You're No Rockstar, But You Have More Yoda Appeal Than You Think
Years on the job don't confer rockstar status, but knowing how not to do things is invaluable to young colleagues and keeps you relevant in middle age.
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I don’t like to blog about blogging, but there’s an opinion regularly put forth by fortysomething developers that gets me worked up. The gist runs as follows: the writer no longer likes being a software developer and based on their own anecdotal evidence wonders why so many other similarly disillusioned old hands flock to management positions. Disappointed that real progress in the art of programming is stagnant, they complain that people – not them! – keep making the same stupid mistakes. As if history doesn’t repeat itself everywhere all the time.
The more you exaggerate this professional ennui, the more dissent you invite from senior nerds. Just as the algorithm promised. You’re so wrong! I ’m a happy coder at seventy, doing React native. Most reactions are equally anecdotal. I don’t begrudge you your viewing rates, but it doesn’t make instructive reading. Here’s my unresearched take on the matter. Developers don’t favor management in droves once they reach forty, and they don’t leave the industry either. Software is still a growth industry where the influx of young graduates counteracts the natural ageing of the existing population. This keeps the average age low.
I have a few things to share about being an older developer. If you are bored with your job, consider that you still belong in the top five percentile in terms of job security, safety, and salary, if not satisfaction. Many people still envy you, so count your blessings. But the job gets repetitious, you say? Try teaching or dentistry for three decades. Routine doesn’t turn to tedium if you can challenge yourself to do your best. Staying hungry is part of the job and sustaining pride in your craftsmanship is nobody’s responsibility but your own.
I don’t think development careers turn sour through a lack of challenge. It’s rather too much change, too fast that creates an excess of challenge. This stress becomes harder to bear once you no longer bounce back from an all-nighter the way you used to. I can relate to a feeling of overwhelm at the relentless rate at which technologies come and go. This is repetition of a different kind than writing your thousandth REST endpoint. Both can wear you out, but I think people sooner tire of the necessity to keep up with change than they hate repetitiveness in their daily job. Routines are soothing if they make you feel in control. Change often means the very opposite.
People get comfortable doing things the way they used to. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it may be a sensible rule for code maintenance, but not solid career advice in software. Being change-averse is a red flag. You must keep up with updates to major frameworks like JUnit or Hibernate, and these are still incremental compared to the fundamental paradigm shifts going on. We are turning from OO/procedural/mutable/monolithic to functional/reactive/decoupled/asynchronous, in case you haven’t noticed. But take some comfort in the knowledge that your junior colleagues are in the same boat.
Talent doesn’t increase with age, and raw, monomaniac energy wanes. Don’t find out the hard way (though burnout) that there is more to life than work. It’s okay to realize you won’t become a Linus or Venkat. Years on the job don’t automatically confer such Rockstar status. There are few job openings anyway, and the Uncle Bobs of this world tend to hog them. Yet there is one unique selling point that maturity can bring to everyone: knowing how not to do things. Treasure the hard-earned lessons you got from making bad decisions and disappointments you swallowed along the way.
Here’s the thing: this baggage gives you more Yoda appeal than you think. I’ve had young co-workers thank me for a learning experience when I didn’t feel I was teaching them at all, just giving constructive criticism and advice. They were smart and could beat me hands down at any maths puzzle, but I must have told them something that resonated and helped them improve. I can see myself doing that for the next fifteen years and even get better at. Keep your technical skills relevant, stay curious and treat colleagues half your age as intellectual equals (which they are) and you have little to fear of ageism.
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