Aging With Grace

How old is too old to be a software developer? Isn’t it a young person’s job? These questions come up from time to time. The cultural expectation of software developers has been a basement dwelling, hoodie wearing, 20-something. While Hollywood has had a hand in perpetuating this stereotype the majority of developers are in their 20’s. This is likely due to the attrition rate of software developers. Most start in their early 20’s and will leave development for other areas of IT or other fields before the end of their 20’s.

For the career programmer, though, ageism may become a real issue. Ageism is a form of discrimination based on a person’s age. While direct ageism may not be as present less obvious forms of institutional ageism may exist. A lot of the startup culture where mandatory overtime and death marches are forms of institutional ageism. Those things may seem fine when you are young and single but are not viable for a person with a family.

As we age our bodies and our priorities change. We become no longer able or willing to do things that we did when we were younger. These changes can have a positive or negative effect on our careers as developers. If these changes are taken into account as we become older we are able to apply our hard earned knowledge and experience in ways that will better our careers.

These are just a few things to help you in your career as a developer. Software development is more than just a job, but a lifestyle. As such it is one that can be lived for many years if done properly. Use the information here if you are new to the field to set yourself up for success later on. If you have been in development for a while these are here to help you be your best self and share your experiences with others.

Episode Breakdown

With age comes an understanding of your own limits.

In college, and maybe a few years after, pulling all nighters was a regular occurance that you could easly snap back from. As you mature though, you get more responsibilities and you aren’t able to sleep in after a late night. Working within your own limits can accomplish more than pushing yourself too hard did when you were younger. There is a point of deminishing returns where you are no longer effective, as you get older you begin to learn where this limit is and stay within it. As fun as they can be, it may be time to leave the weekend hackathons to the developers trying to prove themselves. Focus instead on efficiency and getting more accomplished in less time.

Make your phsysical, mental, and emotional health a priority.

As you age you will want to start focusing on your health in ways that didn’t seem important when you were younger. If you start on this while you are younger you’ll be in a better position than most. Software development is not a physically demanding job, we sit at desks most of the day. That means it is important for you to take time in your day to get some physical activity.

It is however a mentally demanding job at times. Just like you need to get your body out of a state of rest you’ll need to let your mind rest. This could be through any of a number of hobbies that are not mentally taxing. Finally, while the image of the grey beard curmudgeon is a fun trope you do not want to be the old angry developer. Find ways to address your emotional health through talking to friends or a counselor, meditation, even some forms of escapism like reading and music help with processing emotions.

Expect technology to always going to be changing.

A mistake a lot of older developers make is to assume that modern technology works the same as it did when they were junior developers first learning. While it’s not difficult to see patterns in how technology advances it is a mistake to assume that it will ever stay the same. What you learned in school, even bootcamp, was already outdated when you learned it. Even if you are on the bleeding edge of technology what you are doing will be outdated in a few years, months if you are using a Javascript framework. Earlier in your career you will need to be up to date on all of the latest changes. As your career matures you will not need to know the most cutting edge technology, however you will want to stay informed about what changes are taking place in the field.

Find your niche and focus your efforts on being the best you can at it.

As a junior developer you needed a broad range of knowledge to help you get into the industry. Mid-level was about perfecting your skills and then finding the area in development where you want to spend your career. Finding your niche does not mean becoming an expert in a particular languague, though it could be. It could be that your niche is correcting poorly written code, or it could be in updating ancient systems to more modern ones.

When finding your niche you want to look for something that will last. For example, a niche of upgrading older ASP websites to AngularJS would not work because AngularJS was quickly replaced. It also needs to be something that you will enjoy doing for many years. Also your niche needs to be something that will have enough jobs for you in the future. You want an area where you can comfortably find work but also be in demand.

Leverage your experience to put yourself ahead of the game.

You work hard throughout your career to gain the knowledge that only comes from experience. You just know where a problem is because you’ve seen if a dozen times before in various systems. Use this to your advantage. One of the best things you can provide as an experienced developer is the benefits of that experience. You know what has and hasn’t worked in the past and can quickly narrow down debugging based on that experience.

If you find yourself applying for positions with younger developers, even senior positions you have a backlog of experience to pull from when working that you need to bring up in the interview. If you are still early in your career, or a younger developer, now is the time to be looking for the experiences that you can use to your advantage in the future. Don’t shy away from more difficult tasks because that experience will help you later on.

Know your value as a leader and as a mentor.

It can be very tempting to keep all your your knowledge and experience to yourself. You may think that if you share it you will not longer be a valueable asset. That is the opposite of reality though, your ability to share your knowledge and experience with those junior to you is what makes you most valuable to an organization.

Older developers with experience not only bring valuable knowledge and experience but they should be able to help the rest of the team to understand and use that experience. Once you have much of any experience you should start mentoring those who have less and are learning. This will prepare you for when you are inevitably placed in a role where you have to mentor. Whether you have authority or not, when you have experience you are a leader. You don’t need to be a manager or even a lead developer to lead a team.

Tricks of the Trade

Joy gets you further than anything. Deliver your mentorship with joy in what you are doing and it all gets easier. Don’t be the cranky old man.

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