Developer Ageism and the Escape into Management

Is the software development industry ageist?

For some industries, this is not an unreasonable proposition. Professional athletes peak in their late 20s1; professional gamers (e.g., e-sport atheletes) peak even earlier, in their early 20s. If you were to apply for the job of the president of the United States, you are legally required to be 35 or older. The fast food industry has argued for years that paying minimum wage was okay because they were simply hiring untrained youngsters.

So if there is an implicit acknowledgement of a “peak age” for programmers, what happens when someone like me gets over the hump?

The common answer is that our industry is largely powered a workforce somewhere between college dropout to a few years removed from a computer science degree. Venture too far outside that sweet spot, and the talent seems to steadily drop off, to the point where companies with a majority of people in their 30s is uncommon, and finding a group of 40-and-older software developers is rare.

Even as a child, my enthusiasm for writing programs as a graduation-to-retirement career2 was tempered by warnings that coding simply could not be a lifetime commitment. My dad’s friends in the industry warned that even as technology became imminent as a breakout discipline in the early ’90s, that I needed to look for a transition out from the front lines of creating software with my fingertips. Now that I’m truly into my 30s, supposing that programming is truly a dead end job, am I doing the right thing by focusing on engineering management?

To provide some perspective, for other occupations management is the natural progression beyond contributing individually. In software, however, we as an industry have been generous in accommodating the many folk who want to keep writing code. The best tech companies have long established dual career ladders for software engineers: after a few years of code contribution, they open up the management track, but also keep parallel levels for people who prefer to make an impact via technical contributions. The truly serious ladders provide business titles at the top, e.g., a VP of Engineering can still be someone who fires up a text editor more often than an email client.

But the reason why management is such a well-trod path for those with years of experience is that, well, it’s a discipline that tends to leverage seniority and experience. Senior people are expected to have heightened impact and leadership, and that’s well-encapsulated within the job description of a manager or a senior lead. The oft-misguided notion of promoting strong individual contributors into management owes itself to faulty application around this area of thinking.

For me, the attractive aspects in pursuing the new set of skills required for management are twofold: the floor can be much lower, and demand for good management seems higher, even in our current times of constant engineering shortage. That is, it’s easier to do better than the worst managers (though somehow they continue to find jobs) than the worst engineers, while there are much fewer good- to great- managers as compared to the number of great engineers. From the perspective of supply and demand, my theory is that since there are fewer people who can even do it well, it’d be comparatively easier to reach the upper echelons of management as opposed to engineering.

Which I suppose is my utterly boring but practical answer.

  1. Olympic athletes peak much sooner.

  2. Increased job hopping and career changing notwithstanding.

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