We Love Older Programmers

I was on the phone yesterday with a senior level hiring manager from a potential new client, and she said something I hadn’t heard in a long while.

We love older programmers.

When I speak with CTOs and hiring authorities about their dream hires, some are more cautious than others when stating their preferences. I’m not a lawyer and don’t know specifics on the rest of the world, but here in the U.S. we have laws that try to prevent discrimination in hiring. Some company representatives will describe ideal candidates to recruiters in conversations that could be approaching a somewhat gray line from a legal standpoint, and in these cases a recruiter should clarify that he/she will present all qualified candidates regardless of whether they are a member of some demographic.

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We read so much on ageism working against the most senior in the industry that sometimes we forget that there are firms that prefer some gray hair. The problem, of course, lies with the numbers. As I said, I hadn’t heard a strong desire for hiring the most senior level resources in a long time, and we generally don’t see companies using language in ads that would tend to attract older applicants.

Job specs penned by HR or internal recruiters may describe the company as being young and having energy without any disambiguation as to whether the reference is to the employees themselves or the newness of the organization. “We’re a young company” can have more than one meaning – maybe it means “we’re all 22 years old,” or perhaps it means “we’re in an incubator and angel funded.” We may read about established and stable companies, but how often do you see a reference to a “mature team”?

When we look at company websites that show photos of their entire development teams or just a few select profiles, it can give a sense as to the type of culture the firm is trying to portray. These are usually smaller companies and startups with photo choices varying from the serious and dignified to goofy costumed photo booth style shots that are rather shamelessly trying to appeal to a younger audience.

Maybe it’s because I’m in my mid-40’s, or maybe it’s because of the ageism I hear about (and defend my clients against with words) in my resume writing business, or maybe it’s because I spent 15 years running a Java Users’ Group that had its share of gray hairs, but I’ve always been sympathetic to the plight of the older developer. It’s refreshing to hear someone state that they are welcoming to the most senior talent, and I hope to hear that more in the future.

4 comments

  1. John Whiteford

    Glad to see this piece. I’m 48 and struggling with staying in IT. Here in TX with the downturn in the economy, I’m blessed to have am IT job. My organization is moving everything to the “cloud” as fast as they can do it. I have never wanted a management job and have avoided them, as I like being in the trenches.

    I’ve got friends who work in data centers (“cloud” providers) who said they are keeping the humans to a bare minimum to save money.

    I miss the “priesthood of the computer”, back when those of us who used to program for mainframes had it made. I’ve seriously toyed with the idea of really boning up on COBOL to get one of those “elusive” mainframe jobs at a bank.

    • fecak

      Glad you enjoyed it. I imagine most companies would say (if asked publicly) that they like older workers, but I could find you dozens of examples of smaller shops that turn them away. I’ve had clients that were like that, and I’ve moved away from them once I discovered the bias.

      There are lots of ways to maintain relevance and marketability, it’s just a matter of finding out what you enjoy that people will keep paying you to do. I know many 50+ year olds that never wanted to be managers (and probably would have been terrible at it) that still make a great living by coding.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Joe Thorpe

    There was a time when the U.S. AIr Force preferred younger pilots, strongly. Reflexes and all that. Then the data came in. Older pilots were far, far superior in combat. Their experience made for much better “situational awareness”, they could filter out the unimportant stuff and still hear the first beep when an incoming SAM missile was detected by onboard radar.

    I think if we got the data on programmers, catastrophic errors and age would be inversely correlated.

  3. thenrick

    Definitely some advantages of being an experienced developer. As some companies try to keep their staff young they run into issues that most, not all more experienced developers will avoid. The gray hairs come at a price of learning from many mistakes over the years.

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