Main image of article Challenge and Triumph of Older Tech Workers
Ten years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a pronouncement that would soon become infamous: “Young people are just smarter,” he told an audience at Stanford University. Despite the outcry over his words, the fact remains that tech is often perceived as a young person’s game. Referring to tech investors, author (and “Silicon Valley” writer) Dan Lyons told Dice last year: “I think they’ve decided that the optimal return is young kids: Burn them out, get rid of them, replace them.” And yet there are pockets within the tech industry where older tech pros are not only relevant, but also dominating. As RedMonk helpfully pointed out in a new blog posting, Amazon Web Services has hired many of tech’s most notable figures, including James Gosling (co-inventor of Java; 62 years old), Tim Bray (co-inventor of XML; 61 years old), and Andi Gutmans (co-inventor of PHP; 41 years old). “[Amazon] puts such a premium on independent groups working fast and making their own decisions it requires a particular skillset, which generally involves a great deal of field experience,” the blog posting added. “A related trend is hiring seasoned marketing talent from the likes of IBM.” Experience counts for a lot; if you’ve been in the industry for thirty years, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen every kind of snafu or implosion at least once (heck, once per week, depending on the kind of companies you’ve worked for). As an older tech pro, you understand how the latest technology works because you understand how the tech that preceded it worked; you may have even contributed to the building of the older platform. Of course, all the experience in the world can’t counter the fact that, for a lot of older tech workers, it’s a decidedly uphill battle to a new position. What often helps is staying current in terms of your skillset (or, as the old cliché goes, never stop learning). “My point is certainly not that these younger developers were smarter,” developer Don Denoncourt wrote late last year in a much-circulated blog posting. “It’s that many programmers let themselves grow stale. And the bigger problem is, after doing the same year’s worth of experience ten times, many programmers forget how to learn. Not only can it be extremely hard to catch up with ten years of technology, it can be next to impossible if you’ve forgotten how to learn.” Survival as an older developer, then, comes down to a combination of experience and drive. “Treat this year as if it were your first year as a developer and assimilate everything you can,” Denoncourt added. “Reclaim the energy you had in your first year of coding. Regain the drive you had to prove to yourself and to your employers that you were “all that” for this IT field.” Yet experience and drive still need to push against what many experienced tech pros feel is ageism in the industry. Prevailing isn’t easy; but if there’s one thing you can say about older folks, they’re tough.