a Masters Degree in CS and have been laid off twice thanks to outsourcing. Trying to find a software developer position in my mid 50’s was a humiliating experience–some interviewers treated me like I was a’joke’ applying for such a position even though I had over 20 years experience as a developer. I finally found a position but had to accept a 30-40% pay reduction. Again, I am unemployed and older! I choose to work, but I’m not sure that this will happen. This field does not appear to value experience.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 3:11 pm, Martin said:

these “youngsters” (under 50) are probably in for some surprises. many of the problems that the “old” people dealt with (lack of memory, slow computers) are starting to come back. I have seen recent programs which seem to work OK until they get stressed with large amounts of data – they now run out of memory even with 16GB or more available and have programs run for hours or days even with the fast processors available today. I had a case a few years ago where I fixed the code for one test case to run in 12 minutes instead of almost a year (estimated) and reduced memory usage at the same time and knew of a test case (an unlikely case though) for that fix which would still take almost a year to run.

the old folks learned things like “a bubble sort is very slow” and know why. the youngsters do not need to write a sort (a good sort already exists) but will write a piece of code which has a similar inefficiency and not recognize that there is a problem and not know how to fix it when the problem is discovered (which may be found after they hop to the next job).

I think in many cases the old folks know what they are doing and why – the language ends up being the “how they do it”. the young people just know how to program in the language but do not understand the problem they are really trying to solve.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 3:34 pm, HX said:

My job search as a 50+ techie pretty much parallels what others have said. Managers would rather hire the youngest and cheapest, those they can mold and those who have no real obligations. There also seems to be the thought that us older guys don’t know the current technology which can be true, but we are willing to learn. And learning is necessary anyhow since a new technology is popular for 6-18 months these days. Personally I’m about to give up on this search. And I live somewhere tech jobs are plentiful.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 3:39 pm, Lucy said:

Sadly, this is true across the board, not just developers: comms, project managers, strategists, etc. There’s a belief that old dogs can’t or won’t learn new tricks, but hiring managers (and resume screeners!) might remember that mature workers have been through dozens of re-orgs, rethinks, redesigns, mergers, new managers, etc. Specific skills can be learned — I’ve been introduced to, mastered and since forgotten dozens of proprietary programs! — but will I show up on day one with a steady temperament, positive perspective and solid work ethic.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 5:16 pm, Jack said:

I was laid off a few months before I turned 40. They hired a Chinese girl who could barely speak English and paid her 25% of my pay. I felt sorry for her. I stayed after work my last week helping her understand the system.

I moved to Hongkong thinking I would have a better chance. Cut off age in Asia is 35 (joke is on me). I started an import/export company with my Chinese wife and we had a slow start. She asked me to try the IT job market again. I was offered a job at a large international bank, however, the day before I was to start, they called and told me the position is no longer open.

Three months later, I signed a very large contract to provide office furniture to the same bank. They built new offices in several Asian cities and we were the main supplier for steel cabinets. This was 10 years ago and we still provide them with office furniture. I made much more money than an IT job (the joke is now on them).

My message. Many of us senior IT people became experts in our chosen field. Most of us made six figure. We are intelligent. Do not lock yourself into the ‘one career’ mode of thinking. Open your mind and try new things. We can be successful at anything we want to do if we are willing to put in the same level of effort.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 5:17 pm, Tech Teacher said:

I’m a high school technology teacher with over 20 years prior experience in the industry. When I started teaching 15 years ago the students at the time were much more interested and fascinated with technology. This curiosity gave them the ability to dig deeper into the how and why of any IT subject they chose to study. In other words future life-long learners.

Fast forward to today however and the technology is viewed as nothing more than another appliance, such as a toaster, in the household. There is no fascination (beyond xbox, playstation) with technology or drive to learn the inner workings of IT. If it doesn’t work and can’t be fixed with a 5 minute Google session then it’s broke … period. No drive to actually learn anything. Don’t get me wrong, I still get a few shining stars each year, but the light has been getting dimmer with each passing year.

I can’t understand why someone hiring would not want as many 40+ tech workers as they could get their hands on. We’re smarter, highly motivated, and genuinely fascinated with all things IT. In most cases we are willing to teach what we’ve learned to others, something that this new generation desperately needs.

Reply

May 07, 2015 at 5:47 pm, Tim said:

I have been lucky enough to be mentored by two senior developers and I owe a massive debt to the both of them.
They have been living and breathing code for decades and have encountered the same problems time and again. They know their design patterns inside and out and can conceptualize projects.

It’s a complete myth that old developers are worse. Young hotshot developers are only good because they have been coding since they were young and have a great deal of experience themselves.
I would hire a developer with 20+ years over a grad with an impressive GPA any day.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 10:28 am, Tom Bohon said:

This article really hits home for me. At age 69, with 50 years in IT as an operator, software engineer, developer and manager I was told in October that I am no longer considered a productive member of the organization. They offered me a choice: be fired that same day or agree to take on an ongoing effort that will be gone in early 2016 … at which time I’ll be fired (more correctly, my job will go away). Pretty disturbing since I’ve routinely worked 80+ hours a week, helped the younger folks solve (for me simple, for them unsolvable) problems, volunteered to assist other teams in my areas of expertise, etc. And I will almost bet you money that they’ll fire me and then go out and hire 1 or probably 2 younger folks to try and do all the things I do …

I’ve decided, since this will happen in my 70th year, that I am not ready to sit down on the front porch and wait to die so am working now on setting up a photography studio – something I’ve been doing for 50+ years – and will spend the rest of my working life taking photos of dogs, helping with rescue animals and trying to forget how insulting my current employer was to dismiss me.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 11:21 am, OldCoder said:

Sometimes hiring the old guy can backfire on the company. I was hired because of my experience (20+ years) – they wanted an old guy to help mentor the youngsters. Cool. The managers were insisting on 50-hour work weeks with no compensation; I asked for a Friday afternoon off (yep, 4 hours) and was denied. The next week when I refused to work until 11pm I was fired. Hmmm, bad example for the youngsters.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 11:33 am, SeattleC++ said:

Why silly young managers would rather work with young devs

1. Because the managers are young. A first-level manager may only have 10 years experience. They don’t know older workers are valuable because they don’t know that they are still learning their craft at 10 years.

2. Because they are afraid. “Better at office politics” == “Don’t fall for the bullshit that younger workers swallow”. Once you’ve seen projects fail a few times for avoidable reasons, you want to avoid those causes of failures. This means older workers are harder to manage. They stand up and oppose dumb ideas.

3. Because they want more money. An older worker makes twice as much (if they’re lucky) as a new hire. Now, fact is, they are probably more than twice as productive, but the young manager isn’t capable of realizing this. They figure more heads == more progress.

Oh, and don’t get me started about what it means to the profession as a whole if an experienced worker doesn’t make more than a new guy. It means good talent will look elsewhere when choosing a career, and the quality of software developers will continue to decline.

4. Because they have become idiosyncratic. This is a $10 word that means “set in their ways”. Unlike the previous reasons, this is a good reason not to prefer older workers. Not moving forward to a new programming language because your senior guy has so much invested in the old language is an example of this, though sometimes there are good reasons to stay with an older technology.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 1:10 pm, jeffahart said:

GS313 said:

When I see stories like this, I get a little nervous. I am graduating with a CS degree and I will be 28. I feel that I am still very young, but apparently, the hiring managers have other ideas. This age discrimination issue is serious. :-/ It makes me wonder if I should even bother working for someone or just doing contract work and building my own products on the side.

You should be worried. As technology progresses you will be outdated several time in your career. No one has 20+ years experience when it comes to IS. Companies can now slap everyone down to intermediate pay because the technology they want implemented has been around as long as the intermediate developer. This creeps into the older database tech too. If a front end scripter hooking into noSQL is worth x and that’s new => then the old tech pay must be worth x-minus. I cannot get near the pay I was making in the 90s, especially the Y2K projects. When you are a developer, you are the one that puts your head down and does all the work. And when the bonuses are handed out, you get a Starbucks card while the financial analysts get money. Want my advice son? Get your CPA and take up office next door to the one handing out the bonuses. And as a developer your promotion will be NOT… but a trade in for a newer less expensive engineer.

If I were a UPS driver I would have a future…. what I earned after 25 years as a developer is uncertainty!

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 1:24 pm, Dan Sutton said:

There’s something more, which will only be true for the next couple of decades, as follows: the old ones (in which I include myself) started out on 8-bit machines with 1K or less of RAM, and they wrote everything in machine code because there was nothing else; alternatively, they started out on mainframes and understood such things as punched cards, paper tapes and so forth – in either case, they know things that the young ones of today are never going to learn.

To us, the young ones are as naïve as teenagers thinking they understand how life works, and going on about how stupid their parents are.

We don’t care about YAGNI, REST, or any of the other idiotic things which have made names for some of the less imaginative individuals in the industry. We care about Dijkstra, about algorithmic beauty, about structure and about function. We don’t sit there drawing flowcharts, or making PowerPoint diagrams, or using UML tools: we sit there and program. We call ourselves “programmers” not “coders” or “engineers”. We have wives and girlfriends, not “partners”. With us, what you see is what you get. If you put three of us and an idea in a room, there’ll be blood on the floor in ten minutes flat.

We don’t care what you think of us; we don’t care about political correctness; we don’t care what’s morally acceptable; we don’t care what offends you or pleases you; we don’t tiptoe around each other, trying not to offend. We don’t tiptoe carefully through our lives, only to arrive safely at our deaths.

We do as it occurs to us to do to create the most efficient solution to a problem. Don’t hire us if that’s not what you want: instead, if you have a problem with your ego; with being alive, hire young ones, and all of you can sit around and watch your businesses fail together. Light a fire. Bring some marshmallows. It’ll be fun.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 1:57 pm, Rob Herman said:

What an unbelievably stupid comment.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 2:52 pm, Manny Cloner said:

Not all of this is age discrimination. I have found that hiring managers do not know how to hire the best candidate. Hiring is done on the basis of “experience” when it should be done on the basis of ability. How do you verify experience? Test your candidates? That’s very easy. But that way few will learn a new language on the job unless exposed to it in an existing role. How do you test for ability? If a hiring manager is confident about his/her own ability to recognize smart/talented people it’s easy. If not, he/she will only hire good “test takers”. I worked in Mainframe for 20 years and then decided to expand my “marketability” by learning .Net on my own. It took me 10 years to get my first .Net job. And the only way I could do that is by getting a job where they needed someone who could do both Mainframe and .Net. Now I only look for combination jobs. Age does not matter when you apply for “Legacy” jobs!

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 3:54 pm, Thorn said:

I agree that older devs make job better, but who cares? Business needs workhorses, who produces… just read this: SOMETHING SALEABLE. Business doesn’t care about how “low-coupled” your code or its “test coverage”. But they should if they intend to be alive at least 10 years! First 5 years you can “improve” practically any [expletive] code, but after… that mountain of crutches and spaghetti cannot move anymore. And then such “businessman” start hiring professionals for an enormous money just to [expletive] it a bit. But hopeless – system requires proper architecture from scratch! That’s where greedy morons pay twice. Or even triple.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 4:25 pm, SeattleC++ said:

Hey Dan,

The knowledge of “Old Ones” is always old knowledge. There is no “couple of decades” about it. Our children don’t know how to program a VCR or drive a manual shift. Old Knowledge. We don’t know how to milk a cow or work the choke and spark advance on a Model T. Old knowledge. Young devs don’t know how to code a red-black tree with a parent link for efficient traversal. We think we do, but we have to look it up. On the internet if we remember. We cherish the old knowledge, which we suffered to learn on our own. But better keep up on the new, lest you become a dinosaur. Even the fiercest dinosaurs are now extinct.

Nothing wrong with REST, SOLID, etc. It took 30 years or more for knowledge of these concepts to solidify to the point where a single acronym summed them up. The Old Ones have this knowledge in “muscle memory”. The young ones have it as memorized book learning, which is less motivating. They will “get it” when they too are Old Ones.

Much has changed about the tools we use for programming in the last 30 years. Or the last 10. Or the last 2. Change is a constant for developers. What has not changed is teams of bright, geeky people working together to solve a big problem. What has not changed (unless it’s gotten worse) is management’s insatiable demands to work harder and longer to meet arbitrary deadlines. Garage shops look the same as 40 years ago. Cube farms are the same. We’re going back to open bullpens, an office design from the 1930s. This is fashion, not change. Or making a virtue of necessity maybe.

As for political correctness, don’t speak for anyone but yourself. Being able to work with other people without accidentally or deliberately insulting them is a critical skill. If you don’t have it, you suck. (Can’t decide if this is deliberately ironic). When I started work, a third of us were women. Now it’s like six per cent. The “brogrammers” have driven them off with offices where testosterone fills the air like a mist, where foul language and off-color jokes are slung by people who claim not to care what others think. I kinda miss working with women. I miss working with people who tried to care about each other, even if they were geeky. I miss civility and professionalism. These things have gone the same direction as the average I.Q. of developers as we go from 15,000 US developers in 1980 to millions today.

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 5:07 pm, Rich S said:

Hey SeattleC++,

I agree with everything you said except the part about the manual shift. I prefer a manual because it gives me more control over the car!

Reply

May 08, 2015 at 7:10 pm, swampwiz said:

I am an early middle-aged, “obsolete”, “unemployable” American programmer. This article will not help us.

Reply

May 09, 2015 at 12:02 pm, Nightcrawler said:

Me too, Rich! I’ve got a Wrangler. This car just wouldn’t be “right” if it were an automatic. =)

Reply

May 11, 2015 at 12:19 pm, hjoseph7 said:

Many Employers see it as how many years can I get out of this employee. It’s almost like how many years can I get out of this car. Depending on the mileage they are probably going to get more mileage out of a car with less mileage. However that is not necessarily the case. I have been in IT for at least 25 years going on 30. My first five years were spent hopping around looking for better pay. Then I did some consulting which paid even more but was highly unstable. When I finally landed a full-time job I decided to settle down. Unfortunately the company did not want to settle down with me so I got laid off after 7 years. It took me maybe 2-3 years to find another semi full-time job at about half the rate I was making before, but at least there was more stability than straight-up consulting. I say “semi”, because the client can decide to end the contract at anytime. In any case, I hope I can coast to retirement and not have to worry about finding another job/career at my age. If I had to start over I would have chosen a less volatile field such as Accounting or Engineering. If things don’t work out for me, I can always retire early and move out of the country to a cheaper area.

Reply

May 12, 2015 at 12:17 am, David Gray said:

RE: I think in many cases the old folks know what they are doing and why – the language ends up being the “how they do it”. the young people just know how to program in the language but do not understand the problem they are really trying to solve.

This paragraph hits the nail on the head.

Reply

May 14, 2015 at 11:23 am, Won't stop 'till I drop said:

I am an older developer, project manager, QA tester, business analyst, etc. Every team needs one of me.

– I have an established history of solving problems and producing results.
– I don’t want your job. I just want mine.
– I will never say I won’t do something because “that’s not what I was hired for.”
– You won’t have to worry about me leaving for 3 months so my visa can be renewed, 3 days after I start work. (oops, forgot to mention that during the interview)
– I don’t need a month off to meet my new husband, another month to get married, and yet another month to ask if I can get pregnant.
– I will never come with a hangover.
– I will never take maternity leave.
– I won’t be having affairs with co-workers.
– I can pinch hit.
– Your priorities are my priorities.

If I drop dead during work hours (something not limited to the “older” workers), just throw my coat over me and the janitorial staff will dispose of me that evening.

Reply

May 30, 2015 at 3:22 pm, Jae said:

I was laid off from my second software engineering position just before 9/11. I was in my late 20’s at the time and since then, I’ve only been offered two programming jobs at 1/3 of my last salary, which ironically is how much I make as a high school teacher, a much more stable job.

Reply

September 18, 2015 at 5:38 pm, Stevie Wonders said:

What astonishes me is how companies put greenhorns in charge of major projects as architects and project leads at an age that would have been considered merely junior developer not so long ago. They may have domain knowledge, but implementation skills are often weak, resulting in clunky designs an older developer would not attempt. Yet they bamboozle management into thinking they are indispensable gurus that always know best, impervious to trying anything other than what had been done before, however inelegant or inefficient.

Reply

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.