Tips for Staying Employed as an Older Developer

There’s a category of developers who have been there, done that, and gotten the t-shirt (so to speak). If you remember things like structured programming, CASE (Computer Aided Software Engineering), or dot-matrix printers, you are probably an older developer.

When I was 31, a recruiter in his early 20s told me that I was “too old.” Thankfully, I haven’t heard that kind of thing in quite some time. Three weeks ago, I aced a programming interview; last week, I started my new job as an application programmer. Not bad for a 58-year-old!

Standing Out

As an older tech professional, I’ve been lucky. My current job leverages my programming experience in Delphi, C and C++. Taking nothing for granted during the application process, I prepared a small portfolio that showcased the applications I’d written for each language.

When it comes to that sort of thing, creating screencasts with Techsmith’s Camtasia is something I’ve been doing for a couple of years. I script and record a seven-minute screencast that demonstrates various programs—including one that quickly evaluates poker hands. These are based on software I’ve written over the past 18 years.

After uploading the programming video to Dropbox, I can share the link with a recruiter, who will then forward it to the potential client or employer. For interviews, I take along a laptop with all of my programs, plus printouts of source code. Is that sort of thing overkill? Maybe. But all that preparation also pays off.

Legacy Programming Languages

For a long time, COBOL and Fortran were the only legacy languages in town; now C, Turbo Pascal, Delphi, Microsoft Basic, some C++, ActionScript and Ada are on that list. (Thanks to Swift, Objective-C may soon land there, as well!)

If you’re an older developer who knows legacy languages, your employment prospects may be better than you think. It is expensive for companies to convert applications into newer languages, despite tools that automate some parts of the process. It often requires a flesh-and-blood tech pro to code, test, restructure, and maintain the program.

Don’t be a Dinosaur

One perception is that older developers can be a bit stuck in their ways. I’ve worked with a few who have fallen into that category. One such bloke was ten years younger than me; so long as he could program in Visual Basic 6 and stick with Windows XP, he was happy. He had never heard of Version Control systems and didn’t understand why he would use one.

His primary business involved supporting one application written in VB6, which first appeared in 1998; extended support for the platform ended in 2008. It’s also 32-bit technology, and at some point everything Microsoft-related will end up as 64-bit only. Unfortunately for him, our workplace decided to switch to a rival, Web-based system (which made sense—no software to install, easy fixes to the server, and so on). They no longer needed him to support it.

It’s not just about learning new programming languages; it’s also about keeping up-to-date with a broad portfolio of technologies. Anyone can program a Website; you also need to know server-side technologies, Web services, and how to move stuff in the cloud (whether it’s AWS, Azure, or Google).

Older developers often fall into two camps: those who embrace new technology, and those (like my former colleague) who stay stuck in the past. There’s at least one study (PDF) that dug into age-related knowledge, using data from Stack Overflow, and found that programming knowledge can be maintained at a high level well into a developer’s fifth or sixth decade. New technologies shouldn’t be an impediment to your career growth.

Some technologies are easier to pick up than you might expect. If you don’t know HTML, for example, there’s no better time to start than right now. I actually started learning a new, proprietary programming language last week; it’s been slow going, because the documentation is limited to a help file and a code base, but it’s worth it.

Why Look at Older Developers?

After you’ve learned your third or fourth programming language, you notice what’s similar; by recognizing patterns, languages become easier to absorb. Eighteen years ago, I wrote a number of text-processing utilities in Delphi; this week, during a training course for that proprietary programming language I mentioned in the last section, I had to write a text processing utility that included a string Trim() function. Been there, done that! Such are the benefits of being an older developer.

Older developers, having seen quite a bit, often have “soft skills” that allow them to interact seamlessly with people across a particular organization. They recognize the value of experience, even if projects end in failure. (For example: “My forgetting to commit a transaction while doing a live fix to a database table halted all production for five minutes. The lesson I drew from that is, always check your transaction level is 0 even after doing a commit. “)

When interviewing for a new position, don’t forget to use stories that illustrate your experience and skills. My 36-year-career has left me with a rich database (so to speak) of development anecdotes: “To learn Z80, I wrote a 6502 cross-compiler. It took me two weeks.”

Conclusion

The secret to keeping fresh is to never get off the learning curve. Try out new stuff; just for fun, carve out some time and learn a new language such as Rust, Swift or Go. It’s never been easier to download and install things; and there are online compilers for many languages.

If you have the time, also make sure to focus on technologies in addition to programming languages. This year, I’ve already installed PHP 7.0 on my Hyper-V Ubuntu installation. My next task is to set up a website “In the cloud.” Most cloud providers offer a free tier, so this self-education won’t cost anything unless I make a mistake, which in turn could become an amusing learning experience. (“Forgetting to check the decimal place position ran up thousands in charges in just one weekend!”)

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