NOTE: There is a newly updated version of this article available here - Is Software Development A Dead-End Job After Age 35?
Original question from Quora:
Is software development really a dead-end job after 35-40?
Is it true that software development has no future once you get to a certain age such as 40, and one should pursue to steer his development career towards management?
I’m in my 30’s and so I’m not quite up to 40 yet, but I would say that this is one of those questions that has a yes and no answer to it. Perhaps though, not for the reasons you might expect.
Believe it or not there are many very successful developers past the age of 40. Some of them are doing some of the best work of their careers.
For example, Rob Pike and Ken Thompson are past the age of 60 and they created the Go programming language. They are very senior engineers at Google and I’m sure are quite well compensated for what they do.
There are other examples like Robert Martin, Kent Beck, Steve Wozniak, and more who continue to make significant impacts on the industry.
Really, as long as you have a working brain and the ability to type in code, you can keep going with your career in software until the day you die.
However, there is a story worth telling that does point to a kind of expiration date that is only tangentially related to age.
Not so long ago millions of people were employed in industrial jobs related to building cars, parts for cars, and so on. The automobile industry was booming and there were thousands of factories across the country filled with people doing relatively simple, assembly line jobs.
You know, like pick up a battery and install it into the car as it goes by. Not too technical, but valuable enough to get paid $25 per hour and get a good pension. These were good jobs and many people benefitted greatly from them.
Then over time two things happened that the average auto worker couldn’t do much about.
First, robotics and automation became cheap enough that even a very expensive robot that cost $100,000 was worth the investment because the incremental cost to run the robot 24/7 was maintenance and electricity. Both are far lower than $25/hr.
Second, when the cost of labor was high enough, and the cost to transport parts and even entire vehicles from overseas was low enough, entire factories were shut down and the operations moved to China, Mexico, and other countries.
Those two forces continue to render millions of jobs in the United States nonexistent. There is no replacement jobs for them. If your skill was stitching a seat cover or bolting on a set of tires, those $25/hr jobs don’t exist anymore.
They will likely never exist again.
Many jobs in computers right now probably won’t exist in a decade or two.
There are many people who design and create websites for a living. With templates and DIY website builders, perhaps only a small fraction of those jobs might exist.
There used to be people who fed punchcards into a mainframe or who translated hand written programs into punchcards and neither of those jobs exist. Heck, there used to be phone switchboard operators and those jobs don’t exist.
Over time, most any high value job will be replaced by some form of automation or cheaper labor if the cost of automation, transportation, and communication drop below the operating cost of that job.
If at some point software development can be automated and jobs eliminated, I guarantee you that corporations will invest in that if it is profitable.
So, the long view is not that your job will disappear at a certain age, but rather when there is a more cost effective way of creating software. When that happens, many jobs will change or disappear altogether.
The way to avoid the same fate as the previous generation’s industrial workers is to continue to learn, grow, and gain skills that are valuable beyond the very particular skill you have now.
That can mean learning new technologies, but it also means learning people skills, management, public speaking, sales, operations, accounting, finance, or any other thing that would make you more valuable to any company.
We all work in the job market and the market doesn’t care what skills we have, it cares what skills are in demand. As long as your skill is in demand, you can find work.
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