When most of us think of startups, the image that comes to mind looks like a scene from HBO’s Silicon Valley: a gaggle of hoodie-clad 20-somethings glued to a monitor and fueled by a Red Bull IV drip. That isn’t entirely off base considering the combination of ageism and burnout old programmers face in the tech startup world. Ageism in Silicon Valley is an ugly truth, as many companies tend to prefer hiring younger developers, often without families, who are able to work long hours. So where does that leave developers over the age of 35, who are comparatively “over-the-hill?”
Life doesn’t end at 35, and neither does a career; however, a career path in software engineering does take a little extra creativity in planning to escape the stigma of “old age.” There are in fact quite a few options to explore for moving on and up as a software engineer, and some of these options, suffice to say — may not require that Red Bull IV drip.
There is undoubtedly a place in the market for those who are committed to their craft, and if you want to continue coding, consider becoming a senior developer at a later stage startup, or a large corporation. A senior engineer has built an impressive toolbox of skills, is professional, and knows how to work effectively, enabling them to mentor and guide younger developers with a mastery of the language. As you move up to a senior engineer position, you gain more independence, the ability to make big decisions, and take on bigger projects.
To avoid becoming obsolete at 35, you have to be a perpetual student, accounting for the periodic shift in new trends, programming techniques, and languages that are constantly in flux. Senior developers have potential to move into chief technical officer or technical founder positions at startups. Keep in mind that startups always come with some level of risk, and it’s important to understand where your comfort level lies when considering leaving your corporate job.
The management question: to be or not to be? Going into management can be rewarding or soul sucking, it just depends on who you are and what you want out of the job. The first step in your personal inventory should be to ask yourself if you have the personality type and skills suited for management. It takes a special person to be a good manager — and we’ve all experienced a bad boss; no one wants to to end up being that person.
Still interested? Management in software engineering is extensive and the compensation is lucrative. And a career in management may end up the best fit for your lifestyle once you’re a bit seasoned; sometimes a change is necessary to reinvigorate your career. If mentoring, encouraging, and supervising appeals to you, management can be rewarding. Calling the shots may not be so bad after all.
For the talented, ambitious engineers out there — becoming a senior executive may be an attractive option for pay and prestige. This role is for those who grasp the bigger picture; executive senior leaders don’t prioritize their own departments over other areas; they see what’s good for the firm as a whole.
As far as how to get there, you’ll have to start by understanding your area better than anyone whilst advocating for the company as a whole. Essentially, you’re climbing the corporate ladder — that means perseverance, planning, and a dedication to working with diverse teams.
Have your own brilliant idea and business savvy? Moving into a position as a CEO of a startup is as rewarding as it is risky. It’s one of the most challenging roles out there. Your job is immense: building a product customers love, recruiting an excellent team, finding funding from investors or partners, and guiding the overall prioritization of work.
Once you know and understand the industry on a deep level, you’ll have the ability to set some your awesome ideas into motion. As a CEO, one of the most important responsibilities you will have is to set the right culture for your company. Great CEOs, like Netflix’s Reed Hastings, make this the centerpiece of their leadership. With a winning idea, being a startup CEO can be a thrilling venture.
A startup executive position will allow you to avoid some of the bureaucracy and hierarchy that come with corporate positions. Many corporations disrupt decision makers with layers of authority. In a startup, everyone knows who did what and who is responsible, which some people will thrive off of and others not.
The idea of joining a startup as an exec is romantic — think stock options and major contributions to growth. It is inherently risky, but if energy and chaos excite you it may be just the right fit.
Startup culture tends to gravitate towards the young and the hungry, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for experienced developers. One of the fastest growing startups, Slack, has openly stated its preferred developer is over 40 years old. Older developers bring depth and diversity of experience that could be a major asset to a new company.
At a startup, you gain a sense of accountability and impact absent in a large established company. If the work you do is amazing, the entire team and customers benefit — and if you’re great at what you do, you’ll be in a position to grow and move up in your career faster. Startup flexibility and fresh culture are alluring, but there are risks. Often working at a startup means less pay, and options in the company are a bit of a gamble. Building something from nothing is inherently risky, and you have to keep in mind that you could be out of a job if it doesn’t work out.
Freelancing may liberate you from the ageism of start up hoodie mobs and the corporate world, but it’s important to consider some crucial factors before making the leap from your steady job.
Freelancing requires an individual that is self motivated, able to handle the cumbersome details of running your own business, and enjoys (or at the least is okay with) working alone. It’s a hustle trying to find clients, and a task to be able to direct your time and avoid distractions if you’re working from home. Know where your abilities will be best suited and how comfortable your are working with instability.
Freelancing can also give you a sense of flexibility and control (and potentially even income), that a 9-5 will never grant. For some it’s the best fit for their lifestyle, whether that’s a family, or just wanting to work in your pjs every day. You have the jurisdiction to choose your own projects and most importantly: your time is your own.
While ageism is real, it doesn’t mean your careers dies at 35. The reality is that 35 is still very young. Plus you have at least a decade of knowledge and experience to back up your technical skills. Don’t let the tech blogs tell you that you’re a dinosaur. There are definitely places for your career to go once you graduate from the up-all-night programmer we gravitate to when envisioning a that a software engineer is.