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Can you start a successful tech career later in life? (newyorker.com)
42 points by kunle 1259 days ago | hide | past | web | 51 comments | favorite

One of the best examples I know of is someone we hired at Viaweb, Jonathan Yedidia.


He had a PhD in physics and then became a professional chess player (44th in the world IIRC). He hadn't done much programming, but I knew him from high school and figured someone as smart as him could learn to program pretty quickly. Which is exactly what happened. Now he's a CS researcher.

Disney Research is an impressive place that I never knew existed.

The answer is certainly yes. There are many people working in the tech industry who are older than 35, 45, or even 55.

Tech is not any different from other professional fields like law, medicine, engineering, etc., other than being a much younger industry.

Being a much younger industry, it is easy for the young people in tech to believe that one must be young to succeed in tech. But in reality it's a sort of "anthropic principle"--obviously a young industry will be filled with young people in its early days.

But, those days are over, and the industry it maturing. With each passing year it gets easier and easier for older folks to break into tech.

Can they become dynamic founders of aggressive, entrepreneurial, successful companies? The answer is still yes, to the extent that anyone can do that. That type of talent is very rare generally, so it will also be very rare in older workers. But certainly there are examples of older workers who start hot tech companies. Marc Benioff was 35 when he started Salesforce. Martin Eberhard was 43 when he started Tesla.

I've been hacking since childhood but my formal education took longer than normal (becoming a teen parent meant I had to work full-time and go to school part-time). I had 2 technology jobs before starting my own companies. I've had my own startups/businesses since 2000 and I'm now in my late 30s.

My biggest fear career-wise is that, should my company go under or sell for non-FU money, I am basically un-hireable. I feel like I am a founder until death or retirement now. Most of me is fine with that because I love it, but part of me would like having the other option.

I even wonder if being an older founder makes it hard to hire young talent or raise money. Dave McClure even said on TWiS that they don't even want founders over 40 in their accelerator.

Fortunately, I've got plenty of skills, experience and I look younger than I am (I pluck the gray hairs out of my beard). We shall see ...

You'd be fine. The most important thing is whether you have a portfolio to demonstrate that you can get stuff done. You do.

Something completely unstated here is the practical demands required of startup employees and founders and entry level tech workers. Most of those demands conflict with someone who has kids and other responsibilities, such as long and odd hours with a high pace. Statistically older people will come with more baggage and are much less willing to put up with harsh and in some cases ridiculous work schedules that are required of interns and new hires.

This is the same for any high competition job and I think Wall Street is a perfect example for this because it is very similar in practice.

There are way more parallels between Wall Street and Silicon Valley than I think either group would care to admit.

I recently interviewed for a Sr Dev position at a large 200+ Los Angeles based consulting firm. Before the Interview I decided to check out the people who work there on LinkedIn. Of the 30 or so developers I found only 5 had a CS/CIS/EE/CE/Math degree. The rest where 30 somethings with degrees in English, Music, and other under utilized fields. Most of them had attended one of those 1 year coding school programs. Some where holding Senior positions with less than 3 years of development experience and no formal degree.

Obviously a top tier company’s roster doesn’t look like this. But it was interesting to see how much the job market for developers has changed. This is my first time looking for a new job in 7 years. Clearly the demand for tech has changed the landscape and made lots of opportunities for middle aged people with little to no experience.

I was 32 when I got my first programming gig. I had programmed a lot as a teen then did other things in my 20's. Went back to school and got a BS. I think my grad date being 10 years after a pipeline students makes people assume i'm younger than I am :)

I think there is an additional question here, which is if you can return to a tech career that you started early on but abandoned when you forayed into management. But one day you realize that your hobby of programming is so much more satisfying. I am trying this right now, but it's not easy, especially since people think that you are moving downwards if you're going back into tech.

I'm in a similar situation to yours. Although I did start programming at around 13 (BASIC and Z80 assembly on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum), I moved into product management and marketing (in the technology industry) around a decade ago. I've always been a programmer though. I have CS degrees both undergrad and at grad school and even as a marketer I would write code at home to explore technology and as means of recreation -- just not for work.

I recently quit my job to run my own business, and I returned to programming for a living once again. Some observations on the differences between the 22 year old me in grad school and the 41 year old me as a programmer:

In terms of raw stamina to power though writing code, 22 year old me won hands down. I recall taking about 45-90 days to churn out a 35KLOC piece of Java code, One sprint during those 90 days was a 48-hour non-stop effort. I still have that code, and although it still works (with some changes) it's not the best code I've written. 41 year old me can barely manage 10 hours a day of coding before being too tired to continue. But I'm an order of magnitude more effective in getting the job done. And several orders of magnitude better at estimating how long a programming task will take. This happens because I've developed an intuition over the years for avoiding design and coding paths that are 'risky' -- no threads in my code, for example.

To address your point of perception of others that you are moving downwards, there certainly seems to be a perception of it. Early in my business endeavors, I'd pitch my services directly as a contract programmer, and I found that folks would be very reluctant to hire me - especially as the resume had several years of marketing and product management on it. I also suspect they may have inferred that I was expensive. Not true. But that was the perception.

I changed tactics a little later. I would pitch similar services as a firm (with me as founder), and sales process went swimmingly! Now the resume, with a decade of experience in management at large tech companies and the MBA, would open the door to the CEO/SVP level.

In addition, many of my early referrals came from folks in my network who knew me as a 22-year old and were in CEO/VP positions themselves, and were glad to refer me to their colleagues.

So, my advice to you, would be to not handicap yourself by competing on the same playing field as your younger competitors. Simply competing on pure programming prowess, even if you're good, would take away your strengths. Just change the game. Use the management experience you have to your advantage.

Thank you, very good advice. I actually had success in a similar way, by tying engineering work in the form of prototyping and proof of concepts to my management consultancy projects. I am just trying to increase the engineering side of it all :)

I spent about 6 months in management and it was the worst experience in my career. I will never do that again. I'm back to writing code. I don't know why anyone would want to be a manager.

There is a creeping way from S/W engineering to being a staff engineer to being the software architect... Along that way you get dragged into meetings where you end up not having much competitive pressure - since the others are business people, but you end up shining and you get on the fast track. I enjoyed it very much, since I love doing tech-strategy and big picture planning. That said being a project manager - if this is what you mean - is not creative and unsatisfying.

This is very insightful. I never really considered the fact that I was crushing cans on the way up but it is definitely true.

I've been tacking towards "out of management" for a few years and it is not easy. Taking a "step down" is hard but only because of my own petty status-seeking and I've gotten past that. What I can't figure out is the salary problem. There are some developers who can get paid as well as I do, but not any in my industry where developers are a pure cost-center - I don't work in a software company. Changing industry with 7 year old tech skills (aside from open-source and side-projects) without taking a huge salary cut is impossible.

Take the salary cut. Consider it paying yourself to do something you love 40 hours a week. That's your life man, that time you spend at work.

Can you expand on why you thought your experience was so bad? I'm just curious.

I was the direct manager for software engineers at a big public hosting company. Being a line manager was miserable. I thought going into management I'd have more ability to influence things but I had less. I had no time to write code, and so I wasn't taking part in technology decisions outside of approving with whatever the team decided, and they are smart people, they didn't need any hand holding. I couldn't influence anything at all with the director who managed me, all I did was communicate whatever he wanted to the engineers. I couldn't influence other teams. I basically sat in meetings, listened to 1-1's and just relayed information. Another team had someone struggling and so I got to do a bit of mentoring there, but I didn't have to be a manager to do that. It just seemed like I was always fighting with HR for my engineers, fighting my boss for my engineers, trying to get other teams to respond to my engineer's needs. It sucked. I think the people on my team were happy with me, but I want to write code. I want to make things. Engineering has a career track that makes sense, when I looked at managers who were my peers I saw politics, and one-upsmanship. I just want to make good products. I don't want to play mind games. I want to do the best I can. I don't need to rise up the ranks. I just want to learn and do cool things with software.

It was a great learning experience though, because before I became a manager I thought that was like a natural progression, something that I had to do, something that I felt I couldn't shirk from, something where people recognized me for my skills, but in reality it's just a shit job, a dead end, unless you're one of the few who advances up the latter, because you know what, all of my managers and my manager's managers were all just relaying their manager's will down the pyramid.

When you are a software engineer you see things you do create value. You build things that work and do stuff. When you're a manager, I have no idea what I contributed. What did I do last week where I earned my pay? I have no idea.

Anyway, I'm glad I survived and am back to writing code. It involved getting a new job at a new place as soon as possible before I got too rusty. I was writing code at home all that time so that helped.

That painted a pretty insightful picture, thank you for posting it!

I was curious because I had heard for quite a number of people who had switched tracks from engineer to management and found it unsatisfying but they didn't go into as much detail as you did in your post.

It's popular to hate on being a manager!

It's similar to how you'll hear people in academia refer to "industry." It's a popular thing to put down.

I don't think your comment is appropriate in this context. The GGP said that he was a manager for awhile but didn't like it. I doubt that the reason he didn't like it was because of some meme about not liking it.

The typical reasons why a developer might not like management are because you're spending more time with people instead of code, you're looking at the product at a higher level rather than dealing with the details of coding, you have to deal with more politics, and you might not have the tools to be successful (i.e. current set of employees were hired before you, not enough budget, other business decisions aren't compatible with success, etc.)

Many companies have a "manage or be managed" environment, in the sense that you're either on a narrowly-defined team doing drone work, or you're a boss man.

The appeal of being a manager to an engineer is the ability to allocate projects and work on the interesting stuff. Of course, very few managers get to actually do that-- it might be the 5 percent who have managerial titles but few or no reports, all of whom are pretty self-motivated.

Sounds more prestigious if you call it software engineering rather than programming. The first is analogous to architect, the second brick-layer.

Another important point is that for older techies, there is a different mental mindset when it comes to making code public. Of the best S/W engineers that I know, no one has a Github account. They give talks in small groups, give lots of personal advice, some are champions of pair programming, but they don't put their code in public. It makes it harder to network and gain attention.

I can do whatever the fuck I want and nobody is going to stop me. Seriously.

Well jolly good for you. Out of interest, do you want to do anything particularly outlandish and is anyone actually trying to stop you? Because otherwise this level of extreme seriousness may be entirely uneccessary.

I'm tired of this pseudo-intellectual banter about age and if it matters.

No it doesn't matter. Go out and do what you want!

Absolutely, but because of ageism you'll probably have to prove yourself in some way a little more than others. I suspect someone in their 20s can get by without having some github and/or webapps on their LinkedIn but if you're ...say...40+ with no tech-work to show anyone, you're going to have a tougher time. You really ought to have something that shows what you can do. I'd argue that just about anyone, regardless of age, gender or race would do well to have some URLs showing some kind of work they've done. I know the door-opener for all my jobs beyond my first one(AT&T) was because of all the hacking & coding on my blog and youtube channel that I linked to on my LinkedIn. I know this because they told me in the interview and/or the email when they first reach out to me. The material tells them, at the minimum, that they're not completely wasting their time evaluating me. Or, based on the content maybe they know immediately I'm not qualified and never contact me.

For the record, besides AT&T I've never used my social-network to get a job. All of them since have been cold-calls from them based on my public-LinkedIn, or me sending a company I'm interested in my LinkedIn profile... then I cross my fingers.

Later in life? You mean like after 18?

I am attending Network Security and Compliance courses and I have in class a 50 and something guy.

At first everyone kind of smiled, but then smiles disappeared, as it turned out he was much better than most in class. Additionally he had a better job than the rest in the class as well.

So I agree, the answer is yes -I guess.

Would be difficult to say the least, especially if you do not have a STEM background. As PG says, at least 10 years hacking experience is the minimum bar. But if you are an innovator/marketing genius and can muster a tech team, you can definitely be a successful founder.

30 is when you finally get it though.

That's the cruelty of age discrimination. By the time you're any good, opportunities start disappearing.

(At 30, you're still quite hireable, but you do start losing options. Most of the options that disappear from 22 to 30 are of horrendously low quality. I hope that is also true from 30 to 40, 40 to 50, etc.)

As someone who is changing careers from support/ops into dev at 30, age discrimination terrifies me.

I'm already having problems in my current career when prospective employers google me and find out I'm building up my GitHub account. They either think I'm going to leave immediately or they think that I'm trying to backdoor my way into a dev position at their company.

This happened to me twice this week and both places decided I was doing this before even asking me about what my goals were. I was laid off two weeks ago and really need some work, but it seems that right now I'm unhirable.

Email? Got some answers.


Good for 24 hours. Let me know if that doesn't work out.

I'm already having problems in my current career when prospective employers google me and find out I'm building up my GitHub account. They either think I'm going to leave immediately or they think that I'm trying to backdoor my way into a dev position at their company.

Wow. It sounds like those are some crappy companies. Where are you located?

After 30, the quality of jobs that is available becomes higher but the quantity is lower. That has a lot to do with capitalism's pyramidal shape. There just aren't as many good, age-appropriate jobs, as there are bad ones.

Thus, you need to be open to a national search. I'll warn you ahead of time that many startups are absolutely shitty when it comes to relocation: either none or some ridiculously small amount like $2,500 (pre-tax!)-- a full-service move, for a 1BR apartment, will burn up more than that. If you ask for 2 months' spousal unemployment to be included in your relo-- which is just a reasonable request at "a certain age"-- most startups will balk. So you need to save up for that.

After 30, every job search might be national. Sometimes you need to go into a beastly expensive tech hub to get the job you want, and sometimes the best move is to get out of those places. Strategically, the best thing to do (if you can stomach the moves) is often to switch between being a bigger fish in a smaller pond and vice versa-- similar to the dynamic of alternating between tech jobs to bid up your autonomy level and technical achievement and finance jobs to bid up your salary.

Thanks for the info. Both positions were remote, actually.

I've been working remotely for the last 5 years now and wanted to keep that up.

I'm pretty comfortable with relocating and don't have the life-baggage that would make it expensive but I'm not going to do it for the career I'm about to leave. When I start looking for dev work I plan to do exactly what you said.

Come on, you're not losing options, you just maybe have a lower % chance on average. Like any of these discrimination situations you're just at a disadvantage. Unfortunate and needs fixing but easily beatable.

"Tech companies don’t require their engineers to be coding wunderkinds" - really? What tech companies advertise for mediocre, non rock star devs who can muddle through some tutorials?

Wanting and requiring are quite different. Very few companies actually have many of the kind of people you describe.

At my current company the old timers consider themselves to be rockstars, and they've written the biggest pile of crap I've seen yet. There are two we (the newer guys) have decided should never be allowed to code again, and tell mgmt this.

Yes. In a few years, it will be seen as a silly question as affordable healthcare options allow creative folks to leave their corporate drone jobs.

When did longform start discussing things posted 5 hours ago? This, more than anything, makes me feel old.

im in 30 and gonna lunch own accounting software middle or end of the year.got also few friend accountant in their 40 expert in excel macro and function.ain't to late

The age discrimination culture (see here: http://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/vc-istan-6-th... ) is an artifact of a few bad-apple VCs with some really ugly intentions. It's there to put this shitty time pressure on people so they act like their careers are going to last 4 years-- and sprint, making unhealthy sacrifices that aren't sustainable-- instead of 40. If people feel like getting to 35 and not being CEO will ruin their lives, they're more inclined to play into the degenerate risk-taking that VCs want them to do with their careers (since it leads them naturally into get-big-or-die business strategies that enrich the VCs).

The danger is that it might become a reality. VCs are the analogue of the last generation's Hollywood entertainment executives and Hollywood's age discrimination culture is horrific. (As a writer, you're done by 50.) If we end up with the ageism problem that Hollywood has, when I am that age, I plan on shanking the parties responsible with dental tools.

damn this is like the complete opposite of me. I want to get out of the whole tech game once I make enough money to not have to work a 9 to 5 job. I wrote a quick rap verse about it.

    Jus trying to make a quick buck
    get outta this tech game but still no luck
    need to make it before i turn thirty
    before i end up old and dirty

Is the implication that >30 year olds are old?

Apparently so. It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. SV, specifically startup culture, is a large part of the tech world, but far from the only portion of it. I suspect the preference for young founders is not being able to "see the world through hacker eyes", but as was suggested earlier the willingness to burn the candle at both ends in order to make a startup succeed to the level that VCs wish. Young people are less likely to have families or an outside life.

So what do you want to do instead?

There are other things besides tech out there. I think too many people get caught up in the bubble.

I'd love to be able to make hip hop beats, or learn music production, or travel, or learn how to play the guitar. Those are all things that I think are more beautiful than programming or tech startups.

Why does it have to be a binary choice though? I'd think programming can be integrated in all of those things as well. It's just another tool in your mental toolkit.

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