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Learn or Languish: Combating Ageism in Silicon Valley

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The Future Is Scary: Where Do Old Developers Go?

If you’re a developer living and working in Silicon Valley, look around at your colleagues, both at your own startup or corporate gig, or other folks you know. If you pay attention, you might begin to notice something peculiar. How many of your colleagues are over the age of 40? 45? 50? Probably not many.

So what happens to all those older developers? Do they change gears, or just leave the field entirely? And if you’re a junior developer hoping to make a long-term software development career in the tech industry, what should you expect? Is there an age limit to jobs in tech? Maybe. Or maybe you just need to be open to different opportunities. You may not have your current gig forever, but that doesn’t mean a long-term trajectory in development is impossible. You just need to know what you’re looking for.

Going the Management Route

Oh, the M word. Most young developers I know balk at the thought of ever finding themselves in a management role. But as programmers age, positions in management are often the most pervasive and lucrative software development career opportunities around.

There are various management roles available after a few years as a programmer. If you are very detail oriented and like controlling workflows, a project management position may be perfect for you. If you’re a great people person, you may prefer a position as a developer manager. Developer managers are responsible for mediating between the product and project managers and the rest of the development team.

It’s true that management positions aren’t the right fit for every personality. But if the idea of guiding younger programmers, teaching, and encouraging others appeals to you, don’t let your past experiences with bad managers undermine the positive impact you could have as a leader.

Senior Software Engineer

If you only ever want to code, your career trajectory is pretty simple. You start as a junior developer, work your way up the ranks, and eventually find yourself at the senior software engineer level. At some companies, this role might still include apprenticing and guiding younger developers, but you’ll ultimately only be responsible for your own work.

If you really want to go to the highest levels of the technical track, after a few years as a senior software engineer you should have the credentials to be a technical founder or chief technical officer of a startup. Of course, all high-level startup positions certainly come with some risk involved, so it’s a matter of whether you are willing to take some risk or prefer the safety of a corporate position.

However, the problem with aiming for a purely technical career trajectory is that older coders sometimes have trouble finding work. After a certain age, it’s difficult to make lateral transitions between companies as a coder. Because the necessary programming languages and skill sets can vary so widely from team to team, companies often prefer to hire younger, inexperienced programmers and train them, rather than paying for a more experienced developer.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Become a Dinosaur

No matter which trajectory you choose, the most important advice that aging developers can take to heart is that you must continually be learning. The nature of the programming field is that it’s constantly changing. If you’re not keeping up with the latest programming techniques, trends, and languages, you can quickly become obsolete.

It’s a commonly held belief among tech entrepreneurs that younger coders adapt more easily to changing technology than their more mature colleagues. No one wants to acknowledge the discrimination, but research has shown that ageism in Silicon Valley is very real. If you’re aiming for purely technical career without ever changing gears to a leadership role, understand that you’re swimming against the current. It may be difficult to increase your compensation package over time, as there is a ceiling to what is available for programmers.

Keep in mind, your tastes may change over time. Even if being in management sounds awful to you right now, you may be more open to the idea in 20 years. Instead of closing yourself off to any particular career trajectory, keep your eyes open for any opportunities that come your way. The perfect long-term position may be out there waiting for you, you just need to be open to it.