Where do all the old programmers go?

In search of the fabled elephants' graveyard of software developers over 40

We all know that software development is a young man's game. While hotshot young coders get fat raises and promotions to management, older programmers have an ever more difficult time finding work. Right?

In a recent editorial, Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, describes software engineering as a career dead end. "Many programmers find that their employability starts to decline at about age 35," Matloff writes.

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If this were radio, here's where I'd cue the sound of the needle skipping off the record. Age 35? I thought we were talking about older programmers. Since when is 35 old?

"Statistics show that most software developers are out of the field by age 40," Matloff continues, and here my eyebrows really start to rise. Most programmers? As in the majority of them? Gone? (Matloff declines to mention which statistics he's reading.)

If that's true, where do they go? Is there some Island of Misfit Programmers, where we send the burned-out, broken-down models to expire gracefully, out of sight of their younger brethren? Or do they get their real estate licenses? Open scrapbooking stores? Somehow I doubt it.

Is the sky really falling?
Now, I'm not going to do an about-face and claim that age discrimination doesn't exist in software development. It probably is more prevalent in tech fields than in other industries. But I have to say that as I read Matloff's rather astounding claims, my gut reaction is that I just don't buy it.

First, the anecdotal evidence: I know quite a lot of people, but I'm at an age when just about everyone in my social circle has reached or is fast approaching 40. That includes a number of software developers. What does it say about me, I wonder, that every single one of my programmer friends also happens to be a statistical outlier?

Besides statistics, fearmongering editorials like Matloff's are usually bolstered by a few choice quotes from tech luminaries. Matloff himself cites former Intel CEO Craig Barrett as saying, "the half-life of an engineer, software or hardware, is only a few years." Furthermore, he says, Mark Zuckerberg ... well, but let's not worry about him.

Even if Gordon Moore's offhand remarks have become "laws," I'm not going to give Craig Barrett the same privilege just because he once held the same title. Pithy quotes do not hard research make. So where do all the programmers go? I'm guessing here, but I have a few ideas.

Hunkering down
For starters, some of them don't go. They become highly specialized in a certain area, industry, tool, or company, and they carve out a lucrative niche sticking to what they do best. These are the coders who go on to become "distinguished engineers" at larger tech businesses. They're also the true statistical outliers in Matloff's data, so let's forget about them.

Other programmers are inevitably promoted to management. I know, you're rolling your eyes. "A career in software development doesn't necessarily prepare you to be a great manager," you're saying. Guess what? Neither do management training courses.

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