Where have all the 50-year-old software engineers gone?

By Jim Grey (about)

Since I last posted here, I had a major life milestone: I turned 50.

I wrote a personal reflection about it on my other blog, but in short, being 50 is a pretty good gig. This stage of life offers its challenges, to be sure, but they come with the maturity to handle them.

50

Yet I’ve noticed that I’ve continued in my career that I work increasingly with people much younger than me. Today I lead a team of software engineers mostly in their 20s. I know of only one fellow on the team who’s older than 30. It was much the same in my previous job, and in the job before that.

Because I’m in management I get to be tech-stack agnostic in ways that working engineers, testers, and technicians don’t. Especially as an engineer, it can be challenging to move to, say, a Ruby on Rails shop after having worked for years as a JavaScript developer.

I’ve long assumed that engineers my age all still worked in .NET shops. .NET was new, hip, and cool when I was in my early 30s. Where I live (central Indiana), companies adopted it readily and so most then-young engineers built their careers on it. I worked for several .NET shops in a row. Some of those companies still exist, and their products are still built on .NET.

But according to the 2018 Stack Overflow Developer Survey, 75.3% of respondents are younger than 35. Just 6.9% of respondents are 45 or older.

So I searched LinkedIn for names of people I worked with years ago. Some of them are still writing code. A few of them are in some level of management. But the rest aren’t on LinkedIn or have left the industry.

I don’t know why. Do you? Especially if you’re older than 35: where have all the older engineers gone?

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9 thoughts on “Where have all the 50-year-old software engineers gone?

  1. It’s complicated. Partly the job pool has grown larger, so the percentage of people like us will drop, some. I’ve known some who burnt out and left for less-stressful pastures. Some of the reasons are more sinister.

    I’ve been in hardware engineering for 30 years. As a Comp Sci major. First in applications engineering, then verification. My last employer, Oracle, was an eye-opener. I worked there 3.5 years. In that time I was the last experienced hire. After that it was nothing but new college grads. BIG RED FLAG. I learned not quick enough they do not value experience. I did, however, learn fast enough to find a new gig before Oracle axed all of SPARC processor development. But Oracle still hires almost exclusively NCG. IMHO this is a bad sign for any company that does this.

    Apple was almost the exact opposite, doing little hiring of NCGs and preferring experience by a wide margin. Apple is a leader, Oracle is in decline, draw your own conclusions…

    My current employer, ARM, seems to have no issues as well in hiring experienced people. Looking around I have a lot of co-workers in the 35+ range.

    The hardware world seems different than software. The SW world seems to grab onto any new, immature and unproven new thing and run with it. HW is not that way. Verilog is still the language most designs are written in – it’s about 25 years old. It’s not unusual for a design shop to run on versions of linux that are a few years old. Keep things stable, stick to what works, and churn out chips that keep Moore’s Law alive.

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    1. Your chip world does appear to be quite different from my startuppy software world. We do have a more youthful, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach to things.

      If it were not for the Stack Overflow survey, I might never have written this post. I just assumed all the middle-aged engineers were stuck working in old-tech shops. “Old tech” in that it was new 20 years ago.

      But now I just don’t know! I know of no place I’ve worked in the last 10 years that would not hire a middle-aged engineer just because s/he is middle aged. It’s just that middle agers just don’t apply.

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      1. Oddly, while at Oracle, I was getting the same fears you had. I have 15-18 more years I need to be in the work force. I was getting worried. When I started interviewing (Samsung, ARM, Nvidia, all in semiconductor roles) I realized that Oracle was an aberration, at least in the chip design world. Whew. I currently have a resume for a job opening with my team, he got his master’s in 2002, so he’s a 15-year experience guy. Roughly 40 years old, give or take. Come to the HW side Jim, we have old software! 😀

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        1. Indy is a bigtime B2B software town! I’m grateful for it as it’s provided no end of opportunity. But if you want to work on the hardware side, you’ve got to move away.

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  2. Great question. Perhaps after the age of 35, engineers either move into management, or their title gets more specified that ‘developer’. 15 years in development is a long time, and when they change jobs, they’re bound to fit some more specific niche. Maybe they’re not disappearing, they’re just changing titles.

    But hey! Glad to hear from you. How is your work going? (FYI, I just turned 30 this year, so I have my own set of reflections to do).

    Schuster

    >

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    1. It seems like there must be a winnowing as engineers age, as there are only so many management-level or architect-level jobs to go around. Where do those winnowed engineers go?

      Good to hear from you my man!

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  3. I worked for about 14 years switching between requirements analysis and Windows / .NET software development. Around 2007, when I turned 40, I decided I was more interested in solving problems for people than in continually learning the latest technology, so I transitioned to a business analyst role. This spring, at 50, I enrolled at IUPUI to get a masters degree in Human Computer Interaction.

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    1. I think your second sentence might sum it up for a lot of engineers. Constantly keeping up with technology does lose its sparkle after 20 years. Good luck in your HCI program!

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