Where do all the old programmers go?

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

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It's also not the point. Promotion tends to come with a new job title. Telling people your new title is the best way to let people know you're in a more senior position. The next time a survey comes around that asks you to specify your job role, you'll probably check the box next to "project manager" instead of "software developer" -- even if you're still directly involvedin every step of the software design, specification, development, testing, and deployment process.

Promotion is a way of retaining employees. But believe it or not, graduating to a management position on a software development team doesn't mean you've given up being a software engineer. Depending on how the statistics were compiled, however, it might look that way.

Forging new paths, under the radar
Other developers don't leave the field, but they do quit their jobs. They go on to found startups, where their titles might be principal or CTO. Entrepreneurs have a way of slipping through the cracks of employment surveys -- again, throwing off the statistics.

Employment surveys have a way of missing independent contractors, too. Yet consulting can be particularly lucrative for software developers, and it tends to favor mature programmers with extensive industry experience.

Obviously, however, if you're not looking for a full-time job, they can't measure things like how long it took you to find a full-time job. Have you noticed the national unemployment figures don't include "discouraged workers," the ones who've stopped looking for work? Contractors affect employment statistics the same way.

Along those lines, let's examine one of the statistics Matloff cites. According to one study, he says, "It took 23.4 percent longer for the over-40 workers to find work after losing their jobs." That's interesting, but the research doesn't suggest why -- maybe they spent some time consulting.

One thing about mature workers is that they've paid their dues. They've probably made a few mistakes, had a few bad jobs, and become accustomed to a certain standard of living. They might not feel as much pressure to grab the first job that comes along, particularly if they've been living comfortably on six figures for the last few years. Perhaps mature workers take longer to find new jobs because their standards are higher?

Mixed messages
But who cares what Matloff says anyway, right? Lies, damn lies, statistics, and all that. Older tech workers probably have a fair idea of where they are in their careers, despite the doomsayers. What troubles me, though, is the message that articles like Matloff's send to the younger generation, particularly those who have yet to enter the workforce.

On the one hand, high tech seems to be one of the few truly thriving industries still left in the United States. Companies say they can't find enough qualified candidates. Politicians and educators are racking their brains trying to find ways to get youth interested in computing. And software development consistently ranks among the best jobs available, year after year.

On the other hand, we have essays like Matloff's, which claim that programming is a dead end and programmers can expect to be sent to the glue factory at an age when professionals in most other fields are at the peak of their careers. At best, it's silly and sensational. At worst, it's downright irresponsible.

This article, "Where do all the old programmers go?," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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