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Is there a software developer age limit? Apparently, it's 45

Software development is a young person's purview, according to a Harvey Nash Technology Survey. Expert David Savage explains how over-45s can stay in the game.

Do you worry about finding a job? Surely you don't, if you can code. It turns out that even developers have something to worry about if you're 45 or older. In fact, the 2018 Harvey Nash Technology Survey showed 61% of all technologists over the age of 45 are worried age is limiting their career options.

So, what can you do to overcome the idea of a software developer age limit and remain a compelling job candidate?

Innovate or die

To beat the negative connotations of age, the over-45s aren't just sitting around waiting to not get hired, the survey showed.

To beat the negative connotations of age, the over-45s aren't just sitting around waiting to not get hired, the survey showed. A full 55% pay for external courses to keep skills relevant, though that's so common it's unlikely to help you stand out in a crowded field. And 54% say you should be a woman -- though, since 85% of people employed in technology aren't, it's not practical advice.

However, 55% of survey respondents say that working in a "very innovative organization" helps soften the effects of a cultural software developer age limit. In the past, recruiters have looked at a CV with an eye for household names. Those companies were always seen as a stamp of credibility, even if that was a rather crude means of assessing candidates. Today, talent professionals want to find out if a person has worked somewhere innovative. Innovate or be stuck with the age bias, apparently.

Ageism in technology

How do you spot an innovative business? Size isn't everything. Aviva employs 30,000 staff globally, but its Digital Garage proves larger businesses can be agile and transformative. The Harvey Nash Technology Survey suggests that age (of a company this time) is a better indicator of innovation than size. Typically speaking, respondents from organizations that were founded less than 10 years ago were significantly more likely to describe their company as "very innovative." The argument is that older organizations have more legacy technology tying software developers up in "spaghetti," a messy mass of interwoven systems that are difficult to unpick.

Bespoke software holds the key?

Business leaders often have a few common questions: How much technology should I offshore? What should be on premises and bespoke? Getting the balance right is tricky. Technologists from "very innovative organizations" place increased importance on bespoke software: 68% believe it drives innovation, versus 57% when measured across all respondents. That's a significant difference. The Digital Garage wasn't actually about great software; it was about being unafraid to fail. A company that invests in bespoke systems and software will incur higher initial costs and implementation will be longer, but they're not afraid to back something. And places with this mentality are less likely to cultivate a software developer age limit.

If you're a technology professional looking for a company that will help you feel superhuman, ask what it's building. Join a business that takes risks and is willing to invest. I sat with a business that was trying to build a product, and it was told that it couldn't happen. But it did it, and it's growing fast. That's an exciting journey and bound to make software developers feel young, regardless of their birth certificates.

This was last published in January 2018

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If you're 45 or over, what are you doing to ensure you remain technologically relevant?
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Given the drive to keep people in work until they are in their late 60s - this is not good news. This looks like stereotyping to me... any evidence that older IT team members are less able?
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No evidence. Imagine Bill Gates of Microsoft corporation is still relevant. It is a matter of the mind and interest in what you are doing.
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I agree that being an older worker in technology is very difficult. Everyone wants the young fresh mind that will work cheaper and burn out and be replaced.

Innovation is not just creating something new or different but creating something new or different that solves a problem and is cost effective and useful. Bespoke software is taking a short term view to the problem, something younger developers would see and a short path to solving. If you create a bespoke solution you have solved one problem immediately. What happens as time moves forward and the developers have moved on? When this new bespoke solution need to be replaced or updated how much will that cost and who will do it? his is how the current spaghetti mess you mentioned got started in the first place. So the company has to pay to untangle another mess again.

Look at companies like Cerner or Epic. They provide very powerful software but prefer to do it on their cloud. They allow and will help provide customizations up to a point. That allows them to update and replace the current base software without needing to unravel all the customizations of a bespoke solution. This approach is good for both customers, who get a pseudo bespoke solution, and the company that is able to update the core software without a constant disruption in services and supporting many versions of older software.

Experienced minds have value even in todays technology. Your thought on being female are spot on. Women are actively being pursued for technology jobs. In todays politically correct environment I guess an older traditionally male candidate should "identify" as a female to get the interview and job.
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As a woman over 50, I think this idea that being a woman is an advantage to be 'blame shifting' as to why someone is not getting job offers. Do people really think being a woman is getting people tech jobs? There is certainly a lot of 'talk' about it but its more show than go.  I see being an under-30 woman getting people tech jobs but its harder to stay in the field long-term as a woman. The average woman lasts 10 years because its tiring to constantly fight to be heard and recognized - without being perceived an aggressive b*.  

What have I done then to last 30 years and counting?  This is not something new mind you, its a frame of mind.  Stay curious, always be looking for the next new thing, industry trends, societal trends.  Dealing with *isms is not new for me so I have always had to be at the top and better than those around me - just to have a place at the table.  It is harder now than ever as I perceive age-ism added to the ever present sex-ism.

Maybe men are perceiving that women are competing better as older workers because we have always had to do extra to be allowed off the bench.


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In an ideal world a female developer with 15-20 or more years of experience would be favourable because more women with plenty of experience would bring the testosterone level of developer teams down and with that it would increase rational thinking leading to more reliability, safety and maintainability once again.

Unfortunately though we live in a crazy world where all the clients are feature junkies, addicted to products that require tons of testosterone to produce. Hence the boyz-with-toyz culture and the imbalance of males over females and youth over experience.
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This view of women having to stay on top of the game rings true from experience. Good point.
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There is something which you cannot get in college and which seems a little underrated here. That is experience. Spotting a bad design from ten feet away, knowing what to do and what not and what can - and most likely will - potentially go wrong in your system is an asset to me.

Being able to design a system that will not require a complete rewrite three years from now sometimes helps keeping a company in business.
And not being scared by a few hundred thousand lines of code which you do not know that well also seems helpful if the system grows bigger. And it will. Or it is so simple, that you can outsource your development to Cambodia anyway. Or you are out of business.
I've been through server and client technology from Vax, Unix, Windows, Mac, Linux, Fortran (!), C, C++, Java, SQL of any kind, html, css, whatever and have been a full-stack DevOp most of my life (though, nobody knew, I was...) - (this was for the buzzword bingo, although not the most modern ones).
Anyway, it's always software and things always break for the same reasons...


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BTW: an experienced developer/requirements engineer would have told you long ago that restricting the username on techtarget to only letters and numbers is embarrassing nowadays…

;-)
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Software Development is getting a bit like Craftsmanship, the longer you do it, the more appealing it can be/look like. Not only in terms of excellence (shape or durability) but also the art of spirit hidden behind a small piece of code/blocks of architecture. It can survive the Millenials Boom despite overall criticism of "ancient" components or style. Engineers are becoming Artists those days :) Like Painters they could expose their work to unknown audience to get bigger and famous at exhibitions with ultimate high-prices.
So everybody could be a Painter but hardly One can become next Da Vinci or Picasso :)
But don't worry, there is a tiny chance to get famous after Death:)
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If you are under 45 you are not a developer, you are an apprentice, an advanced apprentice you may be, but an apprentice nevertheless. True craftsmenship starts with 45 because it takes at least 15-20 years of experience. You may have 10 PhDs or a 100 PhDs, they are worthless when compared to experience. Nothing compares to experience.

Software is in a big mess today precisely because we have too much of that so called innovation which should better be called sloppiness while fooling around. There is too much boyz-with-toyz and testosterone in software development. People do stuff only because it is "cool" and they get a kick out of it, not because it makes any sense. More experience, thus a higher average age of developer teams would counter this, but meh, the world has gone crazy for their next feature fix, so these boyz with their toyz actually get rewarded for the crap they produce. Reliability, safety and maintainability no longer count.
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I remember having code rules - that you kept things neat - and annotated - and fit for those who'd use the product on a daily basis.... yes.
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I am now 55 and happy in coding with my product Cloudora Justice.
No matter of your age, you can coding whatsoever you can and do it happily.
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54 this year and still relevant. The key is domain knowledge. Most organisations who have tried the downsizing and/or offshoring path end up with a knowledge deficit which then, by necessity, requires them to retain what is in fact their competitive advantage: knowledge held in wetware or more accurately the ability to manipulate that knowledge for competitive advantage. Age and experience is a big plus in this environment. 

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An example: Linus Torvalds. Or another: Steve Jobs. Did they become less innovative by age? I'd rather call them the drivers behind it.
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In response to a couple of below comments, I have no evidence that older IT members are less able, in fact my experiences suggest the opposite. 

When you talk to startups they also enthuse about the knowledge that experienced candidates bring to them, so definitely huge value in more mature staff. I'm certainly not trying to say otherwise!

I just think it is worrying that there is evidence that age is perceived so badly. It is a challenge to hiring managers, if candidates think this way I'm sure some managers must too.
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Hmmmm.... Just passed the 45 years mark...not of age, but of experience [including formal education]...

It has always (since my professional career started in 1977) taken effort to remain relevant, the field is constantly changing.

The problem is NOT age, but rather complacency which can happen at any point. "I know enough, I do not need to continue learning" is a death sentence (To one's career)


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