by Howard Fosdick May 2019
Your twenties is your best life in IT. You’ve got your degree and snagged a good job. It pays well, and though it comes with its share of hassles and too much overtime, you’re pretty darn glad you didn’t major in theater or history or English. Those poor unfortunates are all working as baristas or still trying to find a foothold through internships.* Yikes! While they struggle, you’ve launched your career by being realistic and landing a decent programming job. Congratulations! A good career seems a given.
But look around. How many people over age 40 do you see at your company?
How many of them are programmers or programmer-analysts?
Companies all vary, but in most cases you’ll see almost no one over 40 still in your position as a programmer or programmer-analyst. That should tell you something, loud and clear. Even if you’re very happy with where you are in your career in your 20’s, you need to prepare to transition your career for when your current role is taken away from you.
And it likely will be taken from you.
Ageism Is Real.
The sad fact is that age prejudice limits our careers in IT. No matter how unfair it is, no matter how mindless we think it may be, no matter how good you are at your job, you must prepare to confront it if you’re to maintain a viable IT career. Fail to face that fact and you may end up in an unskilled job in your forties.
Say Ralph is a highly skilled Java programmer-analyst. With the exact same skill level, here’s how people will view him at different ages:
At age 23 he’ll be pushing back against age prejudice from people who don’t fully credit his abilities due to his relative youth. “Wow, I can’t really believe he’s that good. He’s just out of school. He needs experience.”
At age 33, Ralph will be at the height of his powers. He fulfills the ideal techie image: young but experienced. “Hey, how about Ralph takes the lead on this? He’s one of our best programmers.”
At age 43, Ralph may be more effective than ever. He’s continued his technical growth and now combines it with deep knowledge of the company and its operations. But stereotypes start working against him. “Sure, he’s good, but you’ve got to wonder why he’s never made management.”
At age 53, there is no Ralph. He lost his job in the latest layoff or buyout. Nobody in the company even remembers him because they’re all younger hires. But hey, Ralph is doing fine… assuming he no longer needs to eat.
Solution: Change Your Expectations … and Prepare.
The way out of this trap is to:
1. Accept that society will impose its prejudices on you, your abilities, and your career.
2. Accept that these prejudices may force you out of your current role in the workforce even if you’re very good at your job.
3. Always be looking forward, preparing for the next — inevitable — career transition.
Those who plan, win. Those who don’t, suffer. It’s a bit like when you were in college. You launched a decent career and prospered because you looked ahead and chose a practical major. Well, that challenge isn’t over. Now you have to look ahead and chose a practical path to transition to your next role if corporate America takes away your current one.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your company will provide a career path for you, or that it will credit your hard work or good performance in helping you make career transitions. It won’t.
In today’s corporation, you don’t take a good X widget and upgrade it into a Y widget. You simply toss out the X widget and buy a new Y widget. Translation: all your good contributions as a programmer or programmer-analyst may not help you when you apply for that internal position in marketing, or management, or sales. In fact, it will likely work against you.
Companies prefer to lay off those with so-called “unneeded skills” and hire exactly what they want from the outside. This is anti-employee nonsense, but it’s also today’s conventional corporate wisdom. There are exceptions, but unless you have good reason to know otherwise, you’d be foolish to count on them.
So there you have it. In your twenties — or at any age — if you have a secure IT position you’re good at, there’s a tendency to breathe easy and feel your professional life will continue as it is as long as you work hard and contribute at your job. If those days ever existed, they are now gone. When you have a job that fits you well, that isn’t the time to relax, it’s the ideal time to prepare for the next step. Every IT person who wants to continue in his or her career needs to engage in continual career management to survive.
What are some of your options? Read our article “Is There Life After Programming?” for some ideas as to where to take your career next.
* No offense meant by the reference to baristas! It’s just a proxy for unskilled or semi-skilled labor, which in today’s America unfortunately means an unlivable wage. I don’t agree with that, but that’s the way it is. The same caveat applies to theater, history, and English majors. These are fine degrees, but unfortunately our society does not generally reward them in the workplace.