Tips for Staying Employed as an Older Developer

There’s a category of developers who have been there, done that, and gotten the t-shirt (so to speak). If you remember things like structured programming, CASE (Computer Aided Software Engineering), or dot-matrix printers, you are probably an older developer.

When I was 31, a recruiter in his early 20s told me that I was “too old.” Thankfully, I haven’t heard that kind of thing in quite some time. Three weeks ago, I aced a programming interview; last week, I started my new job as an application programmer. Not bad for a 58-year-old!

Standing Out

As an older tech professional, I’ve been lucky. My current job leverages my programming experience in Delphi, C and C++. Taking nothing for granted during the application process, I prepared a small portfolio that showcased the applications I’d written for each language.

When it comes to that sort of thing, creating screencasts with Techsmith’s Camtasia is something I’ve been doing for a couple of years. I script and record a seven-minute screencast that demonstrates various programs—including one that quickly evaluates poker hands. These are based on software I’ve written over the past 18 years.

After uploading the programming video to Dropbox, I can share the link with a recruiter, who will then forward it to the potential client or employer. For interviews, I take along a laptop with all of my programs, plus printouts of source code. Is that sort of thing overkill? Maybe. But all that preparation also pays off.

Legacy Programming Languages

For a long time, COBOL and Fortran were the only legacy languages in town; now C, Turbo Pascal, Delphi, Microsoft Basic, some C++, ActionScript and Ada are on that list. (Thanks to Swift, Objective-C may soon land there, as well!)

If you’re an older developer who knows legacy languages, your employment prospects may be better than you think. It is expensive for companies to convert applications into newer languages, despite tools that automate some parts of the process. It often requires a flesh-and-blood tech pro to code, test, restructure, and maintain the program.

Don’t be a Dinosaur

One perception is that older developers can be a bit stuck in their ways. I’ve worked with a few who have fallen into that category. One such bloke was ten years younger than me; so long as he could program in Visual Basic 6 and stick with Windows XP, he was happy. He had never heard of Version Control systems and didn’t understand why he would use one.

His primary business involved supporting one application written in VB6, which first appeared in 1998; extended support for the platform ended in 2008. It’s also 32-bit technology, and at some point everything Microsoft-related will end up as 64-bit only. Unfortunately for him, our workplace decided to switch to a rival, Web-based system (which made sense—no software to install, easy fixes to the server, and so on). They no longer needed him to support it.

It’s not just about learning new programming languages; it’s also about keeping up-to-date with a broad portfolio of technologies. Anyone can program a Website; you also need to know server-side technologies, Web services, and how to move stuff in the cloud (whether it’s AWS, Azure, or Google).

Older developers often fall into two camps: those who embrace new technology, and those (like my former colleague) who stay stuck in the past. There’s at least one study (PDF) that dug into age-related knowledge, using data from Stack Overflow, and found that programming knowledge can be maintained at a high level well into a developer’s fifth or sixth decade. New technologies shouldn’t be an impediment to your career growth.

Some technologies are easier to pick up than you might expect. If you don’t know HTML, for example, there’s no better time to start than right now. I actually started learning a new, proprietary programming language last week; it’s been slow going, because the documentation is limited to a help file and a code base, but it’s worth it.

Why Look at Older Developers?

After you’ve learned your third or fourth programming language, you notice what’s similar; by recognizing patterns, languages become easier to absorb. Eighteen years ago, I wrote a number of text-processing utilities in Delphi; this week, during a training course for that proprietary programming language I mentioned in the last section, I had to write a text processing utility that included a string Trim() function. Been there, done that! Such are the benefits of being an older developer.

Older developers, having seen quite a bit, often have “soft skills” that allow them to interact seamlessly with people across a particular organization. They recognize the value of experience, even if projects end in failure. (For example: “My forgetting to commit a transaction while doing a live fix to a database table halted all production for five minutes. The lesson I drew from that is, always check your transaction level is 0 even after doing a commit. “)

When interviewing for a new position, don’t forget to use stories that illustrate your experience and skills. My 36-year-career has left me with a rich database (so to speak) of development anecdotes: “To learn Z80, I wrote a 6502 cross-compiler. It took me two weeks.”

Conclusion

The secret to keeping fresh is to never get off the learning curve. Try out new stuff; just for fun, carve out some time and learn a new language such as Rust, Swift or Go. It’s never been easier to download and install things; and there are online compilers for many languages.

If you have the time, also make sure to focus on technologies in addition to programming languages. This year, I’ve already installed PHP 7.0 on my Hyper-V Ubuntu installation. My next task is to set up a website “In the cloud.” Most cloud providers offer a free tier, so this self-education won’t cost anything unless I make a mistake, which in turn could become an amusing learning experience. (“Forgetting to check the decimal place position ran up $17,000 of charges in just one weekend!”)

Comments

13 Responses to “Tips for Staying Employed as an Older Developer”

July 20, 2017 at 8:01 am, Older Des Moines Cobol Systems Engineer said:

It’s not just learning a new programming language (differences in syntax is easy to pick up), but to accept and be willing to go with the changing flow of any business. In my career of over 25 years, the best skill I learned was how integrate the commonalities of different platforms so they can communicate with each other and you looking like a hero.
Don’t be afraid to teach a younger co-worker some of your skill sets, because they will intern introduce you to newer concepts and points of view that you never imagined or really understood. Adapt and don’t be afraid to learn and experience something new, because you’ll always find similarities to what you already understand and have experienced.

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July 20, 2017 at 10:47 am, James C Hernandez said:

I enjoyed your article and I couldn’t agree more. Older developers have been around the block and can recognize issues often overlooked by junior developers. I also agree that keeping skills fresh is essential to success.

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July 20, 2017 at 12:14 pm, Marty said:

I love my role as mentor to the younger developers. It is very fulfilling. They are so respectful and I learn much from them as well.

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July 20, 2017 at 10:51 am, WorkCynic said:

Add “woman” to the mix and watch what happens. You’re a grandmothers, clueless, and an all-around embarrassment, if not an active drag on the workplace. Being able to show code is great if you get to show code, but you have to get that far.

I’ve also had places that don’t want to see code I’ve done for myself (yawn – everyone has a website or a mobile app), but what I’ve done for work, even though the coding I did for work was often on government projects where part of the deal is that you don’t show it off. Now I don’t live where government work is an option, so people seem to think I’m lying or exaggerating, even though the work is on my resume.

Last, this assumes that it’s easy enough for anyone to find a programing job. Around where I live, if you want to work in tech, better move into networking or databases, because few hire US workers for programming, even as a short-term contract (of the ones that do, one major employer each year hires a bunch of tech people for “permanent” work, but lays off the whole batch in late November – every single year – then tries to get them back in late January).

Then there are the job interviews that aren’t really interviews. The only reason they’re looking at an older programmer is they have a problem to solve, for which they will pick your brain during the interview. Damned if you do, etc. If you tell them during the interview, well, goodbye potential job. If you don’t, then you’re not a team player, not a good fit.

I have new programming languages. I have old programming languages. I’ve been using multiple types of Linux since the 1990s. I’ve done websites. I’ve done mobile. I’ve done both Objective-C and Swift (on that one, they want an app in the Apple Store, despite the work I’ve done being enterprise that doesn’t need to go through the Apple Store – which says to me they aren’t interested in the coding, but in the knowledge of being able to get into the App Store – one even flat out wanted me to come to them with developed products that I would then give over to them in exchange for a job). I’ve done embedded. Doesn’t matter. I’ve gone to work for myself and stopped looking for the magic tech job.

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July 20, 2017 at 11:07 am, Marty said:

You are amazing.. You have created a 3rd category defined as those who embrace new technology and get out there and try different things.

I have been a legacy programmer for 37 years. I love what I do which is COBOL and SQL. I can read Java code as I have to interface with it via my stored procedures. Although I fully embrace new technology and love working with my young counterparts, I have not gotten the bug to venture forth such as you have. You are, what they call, a lifelong learner.

Keep coding! 🙂

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July 20, 2017 at 11:34 am, Jim Shoe said:

Best tip for staying employed? Change your name to Krishna Patel. I have a number of friends–Americans–who are having trouble getting coding jobs, and we live in Silicon Prairies (i.e., Chicago area). 25% of programmers are imported cheap labor. Even the recruiters they speak to are offshore and barely speak English. What can we do to get companies to hire Americans? I can see importing workers if there is a shortage of Americans to do the job, but as long as there are techies who are unemployed for a while, this isn’t the case.

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July 20, 2017 at 12:49 pm, Krishna Patel said:

Well said Jim. I just changed my name to Krishna Patel and hopefully this will work for me. I’ve been unemployed for over a year and see the H1Bs stay employed while Americans like me get kicked to the curb.

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July 25, 2017 at 11:05 am, Teri said:

Hello,
As a 28 year veteran in the application software business I find this offensive since I was replaced recently by an Indian programmer is less than 1 year experience. He was a good guy but totally wrong the job because I was working in US payroll and most of the job was interpreting US federal and state payroll laws and applying the changes to the software. I was replaced once I trained my replacement with how to do this research and then add the changes to the code. He requested that I not be let go but the management only wanted cheaper labor. My manager tried to explain to this company that our customers were not going to like this but the only thing they cared about was charging my rate but not paying for me. This is happening all over the US in some of the most powerful companies like Apple and Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, etc Whatever happened to companies training their existing employees when tech changes? TOO expensive is the response from these CEO’s.

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July 26, 2017 at 2:29 pm, Rick said:

Jim, the only way I know to force corporations to not hire H1-Bs/hire American is to make it too painful for them to do/or not do so. Call your representatives, local, state and fed and complain and complain. 1 complaint = 1000 people. Corporations have no soul so they don’t give a damn about the person, as many have listed their experiences. It’s the smaller shops and government that see our value. I’ve told my kids who are, or will soon be entering, in the workforce to bust your butt and save your $ for 20 years and consider starting your own business. Once you are over 40 in the corporate world you are a target for riffing. Even becoming an indispensable expert does not guarantee being a W-2, though as many here indicated, and myself too, going 1099 can be the right way, sometimes the only way. Keep your head up and keep learning. I’m 56 and starting a masters degree this fall. Something I NEVER thought I would do.

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July 21, 2017 at 12:19 am, Sandy said:

Hey, everyone….

This is my first trip to your place and I am thankful to land on a site that shares my pain and passion for IT,, I began in the 70’s and I have much experience that I am proud of, and many fun stories to share,, and out of work since the beginning of last December, 2016.

I would love to connect with you all and my tip for everyone is to never ever bring up your age. I am former Director of IT for 16 years at a worldwide laboratory. .

I hope to get to know you all better. I am currently revisiting Visual Studios, and downloaded free 2017.. My husband has an idea for a mobile app, healthcare industry. We developed and sold some healthcare apps back in the early 80’s.

Anyway,

Sandy

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July 21, 2017 at 8:52 am, Marty said:

Hi Sandy. i too am a female in what used to be a male dominated field. I have 37 yrs of experience and am also very happy and proud to have been doing this for so long. I would never bring up my age but can’t they glean it from your resume or even social media?

I would love to give you my email address but i do no want to blast it here.

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July 22, 2017 at 4:31 pm, George said:

Your conclusion said it best, “The secret to keeping fresh is to never get off the learning curve.”
I was at a company for 25 years and expected to retire there. It was an RPG shop and I did not keep my skills current. The economy went south and it was more feasible to go with an off the shelf package than to have an in-house programmer. Fortunately, I was able to land a position in the Federal Government in a training program which offered a three year career ladder. My salary is pretty much back on track. Lesson learned: keep your skills current.

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August 14, 2017 at 10:35 am, Red White and Blue said:

I recently read an online article about how your application or resume “should” be constructed to obscure the fact that you are older. These days, with all job hunting being online, that isn’t possible. While a paper resume (remember those?) can omit, say, your graduation year, online applications cannot. You can’t complete a screen that demands your graduation year, and you can’t say that you started a job in 2009 if you actually started there in 1998; you’d eventually get found out and either not hired or fired for lying.

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