Am I too old to become a professional programmer?
The short answer is no, you are never too old to find work as a professional programmer if you have the right skillset. But the reality is that age discrimination is a thing, in tech employment and just about every other field. The tech world has such a strong reputation for discriminating against older applicants, that some people in their mid twenties end up asking this question. This comes in part from the portrayal in movies and shows of tech entrepeneurs who drop out of college to make their fortunes, and the celebration in the media of the rare people who manage to do these kinds of things in real life. If you’re looking to transition into a tech career, here are some things to consider in your real-world job search.
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Learning at any age
There’s a related question that comes up just as often: “I’m __ years old, can I still learn how to program?” The answer to that question is an absolute, “Yes.” I’ve personally heard from many readers who have picked up Python Crash Course in their 60s, 70s, and 80s because they’ve always been curious about programming. They tend to work through the book at the same pace as anyone else who’s new to programming. Some people learn faster because they have more time, or they have some relevant background knowledge, while others spend a year or more working their way through the book. It doesn’t really matter how fast you go; what’s important is that you’re making sense of the concepts that are presented, and that you start thinking about how you might apply these concepts to real-world problems.
You may have fallen out of the habit of learning, but it’s something you can pick back up at any time. I’m almost 50, and I’ve tried to take on a significant new challenge or learning experience in each new decade of life. In my 20s I got into teaching and bicycle travel. In my 30s I moved to Alaska and started doing mountain rescue work. In my 40s I started writing and doing professional programming work. I also learned how to drive a boat recently, which was a really intimidating thing to do in a fishing town where it feels like everyone else grew up knowing how to drive a boat. Learning new things isn’t always easy, but we can all do it. Also, keep in mind there are just as many young people who haven’t yet learned how to push through difficult learning experiences, and are facing the same kinds of challenges in a slightly different way.
Know your strengths
Many people who are trying to transition into a programming-focused career have a number of strengths that can make them more appealing as a job candidate. It’s important that you know your own strengths when beginning a job search.
For example, if you’ve worked in a field related to a company’s focus, you may have domain expertise that younger people who’ve spent more time on programming don’t have. If you’ve been a CNA for a long time and you’re applying to a company that builds medical software, emphasize how your experiences working directly with patients affects the way you think about designing software that should ultimately benefit patients and the people who serve them. If you’ve been a welder and you’re applying to a company that builds software that controls part of a fabrication process, emphasize your understanding of how that software will interact with people on the floor, and their overall workflow and needs. You can help these kinds of companies avoid common mistakes that come from software developers being too far removed from the fields they’re trying to serve.
Your experiences don’t need to be directly related to the focus of the companies you’re applying to. If you have a strong employment history, you’ve already sorted out some of the workplace dynamics that younger employees haven’t yet dealt with. You know how to show up and focus on the work that needs to be done, without getting pulled into workplace politics. If you have a history of working well in stressful situations, potential employers can expect you to handle stressful technical situations professionally as well.
Many software development organizations have issues where the software they build isn’t received as well as they thought it would be, because everyone in the organization thought their users would be just like them. Older applicants can bring some much needed balance to a younger team; you can bring a perspective that people in their twenties just don’t have.
Emphasize your strengths
One of the most frustrating ways that age discrimation happens is when older applicants submit many applications over a period of months, and never get contacted for an interview. It’s an invisible rejection that is deeply frustrating, angering, and demoralizing. There are some strategies to help avoid this. On a resume, you aren’t required to put dates on your formal educational experiences, and you aren’t required to list every job you’ve ever had. You can list how many years you worked at a company, without listing explicit dates. Some hiring managers will see past this and reject your resume anyway, but for others it will help them focus on what you’ve actually done, and not the specific dates.
Some applicants resist this notion of “hiding their age”, but it can get you past resume-screening teams who have a habit of ignoring any applications from older applicants. Some people want their resume to state their age, so they’ll only end up interviewing at companies who are explicitly welcoming to older applicants.
The goal of not making your age stand out on your resume is to get to the interview, where you’ll have the chance to share your strengths and your abilities. Many young companies that are filtering out older people at the resume stage are just not aware of how strong an older candidate can be, and you might be able to change their minds with a strong interview. A portfolio can be really helpful; it can help your interview focus on what you’ve already built, rather than whether you can handle this new line of work or not. Of course, you might have a really strong interview only to be passed over because of your age, and that is a deeply frustrating experience. When this happens, the only practical solution is to continue growing your knowledge and skills, and continue looking for companies that do see the value in your contributions to their work.