A Long View of the "Short" Technology Career

The prevailing wisdom is that software careers are short. Matthew Heusser suggests an alternative perspective—that the short life of a tech career creates additional options and, toward the end, may even be worth letting go of.

I’ve been writing lately about the modern technology career. These jobs require a great deal of ongoing education, yet the ladder seems too short. By mid career, the way forward is unclear and we run into age discrimination.

Age discrimination is more than just a bias. There are system forces at play. My Windows development experience in Visual C++ 6 is not as relevant as it used to be. At the same time, my experience and lifestyle costs have increased since my twenties. With experience comes an expectation of more pay, but new technologies emerge and the technologies of previous decades become less relevant. Is it really any surprise that finding a job gets harder after ten or fifteen years of experience?

It's easy to be envious of those new graduates of MIT, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon. They get to go work for some hip company like Yahoo, Groupon, or Google with its office ball pit. But, perhaps we have the story wrong—or, at least, we may be looking at the wrong side of the story.

Let's Change the Discussion

What if we looked at the software developer's first programming job not as the goal but rather like residency for a doctor—the first step on the ladder? After the residency, you get to specialize.

My friend Tessa Welsh once told me that even though she began with a programming job right out of college, her goal was project management (PM). She had to take a programming position because she was fresh out of school and could not get a PM job. Four years later, a PM position opened up at her company, she applied, and she’s been a project manager for ten years now.

For some, programming is a calling, but for many more, it might be a one part of a much more complex career. If the half-life of a programmer is ten to fifteen years, then in ten to fifteen years half of all new programmers will have moved on to something else.

User Comments

Johanna Rothman's picture
Johanna Rothman

I know *many* older developers who are thriving, who work in "strange" languages, such as Lisp. Or, they worked in robotics their entire working lives. Or, telecommunications, or machine vision, or security.

Why? Because they really enjoy the technology or the subject matter domain. These people who now are in their, ahem, 50's and early 60's have *actively* pursued positions and companies where they could develop in these technologies. At first, they happened to be in the right place at the right time (Cambridge, at the MIT AI Lab or some other place at MIT). But then, they learned how to pursue further opportunities. Or, people like me, who did not go to MIT, learned how to pursue such opportunities.

Technical people need to learn to network. Jobs will not drop in our laps. We need to try open source projects and see if we like them. If we never try other possible technologies, how can we tell if we like new things.

Your advice is spot on, Matt. I hope other people read this.

October 16, 2012 - 9:17am
Payson Hall's picture
Payson Hall

I'm surprised you didn't talk about the role of lead designer/architect. This is a vital role that none of those smart (but inexperienced) guys out of MIT are qualified for yet. Using your Doctor model... this is one of the surgical specialties. Others include very specific domains, like I/O drivers, operating systems, real time process control. There are narrow ladders for people who want to stay geeky and keep climbing. Good article.

October 16, 2012 - 12:33pm

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