Challenge and Triumph of Older Tech Workers

Ten years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a pronouncement that would soon become infamous: “Young people are just smarter,” he told an audience at Stanford University.

Despite the outcry over his words, the fact remains that tech is often perceived as a young person’s game. Referring to tech investors, author (and “Silicon Valley” writer) Dan Lyons told Dice last year: “I think they’ve decided that the optimal return is young kids: Burn them out, get rid of them, replace them.”

And yet there are pockets within the tech industry where older tech pros are not only relevant, but also dominating. As RedMonk helpfully pointed out in a new blog posting, Amazon Web Services has hired many of tech’s most notable figures, including James Gosling (co-inventor of Java; 62 years old), Tim Bray (co-inventor of XML; 61 years old), and Andi Gutmans (co-inventor of PHP; 41 years old).

“[Amazon] puts such a premium on independent groups working fast and making their own decisions it requires a particular skillset, which generally involves a great deal of field experience,” the blog posting added. “A related trend is hiring seasoned marketing talent from the likes of IBM.”

Experience counts for a lot; if you’ve been in the industry for thirty years, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen every kind of snafu or implosion at least once (heck, once per week, depending on the kind of companies you’ve worked for). As an older tech pro, you understand how the latest technology works because you understand how the tech that preceded it worked; you may have even contributed to the building of the older platform.

Of course, all the experience in the world can’t counter the fact that, for a lot of older tech workers, it’s a decidedly uphill battle to a new position. What often helps is staying current in terms of your skillset (or, as the old cliché goes, never stop learning).

“My point is certainly not that these younger developers were smarter,” developer Don Denoncourt wrote late last year in a much-circulated blog posting. “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.”

Survival as an older developer, then, comes down to a combination of experience and drive. “Treat this year as if it were your first year as a developer and assimilate everything you can,” Denoncourt added. “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.”

Yet experience and drive still need to push against what many experienced tech pros feel is ageism in the industry. Prevailing isn’t easy; but if there’s one thing you can say about older folks, they’re tough.


7 Responses to “Challenge and Triumph of Older Tech Workers”

  1. Billyboy

    Do all technical jobs involve the hands on a keyboard? Where is broadcasting and microwave telecom? I found a lot of older workers in that area as I went through my career. Are they still around in those fields? Or do you only survive by writing and learning code? Your pics and examples indicate that this is the case. True?

  2. Server Guy

    “Treat this year as if it were your first year as a developer and assimilate everything you can,” Denoncourt added. “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.”

    We’ve already been doing that and were doing that. It’s why we were able to rise higher and higher and have the skill set we currently hold. Perhaps you should have a chat with the millennials about what it means to ‘pigeon-hole’?

  3. Andrew Wolfe

    Notable figures will always get jobs. For the rest of us 40+ or 50+ or 60+, we are threats to managers and dinosaurs to the youngsters. Experience is now a liability, as it inconveniently forces managers to think and scrutinize the actual meaning of their latest buzzword-driven technology choices. And as we older, experienced developers have been marginalized over the last fifteen years, software quality has plummeted.

  4. Tom Phalen

    Employers like what I have done in my career, but question how long I will work. Others have a problem with having an employee with much more knowledge then his boss. How many times have older people been told “not a match”. It is the company that loses by not hiring older workers who have resolved the company’s issues several times in the past.

  5. Bill Holman

    I’m a 64 year old developer and agree with this article 100%. I’ve been working like crazy to continue learning, it does seem to be more difficult as we age.

  6. R Moore

    I chose after retiring to go back to school and earned my computer science degree at 49. I find that young people are always in such a hurry that they miss opportunities to do something better, instead shooting for how many things they can do. Perhaps it is because they are thinking of advancement. I find that taking the time to do a difficult task better makes me more able to do a fast and efficient job with the routine ones. Learning is never done unless you choose for it to be.

  7. C_2_RN

    After a 14 year run in software development I made the best decision in my life — I switched career and became a nurse, which offers career longevity and no need to keep learning the latest and greatest fad in technology. I have a much higher quality of life and only have to work 36 hours a week. I now have plenty of time to learn world history from books and on-line, which I find to be way more interesting than yet another computer language.