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MIT alumni in their 50s (law.harvard.edu)
199 points by zootar on May 6, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 151 comments

If we reverse the clock back to their 30's, the underlying math of these career choices isn't so kind...

- The academic is completing their PHD program, with it's associated vow of poverty and about to start a multi-year tenure cagefight, in low-wage contract instructor roles. Only a small fraction will make it to full tenure; the rest will drop out to pursue industry jobs, 10+ years behind the engineers who went directly into industry.

- The young doctor FINALLY completed their training, with a truckload of debt. In the horizon, they see many sources of downward pressure on medical pay (rising power of insurance companies, malpractice liability, lower reimbursement rates due to Medicare and Obamacare, etc.). In 20 years, will Medicine be a $300K/year job or a $125K/year job? Oh...and a bunch of their peers already dropped out, loaded with debt.

- Meanwhile, the 30 year old MIT engineer has good odds of making six figures as a senior tech or technical lead. They are young enough to start a business and bounce back when things don't work out. Young enough to start a big family. If their spouse is also a middle class professional, they have a decent chance of saving $1MM by age 45 for a solid start on retirement. Making enough to pay down their debt early.

Yeah...the back end of the engineering career has a shelf life; you get your money up front. Using it wisely is up to you.

Agreed. Also, I think the article is more a reflection of the engineering landscape 30 years ago than a comparison of career choices that the author seems to be implying. I think it'd be foolish to make career choices based on the 30 year outcome of people in the previous generation.

My understanding that law in particular has gone from being a pretty solid career path, especially for liberal arts majors who want some structure to get started in the workplace, to one that's relatively bleak for many who don't go to a Tier 1 school (or excel at a Tier 2), land a job of a big city firm, and either make partner or land a good corporate law job.


> Is the goal of a PhD really to get to tenure? Just a minor annoyance over calling people who chose to get a PhD knowing they would leave academia upon receiving it, drop outs.

Times change. 30 years ago (the period in question here), if you got a CS PhD, your only options were to join an academic department or one of the few industrial labs (Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, etc.). Tenure-track positions were extremely hard to come by unless you were either (a) a rockstar; or (b) in a very practical field like OS or Databases or Networking. A friend of mine sent out 100 resumes, and got 98 rejections. :D

> Meanwhile, the 30 year old MIT engineer has good odds of making six figures as a senior tech or technical lead.

Only in the major urban areas of the left and right coasts. Other places you have to fight to make above 75K.

True, but it's still possible to save quite a lot of money on such a salary because the cost of living is much lower outside of major urban areas on the coasts. My friend who is a chem E in the midwest is taking home about 70K and has already saved 6 figures over 4-5 years because his burn rate is so low ($400 per month rent etc).

Some jobs are flexible, when you are judged on your current impact, some other - have guild constraints, where it takes time and effort to get into... but also, even with waning skill, once you are entrenched, it's hard to get out.

IMHO the good thing for meritocracy is when there is no shift between skill and position. Eg in academia there is ~10-20 year shift.

I know couples working retail in small town America who are 8 years into their $45000 mortgages vs my buddy who was paying 60k a year in rent in SF.

> The medical doctor was at the peak of his career and in no danger of being fired. The university professor had the security of tenure and was looking forward to a defined benefit pension starting six years from now. The corporate attorney was finishing up a prosperous career.

I do think tech undervalues experience and overvalues familiarity with technological fads. That said, there are two sides to the coin. Those other fields the author mentions all aggressively put people into "tracks" early in their careers.

Take the corporate lawyer, for example. His job is secure because most of the competition for his job from his cohort was tracked-out in earlier filtering stages. If tech was like law, you'd have job ads for people with 10+ years' experience saying "top undergraduate school (MIT/CMU/Stanford/Caltech or the equivalent) and top company (Apple/Google/Facebook or the equivalent) required." That would certainly create a lot of insulation for people who went to MIT, interned at Google, then put in 3-5 years after graduation to earn a credential they could bank on the rest of their careers. I'm not sure we'd all prefer that to be the case.

If you get some ghastly disease and need a surgeon, you may not necessarily prefer a fresh graduate operating on you. I may personally filter for an experienced physician, in their 50s, 60s all fine, who has done thousands of the same procedure with good track record.

Similarly, if I were a defendant on jury trial, I wouldn’t prefer a new law grad to represent me. I’d filter for an older, experienced attorney, with good track record in the courtroom.

I think the above is common sense. But somehow most people get it completely backwards in our field of software. Why is it that people’s mental image of a competent developer biases towards 20-something whiz-kids as opposed to older devs? Doctors and lawyers have verifiable track records; is it because that most developers, especially in big corporations, don’t build such auditable track records that attest to their competency?

I’m very curious about this. A 60-yo surgeon who continues to operate every day, is revered, has job security, doesn’t worry about ageism, outsourcing, obsolescence, etc. A 60-yo dev who hasn’t moved onto management bears stigma of failure. (Not my thinking, just the common attitude I see in society.) Something is broken somewhere.

> I may personally filter for an experienced physician, in their 50s, 60s all fine, who has done thousands of the same procedure with good track record.

Side note, probably irrelevant...it's been a few years since I looked at the numbers, but when I worked in Continuing Medical Education I learned that the group with the highest success rate for surgeries was docs with 3-5 years experience.

Depends, sometimes you want a young pioneering doctor. Also sometimes you want an established software consultant.

The money per se is not in the technical individual contributor but delivering some new value that someone will pay for.

From what I've heard, good surgical outcomes correlate more with experience in doing the procedure than anything else.

So unless you've got a problem amenable to surgery but without procedures with good outcomes for someone like you, you should prefer experience.

It may not be "new", but there's value in the higher probabilities of good outcomes.

In that, software development is very similar, except of course the stakes are fantastically lower.

I wonder if we have a circular problem here. Aside from the truly exceptional, the Ken Thompsons and thereabouts, and the Wallys that cling to sinecures, if we brutally purge from the field the older masters who don't quite walk on water, that would reinforce the perception that older programmers generally aren't capable, or at least worth senior salaries.

Ugh. Confirmation bias and sample size aside, these are MIT alumni. Aren't they already supposed to be above average?

That being said, he didn't exactly say what sort of engineers these folks were. Electrical? Software? Big difference..

Also, one thing that didn't jive, if they are in financially uncomfortable retirement, why exactly are they showing up at a donors gathering?

> "why exactly are they showing up at a donors gathering?"

Yes, this probably means the problem is even bigger than the sample demonstrates. Most of the people in uncomfortable retirement are not going to show up at all.

I wouldn't be that inclined to make assumptions about what sort of selection bias there was. I could also argue that people who show up at such gatherings are more likely to be people with time on their hands or who are making a concerted effort to network, while those who are working full-time are busier.

As an MIT alum in my 50s, let me assure you that a specific fundraiser is assigned to target you, personally and individually. "Ugh," indeed.

> As an MIT alum in my 50s

Well since we have a specimen handy, can we hear your take on the article? Does it match your observations?

Of the MIT/Stanford software engineers I have known a long time and know what's become of them: one (60-ish now) had a fairly lucrative late career segment doing web search at Yahoo and is now retired; one (same age) is still working, doing Big Data consulting; one (late 50s) was in a two-career couple with two or three kids and is now retired; another (mid 50s) made enough in the stock market and miscellaneous other ventures to semi-retire, though he still does a little consulting; another (56) is happily in business for himself selling iOS apps; and I (57) am still working as a tech lead for HP Fortify.

I think the lesson is, if you're careful with your money in your 30s and 40s, you won't necessarily have to work into your 50s if you don't want to. Alternatively, take good care of yourself and keep learning new stuff, and you can be productive well into your 50s and beyond. But if you don't do either of those things, you may have a problem.

I'm in the same range and I would have to say that most of the people who pop to mind (caveat--there's probably some selection bias) have done pretty well.

Among people from school who I've kept in touch with. One founded a significant company. Another is Chief Scientist of a large IT vendor. (And another was--retired now--Chief Scientist at a large consumer goods company.) A few are consultants of various types. One is still a game designer (though he actually started that after school; he was a civil engineer).

I also work with a fair number of people in the same general age range. I'm sure some percentage are still primarily coding although a lot are development managers of various sorts.

Personally I worked and a Mechanical engineer for a few years but I've done technical marketing of various sorts or strategic/marketing advisory work for most of my year. (I do some programming but strictly on the side.)

Another MIT alum here in my 50s: Phil is not far off, but I think he is underestimating the selection bias for that event.

Even back in the 80s, nobody chose engineering because it is a cushy lifelong path.

Edit: BTW, many of his posts are interesting.

MIT alum in my 30s. When to babes start throwing themselves ta me because of my degree? My parents promised me this would happen.

MIT alum in my 40s; never

If you want to win the lottery, first you have to buy a ticket.

Caltech alum in my 30s, move to the Bay Area.

What are you talking about? There are no babes in the Bay Area.

You still have time to polish those social skills and up your "game".

Alternatively, these are MIT people, so perhaps the problem is that their education and career are both overly specialized.

Breadth would certainly be an asset to deal with change over a longer term. It's another great argument for a broad liberal arts education.

An MIT bachelor's degree includes a decent amount of liberal arts. The HASS requirement has been around for a long time -- 1980s? http://web.mit.edu/hassreq/

I don't know when that particular name for it dates to, but some sort of liberal arts requirement has been around for even longer. To be sure, if you take the minimum and take courses that aren't really liberal arts (e.g. accounting or microeconomics), it's fairly minimal. But the opportunity is certainly there to get a fairly broad education.

Feynman writes about having to satisfy a liberal arts requirement in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, so the requirement goes back at least to the late thirties.

It's been a while since I read it, but I seem to recall his approach to it was what I assume to be the normal MIT student's: take the minimum he could get away with and complain about how useless it was.

I could be misremembering, though, and that was written much later in his life.

You're pretty much right, according to:

- this oral history: http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/5020_2.html (search for "astronomy", which apparently was considered a humanities course!)

- this transcription of the relevant section of Surely You're Joking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Paranoid/Feynman

That's all well and good, but requirements are different from practice. In my understanding, engineering degrees and especially those from very technical institutions tend toward specialization. There also may be a factor in who chooses those institutions and how much they choose to specialize in both their education and career.

I honestly don't think there are many jobs an experienced MIT engineer couldn't do that a liberal arts graduate could. I think the matter here is most old folks with an MIT degree with a comfortable financial position would rather be unemployed just managing investments and other activities than work a low paying job.

This post reeks of confirmation bias or at least the sample size is too low to draw any conclusions. What if that software engineer didn't want to progress his career and was happy at the level he was? What about those engineers that did go into management? I could be wrong but if you choose to stay in a roll a 30yo can fill why would it be strange that you would be expected to compete with those younger to get a job?

I made the mistake of continuing to read other posts down the page. The author appears to have many biases, and a myopically logical view of people. I am unconcerned.

He has his own particular style. If you can get past it [1], there are interesting things.

[1] I used to be able to, but as I got older I said "fuck it, it isn't worth my time for him to purposefully misunderstand me."

Why wouldn't that also apply to doctors? Maybe a surgeon enjoys the surgery, doesn't want to manage a surgery department of a hospital. I think the relative comparison is still relevant.

Most doctors build/join a practice, take on partners and hire PAs and Nurse Practitioners. They build a book of business and referral network and when it's time to retire have a bag of money and business equity.

That's changing now, and my guess would be that twenty years from now, we'll hear the laments of employee doctors in a similar situation.

Because in both the doctor and professor cases, the knowledge base is curated, history and experience (at least - I was tempted to add "and judgement learned therefrom") count for something. Alan Kay is right when he says software is "pop culture," and its "disdain for history is what makes computing not-quite-a-field."

This post really scares me and part of me wants to quit this industry even though I enjoy coding.

Ageism is a brutal reality.

In my experience if an older engineer/programmer is more expensive than a younger one --- but the older one is better --- the older one will be hired. You get what you pay for. As long as your skill set isn't basically a "commodity" (generic web design for example) you will be ok. Put another way---if your decades of experience _don't_ give you some appreciable advantage over a 20-something new guy, then yes maybe you are in the wrong business.

One of the most entertaining conferences I ever attended was Usenix, several years ago. The paper sessions typically went like this: a grad student would stand up and present his and his advisor's research. In the sbsequent question-and-answer period, one of a small number of grey-beards (you'd recognize their names, but I can't remember who exactly it was; I'm old, too) would come to the mic and ask some variant of, "when we tried that back in the '80s, it didn't work because of.... How are you dealing with the problems?" There was never any real answer. (To be truthful, there were also a number of responses along the lines of "Why didn't you cite our earlier work?" which were more annoying since the typical true answer would have been "Because you only published it in a single post in rec.arts.no-one-reads-this." Bah.)

Since then, I've learned one thing: experience in this field doesn't give you any advantage. Or, more precisely, Cassandra, it doesn't give you any advantage that anyone will pay attention to.

I've had many similar conversations since that conference, usually along the lines of:

Them: "We should do X."

We: "That didn't work the last time; A, B, and C happen and only super-genius levels of D will get you out of the mess, which we don't have."

Them: "But X is the hot newness and everything's different this time, anyway."

Or sometimes:

We: "We're doing Y."

Them: "That's stupid, everyone is doing Z now." (Them almost never has more than 2-3 years of experience, by the way.)

We: "No one we've hired in the last ten years knows how to do Z, Z offers no actual advantage over Y, and I'd personally prefer not to have to deal with 27 different ways of doing the same thing."

Them: "I'm doing Z."

We: "Great. You'll be solely responsible for that project until you quit, then we'll throw it away and rewrite it. Just like last time."

Sure, you can keep up with the technology fashion; that's fairly easy. But it's a bit dispiriting to see the same problems in the new tech from the last time the dharma wheel rolled around. And to be unable to convince the new kids not to try to cross the railroad bridge because the 12:15 really does have a good on-time record. The entertainment value of watching projects hit the same shoals eventually loses its charm.

Indeed. I've worked for more than one company that died because it didn't listen when I said, e.g., this won't work because math. In that case, simple multiplication and comparing the result to currently available IOPS.

A lot of people just don't care until they actually crash into the brick wall, but in a start up that's frequently too late, and never fun. Our host pg has commented that more than a few dot.com failures were in part inevitable due to technical failure. I'm sure that's still the case.

Frequently, it's not technical. I have in mind one individual who still maintains a project management position at a former employer, who has repeatedly made every last project management mistake possible, right down to "adding people to a late project makes it later." It got to the point where I was uninterested in his latest fiasco because it was like 1980s sitcoms---a minor variation on something that wasn't all that funny the first time around.

I'd be interested to hear some specific examples if you care to post them.

Hired a new guy who had a few years of experience, but less than most of the existing folks (most of whom, admittedly, had the same one year, over and over). He immediately starts telling us how we should be doing things. Case in question: Maven.

Now, Maven is a nice enough tool and he's probably right in that it is the new "industry standard", but it doesn't do anything that we need to do better than Ant. (Making it easy to add new dependencies to a project, in particular, is something that I anti-want to do.) The only advantage, as far as I can see, would be to allow the new guy to use an IDE other than Eclipse. The costs are pretty large, though. It was an uphill struggle to get the cowboys to use any build system instead of Eclipse's export. This would be a new build system, a new project layout, and either we could convert everything, which exactly no one had time to do (and did I mention the one year of experience thing?) or just add Maven to the already gigantic ball of mud.

Carefully explaining all of that, plus the point that futzing around with build systems did nothing to help us get stuff out the door, which is what we were having problems with and what we hired him to do, led only to blank looks and his decision to "demonstrate the advantages" in the project he was working on---exactly the reason we have a ball-of-mud problem.

Go read 'patio11 or 'tptacek posts on avoiding competing on price. You want to compete on quality.

You don't even have to buy all in. I bought in just enough to get my head out of my ass, and have improved my financial situation considerably.

It's not age, it's what you know (what value you deliver!). Some older people around me are pushing themselves as hard as when they were undergrads, attending online seminars, trying out new software platforms and tools. They're doing fine and still leading the conversation ahead of other people. The people getting replaced are the ones who aren't developing their skills.

There's also a wage ceiling for software developers, even with the newest skills. This shouldn't be surprising though, all employment has a wage ceiling.

Would anyone mind elucidating why I was downvoted for this comment with no response? I feel it's truthful and respectfully stated. Several other comments agree with it.

I don't know what the HN perspective is on linking to your own old comments, but I can't write this any better today than I did last year: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7374123

Engineering has always been a brutal profession as well. Historically, it's a cyclical, feast or famine profession.

Note Phil hasn't been in the corporate world himself. He struck it rich with a dot.com in the 1990s boom and worked on several interesting projects since. Among them was photo website, a Thiel-like coders academy, and flying. He has had one of the first and longest running blogs of my fellow MIT students about tech, business, travel, flying and politics.

I took Phil's class (6.171 - Web Development Lab) in college. It was a ridiculous experience, regularly had to put 40hrs/week just on this class and I'm not exaggerating.

Story time: As part of the class we were working with real clients to develop a web project for them. One day during class, he talked to us about the "technical sidekick", typically a friend of the client's that is somewhat technical and is behind-the-scenes advising the client and typically contradicting all your architectular choices as a developer. Well, to noone's surprise, a few weeks later, our client rolled into a meeting all of a sudden knowledgable as to why .NET was inferior, SQL Server bad, etc. We later found out that he took the time outside class, to take the client out for dinner and act like an adversarial technical sidekick just to teach us that lesson. I was pissed off at the time but now deeply appreciate that lesson

Could you share any lessons he taught you about how to properly deal with the "technical sidekick"? I often encounter them in web consulting and I'm curious to see what Phil's advice on the topic was.

Ask to meet them, and befriend them. Do it genuinely.

Haha that sounds just like Philip, and it is an important lesson, because it happens so often.

Beyond the the ~7year business cycle, career stability in Medicine vs. Engineering is subject to long-term trends.

For the current 50 year old cohort, the end of the cold war has to be the most relevant factor in the opportunities available to them. There's nothing like a bunch of missile projects to get MIT-er's some work.

The spending rate on US healthcare is probably not sustainable over the next thirty years, and many physicians could see Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements plummet. In short this observation of career disparity could be reversed after several decades of unforeseeable future occurring.

One point he admits in the beginning... There was a slight selection bias in that all those present were people whom an on-campus group was hoping to get donations from.

This doesn't include doctors who quit medical school, academics who got pushed out of the funnel, and lawyers who couldn't get good law jobs. The engineers also may have already been victims of age discrimination by the first dot com bubble.

The other conclusion is, always be hireable. I guess it’s hard to be 50 and pride yourself to work for senior-senior level salary when a 30 year old can easily do your job.

Hierarchies worked very well in the uni prof’s favour, but engineering companies tend to apply flatter structures. If there’s nothing that keeps the young folks competing, they will. So for us, engineers it may be a good idea to move to supervisory roles, a field with harder-to-aquire skills, or start teaching later on.

(+1 for small sample size and confirmation bias though. /re: @pixelscript)

Unfortunately being hireable and getting hired are two separate things. Yes, we can do things better and more thorough, however the sad thing is, most employers (at least in Singapore where I am) don't care. They care about salary and ability to work extra hours. Things could vary in the states though

Regardless of your age, fuck employers who want you to work long hours.

(Unless you have a big piece of equity. .1% is not big.)

Agree. Being always be hireable is one's own responsibility. Not anyone else's.

It's still interesting to consider systemic effects, however.

good programmers can always consult.

old managers can't do nothing unless he is hired at a big company, which is exactly what won't happen according to this

> good programmers can always consult.

as if ageism didn't exist in the consulting business ...

There is, but maybe not in the direction you think. Almost every independent consultant I've ever hired or had hired into a company I was working at was, at the earliest, late thirties, most late forties/early fifties. On the other hand, as I'm starting an independent consulting business at 27, I'm finding it a little hard to be taken seriously (comments about age, "possible" experience, etc.). I'm getting there, but it's a process.

Hiring managers might see age as a disadvantage, but most CEOs would rather hire a peer than someone they view as a child.

Do you mean contract? A good manager can hire a pack of young contractors to rent out.

Of course an old manager can consult (== sell expensive sage advice)

The link of the OP points to the blog. The link to the post is http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/2015/04/30/mit-alumni-in-...

The calculation of total lifetime earnings / career track is tough to make in advance. It's important to remember that the licensed professions (doctor, lawyer) have significant costs to enter. The advantages are that the fields change more slowly, cannot be done remotely, and are licensed. This allows you to more easily accumulate knowledge and experience over time, and prevents competition to some degree. Theoretically, that should lead to a stabler career, but a higher earning one is harder to be sure about.

I have a CS degree and used to be a decent programmer, but became a lawyer. To maximize my lifetime earnings, should I have simply moved to California and gone into tech eight years ago? Right now, things are doing well now in tech, and there are too many lawyers, but would that have meant I'd be completely out of a job at age 50 due to ageism/competition? That was my fear, and not an entirely irrational one, since these discussions keep coming up.

Regarding the lawyer, there's a more complex bait and switch going on here...

As you progress in the practice of law, you spend less time working on document review and trial / transaction prep. Due to the nature of law firms, senior lawyers tend to either be focused on client development (sales!) or various forms of cat herding (project / business management!)...

Wait... tell me again about the career prospects of engineers in their 50's who (successfully) switched into sales and management?

[um yeah, nothing to see here....]

or: the successful programmers do not bother to show up to pan handling events

and/or: even the failures still make lots of money until 50, while the failures on other fields aren't even invited.

or: I'm just in denial :-(

I can provide a data point that might be less biased toward the successful. At a recent informal reunion of my dorm, I saw much the same thing as Phil saw (in fact he was there). If you're not running a business, or in a professional role where age discrimination can't touch you, you better be exceptionally well-known in your field. If you are doing the kind of technical work, like coding, design, etc. you did most of your career, the only way to be compensated in line with your experience level is to be in a senior technical management position (VP Eng., or CTO) or consulting.

Based on what I saw then, I think Phil's observations are accurate.

On the other hand, consulting isn't so bad. There is such a lot of bad engineering out there, there is an infinite market for old guys (and the few women of our cohort) to fix things that are fucked up.

I'm curious to see if this is as big of an issue 20-30 years in the future as it is now. 30 year olds in America were raised with computers in the schools (if not the classroom and home.) 20 year olds were raised with computers in the home and in their pockets. [1]

Will we continue to see people over 50 (or even 40) as unable to grasp new technology if they were raised in a society that placed such a high value on technology being an integral part of life from a young age? Part of me says no, part of me says yes.

[1] I'm not saying it won't be an issue. Just as sexism and racism are still around in the workplace, ageism will continue to be an issue. I'm just wondering if it won't be seen as the norm.

None of this should be particularly surprising: if you choose to be complacent in your career you can't expect stability or increased prosperity over the long term. The path from a junior engineer to a lead engineer is quite short relative to a your typical career length. If you don't wish to move into management or elsewhere, there isn't anywhere else for you to go except laterally. After a certain point the impact of a person's improved programming skills does not get significantly better over time, at least for what most companies need. Therefore a company becomes incentivized to hire younger engineers who cost less as they still get similar or even better output.

> If you don't wish to move into management or elsewhere, there isn't anywhere else for you to go except laterally.

I find it almost insulting how you imply that "not desiring to be a manager" is the same as "being complacent in your career"

Were the doctor, the professor and the attorney forced to move onto management?

When I worked in a UK university for a Professor (a title which only the most senior academics have) his role was arguably almost entirely "management" - he was a very bright guy and did get involved in the research his team did (about 15 of us) but it was obvious that 98% of his time was effectively "management" responsibilities.

Similarly for medics and lawyers - certainly for lawyers (in the UK anyway) getting past a particular level is more about business development and managerial skills than anything else.

I double-majored in chemistry and math. I remember talking to a few of my chemistry professors and finding that they missed actual lab work; managing their research labs, getting grants, etc. was a full time job. This wasn't true of the math professors; they actually had the time to do the research instead of just supervising graduate students.

I should be cleared about the use of the term "Professor" in a UK university compared to the US - in the department I worked in that had maybe 50 lecturing staff (i.e. full time permanent academic staff) and 6 or 7 people at the level of Professor:


That's a good point. Like most Americans I forgot about the US/UK difference in nomenclature. I'd think the problem would only be bigger for UK "Professors" than for US "Professors" because UK Professors are more senior by definition.

Were the doctor, the professor and the attorney forced to move onto management?

I can't speak about doctors or attorneys, but how to keep getting promotions without taking on management responsibility (and thus having less time for research and teaching) is constant topic of discussions among my friends with academic careers. In fact it is on of the reasons my wife is seriously considering getting out of academia.

Is your wife a tenured professor? What is she thinking of doing instead?

They probably did move into a mentoring role, where swaps out "how many patients/cases you can handle is limited by your physical body" with "how many patients/cases you can handle is limited by how well you can keep your team going."

> the doctor, the professor and the attorney

You always see loads of this "grass is greener" stuff about other professions in these threads. Attorneys wind up in bad low pay jobs all the time, even after working at BIGLAW and failing to partner. Tons of doctors are scraping by in practices that aren't doing well. People get canned from high paying finance jobs all the time and never get another job paying anywhere near as well.

Life's hard and getting old sucks. I really don't think software engineering as a profession is terribly unique in this regard, not that I have much hard data.

As an MIT student... should I not become a programmer? I do feel like I'm nearing the peak of my programming ability, and now would be the time to switch to a field with more "lock-in".

What would that field be? Medicine? Mechanical engineering? Consultancy?

If you love programming and are good at it, it is the best field there is, bar none. You'd be a fool to turn away from it for a lifetime grind with epsilon better prospects.

I'd do my job for half what I get paid; I just don't have to.

As for nearing the peak of your ability (assuming typical undergraduate age and experience): BWAHAHAHA! You'll be even better than you are now in 5 years, and again 5 years after that. Only then might you consider that you're near the asymptote. These will be "not small" qualitative differences, in my prediction. Come back and read this 5 and 10 years from, please. :)

(context: MIT '93; I just started my 45th orbit of our star.)

Wanted to put in a word of support for this point about looking back in 5 years. I nearing my fifth year out of college and the difference between now and then is huge.

It doesn't always feel that way because we often are comparing ourselves to last week or the guy at the next desk, but just in terms of expanded toolkit and knowing how to work within a big project and a big team, the difference is enormous. Lots of skills, both technical and "soft", that you don't even realize you don't have yet.

I think also, in college, you tend to think of your abilities in terms of A) how clever you are and B) how fast you can learn something new. Once you're working, your abilities are really judged more like A) how effective you are and B) how much you already know. Learning quickly is great, but having already accumulated knowledge and digested it for several years is even better. I could see myself feeling like I'm near the asymptote in 5 more years, but I could also see this going on for another 10 or 15 years. There is a lot to learn.

> If you love programming and are good at it, it is the best field there is.

I read this and thought, he's right. Then I thought, this is actually true of pretty much any activity. Hadn't thought of it this way.

Yup. Hacker News is full of silly "programming exceptionalism", but programming is not all that fundamentally different from any other vocation. Go to a site for, say, doctors, and find people singing many of the same paeans to medicine that are here presented as specific to software engineering. People in many lines of work think that their field is the one thing truly worth doing.

I love baseball and I'm good at it, but it will never pay my bills. I am on a minor league team and I program to pay the bills.

Sports is different, in that the number of positions available that are good enough financially are very, very few. So for sports, you're just not good enough. As an analogy, if you were a doctor in a smaller town, in a tiny hospital, and you loved it and were good, you'd be fine.

That's probably because sports can't really be considered vocations except by those who play them professionally. Minor leagues aren't really professional level.

As an MIT alumnus at age 47, here's my advice: If you love programming, keep programming. If you don't love it, do something else.

This 44-year-old alumnus concurs.

At the same time, I've been doing more and more training, and less and less day-to-day development, over the last few years. Not only do I enjoy it, but I find that my long-term perspective and experience helps me to explain things to the younger and less experienced developers.

That said, it's pretty amazing to see what today's kids have done before they've even finished their first college degree. It's a bit intimidating... until I demonstrate that I can still debug things faster than they can. :-)

I'll pile on, too.

Professor Robert Rose had some great advice for me as a freshman: as an MIT student, you can probably succeed at whatever you want, enough to enjoy life. So pick a field that gives you personal satisfaction.

Money is valuable and ego-boosting, but when you hit your 30s you will realize that enjoying your workday is much more important than maximizing your paycheck. (But there are also easy ways to increase your paycheck. If you can become better than a potted plant[1] at negotiating, you can boost your salary.)

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3289750

All tenured MIT professors must be taken with a grain of salt on career advice. They got tenure by being #1 or #2 in their sub-field, as well as a number of other things like being adequate teachers, so the selection bias is extremely strong.

In general Professor Rose is generally right, but there are a lot of exceptions, and he's also much older than us, his experiences might not hold for the America/world of today and the future.

As a 54 year old alum:

Unless you've been seriously programming for a number of years, with a fair amount of that in teams, including face to face ones, you're probably not nearing your peak. I'd suggest reading The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master (http://www.amazon.com/The-Pragmatic-Programmer-Journeyman-Ma...) and judge where you are in the range from journeyman to master.

If you're looking for "lock-in", i.e. be easily employable past your ability to fake looking under 35, I'd suggest getting a job with a serious security clearance, which can be a trick, or specialize in one of the fields that respects grey hairs like embedded (but only so much depending on the sub-field, e.g. Detroit car companies at least in times past recruited heavily from Course 6 because they too got rid of their older EEs and programmers).

If you goal is to really work for yourself, and you think you can eventually bill at a rate 5-6 times the income you want to receive---maybe talk to some professors who make a lot of money on their one day a week dedicated to that, albeit they do it with MIT Professor on the CV---yes, that's a very good way to go. But hard for most people. See e.g. this comment https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9499561 which points out you have to compete on quality, not price, and a couple of HN contributors who've written a lot about that.

Medicine: in a county, or the developed "West", where people by and large don't directly pay for their own medical care, and those who do pay are looking at a rapidly graying population, well, it's a field you ought to run screaming from, unless it's your calling.

Don't know about MechE and so on, in general you need to talk to older engineers, the people who run the department, professors, etc., of course adjusting for selection bias. If you haven't already identified a calling, well, you have a lot of options, especially if you're strong at math. Especially before the 2008 crash, a lot of EE strong and therefore math strong EECS graduates would get initial jobs in finance with their proven math chops, which if they were smart got them in a good financial position to do something they really wanted to do later.

A student feeling like they are nearing their peak of ability is more likely to just be reaching the point that, 10 years from now, you will consider to be simply a base level of competency.

Seconded, especially with regards to skills at working in team structures, with things like version control.

Version control? That's, like, not the hard part.

MIT is theory-heavy and practice-light. I didn't learn databases or professional languages or version control in any of my classes.

I think the idea is that you can learn things like that pretty easily on your own, especially once you've had experience learning "harder" things in classes.

Well, I'm assuming that someone can learn all the other parts on their own, whereas the best practices surrounding versioning, patch management, code review, etc are things you really only learn by working on a large team (usually in a real job).

  I do feel like I'm nearing the peak of my programming ability
I'm very interested in what kind of projects you have done that made you feel like that. Sounds very interesting.

hikz, please stop dripping sarcasm on my desk. It's going to make my popcorn soggy.

Do people here anticipate programming being their lifelong career, or do they in good faith, think there will be a switch later?

Personally, I've done this for 15 years and I keep doing contracting to pay the bills but really I'm pretty done with it.

What about you?

I've been programming professionally for close to 25 years, still love it.

Reasons I (still) love it: http://henrikwarne.com/2012/06/02/why-i-love-coding/

Why I think it is a good career (even if you are older): http://henrikwarne.com/2014/12/08/5-reasons-why-software-dev...

Why programming experience is valuable: http://henrikwarne.com/2014/12/15/programmer-knowledge/

I've been doing this for ~15 years too, but things have changed enough over the time (and I've changed too!) so it still feels fresh.

I guess the way technology changes can be a two edge sword, as in you're always catching up, but so far I can't say I'm bored or thinking on doing anything else to pay my bills.

Yeah, that was my thought. If you're still a programmer at age 50, either something has gone very wrong in your career development, or you're such a legend in the field that it would be a loss to the world if you had moved on.

Or you enjoy what you're doing.

I've had "director" or "head of" or similar in my titles for the majority of the last 20 years, but I keep finding excuses to code because it's what I enjoy doing the most. Whenever my job responsibilities doesn't let me code, I spend more time coding at home.

I'm 40 now, and I can't see that changing. I first started programming when I was 5 years old, and it's an integral, important part of my life.

Same here - I've had CTO, Director of Engineering, Head of Architecture posts for the last 20 years at everything from start-ups to multinationals and I still keep my hand in investigating bugs (i.e. looking at code and databases) and writing code, most of the latter in my own time.

I wouldn't want a role that had no "hands on" element - personally if you don't occasionally get your hands dirty and stay current with current technology then your capability to make sensible high level decisions decays pretty rapidly.

Same here. Mid 40's now with a PhD so I'm 'overqualified' as well as 'getting on a bit' if someone really doesn't want to pay for me!

For the last decade I've been in small start-ups where you wear many hats, Head of this, VP of that. However, even when I'm focusing on business development I'll probably find a way to cut some code. "I could use MS Access for this. Hmmm maybe a better idea would be to write some python and plug the data into an sqlite dB instead" - is usually how my brain works.

Of course you still program, but your job title on that MIT gathering wouldn't have been 'programmer'.

Part of my point is that personally I would describe myself as a programmer first.

Those titles for me has been a means to a higher salary, not something that defines me, and often not something that have defined my roles very well. Despite being "technical director" at present, I spend most of my time on architecture and devops.

But if you care less about the money, then staying in a pure developer role saves you the aggravation, and I know many people who have opted to refuse to be promoted into management positions because what they enjoy doing is the programming and they've been less willing than me to take the titles and find ways to program anyway.

I've personally offered people management positions more than once and had them turn it down for that reason. Including people above 50.

But that's not what the blog post we're responding to was about - this was about anecdotal evidence that the MIT alumni who were still 'engineers' at 50 were worse off than their peers with more glamorous job titles. Maybe quite a few of the ones who answered 'not an engineer' were actually like you. Chief something, CTO, head- lead- something.

If you were interviewing an applicant for a dev position, have you never wondered "you worked there for 15 years, why were you never promoted?". I doubt the same would be asked of someone who had been working as a surgeon for 15 years.

What?? Are you serious? Why would programming be different from other activities/occupations? "Oh, this guy is still operating after 3 decades and never became a hospital director. Something's wrong with the guy."

When you're my age, you'll know what I mean. If your job title still reads 'programmer' or 'developer', rather than 'architect' or 'chief/lead/head of-'etc , something has gone wrong.

Or something went very right and you found something you really loved to do. Personally I kind-of wish I'd have gone that route and not had to deal with all the management bullshit that I've spent time on over the years.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to do it as a lifelong career. There's plenty of well-adjusted responsible adults that do. I just don't think it will be my decision, personally.

It may not be your choice. At some point it becomes more and more difficult to get a job interview if you don't have more impressive sounding job titles on your resume.

What I discovered after I turned 35 was that erasing all evidence of my age from my resume made a massive difference in getting interviews. Of course, further success depended on being able to fake being young as fortunate genetics helped me to do. Just be careful about specifics in what you talked about, in a 2003 interview I slipped and mentioned PDP-11s, which prompted the interviewer to exclaim "Just how old are you?" I was hired, probably in part because the job was particularly difficult software archaeology, but my younger boss ... well, it didn't last long, or end well.

Perhaps the insight here is that neither law nor medicine is advancing fast enough?

"There was a slight selection bias in that all those present were people whom an on-campus group was hoping to get donations from."


Me I had no choice, now I essentially have no career at all because you reach the end game where the industry stops talking to you despite all the money you made people. Pivoting to education would be a logical choice in a civilized society but this is no such place so instead of buying me off the market some poor business is going to wind up losing all their customers because I have no choice but to become a sole founder and learn business kung fu lol, its either do that or wait for unemployment to run out and then die from starvation and exposure basically unless I want to drive uber to pay them essentially 9 cents per mile because 49 cents per mile is 9 cents less than the cost of running the car in california lol.

The marginal cost of running the car is much lower than $0.58/mile. If you already have a car and want to drive Uber with it, you'll (likely) be financially better off through the "job".

Of course buying a car solely to drive Uber is a bad business plan.

That dude's got a lot of weird bleep-blorp does not compute opinions about human nature.

He is one of the founding generation of technolibertarians.

What's with his weird divorce thing? Did I miss some drama?

I wonder how much of this 'programming is a dead-end' angst that seems to cycle through HN fairly frequently these days is US-centric?

I say that as an almost-40 Australian software developer...

Perhaps it's less likely in jurisdictions where unpaid overtime is actually illegal.

Missing an alternative option: migrate to, perhaps even become citizen in, a country with a half decent social welfare system.

> Lesson: Unless you are confident that your skills are very far above average, don’t take a career path that subjects you to the employment market once you’re over 50 (and/or make sure that by age 50 you’ve saved enough for a retirement that begins at age 50 or 55

For reference, this is the URL of the actual post (as opposed to the current URL to the year/month entries):


Just keep reading the rest of the posts on that page. Wow, some true entertainment there...

My thoughts exactly. I have known people who looked at the world in similar ways, and to put it lightly, it was frustrating to speak with them.

I've always thought that the age discrimination problem in the software engineering world will self-solve when the first generation of programmers age into the discriminatory age brackets.

Besides, some of the best programmers I know are 50+.

"Lifetime jobs" changed in 1990s with corporate restructuring fad. Younger employees should be adapted to present, fluid situation.

I can't imagine a programmer making enough $$ to be able to show up at an event where the main goal is donation.

Granted some did show up.

Let's list the careers that were still considered safe age 50. Doctor. Lawyer. Professor. All important, no doubt. But which one of those truly helped advance our society or nation? As in improving GDP or trade balance?

Most likely not.

But the other engineers (some with uncertain future) are the ones who designed/built/produced something for the society.

> Doctor. Lawyer. Professor. All important, no doubt. But which one of those truly helped advance our society or nation? As in improving GDP or trade balance?

Ehh... all three? Try running a country without them and see where your GDP ends up. As for 'truly helped advance' and linking that to just GDP is incredibly myopic.

I have all the respect in the world for engineers but let's not fetishise over them.

Eh, maybe I was a bit harsh. But still, consider this.

Doctor: Was the doctor in research?

Lawyer: No comment.

Professor: How good was his research? Or was he one of those the taught from same note year after year and just took credit for work done by grad students?

And my mistake in linking it just to GDP. How about advancing the society by building better tools, transportation, medicine, improve efficiency in this/that?

Sure I'll consider it

First of all, what's with that standard? 'if you didn't invent something new, e.g. through research, it doesn't count.' Or, if you kept things together without making progress, it doesn't count? So a police officer or a fireman or a nurse, who cares about that, they're not advancing society because they didn't happen to build a better tool or a new medicine. I mean what are you even arguing here?

And second, alright so let's apply your standard to engineers who spend their entire lives applying laws of physics they didn't invent or models that existed for decades, sometimes even before they were born. e.g. designing the 10000th sewage system in just another city according to existing principles, would you call that 'taking credit for work done by grad students / previous engineers' and dismiss it as unimportant, when it's a truly significant part of society? And how do you rate a software engineer building the millionth crud app for some use case? Say like Hacker News? Unimportant? Of course not.

I mean the heuristic here to help think about value is to remove from society/laborforce for a moment anyone who ever does something that's already done before. And then keep anyone who's building something new. And then compare it with the opposite. The former will result in chaos, the latter will result in a more or less stable society with a lack of progress.

Now obviously you need both. If we didn't have the guys doing new stuff, we'd still be living like we did 50k years ago. But we need both, and the implication that it's somehow only engineers who do the new stuff just isn't true. I mean hell just consider how far engineers get without the professor teaching them all those lame things other people already figured out like laws of physics.

Anyway I get the feeling I'm misconstruing your points but you kept offering questions as things to consider so I just try to interpret what you're implying as best I can. Feel free to just concretely make your point instead.

Just out of curiosity, have you ever installed a toilet?

Software engineers can also take pride in the fact that any career success we achieve is the result of the value we produce, and is not just due to regulatory/structural limitations reducing the number of competitors in our field.

or due to how well you can 45-minute-puzzler your way into a butt warming a seat at a bigco.


"IT" is particularly bad here because our ruling class has a national consensus that we need to import hundreds of thousands of foreign workers each year to satisfy the demand (for talent on the cheap). E.g. in an area I'm watching, the the serious Republican 2016 contenders are entirely bad, with the most "restrictive" of them, Ted Cruz, wanting to up the H-1B cap to 300K per year.

Yeah, most of these people are slated for "drone" level jobs, but plenty of the very best also get in and do good work. Your ideology might thing this is great, but that doesn't pay your living expenses, especially if you want a family, or a retirement of any quality.

Ageism exists in the professions but it's legible and practically published. If you start law school at 30, you probably won't get Biglaw unless you clerk for a Supreme Court justice. You can get into a PhD program at any age, but you're not going to get a tenure-track position if you're after 40. Midlife career switchers generally don't get in.

The difference is that, in the professions, you have to get in early but it's the norm to move up fast enough that ageism isn't a problem because, even if you make a couple of mistakes, you'll be at an age-appropriate level. You may not be a biglaw partner or chief surgeon earning 7 figures, but you'll be substantial enough that you're still taken seriously.

In software engineering, there isn't a well-defined sense of what "up" is or what's "age appropriate". There isn't a published career track and a legible ageism. It's there, but it's hard to tell exactly when it's there. Is being a programmer at 55 age-appropriate? If you're an AI researcher at Google X, then yes, absolutely. If you're checking your Jira every morning to figure out which user stories you're going to be working on, then no one's going to believe that you chose to be a programmer instead of a manager. (Hell, I wouldn't believe you. I might still hire you, because I'm mature enough to separate low social status in one theater apart from low ability. If you're 55 and still have to deal with user stories, it means that you managed your social status poorly; but you might still be a rock-solid engineer whom I'd hire in a heartbeat.)

If you look at the Valley's emerging professional model, it's not a kind one and it's not one that ages well. You choose between (a) a "main sequence" where each jump is a dramatically different job, from engineer to manager to founder to investor, and where there are structural reasons why most people will never make it; or (b) fighting for the small percentage of jobs that are genuinely interesting and age-appropriate at any age.

I think it's much easier to deal with age if you're a consultant, because it leaves you out of the political structure of a firm. It makes people uncomfortable to have a 35-year-old "Software Manager II" overseeing a 55-year-old badass. With age, you just don't fit into the corporate hierarchy unless you've climbed it. If you're a consultant and live outside of the hierarchy, then age doesn't really matter.

Wow. Just shows why cogs and wheels are referred to so often in software profession.

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