Like Fine Wine, Developers Can Become Better With Age

by zen master

At the beginning of last week, an article appeared on Proggit (that has since disappeared?). entitled The Tech Industry’s Darkest Secret: It’s All About Age, written by Vivek Wadhwa.
Incidentally this is a nice follow on from a post I had written just a few weeks prior Where Do You See Yourself in 10 Years Time?.

The central point of Vivek’s article was well summarised in his introduction:

“The harsh reality is that if you are middle-aged, write computer code for a living, and earn a six-figure salary, you’re headed for the unemployment lines. Your market value declines as you age and it becomes harder and harder to get a job.” Vivek Wadhwa

The argument is also reinforced by Bureau of Labour statistics and Brown and Linden’s findings:

“Although salaries increased dramatically for engineers in their 30’s, these increases slowed after the age of 40. After 50, the mean salary fell by 17% for those with bachelors degrees and by 14% for those with masters degrees and PhDs.“

I am fully aware statistics should always be taken with a huge pinch of salt, and a link to the original analysis would have helped those more curious readers. However, except from minor differences I don’t think the data was a million miles off. Its hard to shrug off the data where the drop does indeed appear to be substantial.

And in addition to the statistics, this thought experiment does highlights the case further:

Why would any company pay a computer programmer with out-of-date skills a salary of say $150,000, when it can hire a fresh graduate — who has no skills — for around $60,000?

Vivek’s parting advice only helps solidify his prior conclusions, my translation of these points are as follows:

  • “Move up the ladder” basically do something else other than development.
  • Start your own business,and probably fail badly.
  • Try and still hip with the kids, become a hipster and buy a Mac.
  • If you want to keep coding, save your money now because you won’t be worth anything soon.
Legacy Systems, live on

Legacy Systems, live on

Is it really that bad?

After reading, I let out a deep sigh; I couldn’t disagree outright – much of what he said sounded reasonable. Once the emotions subsided my logical side kicked in (maybe helped by another caffeine boost from my fifth coffee of the day!)

Is it really that bad? If we start with the statistics we can see that salary appears to decline with age.

The first problem, we can not infer a single metric as being the cause (in this case, age). I suspect the picture is a lot more complicated than what is presented.

Secondly, although salaries do drop which suggests “less demand”, that could also mean “less interest” from Developers.

Upon closer inspection of the thought experiment, the conclusion only holds for some circumstances. If we applied the same question to a different set of circumstances the question no longer holds true:

  • An established company that needs someone with a proven track record to deliver a business critical projects.
  • Legacy systems (eg COBOL) with skills and experience not widely available.

There are probably many other situations that do that also do not hold true for the thought experiment.

Conclusion

In these volatile economic times, job security is a challenge for everyone. These economic pressures also affect Developers and we are certainly not immune from them. Young Developers or “Apprentices” in other fields certainly have appeal from an economic perspective. However it must be remembered that in business cheap labour are not always the only consideration.

Learning new technology and constant learning should be a natural thing and not coerced, in that sense staying “up to date” shouldn’t be an issue.

The technology sector may be different in terms of “newness” because of the pace it moves at, however one thing has to be kept in mind: Today’s technology is tomorrow’s legacy system, and legacy systems have to be maintained long after the technology has died.

Until next time, happy coding!