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Suggest career path options for "old geek"


I respect the shared wisdom and brainpower on this board. Joel Spoelsky has created an exceptional chemistry.

Here is my current predicament: basically, I am a 'superannuated' developer - late 40's and I am questioning whether I should stay in this industy or venture outside it.

Since the early 90s I have eeked out a reasonable (comparable to salaried) income as a contract SW developer, in an area in the midwest (US). The general nature of all of my projects have been the client companies' software products.

I've managed to stay billable even since Sept 2001, but as I venture out to try to market myself to a more generalized market I am seeing more and more that there are just tons of unemployed geeks trying to do the same thing.  And I am not even in a technology rich area (far from it). My past contracts have finally wound down.

The age discrimination issue, combined with the exceptionally poor pay of much of this work anymore, is alarming. The thread that was posted yesterday about the recruiter wanting an "expert C++ developer" for $35 or $40/hr to relocate was typical of what I'm hearing.

I am an electrical engineer and I have an embedded background, but moved into application development because of much the same issues in the early 90s that we face today. Unfortunately, I concentrated on the "difficult" compiled languages like C++ and Delphi that complicate the sales process, and most of my clients didn't do anything with the internet.

Now I am seeing that even a "hot" skill like .Net is paying something like $30/hr or less through the local body shops like Robert Half, so there's not a lot of apparent incentive to flog myself into being enthusiastic about another fscking  new computer language.

My assets: quick to learn, adaptable, and lots of experience. (Yeah, the same old crap you hear from every old guy.) Pretty good "soft" skills that I find it challenging to find the right context to "deploy" in. Excellent references and letters of reference. Several successful products developed and released based upon my work.  I'll consider a rate lower than what I've gotten recently if I enjoy the work.

My shortcomings: I won't relocate or work on the road. I won't play understudy to teams or "leaders" who are demonstrably clueless. I pretty much distrust all recruiters based on many past experiences. (not one of my contracts in the last 10 years has been through an agency.) I won't eat someone else's sh*t sandwich. I won't roll my eyes in gratitude when I am being mistreated (these are actually survival skills, where I am located.)

I think I would and could do something related to sales, such as sales support for software or technology related products, but I am at a complete loss as to how to get there from here and what a destination "there" is even reasonable.

Developing my own software product, or starting an Ebay business, come to mind. Just like everyone else.


Too old to keep doing this crap the same old way
Monday, February 23, 2004

We (yep, 40ish crowd here) are a dying breed.  It is doubtful, as I look to the future, that I can continue to see anything but a decline in income staying in the development field.  Even keeping my skills current, we compete against both the inexperienced college student willing to work for $30,000/year and the off shore worker willing to work for $11,000/year.

Can we have survive for the next 25 years?  Maybe, but each year we "appear" older and technology is for the "young."  we are told.    How can we understand .net, we came from the COBOL days.  Whether you did or not, the age will play a role.

For the 20 and 30 something crowd, this is the future.  Not to sound depressing, just realistic that we must look to development as a step in the career path.  At some point, with VERY few exceptions, it will end.  Be prepared...

My suggestion?  Find a medium to large size company and begin the role of technical lead.  Oversee others and work into the leadership chain.  Even if you stay more technical, companies are more sympathetic to you being in that role and older.  A 55 year old programmer is so rare as to be likely removed for that fact alone.

Monday, February 23, 2004

For me (I will turn 40 this year), the key has been to stay
in startups, and do enough management so I have value
other than coding.  I despise "corporate" management,
and will never work in a company with more than 100
people or so, but I can quarterback releases and do project

Even though I have a general dislike of management, I've
been able to find a niche as "Employee Number 3" in
several startups, organizing engineering, QA, and such on a
shoestring, using all open-source tools, putting together
an initial team, and then settling into a role as lead
developer and project manager once "real" management
is hired.  I also typically wear the QA manager hat early
on as well, as good QA leads are _really_ hard to find.

Fortunately, most of the companies I've worked at
are doing tools, not apps, so I could largely avoid the
dreaded "skilz treadmill" that afflicts the app world.
We're just fine with C here.  My main "new" skills lately
have been XML, and I'm learning Brew and Bluetooth.
(I'd rather master a few skills as opposed to "knowing"
a few dozen.)

My technical niche is micro-databases in embedded
systems.  This way, I can do database engines and not
have to work for Larry :)

In other areas, we're living small and shoveling every
dime into savings (well, investments and such, but
you get the idea).  We're at a point now where I can
afford to move outside of software if I have to, or can
retire early if I can stay employed in software for about
ten more years or so.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Same problem.

1. I'm forty six and therefore seen as too old to be technically adept. More accurately, employers don't give a toss about experience over and above the bare minimum to demonstrate proficiency, so they're not prepared to pay for the experience that says "look, I've done this before and the things to avoid are....", especially when the management you're speaking to are 10 years younger.

2. I spent too long running my own company. Despite all the rhetoric about light and agile organisations and internal entrepreneurship, large employers don't in their bones believe that small business experience is portable, so bang goes any chance of moving into management in a corporate or public service environment.

After a year of knock backs and trivial work that really didn't pay for the hassle of actually getting it, I decided to chuck the lot and go back to university to read law. This was the best decision I've made in a long time. If you've any experience in pulling apart client software specs, then law isn't difficult, it's just new and big. Sure you need to work hard, but if you treat it like a job then it's not that difficult. It's also noticeable that law schools (at least mine) are very supportive in encouraging social networking, which seems to be opening new possibilities all the time.

The big draw back is not earning for at least two years. I was lucky in that my wife earns enough to pay the weekly bills and we've got enough stashed away to cover the rest. If you don't, then I have great sympathy.

Good luck.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Too old, I used to read about this problem too and thought it would never happen to me because I'm very good. But it has.

The truth is that a large part of this job has been jacked downwards, just as corporate managements wanted. They're getting their cheap workers, but they're also getting a dumber class of person.

Either go do a PhD or become one of the corporate manager types.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Obviously, you are doing okay financially. If you weren't, you wouldn't be putting restrictions on the type of IT work you are willing to do for a living.

A sales engineer position sounds like a good possibility for you. Are there any sales engineering opportunities available where you live?

If you have some cash handy or know how to get some, then starting your own business is certainly a possibility. Have you done any research lately? Maybe you could do a Drew Carey and start your own micro-brewery? Have you considered buying a service related business?

If you are going to create a software product make sure it is something you can sell to a vertical market. Personally, I wouldn't waste my time trying to create and market a shareware software product.

One Programmer's Opinion
Monday, February 23, 2004

Ok,  I don't see what the problem is.  Assuming your intelligent, (and nothing in your writing or skills listed suggests otherwise), you seem a great addition to any team.  First of all, being old is an asset, since your much more client friendly.  Believe me, clients don't like seeing that young college kids like myself are working on a project.  They like seeing older, experienced, confident but not cocky; kinda folk like yourself.    On top of that, i've found the best managers are programmers that are just a little older and a little wiser, the type that can keep the "grunts" like myself focused, not making mistakes you made, etc.  Good luck.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Maybe you can tell us what do you really enjoy doing? What is your bottom line in terms of money?
Would work for $70k per year make you happy if you can do it from your home office and there are no cold calls involved?  Or you really need (want) at least $200k per year? Ask yourself these type of questions and you will become more clear about what oportunities are right for you.

(C++ Java C#) coder
Monday, February 23, 2004

I wouldn't exactly say Delphi is "difficult", stick with your C++ skills and move to a more progressive city. Do you have any domain, publishing, distribution? Market yourself as a consultant to your domain who happens to know how to program; not, for example, a programmer that knows the real estate market.  In the meantime post a link to some programs you wrote or are writing so we can see your stuff.

Tom Vu
Monday, February 23, 2004

The older you are the harder it is to move just for the sake of work.  There's probably a house to sell, children in school, spouse in their own work and so on; and if not that, then maintenance payments and paying for two properties.

Its not like you're 25 with no ties and the wanderlust in your soul.

I've had several lean years, years that started out well that fizzled out and years that were mostly chicken scratchings with the odd little golden nugget.

This year might be a good year.  I am lucky though, I've worked for myself long enough not to be worried about the ups and downs and the vicissitudes, plus I pretty much decide to do interesting things. 

Some of the things I do to support that luxury are mundane and low paid but they involve people and when you largely work alone that kind of connection becomes important.

Occasionally I think of teaching, but the barriers of entry and the compromises I'd have to make on what I'd teach are too high.

What certainly seems to be the case is that at 48 I'm not going to get any corporate employer to give me a job that makes any sense. I stepped off the corporate ascension ladder a long time ago and I've rarely regretted it.

I can't use the 'If I were you' phrase because it would make no sense, about all I'd suggest would be sitting down with the whole family and deciding what resources you need to live the lifestyle you can accept to roll the dice on changing what you do now in the reasonable hope that it will make you and your family happier.

That's a personal equation that no one else can solve except you.  Enjoy rolling the dice though, whatever you decide.

Simon Lucy
Monday, February 23, 2004

I highly recommend looking into the sales engineer option.

Good people skills AND technical knowledge are a rarity.

That mix won't be valued much if you're working with a peole who do not have good people skills. But those people skills will be golden when working with real people (customers).

And, the closer you are to the money, the more of it you get.

A good salesman can make a lot more than a good programmer.  And a bad programmer can hide in the bureaucracy. A bad salesman can't. Sales are much more measurable than programming. So that means that, if you're a good salesman, you'll stick out head and shoulders.

And all those things that seem like negatives of being old are really positives that customers will key into. (.e.g, "I'm not low energy, I"m calm an rational ... and I'm listening.  I'm not uneager... I'm just carefully thinking this design through).

My $.02 worth.

The real Entrepreneur
Monday, February 23, 2004

>>> Ok,  I don't see what the problem is.  ... First of all, being old is an asset, since your much more client friendly.  Believe me, clients don't like seeing that young college kids like myself are working on a project.  ... On top of that, i've found the best managers are programmers that are just a little older and a little wiser, ....<<<

vince, your difficulty in seeing the problem is a matter of perspective.  If you're a young college kid then 35-40 is older.  But there is no additional advantage if you're 50 or 60 or 70.  In fact, additional age becomes a liability.

If you're the least bit observant of the human condition you will see a lot of prejudice and bigotry aimed at older people just because they are older.  You'll even see it right here on JoS, where, according to some posters, the ultimate test of software usability is that it should be "granny proof".  Someone could be a "granny" in their mid-50s and be expecting to be in the work force another 20 years or more.

It is a bit difficult to determine just how pervasive the problem is.  In the US there are some laws against age discrimination, so nobody is going to admit to it.  Well, usually they won't.  I have read a couple of where-the-jobs-are articles in which some employers were explicit about not hiring older workers.

Monday, February 23, 2004

I find it funny how people complain about being discriminated against due to age while at the same time trying to sell being older as an asset.

Either age matters (in which case discrimination is sensible, as age may be a positive or a negative), or it doesn't (in which discrimination is stupid, much like discrimination based on gender).

Personally, I'm squarely in the age doesn't matter camp, but like I said, it seems the most vocal complainers against age discrimination are themselves acknowledging they feel age can matter!

So what's it going to be then, eh?

Sum Dum Gai
Monday, February 23, 2004


As usual, things aren't always black & white.  Age can be an asset to some people, a liability to others, and a non-issue to still others. 

Dan Brown
Monday, February 23, 2004

I'm 39 next month, and I first encountered age discrimination just over 10 years ago when I was told my age was a "problem".  The company that had just hired me had a *policy* of not hiring anyone over 30, and I was too close to that age.

It rapidly became obvious that the boss sought to bully his workforce, and the older you were, the harder it was for him to do so.

We argued.  I walked out.

But it did reinforce a valuable lesson.  Keep your outgoings low, and you keep your options open.  Put money aside.  Don't expect the good times to last.  This is good advice for anyone, but especially for those who think that their lifespan in their chosen career might not match their lifespan in work.

David B. Wildgoose
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

One place to focus may be in the ASP/Software as service business (not on your own, but as part of a team).  This sector has a larger focus on the operational, and so the total experience brought in (not just writing code,  but uptime, quality, cost-effectiveness, maintainability) has more value than just getting some routines written for the next product, which can easily be outsourced anyway.

The other benefits are that an ASP can choose it's own platforms, and also that the longer you stay, the more valuable you are. They also have some good hard problems.

I'm in the UK, so I don't know what the sector is like in the US (it's not great here :( )

jim dallas
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

"As usual, things aren't always black & white.  Age can be an asset to some people, a liability to others, and a non-issue to still others. "

That's what I mean by age not being a factor. It's not age that makes someone the way they are, it's the individual.

I mean, in general men are faster runners than women. But the fastest 100 metre female sprinter in the world would kick my arse any day. Generalities don't matter when you're talking about individuals.

So since you hire individuals, not demographics, it's pointless to base decisions on age. It's also pointless for older people to say "but I'm X, Y and Z because I'm older". Sell yourself as X, Y and Z, as virtues in and of themselves, if you expect not to be discriminated by age. Don't be surprised if age becomes a factor if you bring it into the equation!

Sum Dum Gai
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I'll be 48 in a couple months, but I look younger.  People always mistake me for 30-something and I don't correct them.  I also got my Masters Degree in 1988 so that's where I start my resume - the almost 20 years prior are left in off; they don't matter anyway.  HR sees my resume with MS in 1988, Sr development positions ever since and think I must be low 30s.  Not sure if it helps you, but it seems to help me at least get in the door for the interview before they discover that I'm older than the owners of the company (has been the case for my last two jobs).

One thing that bugs me is that I work with and make about the same money as people 15 years younger; they've just advanced faster by staying in one industry while I've bounced around - it's not bad money.  Here I am, almost 50 and I'm still "just a programmer."  A senior one, but just a programmer all the same.  I never talk about my age - it's embarassing some days.

Where have all the old programmer gone?  The ones I went to college with in the 70s?

Bathmophobic skier
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

"I find it funny how people complain about being discriminated against due to age while at the same time trying to sell being older as an asset."

It's not being older, but having experience that is an asset. It's not contradictory to oppose age discrimination and yet tout experience. Not everyone who is older has valuable experience. Age != experience, although it is a prerequisite. And likewise youth != energetic, although it certainly helps.

I'm 46, that's all the energy I have to write now...

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

One thing I have learned in folllowing economics and the job market since I was a kid is that there is no future in predicting the future.  Programming skills could be almost valueless in 10 years or they could be through the roof.  It depends on too many unpredictable factors including people's current predictions of how valuable such skills will be in ten years.  Sure programming today is a youngsters game.  That perception is based on fast advancing technology and the fact that most people get set in their ways pretty early (think of all the people who tell you that Java, C# or OO are crap).  The standard path in programming, as in most engineering fields is up to management.

If you don't want to manage other programmers but like the field in general then sales engineer is a good job.  Of course some people just can't sell and it might involve a lot of travel.  How to get into it?  The first thing I would do is inquire at companies at which I worked.  I would talk to my friends at those and other companies and ask for an introduction to someone in the sales engineer department.

I would approach it from the point of view that I am looking for a change and maybe there is someone I could talk to to see if this job is for me.  This serves two purposes.  It will help you see if the job is for you and also would provide a pre-interview with someone who might actually have a job for you.

After that I would find an agressive recruiter.

Other job possibilities for a senior programmer looking to move up?  Analyst of various sorts.  Start a business helping other small businesses with their computer stuff.  There is also a non-lawyer job at some patent firms in which I think you read and/or research patents.  It takes some technical expertise (yours would be software obviously) but the pay can be good.  My attorney told me his senior people make $120K/annum.

name withheld out of cowardice
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

That would be interesting to learn about similar processes in other indistries: auto, avia, etc. I think the number of engineers and kind of work they do have changed as industry getting mature. May be it's possible to find some analogy and predict where to move. Any suggestions where to look for such materials ?

Michael Popov
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

If you want to stay in development, you can always go and work on a huge dinosaur system using tech non of the pimplefaced youths would want to touch with a bargepole.
Of course there's the risk of picking the wrong system, one that will be totally replaced with some fresh future extinction candidate during your carreer lifetime.
Another drawback is that you will miss out on all the new stuff, but that might not seem to be such a disadvantage to some.

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

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