Software Career Longevity

At some point, I will give my proper take but for now, I would like to post an excerpt from an ACM Queue I read way back in 2011. I've been looking for it, but thank God for, found it. This was written by Michi Henning, most likely in 2007.

I am 47, and I write code. Looking around me, I realize how unusual this is: in my company, all of my programming colleagues are younger than I and, when I look at former programming colleagues, most of them no longer write code; instead, they have moved on to different positions (such as project manager) or have left the industry entirely. I see this trend everywhere in the software industry: older programmers are rare, quite often because no career path exists for them beyond a certain point. I recall how much effort it took me to resist a forced “promotion” into a management position at a former company — I ended up staying a programmer, but was told that future pay increases were pretty much out of the question if I was unwilling to move into management.

There is also a belief that older programmers “lose the edge” and don’t cut it anymore. That belief is mistaken, in my opinion: older programmers may not burn as much midnight oil as younger ones, but that’s not because they are old, but because they get the job done without having to stay up past midnight.

This loss of older programmers is unfortunate, particularly when it comes to API design. While good API design can be learned, there is no substitute for experience. Many good APIs were created by programmers who had to suffer under a bad one and then decided to redo the job, but properly this time. It takes time and a healthy dose of “once burned, twice shy” to gather the expertise that is necessary to do better. Unfortunately, the industry trend is to promote precisely its most experienced people away from programming, just when they could put their accumulated expertise to good use.

Another trend is for companies to promote their best programmers to designer or system architect. Typically, these programmers are farmed out to various projects as consultants, with the aim of ensuring that the project takes off on the right track and avoids mistakes it might make without the wisdom of the consultants. The intent of this practice is laudable, but the outcome is usually sobering: because the consultants are so valuable, having given their advice, they are moved to the next project long before implementation is finished, let alone testing and delivery. By the time the consultants have moved on, any problems with their earlier sage advice are no longer their problems, but the problems of a project they have long since left behind. In other words, the consultants never get to live through the consequences of their own design decisions, which is a perfect way to breed them into incompetence. The way to keep designers sharp and honest is to make them eat their own dog food. Any process that deprives designers of that feedback is ultimately doomed to failure.

For myself, I've chosen to stay on the software engineering IC (individual contributor) path as long as God would have me. Age is slowly catching up with me but that has nothing to do with how I still enjoy software craftmanship.

Luckily, there are so many examples of people around to look up to. Where I currently work, we have people who have been writing code for more than 25, 30 years; and they are still going, still on the IC track. I don't think that's an exclusive club, it's a club for the willing -- sign me up! :)