Robert Kiraly has 35 years of experience in the programming industry.
A UC Berkeley graduate with degrees in both mathematics and computer science, the 55-year-old programmer had dozens of projects and work opportunities lined up throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
But now he runs the risk of becoming homeless. He lives in a cheap, temporary room in the East Bay, but not for much longer. The building he lives in is under foreclosure, and he’ll need to find new living arrangements within the next few months.
He’s unemployed, and his resume isn’t getting any traction.
“I should have been prepared for changes in the market,” Kiraly said. “I’m thinking about leaving tech because I need a day job.”
‘We don’t want anybody’s parents in here.’
Kiraly’s scenario prompts a question that has been sparking conversation among developers in recent weeks: What happens to older programmers? Do your skills become out of date? Does your pay plateau? These scenarios, however, aren’t usually a direct result of age, but are part of the risk when entering the software development industry.
Ageism is more of an unspoken issue that looms over part of Silicon Valley. Age discrimination in the workplace is illegal and it has been for a very long time, but that hasn’t stifled the desire to maintain a young appearance. As Noam Scheiber reported in The New Republic earlier this month, ageism in Silicon Valley is so severe even people in their 20s are seeking out Botox treatments.
There are a number of misconceptions that could make it more difficult for older developers to find work in Silicon Valley, as Sheiber notes. One such notion is that middle-age workers won’t fit in with the energetic culture of a startup company. Consultant Fraeda Klein told Scheiber the following:
A number of times, people said or wrote in survey comments something like, ‘We don’t want anybody’s parents in here.’ ‘It’s too weird to have someone as old as my parents reporting to me.’
‘I’ve known people you won’t believe,” he said. “I never stayed in touch with any of them.’
In Kiraly’s specific case, as he noted in a post on his personal blog earlier this month, there are a few things he wished he had done differently — especially maintaining contacts. The link to Kiraly’s blog post made it to the top of Hacker News, gaining 300 points and triggering a massive comment chain.
“I’ve known people you won’t believe,” he said. “I never stayed in touch with any of them; I should have cultivated more contacts over the years.”
Networking can be one of the most efficient means of finding work within the tech industry.
“You get jobs through connections,” says Chris Bregler, a computer science professor at New York University’s Courant Institute. “When you’re older, you have way more connections, and if you’re good, you have even more. So connections get you in.”
A little bit of everything
But it’s about more than just building a strong network. Kiraly said that part of his difficulties circle back to the generalist vs. specialist debate — that is, the difference between being good at a little bit of everything or specializing in one specific area or programming language.
Cases have been made for both sides. Kiraly considers himself to be a generalist since he’s worked on projects requiring different types of programming languages and skills since the 1980s. The hardship for him, he says, is that employers often ask for experts (or “specialists”) in certain fields.
“There are few job listings that say ‘a little bit of everything,'” he wrote.
Having said that, it is difficult to rise up the ranks of management — the best route for older developers — if your skillset consists of only one skill.
J.D. Meier, principal program manager for Microsoft’s enterprise strategy team, wrote in a blog post that teams with “a healthy composition of generalists with relevant specialist skills” worked the most effectively. There’s no clear-cut answer, but the ability to quickly adapt to new types of technology is key for programmers wishing to stay relevant.
“My experience has been that people who keep up-to-date and are constantly learning new stuff, those people don’t have a problem,” said Chuck McManis, a programmer who did systems work at Google for about three years before leaving to join Blekko in 2010, where he’s currently the vice president. “For people who have kept their skills up-to-date, I really haven’t seen much pushback on hiring them.”
‘It’s just a perception that younger people are more flexible.’
That doesn’t mean older developers don’t face certain risks concerning job security in Silicon Valley. This has more to do with experience level than age, however. It’s often cheaper to hire employees with less experience, which often means these new workers will be younger.
Bregler said he recently worked at a company that had to downsize by 50 per cent, and most of the employees that had been let go were middle-age workers with families.
“There’s also this perception that when there is a takeover or a downsize, the management gets changed and there’s a new direction coming in,” Bregler said. “A lot of people have to re-think where they go. It’s just a perception that younger people are more flexible. … It’s just hard to be super flexible when you have a mortgage and kids.”
Kiraly’s situation is an extreme scenario, but it highlights issues that have been concerning those in the programming industry.
“Whether or not it’s already common is debatable,” said Kiraly in reference to his current situation. “I doubt this is common, but what you want to ask is [whether] or not this is possible. That’s what people are starting to think about.”