What happens to old software engineers?

“For of All Sad Words of Tongue and Pen, the Saddest are These, It Might Have Been…..” John Greenleaf Whittier

I worship my father.  Well, I worship a Holy Father, but I adore my earthly father.  He’s incredible.  he is 73 years old and one of the smartest and most successful men I know.  Plus, he’s my daddy and I love him with all my heart.

So yesterday we got in a discussion because he’s thinking about retiring from practicing law and it really got the wheels turning in my own head.

I am 48 years old.  If I were a doctor or lawyer or priest or librarian I would be viewed as “in my prime” – wise, knowledgeable, experienced and highly prized for my years in the industry.  On the other hand, what do we think of people over 45 who are “still programming”?

The assumption, of course, is that as you age you should climb the ladder and get away from hands-on development.  I mean, how sharp can you stay after 45?  Let’s face it – it’s hard enough to stay on top of the latest technologies when you are young.

There’s one thing missing though: a clear definition of “young” in 2014.  You see, when I was growing up old people included anyone over 40.  In 1984 when I graduated high school I can remember looking at one of my favorite teachers who, at the time, would have been about 60 and thinking “Holy cow, he won’t be here next year.”  He taught high level math courses – how could he possibly keep up?

25 years later, that teacher retired.

So back to what happens to “old” software engineers?  There’s only one way to keep yourself “young” in this industry: education.  NEVER stop learning.  The way I see it, I can start climbing the ladder of management (again – I’ve done it several times) and get further and further away from the hands-on software development so it won’t matter how sharp I am.  However, I would not be happy.

I can remember talking to my husband (also a software engineer) when we were in our early 30’s about how obsolete “old developers” were and how out of touch they were with technology developments: stuck in time – old time.

Fortunately, God blessed me with a fabulous mind.  It’s no different than most folks – maybe one or two standard deviations above average, but all-in-all a good, solid working mind.  He also blessed me with a passion for programming and learning (albeit in very unorthodox learning methods – usually outside a classroom).

The logic, math, statistical reasoning – it all captivates me.  I’m a business intelligence specialist / architect / developer / designer.  Who knows what it’s called these days.  Now we have official terms for everything that once was just “mystery technical voodoo” we performed magically behind a curtain (or in my case, often tucked away in a server closet working out of sight of the rest of the human race).

So now we have two questions to answer:

  1. What’s “old” in the programming industry?
  2. What happens to “old” software engineers?

Well, to the first question I have to answer there is no such thing as “old” software engineers just because of their chronological age.  There are wise and experienced software engineers, but they aren’t old until they stop learning new technology.  Then they are “old” by choice.

To the second question, I propose we remain software engineers.  I propose we nestle in for the long haul and run like madmen to keep up with the ever-changing world of programming languages and concepts  (I’m told exercise is good and coffee is bad – ok, pots of coffee consumed throughout the night in pursuit of the solution to that last final “bug” fix is bad).

Frankly, those of us who are “wise” programmers kind of  have a huge advantage over young whipper-snappers: we know REAL programming.  We know things like “assembly language”, “DOS programming”, etc.  Ask a newly graduated CS major to build something in assembly and unless he/she attended one of the top universities you are liable to get a very blank stare.

I find that tragic.

I can bounce from Unix/Linux programming to DOS shell scripting to .NET C# to MS BIDS to Java to proprietary BI suites and more!  I believe that’s because I know what’s truly happening under the covers of today’s IDE’s.  The logic remains the same – no matter what we call it this decade.

So what makes me think I can keep this up for a long, long time?  Here are a few examples that life doesn’t even begin until after 45:

Roget Invented the Thesaurus at Age 73

Grandma Moses  Anna Mary Robertson Moses is one of the biggest names in American folk art, and she didn’t even pick up a brush until she was well into her eighth decade.

Grandma Moses was originally a big fan of embroidery, but once her arthritis grew too painful for her to hold a needle, she decided to give painting a try in the mid-1930s.

She was 76 when she cranked out her first canvas, and she lived another 25 years as a painter — long enough to see the canvases she had sold for $3 fetch prices north of $10,000.

Benjamin Franklin At age 70 in 1776 Franklin played an instrumental role in draftingand signing the Declaration of Independence.  At age 81, Franklin signed the Constitution of the United States of America. ·

Winston Churchill FIRST became Prime Minister at 65 ·

Laura Ingalls Wilder STARTED writing the “Little House on the Prairie” series at 65

Edmond Hoyle Whether or not you know it, you probably owe Hoyle a tip of the cap each time you reach for a deck of cards. The Englishman is considered to be the world’s first technical writer on the rules of card games, and he didn’t put pen to paper as a young card sharp. Hoyle was around 70 years old when he first began recording the rules of various card games in 1741; over the last 27 years of his life, his smash hit A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist went through over a dozen editions.

Jack Weil, Age 107 d. Aug 2008 Jack A. Weil passed away on August 13, 2008 at the age of 107. The fact he lived to the ripe old age of 107 is impressive. The fact that he was still the chief executive of the company he founded and working 40+ hours a week until his final days is plain old amazing.

In 1946, he formed Rockmount, a western high fashion clothing retailer that continues to manufacturer it’s shirts in the US after many competitors moved offshore. Achieving historical fame, various accounts state Mr. Weil either invented the modern bolo tie or named it.

His secret to heath, wealth and happiness? “He loved his work.”

Poppy Bridger, Age 84 After working as a PhD chemist for 45 years, Poppy Bridger, retired at the age of 69 to care for her ailing mother. But her 72nd birthday gift was an opportunity to buy and operate the lab she had worked at. With about $250K in savings, back to work she went!

On any given day, you will find Bridger testing the authenticity of a precious heirloom or analyzing the properties of metal fatigue. To help with the growing work load at the lab, she has subsequently hired her son and daughter to work with her.

She goes to work every day, and at the age of 84 is bringing into the business about $350K annually.

 Colonel Harland Sanders, Age 90 d. Dec 1980 The world famous Colonel Sanders launched his business at the age of 65, using his first Social Security check as start up funds. A master of personal branding, Sanders leveraged his honorary “Colonel” title and constantly wore the stereotypical “southern gentleman” white-suit and black tie. The rocket like growth of KFC is now legendary, and prior to his death Colonel Sanders’ restaurant chain had achieved over 6,000 locations with sales of more than $2 billion.

During his entrepreneurial tenure Sanders met with the U.S. Congressional Committee of Aging and spoke against mandatory retirement, highlighting the love for work and the value of wisdom in the work place.

Not a bad run, old chap! Not bad at all.

 Barbara Miller, Age 74
Being an entrepreneur was never really a consideration in Barbara Miller’s life. After quitting her job in the paper industry after 30 years of service, she assumed she was done. But as she packed her stuff, her former colleagues begged her to start a new business… so she did.

In January of 1995, Miller opened the doors to Miller Paper Company and started with $300K in savings and 15 employees. Today the business is generating over $7M in annual revenue and has been on D&B’s list of the nation’s fastest growing companies.

Business has not been a walk in the park, to say the least. Miller started her company and was immediately sued by her former employer. A few months later she struggled with ovarian cancer.

 Sylvia Lieberman, Age 91 Sylvia Lieberman became an entrepreneur in fall 2007 when she was 90. This is when she realized her dream of having her first children’s book published. So why not start a company to author and promote the book?

Archibald”s Swiss Cheese Mountain is an award-winning book about a little mouse with a big heart who teaches children how to reach their big dreams. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but a philanthropic one! A portion of the proceeds goes to two children’s charities.

Despite her age, Sylvia works tirelessly promoting her book at book-signings and readings, TV appearances, radio and print interviews, and even appeared on a float in a parade. And all these efforts increase the amount she donates to charities.


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