Uncharted Waters

Sep 17 2014   9:46AM GMT

Ageism in the tech world

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Next time you are at the office, take a look at the average age of the folks around you. The people doing the tech work; programmers, testers, ops and admin people. You’ll probably see some folks in their 20s, a few more in their 30s. From there the numbers quickly drop off.

My data sample is admittedly biased, and definitely unscientific. I’ve worked at mostly early stage startups for the past few years and those have a tendency to attract younger people for a variety of reasons.

Probably partly because startup benefits usually aren’t very competitive, and partly because of the crazy hours most tech startups expect from people.

The question of why people leave tech so early is interesting.

I want to know where people are going when they leave hands on tech jobs, and why.

The Grumpy programmer

Slashdot posted an article recently from the so called Grumpy Programmer. The grumpy part wasn’t all that abnormal, programmers can sometimes be a surly bunch. About half way through the second video, Grumpy gives some interesting advice. He suggests that people should get out of doing technical work, maybe by moving on to management or a safe government job, sometime in their 40s.

Mr Grumpy was effectively forced into retirement. He was laid off from his position as a programmer at 49 and has been unable to find full time technical work since. He did take some contract work and a teaching gig after the lay off, but there was no full time work to be found.


There is a caricature for people that have been in the tech world for a long time: the graybeard. The graybeard is usually the oldest person in the tech org, people come to that person for advice pretty often, they usually have forgotten more about some arcane technology than you will ever know, and in most orgs there are only one or two of them. The weird part, is that a person can enter graybeard’dom in their 40s.

Pieces of the problem

Part of the problem is clear. In every industry, you can represent the levels of a given professional as a triangle. At the bottom, there are lots and lots of people that are new to the field. They are usually young and fresh out of college. Moving up the triangle you have positions that require more experience and more responsibility. Remember the shape of the triangle, it’s important here. There are also diminishing numbers of available positions as you move up the triangle and most people don’t want to be mid level for the rest of their career.

But, that’s just the model, it doesn’t explain why people voluntarily leave the tech world.

Others leave because of the nature of tech work. Frequent long hours for programmers, a near impossible task of staying current in an ever changing industry, and stressful deadlines compounded with management that doesn’t understand what they are asking for are often at the top of the list.

The exit pattern

One pattern is joining a software company fresh out of college and then changing jobs every two or three years. Each job change would probably have a title change and pay a little more money.

So someone starts out, a couple of years later you’re a mid level programmer, a couple more years, you’re “senior”, and then a couple more years you have a decision to make.

A lot opt out of tech and into management, or some parallel software profession, right around this point.

Something else is happening that we don’t really talk about. This is what our dear Grumpy Programmer experienced. At some age, usually earlier than I would hope, many people are either forced out of tech work or they are complete unable to switch jobs. Colleagues slowly stop taking opinions seriously and interviewers assume people over some age are no longer with it or generally inflexible. Of course, no company would volunteer this sort of information, so there is a complete lack of data to show how often this non-voluntary attrition happens.

Are you planning a long lived technical career? Why?


Are you planning an exit? Why?

10  Comments on this Post

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  • Matt Heusser
    Thanks Justin. To play Devil's Advocate, part of the 'problem' may be that the number of programming-ish jobs has increased exponentially since the 1980's. In other words, in the 80's, there just weren't that many programmers. Even if they all stuck around, at 20 in 85, 30 in 95, 40 in 2005, the number of 49 year old programmers just wouldn't be that much compared to the number of tech jobs. So the 10-to-1 20's to 40's ratio isn't that unrealistic.

    That said, programming-ish work is considered a young man's game, and technology stacks do change frequently. It /is/ challenging to stay technical - as soon as your hot new technology that you learned in college becomes obsolete. Either learn a new stack or try to hold on to the old gig.

    The next five years, when Rails gives way to node.js, will be very interesting ...
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  • Veretax
    When I read this, I know this happens to Engineers of many fields, not just Programmers and other technical staff in the IT Field.  However, I have a different perspective.  Justin has described the triangle, you move up the ladder of experience, or you move up the ladder of leadership.  Few companies do both well for their employees.

    There's one more thing that concerns me.  Cost, so much of what is done in software is market driven these days, how much of the issue, is not about what tech people know, but how much they want to be paid to do the new hotness?  When you compare an entry level, fresh out of college grad with C# experience, to a guy who has been coding for 20 years, ten of it in Java, and just took a C# course, who would you hire?

    For most of us, we expect if we do a good job, salary should grow over time.  Business wants to keep salary costs down though, so is there some breaking point where techies are being expected to not ask for more, even if their vast knowledge and experience comes with it?
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  • KJohnson1
    Good topic - glad someone wrote about it.

    It is like many topics - more complex than it may seem.

    I believe there is age discrimination. I didn't believe it so much until somewhat recent times when I have begun to experience some of it myself.

    One thing I have seen repeatedly is that people in their 20s or more recently out of school - have been trained in the latest "stuff" and they believe that is what counts (and only what counts) - and on today's deadline - it may be the most important thing.

    But overall education and experience have tremendous value - better seen and realized on time frames that are less "hyper" and "today" driven and instead focused on the longer wider view ... but the tech world as a whole is awful at the larger view and far more focused on immediate software releases, deadlines and short time horizons.

    Another point that frustrates me is this (let's see if I can explain it):
    Younger people don't want to be discriminated against for how they look but they will often themselves discriminate against someone older and who looks and dresses different from themselves. A sort of reverse discrimination. There is no graceful way to say: I'm not as young as you, I don't wear Converse, I don't have a tattoo and yeah you are right, I am not 20 but I am cool in my own way, have been around and would be happy to collaborate with you .. please stop focusing on what separates us, makes us different from each other, who cares how I dress, what age I am - work with me and we can collaborate together.

    I could say more but ... I have several conferences I must prepare for and other tasks to attend to.

    Thanks for posting.
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  • Lisacrispin
    I was a young programmer once, in 1982. Over the years I've seen plenty of age discrimination. A common scenario: company's quarterly profits aren't looking good, let's lay off the highly paid people - which is often the older people, especially back in the 80s and 90s, but I've seen it happen to friends in the past year.

    Career path is a problem. I went the manager/director route for awhile and found I prefer being a hands-on tester and team member. I looked for companies where my work is valued and I don't need a "promotion" to a fancier job title to earn more and get other types of rewards.

    I have had to work very hard to continually improve my skills so that I have ones that let me make a valuable contribution. It's tiring after a few decades, but it is also fun. Collaborating with younger team members is a great way to learn.

    However, I think if I was not a successful author of agile testing books and a successful conference presenter, I'd have run into age discrimination big-time. I've tried to retain a young-at-heart attitude, without looking like I'm trying too hard. ;-> 

    This is a problem. Companies lose out if they fail to hire people with lots of experience and good skills, whatever their age. Just like our other diversity challenges, it's very hard to fix.
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  • tottinge
    The way some companies work, they expect any technical person to burn out and die or maybe go sling hash after 10 years or so.

    Nobody a choice, solid experience, relationships, children, or interesting hobbies (IOW a life worth living) would stay in the conditions they consider "normal for software." 

    I guess it's a choice. Your company can be a consumer of disposable people, or you can be a developer of valuable people. 

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  • Michael Larsen
    I've been part of large organizations and smaller ones. I've been with teams that are all young and teams that have a broader range of age and skill sets. The last company I worked at I was the oldest person on the team. Now I'm somewhere in the middle, and my current test team is staffed almost completely by veterans with anywhere from fifteen to thirty years of experience.

    Each organization is going to approach their employees a bit differently, and the development opportunities available to you will likely have you focusing on technical or leadership, but not both. I personally have not wanted to be away from the tactile testing experiences, so I have shied away from managing others. In some organizations, your only option to stay in the game is to go the management route, and there's just not as many positions to do that.

    I've found the past few years that work done outside of my day job (my blog, my volunteer work, writing for other publications, etc.) has been a differentiator. I'm not entirely sure I deserve the reputation that I have, but I do have one, and that may well be a way that other older tech people can differentiate themselves as well. 

    Ultimately, at the end of the day, we are all either sole proprietors or consultants, and our career opportunities and development is our own responsibility. I have felt what it is like to be blindsided by a layoff where I had done little in the way of career development, and how hard it was to find work after that. It was a galvanizing force to make me focus on developing my skill set, and to do what I can to publicize what I can do, what I can't do and what I actually believe and practice. Today, I tell potential employers to spend an hour reading my blog. If after doing that, they believe I am someone who can help their organization, then I'm open to discussions. Often, they decide after spending that hour that I am not the right person for them... and that's OK, too :).

    I often think of James Bach's statement about working, where he says (I'm paraphrasing): "I don't have to have everyone want to hire me, I just need a few people who want to hire me. Really, all I need is one person who wants to hire me at any given time." I believe our cultivating our skills, and being public about them, will help us weed out those who aren't looking for us, and clear the way for the ones who really are. That's been my experience the past few years, in any event. No exit planned for me at this stage, I'm looking forward to being in this game for a long time to come. How long, of course, is anyone's guess.
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  • dsynadinos

    Reading the comments, it seems that some are confusing “age discrimination” and/or “skill discrimination” with “pay discrimination”.


    Say a company wants “cheap” folks instead of “expensive” folks.  The company will keep the “cheap” folks and lose the “expensive” folks.  Now sometimes, the “expensive” folks also happen to be old with many skills.  And sometimes, the “cheap” folks also happen to be young with few skills.  But, sometimes the “expensive” folks are young with many skills, and sometimes the “cheap” folks are old with few skills.


    If the company truly wants “cheap” instead of “expensive”, then they will base their decisions (discriminate) on “pay” instead of “age” or “skill”.  “Age and skill” are only and sometimes indirectly related to “pay”.

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  • mollydotcom
    Excellent topic! I'm 51, very active in the tech world and have been a "greybeard" due to my affiliation with the W3C for many years. I'm a woman, so that particular term isn't very flattering, particularly because of this one surly hair on my chin that is, in fact, grey!

    For me, a break of a year was enough. I became very ill and have been unable to work during treatments and what-not. I couldn't even speak half the time much less work on the very complex issues Web technology requires. As I began to get better, I started to think about where to go next and what I want to really be when I grow up. I went through about 50 ideas, some really bright, some absolute crap. And then I started talking with my colleagues again and lo and behold, I found the fire has been re-ignited! I see enormous gaps now between myself and some of the younger folks with whom I interact, but there energy is great and they don't seem to have any issue with my age, so why should I with theirs? As long as that stays the case, I can manage. But I work in a very social technology, and there's far less isolation and specialization there, hence greater adaptivity to changing circumstances. I do worry for the many who are more reserved or in less social forms of tech that find themselves without that support. I imagine that experience in itself turns people away from tech and toward other jobs.

    Again, excellent topic. Would love to see more written about this as it is a very real issue. The one thing those of us with our grey beards have over any of the younguns is time. The longer you do something, the better you get at doing it (one hopes!)

    - @mollydotcom
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  • Mariekelly
    True story. I am 73 and just started yet another IT job. I am an education junky and have been in continuing education fo 30 years, I have multiple certifications and keep learning more. I make jokes about my age with younger workers, or acknowledge their skills in areas that are greater than mines. But I never feel inferior to some kid who's only skill is writing web junk with Ruby of the day. Can you write a high performance, highly reliable, totally secure system in a Boeing aircraft in Ada, with millions of lines of code, concurrent threadsqq! Or on a team that does? If not, don't be too proud or consider your self as more than a web weenie who will be thrown away in a few years. Programming is just one skill, don't ever think you can ride that forever, who would want to anyway
    30 pointsBadges:
  • Justin Rohrman
    @Karen @Lisa @Michael

    The three of you have a very strong common thread! You all have spent a significant time, for a long period of time, staying technically relevant. Tech fads come and go, but remembering how to learn things quickly and become productive quickly doesn't. Following the the tech fads, is...well.....fadish. But it sure does help to keep you sharp.

    One other thing that seems huge is the amount of time you three have spent on differentiation. Each of you are or at one point were tech practitioners, but you have also managed to differentiate yourselves. Mostly by writing (a lot) and speaking. The positive public reputation that creates is great. 

    Imagine the difference between two people applying for a gig: one has a resume. The other has a resume plus a blog with years of content, probably a book, probably a few conference talks. That choice is almost a no brainer for the party doing the hiring. 

    Wanted to quote this from @Michael because it is the truth

    "Ultimately, at the end of the day, we are all either sole proprietors or consultants, and our career opportunities and development is our own responsibility."

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