Ageism in Programming

Have you ever heard the saying “You’re only as old as you feel?” Well, there are countless cases that debunk that saying. No one at age 63 has a chance at winning a mixed-martial arts match against a 21 year old opponent, and an 80 year old strongman has no chance of being competitive against their 25 year old component. Luckily, that saying does reign true for mentally-intensive activities such as programming. Let’s explore this a little further.

What do you do when you have 15 years of experience and are sitting in line with fresh-from-the-campus 22 year olds? Do you pack it up and leave? Do you trudge on assuming your experience will give you the upper-hand against these sniveling youngsters? You find yourself in the interview staring at the whiteboard doing bubble sort (something you learned your first year programming), and you feel that familiar sensation that something’s wrong. What is it? Do they think you’re too old, or is it the fact that you are having to do the same thing that someone with no professional experience is doing?

Ageism does exist, and exists in every industry. While illegal, proving an employer discriminated based on age is next to impossible. However, you can overcome ageism. Take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself some of the following questions.

Have I thoroughly prepared?

There is an excellent saying that goes as follows: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” What does this mean? It means that you should give 100% towards the task at hand, in order to put your best foot forward- whether in an interview, in personal life, in a conversation with a client, etc. Don’t assume that your “years of experience” will carry you through to your next job. It won’t, and preparation is key. Personally, I like to review all possible scenarios and leave no stone unturned. Some people will say “you are just wasting your time preparing for things that might not happen”. I couldn’t disagree more. The future cannot be predicted, just like a person will not know exactly what they will be asked in an interview. In development, don’t you explore edge cases and adjust accordingly? Why would you not do that for yourself?

How do I set myself apart?

This is an easy question to answer, and (surprise!) needs no preparation. Your experience has already done this for you. You have toiled through countless hours of programming and learned many invaluable lessons along the way. These lessons cannot be taught in school, and must be taught in the heat of battle. A professor or Youtube video cannot match solving a async problem with pagination of 5TB of data streaming to the front-end after a 22-hour day of coding. If you know what I’m saying, you have a grin on your face also. The feeling of solving a complex problem for a client when you should have been sleeping hours ago is exhilarating. These are the types of problems and solutions that should be broadcasted to your potential employer. While education is great, no formal education can surmount the aforementioned real-world experience. As long as you can adequately describe your accomplishments without projecting that you are overqualified or better than everyone else, you will thrive in your situation.

Am I in over my head?

This is one of my favorite topics to talk about, and can be related to ageism or not be related at all (depending on how you view it). My personal opinion is that a developer should always feel like they’re over their head in a role. As I literally felt people rolling their eyes, I should explain. If you are not in a role that challenges you daily, then you will become stagnant. With the unrelenting, rapid pace of technology, a developer cannot afford to be stagnant. Developers must constantly learn- whether at work, home, or a combination of both. The death of a developer is when they become comfortable and stop pushing for something greater. In my short time as a developer, I have already seen this more times than I would care to. I have even trained people that I can see in their eyes that they don’t have a passion to actually carry on with the technology they’re learning.

If you are paying attention, you’ll know I like a good quote (and dad joke). There is an excellent quote by Thucydides I saw in a U.S. Marines combat training room that really stuck with me (partially because my face got slammed into the sign and I had the imprint of part of the sign on my face for about a week). The quote says “We should remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.” That was the long way of saying if you don’t push yourself to grow, you will be passed by. It just so happens that there are a lot of young people fresh out of college flooding the market, so they will most likely be the ones to pass you by.

Bringing things together

You’ve read this and might have wondered “but despite what you said, ageism is real”. My response to that it would be better to not worry about a potential (and unconfirmed) ageism issue, and instead focus on what you know, your experience, and how you provide value to your employer. Remember, a job is a value exchange, not a gift from above. You provide your employer value, and they provide you value in the form of a paycheck. If this is fully understood, it will be easy for a developer to see how their age is an asset, not a detriment.