Quarterback and place-kicker George Blanda was a rarity in his sport. He played professional football for a record-breaking 26 seasons, retiring in 1976 at the age of 48. Most athletes would have long since transitioned to a post-football career as their speed, strength, and recovery diminished.
Luckily, software engineering is nothing like football. It doesn’t take superior genetics to stay in the game past the age of 40 or even 50. If you’re an older software engineer struggling to find work, the problem often isn’t a matter of diminishing skills but of employer perception. The challenge is leveraging your strengths and experience to remain in demand despite economic downturns, poor hiring decisions or age discrimination.
Always Be Learning
Database administrator and software consultant Roger Ruckert started his career programming in Fortran and COBOL. He balanced delving deep into the Oracle database (in which he now has 30 years of experience) with picking up new skills. Databases on the backend all look pretty much the same, but as a contractor, Ruckert, who began his career at Medtronic in 1982, had to make sure to keep his skill set current. He learned to code in Java and HTML and PROC and other technologies, all with an eye to how they related to the database.
“I’m a contractor, so when the contract’s up and I start looking for new ones, the big thing for me is to make sure that my skills are up to date,” he said. “I spend quite a bit of time investing in myself. I go to technical conferences, user groups and meetings. I stay current with my certifications. I think that’s important, so that you can show prospective clients that you’re relevant and investing in yourself.”
Tim Jahn, co-founder and CTO of Matchist, a company helping businesses find quality freelance Web and mobile developers, agreed that with the sentiment. “My advice would be for people of that demographic to always be learning. Stay up to date on recent technologies using niche technology forums or message boards, blogs, and trade publications,” he said. “Go to relevant meetups and networking events in your local area to learn more about the technologies and also about how people are using them in your area.”
Leverage Your Experience
Having a few decades of experience in the industry is a strength, not a weakness. “If you’ve been programming in Java for 10 years and are competing against someone who’s younger and doesn’t have that experience, you should be able to use that as an advantage” for a Java job, Ruckert said. In other words, don’t be afraid to play to your strengths: “You can cite different programs you’ve written, applications you’ve been involved in and projects you’ve worked on.”
Additional experience in the industry also gives you more of an opportunity to network, which Jahn recommends for software engineers of all ages: “Whether you’re 55 or 25, your network is always your strongest asset, and you should never stop meeting new, interesting people. You never know what opportunities you might exchange with them at some point in the future.”
The best strategy for software engineers in it for the long haul is to invest in themselves. “If you’re in it for the long haul, you don’t want to be exhausted and wear yourself out,” Ruckert said. “You want to pace yourself. I take three to four weeks of vacation a year. You have to live, too.”