Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Ask HN: Is 36 too late to start into programming?
48 points by viktorino 2471 days ago | hide | past | web | 73 comments | favorite
I was a PHB in a Spanish internet company, now unemployed. I have some cool ideas to implement in the Web but have little programming background and I'm 36. Is too late for me to join the party?

There was a quote (can't seem to find it right now) from a Nobel prize winner about 10 years ago. He said that he didn't start the research project that led to him winning the Nobel until he was 65. He was in his 80s at the time of receiving the award, and he said that the lesson was that you're never too old to start something new.

Now, I realize this is a quaint little parable, but think about it: He started at 65 and was rewarded around 20 years later. What do you think you could accomplish given 20 years? That would only put you at 56, so you probably can get another 20 year project in before your time's up.

Oh, also...while looking for the quote, I came across this in one of the Nobel prize winner's autobiographies:

In 1988, I retired, kept my office, gave up systematic experimental work and started to work on kinetic models for the overall reaction of the pump on computer. For this I had to learn how to programme, quite interesting, and amazing what you can do with a computer from the point of view of handling even complicated models. And even if my working hours are fewer, being free of all obligations, the time I spent on scientific problems are about the same as before my retirement.

This is from Jens Skou (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1997/...). He was born in 1918. So he started programming at 70.

Is 36 too late? What do you think?

One of my friends in college was a 72 year old widow who was bored and decided to go back to school. She was in some classes on theoretical linguistics, German and Latin with me. She had had little formal education earlier in her life, but was one of the best students and an incredibly fun person to study with. We ended up graduating together.

So really I think it's all a matter of your own personality and attitude. If you're willing to work hard and are genuinely interested, I definitely think you can do it.

It seems so rare that we have the opportunity to forge relationships with people far outside our own age ranges. What a great experience.

No. I have a friend who discovered programming at around age 40. He is now ~45 and doing Ruby on Rails programming instead of his old blue collar job.

That said, I think you probably won't succeed as a programmer unless programming seems fun and interesting to you. If you've worked with programmers, but never tried programming before now, that might be a warning sign.

Still, best way to find out is to try. Start with something small and simple and see if you enjoy the process. Good luck.

My brother is 46, has an MBA from UCLA, business owner, doesn't need to work for anybody else for the rest of his life, grown up kids, etc. He started with typing classes ages ago, went through the motions with MS Office tutorials .. and now he is somewhere taking advanced Excel scripting, really funky stuff involving ODBC connections and ETL. He is just one of those people who never stopped going to night schools and now he is very sophisticated.

I would say go for it.

I started learning when I was 12, and the reason was to create Mortal Kombat 4[12yr olds don't have any concept of copyright]. I think just trying to implement it led me to learn the language[pascal at the time]. If I was to start over now at 26 or even 36 for the first time, it would be much much easier and faster in terms of understanding. Although my mind might not be as agile as when I was 12, I have experienced much more of the world now. What this means is I can make more associations than a 12 year old. I have more resources. I used to have to steal a glance at my sister's Dietel and Dietel Pascal programming book. My first c++ compiler was a bootleg and had to use web resources to learn. Kids don't have any money as an adult you do, and you can afford to go to classes and buy books. You know more people as an adult[only had my sister]. You can ask any number of questions to your network of hackers until you grasp the concept.

This post struck a cord as I'm 36 and just started coding about 6 months ago. It's been, shall we say, difficult.

My lesson 1, you gotta find others who are learning or are already doing and are willing to chat and share war stories. In a vacuum you will quickly lose motivation from all the minor failures that (attempting) coding results in.

My lesson 2, forget the idea that if I read this and that book I'm good to go with this or that language. Coding requires heaps of hands on practice, and once again, failure.

My lesson 3, coding requires a shift in brain patterns, literally. It takes a super eye for detail and a focus I simply have a hard time maintaining. And the question becomes, the question I find most pertinent, do you want that shift? It's not good or bad, but I'm convinced that if I were ever to be proficient in this field I would have to really alter my way of approaching problems and even perceiving the World around me.

No it's not. It's never too late. Pick up a book, write your first "Hello World!" program, and go from there. Never feel insecure about your age. Never try to convince yourself you have knowledge you don't. Take it one day at a time and one step at a time. Don't leap ahead. Always move from the known to the unknown. Do what you love. Love what you do. If you love programming, it doesn't matter how old you are, you'll get good at it and be able to deliver value to someone who will pay you. Best of luck!!

It's taken me about 5 years to feel comfortable enough to put myself out there to the world as a competent programmer. You have to want it, I can't tell you how many all nighters I have put in researching problems, trying coding patterns, etc. Find a bunch of proverbial nails and start hammering away.

speaking of all nighters.

you should try sleeping. it's super-effective.

Think about it like this. They say it takes 10000 hours of practice to master something. You aren't too old until you don't have 10000 hours left. (That's just 1.7 years of awake time, assuming you sleep 8 hours a day.)

Thanks for the positive advice. I've decided. I want to be a programmer, I love build things myself. And yes, we hit HN frontpage. great start =).

It's too late to start programming when you decide it's too late.

Pick a language. Python is easy to learn and rewarding.

Grab a book.

Write some code!

One of my colleagues is a sixty year old PHP developer who was a nurse in the army until he was 45, decided to get a degree from Open University and took it from there.

Never too late.

I'm 37 and studying with the Open University. With full-time (non-technical) work and a family, the time demands can be quite high (so high that I don't have time to work on my own project) but I think the benefits of a structured education can't be overstated.

No, it's not too late. I started at 37 and it took me 2.5 months to get my first app using codeigniter. Although i had some experience programming when i was in college, it was 17/18 years ago so i had to learn a new language and found it relatively easy to start. I'm not the best programmer but i'm improving day by day, and the feeling i have when i get through a problem is really great. Reminds me of my times in college where i would be up at 3am compiling some code on a 8086... My regret is that i should have done it a few years before... Just do it!...

Except for some of the details, this is my story too -- had coded at an earlier stage in life, but gotten away from it, then returned in mid 30s.

As advancement in my first career began to look more and more remote, I had found myself wishing I had become a computer programmer, and was frustrated that changing course was so hard. One day about two years ago I decided that if I wanted to become a programmer, then I should start programming. If I didn't keep up with the programming, then ipso facto I didn't want to be a programmer.

Two years on, with a few college classes under my belt (basically useful, but probably dispensable), and a couple of side projects in various states of disrepair, I've got an low level coding internship with a very supportive employer.

I'm hardly brilliant programmer, but my employer hasn't kicked me out the door yet. The corporate environment is, at best, ok, and I would probably prefer not to have a job at all, but I am learning a lot. As far as jobs go, I can't imagine a better one than the one I've got. I expect that what I'm learning will open doors in the future, and the despair that clouded my first career is replaced by a sense of (I hate buzzwords, but here one comes) empowerment.

Most importantly, I really enjoy tooling around with my (two) side projects. Having fun problems to work on is the best.

36 years, count 5 years to become proficient, it remains something like 25 years to enjoy your new expertise.

On the other hand, if it's for starting a company, perhaps that your skills would be better used elsewhere than in learning a full new world, and so taking a developer with you may be the best.

I admire you for getting in late, and knowing what life is like without it. Do it. You might have a good experience if you do this: get python, and follow some tutorials to set up a web server using SimpleHTTPServer. I don't know what project you have in mind, but as general advice I'd recommend that you avoid any and all javascript until you've got a good feel for crafting sites on a page-by-page basis.

Programming is the man behind the curtain, your job is to build a simple system that might solve a complex problem. The system cares none about the age of the creator, nor do the users.

The ageism in programming is only a side-effect of it being a new industry really since the 80s for desktop and 90s for web. You don't find many people in any industry much older than the industry itself.

It depends on a combination of factors: background education, personal inclinations, innate abilities, and so on.

I'd say it's not too late, but it takes time. You can trade your existing experience against the native wit/speed of the youngsters, but it still takes time to learn to program.

Especially to learn to program for someone else, by which I mean robust and comprehensive enough to be used by people you don't know, in ways you'll have difficulty imagining.

So it depends a lot on both you and your ideas. Are you willing to work as hard as a founder has to, but on someone else's ideas? I would recommend starting to learn to program, but floating your ideas to some experienced developers as well with the intent of finding someone to work with. If you can do all the business stuff, and are mildly technical, and they can do all the deep technical, and appreciate the business stuff, then you can have a formidable partnership.

After all, PG recommends having a co-founder ...

Doesn't pg recommends all technical co-founders?

No. In fact if I had to guess I'd say two founders - one business and one technical might be the median YC company. Even if not, it doesn't seem like a big outlier given the founders I've met.

Having no technical founders is different. I believe that's happened only once in YC, and the founders were teaching themselves to be technical people at the time.

It's not too late.

A new free online school for learning Ruby is just getting started, Ruby Mendicant University: http://blog.majesticseacreature.com/quick-rmu-status-update

Get your entrance exam in by Sunday and you've got a shot at being a part of the first round of sessions.

At 32 I was a pretty successful as an entrepreneur but deeply unfulfilled. I dropped what I was doing to learn how to program. At 34 I'm an ok programmer and couldn't be happier about the decision. It might be hard to convince the people around you that you're still sane, but if you love it people will pick up on that and get on board.

Good luck!

Ideas is what matters the most in my opinion... go for it, buy a book and get your hands dirty. Another option would be to leave the technical stuff to a co-founder.

It really depends on what you want to do. If you just want to see your ideas done, but don't care that much about programming itself, then you would probably be better off teaming up with a good programmer and providing whatever skills you have that he or she doesn't.

If, on the other hand, you feel you're really interested in programming then, by all means, go ahead and take the plunge. However, bear in mind that it will take you more or less 10 years to become an expert. It doesn't really have anything to do with age, it's just how much time people need to get excellent at something.

If you feel undecided about whether you're really interested in coding or not, give it a shot and find out. If you really like coding, you'll know it.

no, no es tarde. pero comienza ya. te recomendaria python o ruby son mas faciles, disponibles y los dos tienen amplas comunidades. suerte!

I started when I was 38. I feel like I've been playing catch-up for 30 years, but I've never regretted the change. You will always have something more to learn. Isn't that what keeps you alive?

I've seen this question asked by many people over the years. It's never too late for anyone to start programming. As long as you have a hunger for knowledge and creation, plus a fair amount of patience you will learn to program well.

If you stick with it, in a year you will have laid the foundation for your problem-solving skills. In just a couple years you will be able to produce all kinds of things. In 10 years there won't be a problem you can't tackle with perhaps a little more reading online and a few hours in your favorite text editor or IDE.

If however you don't hunger for the ability to create but simply want to flesh out your ideas then you might consider finding a programmer (or rather, a talented web developer) to create your sites. Either way I don't believe there is an age in your life where you just can't figure it out.

I have some cool ideas to implement in the Web...

Programmer thinking: cool, ideas, Web

PHB speak: some, implement

If order to have the right mindset for programming, you must replace "some" with "one" and "implement" with "build".

In other words:

1. Is there something that you just have to have?

2. Do you absolutely have to build the first version yourself?

If you can answer both questions "yes", then, by all means, get started. Just start building something. Resources are right at your fingertips. You don't need college, classes, or special training, just a burning desire to learn what you need in order to build what you have to build.

If, on the other hand, either of your answers was "no", then you probably should stay a manager and assemble a team/project to pursue your ideas.

Either way, age has nothing to do with it. All that matters is what you really want. And the only one who can determine that is you.

I disagree: I'm a programmer; I have "some" ideas and I "implement" them. Works for me.

I disagree: I'm a programmer; I have "some" ideas and I "implement" them. Works for me.

I am also a programmer and it also works for me.

But grandparent was addressed to OP, who has already self-identified as a PHB, a totally different audience.

When another programmer talks about "implementing some things", I know exactly what he's talking about. He's going to dig down at his terminal and make things happen.

But when a PHB says the same words, it has totally different meaning. Why? Because these are "fluffy" words which infer different things from different sources. A PHB "implementing some things" probably means project plans and meetings, not coding in the trenches.

I think that the most important thing for OP to do is to stop thinking like a PHB and start thinking like a programmer. In his case, this means focusing on specific details and digging more than 1 level below the surface, 2 things at which PHBs are notoriously weak. If he continues to think "some" and "implement", he'll never shed his PHB skin and grow the new programmer persona he'll need. That's all.

You should try having "a few" ideas and "whipping them up". It's changed my whole perspective.

Bullseye, edw519. Respect.

Go for it, IMO all you have missed out on is a lot of pain and redundant learning :)

Imagine web design never having known IE5.5 ... it's like a dream...

The power available now compared to 10 years ago to create stunning applications with only basic programming knowledge is phenomenal. I do suggest you skip the web and go learn a mobile platform though, android development is a good (and free!) place to start as it's still relatively new so there are lots of people learning and great resources available.


With luck you can be a lumberjack well into your 50s.

But once a hacker, forever a hacker.

Not if you love the act of programming. You will know when you've programmed for a couple of months. You can teach yourself but in the end you really have to enjoy the process of programming. Helps to find out which concentration in programming you are good at: databases, games, engineering, etc...

It's never too late. Since you have interest in implementing ideas on the web, you are already on to an easier path with the many frameworks available.

Get started with building your mockups and slowly get the functionalities in when you are finding your way with the programming framework.

Both partnering with an experienced developer , and outsourcing to a low cost country can offer a better route for development (if done well), and could really help your ideas to succeed.

If you want to build businesses out of your ideas , you'll have enough to do and learn.

36? Of course not. Try a bit of programming for a month or two. Pick up a book on Ruby and work through a few of the chapters. If you find you start thinking about programming more and more, then keep at it. It's never too late to learn something new.

You may face ageism issues when you look for jobs especially if you are not good at self promotion. OTOH you may have some great domain knowledge which will give you an edge over the kids if you are thinking about programming in your area of expertise.

focus on what you do best, if possible. aka manage/organize etc... aka find a coder and collaborate with him.

No matter your age, to learn code is not done over night. focus on getting things done.

my 2cts... im older than you but i started to code in early 80's :)

Nope, its never too late to try and succeed.

The only requirement is that you do have mindset suitable for programming. I've seen quite a few people struggle with programming who don't have an inherent logical thinking cap on their head!

Don't see why not, depends I guess if your unemployed and need to get employment/ make money quick or if you have time to really get into what your doing and learn programming.


My grandfather got into programming in his late 70s. He was a fund manager and just wanted to do it by himself.

Now he is dead but I keep source listings of his code.

It may be too late. I'm not saying that because there's some kind of time limit. However, why did you wait until 36 to start? I'm not suggesting you couldn't do it. I'm suggesting that it may just be that you don't love programming. There's nothing wrong with that.

But don't force yourself to learn something you don't love. Much better to partner with someone who does love programming.

If you do love programming, then do it by any means necessary.

I think if you are forced to do it, it won't work. If you do it for the fun, there's is no age.

The strength of your desire is more important than the age of your brain cells.

Don't ask and hesitate, just do it and implement them. :)

Yes, it is too late. At age 36 all you are likely to be thinking about is retirement and old age homes. That, and trying to remember your children's names and where you left your dentures.

That's sarcasm, you old fart.

What does PHB mean? pointy haired boss ?

that was the conclusion I came to when googling.

Just build it. Google is all you need.

Yeah, be sure to cut-n-paste as much code from random blogs and forums as possible. Don't worry about understanding or thinking... Google is all you need!

It worked for phpBB and Wordpress...


Get yourself to build stuff and enjoy!

print 'No, it is never too late to learn.';


Ideas and work ethic matter more than previous skills.

You might get a leg up by choosing a technical co-founder that is willing to be your mentor on your programming education.

My legally blind grandfather learned to paint when he was 70, I'm sure you can learn to move some bits around.

36 years isn't the end of the world. Have a day work to pay the mortgage and code!.

If you've owned a computer for the last six months at least, and haven't already learned at least some programming then I'd suggest you probably don't have a particular aptitude for it - give it a go anyway though, and if you enjoy it then don't stop. Please don't just do it for the money though - all the worst programmers I've met fall into that category, and none of the best.

On the other hand, web programming is exceptionally easy...

On the other hand, web programming is exceptionally easy...

No, it's not. The only thing easy in programming is writing trivial examples and small stuff like that. Writing a non-trivial program that has to be used by real users and is expected to have as few bugs as possible is not easy at all.

Compared to non-web programming, the tools are better, more well developed and the languages/formats require substantially less knowledge. This is all well documented.

If thats not easy, what is?

"If you've owned a computer for the last six months at least, and haven't already learned at least some programming then I'd suggest you probably don't have a particular aptitude for it"

I don't think that's been true since the 1980's or so. There are so many things to do with a computer that writing programs might be something that takes years to get to, and not all systems make it all that obvious or easy how to start. The days when your computer had only a handful of programs and a BASIC so you could write your own are long gone.

You can't become a programmer. You are either born one or not. To have your answer, you'll have to try your hand at it. Nobody can predict that for you.

I have to agree with those who disagree. While there are those of us who are genetically predispositions to become techies, anyone with the drive and will can be a great programmer. It's hard work and usually takes much more effort but I have known some ubertechies who weren't born to it. Never underestimate the power of determination and desire.

That's a very strong claim. I'm not sure I believe it - do you have a citation?

Actually, it not falsifiable. If you succeed, you were born for it. If you don't you weren't.

The idea is that the only way he can find it out is by trying. Some of the best programmers I have met did come from outside compsci field - biologists, psychologists, and, yes, a business manager. The point is he must try to know whether he can - and is willing to - do it.

And, BTW, what good would a citation do? It would be as unfalsifiable as my claim.

There's often examples at this address of people who successfully became programmers but were born for something else:


There are programmers and there are people who can write programs. There is a huge difference.

No, I think you will find that there is not a huge difference - in fact, the definition of programmer is one who writes programs.

I've seen the word developer used as an extension of programmer - someone who doesn't need a pseudocode specification to turn a requirement into a solution, whereas a programmer may be someone who just translates the spec into a machine-readable format. Both are programmers, though.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact