I’m one. We’re not exactly common on the ground; my profession, apparently not content with having excluded a whole gender, is mostly doing without the services of a couple of generations.

This was provoked by a post from James Gosling, which I’ll reproduce because it was on Facebook and I don’t care to learn how to link into there:

Almost every old friend of mine is screwed. In the time between Sun and LRI I’d get lines like “We normally don’t hire people your age, but in your case we might make an exception”. In my brief stint at Google I had several guys in their 30s talk about cosmetic surgery. It's all tragically crazy.

He’d linked to It’s Tough Being Over 40 in Silicon Valley, by Carol Hymowitz and Robert Burson on Bloomberg. It’s saddening, especially the part about trying to look younger.

I’ve seen it at home, too; my wife Lauren is among the most awesome project managers I’ve known, is proficient with several software technologies, and is polished and professional. While she has an OK consulting biz, she occasionally sees a full-time job that looks interesting. But these days usually doesn’t bother reaching out; 40-plus women are basically not employable in the technology sector.

On the other hand · To be fair, not everyone wants to go on programming into their life’s second half. To start with, managers and marketers make more money. Also, lots of places make developers sit in rows in poorly-lit poorly-ventilated spaces, with not an atom of peace or privacy. And then, who, male or female, wants to work where there are hardly any women?

And even if you do want to stay technical, and even if you’re a superb coder, chances are that after two or three decades of seniority you’re going to make a bigger contribution helping other people out, reviewing designs, running task forces, advising executives, and so on.

Finally, there’s a bad thing that can happen: If you help build something important and impactful, call it X, it’s easy to slip into year after year of being the world’s greatest expert on X, and when X isn’t important and impactful any more, you’re in a bad place.

But having said all that, Bay Area tech culture totally has a blind spot, just another part of their great diversity suckage. It’s hurting them as much as all the demographics they exclude, but apparently not enough to motivate serious action.

Can old folks code? · I don’t know about the rest of the world, but they can at Amazon and Google. There are all these little communities at Google: Gayglers, Jewglers, and my favorite, the Greyglers; that’s the only T-shirt I took with me and still wear. The Greyglers are led by Vint Cerf, who holds wine-and-cheese events (good wine, good cheese) when he visits Mountain View from his regular DC digs. I’m not claiming it’s a big population, but includes people who are doing serious shit with core technology that you use every day.

There’s no equivalent at Amazon, but there is the community of Principal Engineers (I’m one), a tiny tribe in Amazon’s huge engineering army. There are a few fresh-faced youthful PEs, but on average we tend to grizzle and sag more than just a bit. And if you’re a group trying to do something serious, it’s expected you’ll have a PE advising or mentoring or even better, coding.

Like I do. Right now there’s code I wrote matching and routing millions and millions of Events every day, which makes me happy.

Not that that much of my time goes into it — in fact, I helped Events more with planning and politicking than coding. But a few weeks ago I got an idea for another project I’d been helping out with, a relatively cheap, fast way to do something that isn’t in the “Minimum Viable Product” that always ships, but would be super-useful. I decided it would be easier to build it than convince someone else, so… well, it turned out that I had to invent an intermediate language, and a parser for it, and I haven’t been blogging and, erm, seem a little short on sleep.

Advice · Are you getting middle-aged-or-later and find you still like code? I think what’s most helped me hang on is my attention span, comparable to a gnat’s. I get bored really, really fast and so I’m always wandering away from what I was just doing and poking curiously at the new shiny.

On top of which I’ve been extra lucky. The evidence says my taste is super-mainstream, whatever it is I find shiny is likely to appeal to millions of others too.

Anyhow, I don’t usually wear a T-shirt, but when I do, it’s this one.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Wheeler (Sep 15 2016, at 01:51)

I just created https://oldgeekjobs.com

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From: Michael Strasser (Sep 15 2016, at 01:56)

I am fortunate to have been hired as a 55-year-old geek early this year. My employer, ThoughtWorks, actively seeks diversity in employment, regardless of age and gender (identity). We have hired a couple of people with disabilities in Australia this year.

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From: Paul Morriss (Sep 15 2016, at 02:40)

Yes I do like to code. However if you've been "re­view­ing de­sign­s, run­ning task forces, ad­vis­ing ex­ec­u­tives" then how can you convince people that you'd be good if you got back to it?

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From: Ioannis (Sep 15 2016, at 02:51)

Thank you for this. As someone who just turned 40 and is not a shit-hot coder,IMO (but capable, curious and disciplined), your points resonate quite strongly. I see no pleasure in managing projects, but infinite joy in writing code and helping out others do the same. I cannot shake the feeling though that I'm nearing the end of my usefulness...

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From: Bob Haugen (Sep 15 2016, at 04:46)

I'm 75, and still code and still like to code, but I'm slower and don't have the same timespan of deep focus that I (think) I used to enjoy.

But did you know that Tim Berners-Lee is still coding?

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From: John Cowan (Sep 15 2016, at 05:46)

I sincerely hope one of those class action suits lands good and hard, so that the smaller companies will wake up to the blatant illegality of what they are doing. The EEOC (in the US, and whatever its counterpart in Canada is) can't be everywhere, and in a culture of nearly complete lawlessness, it's hard for respect for the law to even get started.

But I do not believe for a minute that it is a "blind spot", a problem you don't know you have. Decision-makers (meaning VCs, for startups) know very well what they are doing when they keep expensive old farts out of the marketplace. Divide and rule, baby.

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From: Norman Walsh (Sep 15 2016, at 05:53)

I worry. A little. And I certainly have an "X" that I'm dragging around a bit. But I still really care about it and the community it serves. So mostly I just try not to worry.

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From: Joe S. (Sep 15 2016, at 08:33)

I'm very happy this is being talked about. I'm 37 and I just transitioned into web development a little over a year ago.

I came from a completely different background(theatre), and I was fearful I missed the boat on entering this industry, but there is a big demand right now, and I figured better late than never.

Luckily, I got a job in front end at a pretty cool startup making decent money, but I realized recently that my boss and coworkers have been assuming I am 29 or 30. My boss even mentioned that by the time I get his age, I'll have it all figured out so to speak. He's 36.

I'm feeling a lot of anxiety about my career path, and I'm not sure what trajectory I should take. I really enjoy programming, but I have this growing fear of being squeezed out since I'm too inexperienced to be a manager and too old to be a good cultural fit.

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From: anonymous (Sep 15 2016, at 08:56)

@Wheeler: Thanks for your new site.

FYI, your very first posting is from a company that presents a coding challenge that is directly applicable to their business. Last heard from thier CTO, Ward Vandewege, that he will get back regarding the submitted code. Couple of weeks later and a couple of email prompts and complete radio silence.

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From: Tom Hutchinson (Sep 15 2016, at 09:05)

The other side of this discussion is the exploitation of young engineers. Companies know they can pay them less and work them more.

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From: Robert Flesch (Sep 15 2016, at 09:35)

I am trying to think if I know any 50+ coders that are not awesome.

If you have stuck with it this long, its usually because you love coding, creating, the flow.

Discrimination is real, and I have given up the idea of working for anyone else at this point. I am currently CTO/founder of a mobile phone app company. The only positions I find that remotely resemble my skills at this point are a small company's CTO, a place where I can be hands on, and guide us in the right direction.

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From: Doug K (Sep 15 2016, at 10:24)

here's something I wrote in response to an interview request for an article on age discrimination in IT. This was in the late 90s, when I was a younger man.

"Despite all the industry protestations, the job market for IT professionals over 30 is not very good (ask anyone who is in it). Last year's legislation raising the H1-B visa cap will only exacerbate the situation.

In other fields, age and its associated experience are rewarded: in IT, age is a handicap. Young programmers have the technical skills needed immediately, they are cheap, and willing to work ludicrous hours. There is also the zeitgeist resulting from years of downsizing and outsourcing, so all employees are contingent, and retaining or training them becomes irrelevant.

'Constant learning' is not a solution, unfortunately: knowing the new technologies doesn't reduce salary requirements or the time obligations to the family that most older workers have: nor does it convince the employers.

I started another Master's degree, thinking this might help, but abandoned it after several different employers told me in so many words that they were not interested in academic qualifications, only on-the-job experience. Of course my 20 years of 10 other programming languages on 5 operating systems were not interesting to them.

It's a depressing time for us elderly 30-somethings."

Old geeks have to have name recognition to be employed - like James or yourself. The rest of us have to pursue other opportunities. Tech support is a dire job but it's been paying the bills for quite some time now.

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From: Charlie@HockeyBias.com (Sep 15 2016, at 10:47)

I am 58 today and have been a software developer for a few decades. First in SF and for the last 20 years in Minneapolis.

I been a contractor for the bulk of the last 15 years and believe there is less age discrimination in the consulting world.

I now work as an FTE for a company that sees value in sprinkling in a few seasoned vets among its predominantly under 30 dev team.

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From: Joe Clark (Sep 15 2016, at 11:39)

I would have preferred you to have conceded that age discrimination is illegal in the United States and Canada. I would further prefer an admission that your refusal to concede same is due in part to the endless violations of employment standards of which Amazon, whom you work for, is guilty. In other words, you’re hardly in a position to decry discrimination against middle-aged persons when Amazon finds so many other creative ways to mistreat its staff.

Also, I suppose it is too much to suggest that nothing short of class-action lawsuits in the U.S., some of which have already happened, and endless individual human-rights complaints in Canada will put an end to the discrimination.

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From: Dennis Doubleday (Sep 15 2016, at 12:48)

A company "might" make an exception and hire James Gosling?

That's pretty funny, in a sad way.

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From: E.E. Greyson (Sep 15 2016, at 15:23)

A-freakin'-men!!!

I'm 55 and working at a non-profit. The work is challenging and varied but the pay isn't. I wouldn't say I settled but I wasn't exactly going to spend too much time marketing myself to the next great startup. Which is too bad. I can probably out think and out code most (I've been doing it 42 years) and I've tended to stay technical even in management roles. But I'm pretty sure I'm one of those exceptions.

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From: John Cowan (Sep 15 2016, at 16:31)

> Old geeks have to have name recognition to be employed

That's a little strong, though it certainly doesn't hurt. Half the technical staff at $EMPLOYER is gray, but on the other hand it's not in Silly Valley.

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From: David Warman (Sep 15 2016, at 17:40)

I am extremely lucky. Or something. I work at Nintendo as a Senior Software Engineer in Nintendo Technology Development. They found and recruited me for my generalist skills 8 years ago. When I was already 61. Now pushing 69 and still here, still coding, still embedded, still doing something different as I have been since the 60's.

But I am an outlier, no wisdom to impart on how or why I have this staying power, but I will say NTD is far more interested in my experience and skills than my age, and continue to look after me. AFAIK, I am not a big name either (except maybe in some esoteric circles).

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From: Jean Kaplansky (Sep 15 2016, at 18:53)

Props to both you and Lauren.

I'm very glad that I work in a tech sector that still sees use for someone with my experience and technical abilities. I would not be this lucky without a lot of people talking behind the scenes on my behalf.

I worry. I'm reluctant to lose expertise in some areas in order to gain required expertise in others. Especially if nothing meaningful can be done with the new expertise.

I'm doing everything possible to make sure that I continue to learn new things and gain experience in multiple areas crossing the vertical lines between developer, design, and business/strategy.

My current logic is that a body in motion will likely stay in motion. Focusing on the work in front of me helps me move my ongoing worry process to the background.

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From: RMW (Sep 15 2016, at 20:19)

As a coder and a hiring manager, I seek out older coders actively. If I could manage to build a team or older coders I would be the happiest clam on earth. Imagine a responsible and seasoned crew working together to build something cool? Good god. As a manager it's the best outcome I can imagine. I'll have enough time not dealing with the relative immaturities that I'll be able to open my IDE and contribute along side again.

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From: Mike (Sep 15 2016, at 22:42)

I am coding more now and I am innovating.

But the younger people "think" they control everything and now I have to wait for many cycles of waste before here whippersnappers discover of themselves I was right all along.

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From: Larry Cable (Sep 16 2016, at 08:21)

Thanks for posting this Tim, I think its a serious problem, about 3 years ago I was let go by a major bay area company as part of a RIF, what was in common with all of us RIFed, we were all over 40, we were all hired within the year, and were all senior employees.

I really wonder about the younger generation of developers; those that think that the callback model in Node.js is something revolutionary...

How many of them know what a branch delay slot is and what to do with it, how many of them have written (self modifying) assembler, or Postscript (by hand).

How many of them know that you can run an entire system in 0.25Mb (PDP11/40 running Unix V6)

damn few if any!

Old coders rock!

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From: Peter Ludemann (Sep 16 2016, at 10:33)

The half-life of a software developer seems to be less than 10 years. Consequently software engineering repeats the same mistakes about every decade, because people move on to management just at the point where the 10,000 hour rule would say they're starting to become expert. More "experienced" people would improve product quality; instead there's a fetish for "young and works long hours".

PS: Google hired me when I was 53 and the area I work (platforms) seems to be a bit greyer than others.

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From: IanRae (Sep 16 2016, at 12:48)

I can't wait till the generation that created the PC revolution and early web all retire. With lots of free time, it's likely some will produce some interesting programs and languages.

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From: Gary (Sep 17 2016, at 09:42)

First off, I'm 50 and a developer so I agree with the gist of your argument, but not entirely. I work at VMware and we are very happy to hire older workers. Indeed, many of the company sponsored events are targeted at people with families. I'm sure companies like HP and IBM are similar. Where the real discrimination comes in is in the smaller start-ups. It isn't fair, but you can remain employed.

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From: Brandon (Sep 17 2016, at 11:10)

I'm an embedded engineer, primarily in aerospace with a dabbling of biomedical. I am only 30 but consider myself very lucky that my subfield doesn't seem to have the same issues that the wider tech world does. I work with, and learn tons from, people much older than me on a daily basis. I count myself lucky to do so.

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From: Crispin Bennett (Sep 17 2016, at 18:17)

Nice post in general on a topic of increasing importance as median age increases in most wealthy nations.

But two demurrals:

Firstly, Wikipedia says Tim Bray is 61. That can by no defensible standards be considered 'old'.

Secondly, there is a general assumption, not exactly stated in Tim's post, but perhaps hovering in the background, that all 'old' (over 40?) people in tech are experts, with a successful history behind them. This really should not be assumed in an age when people can be expected to have multiple careers. A 60 year old might well be a career-changer, and should not be burdened with the assumption of expertise.

Even if they have years of experience, they may not be as successful or expert as Tim (most people never get there). But still may be good at their job. Or for a myriad of possible reasons their best years may be ahead of them.

Treat everyone (and their skills/abilities) as you find them, without the (frequently fictional) expectations. And allow them to change.

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From: Don (Sep 19 2016, at 07:11)

I'm 65 and still coding. I'm a team of one and have been the sole developer, designer, DBA ('A' is analyst, not administrator), webmaster, etc. of a system I inherited about 15 years ago. It would be difficult for me to get another position because my tool set, while adequate to my needs, is a bit outdated.

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From: Dethe Elza (Sep 19 2016, at 15:33)

I'm 51 and last time I was looking for a job I applied at Amazon and they told me my web dev skills (which I've been honing non-stop for 20+ years now) are "rusty" but wanted to bring me back to interview for a management position.

Instead I joined a startup, which also happens to be 86% women and value me as an old geek for my ability to code *and* the fact that I've been in the industry for awhile.

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From: Brian Cunnie (Sep 28 2016, at 11:50)

I'm 52, I'm not a rock star programmer, I've never been age-discriminated, I work in Silicon Valley, in the last 17 years I worked at four start-ups and now happily employed at Pivotal Software.

But it's not without its challenges: right now I don't have an office, a cube, or even a desk — my work environment is more spartan than ever. I might be at one of several stations pairing with another developer for eight hours at a stretch. Also, I've had to be willing to learn to do things differently (not just the usual new languages, e.g. Ruby, GoLang, or the new technologies, like AWS, Google Cloud) but even the way I work (TDD is a good thing, and pair programming blew my mind).

I've also worked with developers who didn't like the environment. One didn't like pair programming and moved to SalesForce and finally Uber.

And sometimes its our (old programmers') fault. I remember working with a developer my age, and rather than work on anything new he wanted to reminisce about his glory days and show me pictures of his children.

I remember when I was starting out as a developer one old programmer confided to me, "I'm tired of learning new things." I don't know what happened to him.

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From: Gavin Nicol (Oct 03 2016, at 21:07)

I'm in the gray zone and still very actively coding and stay extremely technical (even when in management). The one area I find ageism in spades (and it's quite insulting) is in interviews... it's sometimes amusing to watch young guys try to judge your abilities, sometimes just plain annoying, to the point where I have "played" with them a bit.

IMHO. Good people are good... age, race, sex have no influence on that (though age tends to wash out hubris). Often the very best are the (often unrecognized) outliers.

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From: Matěj Cepl (Oct 24 2016, at 02:18)

I have turned into the computer industry in the ripe age of 35 (I have two law degrees; a long story), and I have just celebrated 10th anniversary of working at Red Hat.

I concur with your observation that those ugly ol' big corporations like Red Hat (or even IBM, HP, et al.) are way more open to diversity in all aspects than Silly Valley startups. Yes, share of ladies among is horribly small, but still seems to me higher than median.

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