Are old developers worthless?
Are you just tired of listening to how programmers in their 20s need to start preparing for retirement at the age of 40? “Oh no! who wants to be learning new frameworks every month?” or “Who would hire a 40 year old developer?”. We also get told that old programmers barely get past the first phone interview when applying for jobs regardless of their experience. We are told that old programmers are less valuable than their younger counterparts still in their 20s who have the energy to keep up with the latest frameworks. What is really the problem tho? Other professionals such as doctors, Engineers, Lawyers, Accountants, Architects, etc all age like fine wine. These professionals get more valuable as they age. In fact professionals in these fields are still at apprentice level for the most part of their 20s. So why is programming and software development any different? Why do programmers supposedly age like Tesco (everyday value) milk?
What if I told you …
What if I told you this madness ends in the web development space
Web development is the bulk of software engineering jobs. It is so big that a lot of web developers are oblivious to the fact that there are lots of programmers in other fields who know nothing about react, bootstrap, css, MERN and MEAN stack, etc. In fact when you search for a video online about best software development tools or best software development tips, most of the videos assume that everyone is a web developer. You see them talking about “must-have” tools and mentioning “visual studio code” as a must have for all developers. *Well just say it’s for web developers *
In the field of web development, technology is always changing. You could have about 9 different technologies on your tech stack even if you are building a basic application that can be developed by a one man team in 6 months. Yes, a lot of these technologies might have a few things in common, but for the most part, your knowledge is mainly technology dependant and those technologies get replaced fast. Web development is also the area of programming (just like mobile dev too) where virtually zero amount of science and mathematics is used, so a lot of underlying knowledge is not required. Compare that to other niche development fields like computational science/simulation, audio programming, graphics programming, game development, systems development, language and compilers etc. A lot of mathematics, computer science and some knowledge of physics (in some cases) is used, and these things never change. Web development has little to no gate-keeping, because a high-school dropout could easily slide in and navigate though web development without the need for a strong foundation (trust me, it happens a lot). So you can now see why that 22 year old developer just coming out of Stanford university who has done some internship with Google and also knows reactJS 3.0 (when reactJS 3.0 is the new trendy tech) is more valuable (at least in the eyes of HR) than the 45 year old developer who still used reactJS 1.0 at his mid-sized company. When these new frameworks get introduced, you are pretty much starting all over and there is little carryover of knowledge. The little carryover can also be learnt quickly as the basics are not difficult at all when it comes to web development.
Let’s take one of the niche fields I talked about, Audio Programming. You have to understand the fundamentals of sine waves which are the basis for sounds. You will learn a lot of complex math on how these sine waves are mathematically transformed to get certain sounds. The basic math of frequency, amplitude, sample rate, audio encoding, etc is enough to scare those math-o-phobes out (gate keeping). The audio programming industry relies on certain engineering and mathematics concepts that will never change. Frameworks do not come and go easily. In fact, the very opposite is the case. There are a few frameworks, you get heavy on the theory and understand how to implement some sound-generation algorithms then you pick a tool to do your job. The 20-something year old just fresh out of college with few internships under his/her belt cannot even lace the shoe of a 45 year old audio developer who has been in the industry. There is a ladder for you to climb and there is no trendy tech bandwagon to jump on.
This is also the case for graphics development and other niche areas. The team at Epic games who worked on Nanite technology (virtualised geometry) and Lumen technology (real time-ray traced global illumination ) had little to no use for a new grad with 2 year experience. Just like a AAA studio working on the next GTA or Battlefield will have little to no use for lots of newbies. The mathematics of rendering, reflection, lighting is not changing and no new framework will save you. Same with audio companies like Image-line, new grads are not a replacement for veterans. This is what these niche programming fields have in common with other traditional fields like Accounting, Medicine, Engineering, etc. The older and the more experienced you are, the more valuable you become.
So what does a web developer do then? As frameworks change faster than the speed of light with most of the knowledge being tied to these frameworks, what is the way out. This is why lots of clever web and mobile developers move to the consulting and leadership role. You have seen projects come and go. You have seen the industry change overtime, so from a business point of view, you are infinitely more valuable than that unexperienced kid out of school. So yes! It is not over once you are a 45 year old web developer, you just need to change your mindset from a programmer’s mindset to an manager’s mindset.