Aging successfully in technology: Addressing the graying elephant in the room

Consider this: the median age of a Google employee is 29. At Amazon, it’s 32. On an industry-wide scale, the average age for a software developer in the United States is 28, according to Stack Overflow’s 2018 Developer Survey. In Russia, it’s 25. For India, it’s 23. Given these facts along with Mark Zuckerberg’s remark back in 2007 that “young people are just smarter,” you can make a good case that the world of software development really is no country for old men.

Yet, older workers do get hired. Google has been known to hire 40 and 50-years-olds. Still, the number of 50-year-old developers slinging code is minimal compared to younger age groups. This situation has created a legitimate fear. According to a report from Harvey Nash consultants, 60% of respondents in the UK, ages 50-69, feel that age has a negative impact as they move forward in their career. For those over the age of 60, the number climbs to 80%.

Is this feeling a reality? Consider the following scenario.

It’s hard to beat the odds

Imagine a hiring manager who is considering two candidates for an AWS architect position. Both are certified solution architects. Both have over five years of solid production experience. Both are looking for salaries that fall well within range. Both have great references. One is 35. The other is 61.

Now, let’s pause for a moment and consider some hard facts that might seem tangential, but as I’ll explain in a moment, they matter. According to the National Cancer Institute, a 35-year-old has a 5% chance of developing some type of cancer on the day hired. For the 61-year-old, the chances shoot up to 25%. Strokes are also significantly more prevalent among those approaching and over 65. And, a 61-year-old’s stamina is going to be well below that of the 35-year-old, even if the older person has a great exercise regimen.

Given these facts alone, who is the hiring manager most likely going select? Will the manager take a risk and hire the older candidate who, despite having qualifications equal to the younger candidate, is rife with actuarial risk? Or will the hiring manager play it safe and select the younger one?

I’ll leave it to you to answer that question. I will make an assertion, though, based on experience and research. Past the age of 55, the older you get in tech, the harder it is to find a job when you hit the market. Yes, if you have management experience and or are well-versed in a variety of technologies, the odds improve, but not by much.

Let me make another assertion. If you are a technologist over 55 and looking for head-down, boots on the groundwork, don’t waste your valuable time in an extended job search. The odds are not in your favor. You’ll do better to pursue another path.

The path to self-employment

While it’s reasonable to assert that most tech companies really don’t want to make the long-term commitment that goes with full-time employment to someone over 55, a surprising many will hire just about any competent person in the short-term. Thus, for older workers, a viable way to beat the odds is to go down the path of self-employment.

Keep in mind that self-employment is not the same as doing a startup. Startups are incredibly risky. Only about 10% succeed. And, they require a lot of time — time you really don’t want to waste as you approach 60.

Self-employment, on the other hand, will put a process in place that provides ongoing access to enough short-term work to live well. Instead of making the single, big bet with a startup, you make a lot of little bets each month. Some will pay off, some won’t. The trick is to have more payoff than not.

So, what does the path to self-employment look like?

Self-employment has requirements. You *do* have to understand some of the basics required to run a business. This means understanding how cash flow works, how to use banking services to your benefit and how to prospect for customers. You’ll need to brush up on your bookkeeping. Plan to pay your own taxes. Also, you’ll need to learn how to determine fair market rates to charge for the work you do and then schedule your work accordingly to meet customer expectations.

Put aside working capital now

Successful self-employment takes about two years. There will be ups and downs. The income for your first month out on your own will probably be a lot less than what you’ll make 24 months down the line. Thus, you’ll need savings to cover six months of expenses. Working capital provides the cushion you’ll need to get through the light months.

For those younger and currently employed, the time to put aside your working capital is now. Should you decide to work in tech into your later years — given current and projected trends in job turnover — chances are you’ll be on the path to self-employment as you approach 60. So, budget for the working capital now. You’ll be glad you did.

Keep yourself producing, even when sales are down

There’s a saying among caterers: You’re only as good as your last party. This is particularly true for the self-employed in tech. In order to stay viable, learn continuously and produce what you’re good at regularly, even during light months when sales are down. As long as you are making good stuff, paying work will come along. Make something valuable every day, no matter what!

Tend to your network

A good rule of thumb is that you will get five continuous customers for every 1,000 people in your network. Thus, always keep your network active. Go to meetups, be active on LinkedIn and Twitter and keep in touch with just about everyone you know. Keep the spirit of sharing at the forefront of your interactions. The more people you know, the more people you will know.

The real secret sauce for aging successfully in tech

To quote Bill Gates from a 2011 Q&A:

“I can understand about having millions of dollars. There’s meaningful freedom that comes with that, but once you get much beyond that I have to tell you, it’s the same hamburger.”

Here’s the secret sauce. It’s not the number of burgers you have in your life that counts. It’s the quality of the burger in front of you. The key to aging successfully in tech is to do meaningful work and live really well on the money you have. It’s worked for me. I’m 63. I’m healthy. The refrigerator’s full and I’m successfully self-employed.

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