With a career in tech that has spanned a few decades, Dee Dee Walsh has seen it all. She got her start providing tech support for an early shareware company, which taught her how to think like a customer. She remembers writing BASIC programs for the first PCs in the early 1980s. And she was with Microsoft throughout its 1990s and 2000s heyday overseeing major initiatives, including the Microsoft Store, Microsoft developer tools such as Visual Studio, and numerous partner initiatives.
In any other industry, her experience would be seen as an invaluable asset. But in the tech industry, age has often been seen as a liability, with youth dominating the campuses, cubicles, and, more recently, the Zoom calls.
“When I started at Microsoft, and I was 28 years old, I felt ancient because everybody was 23, 24,” Walsh said in a recent interview on our podcast, Decoded. “Microsoft at that point was talking people into dropping out of college to go to work. I don't think I ever worked for someone older than me at Microsoft. I spent 20 years there, and there was always someone younger.”
The Value of Older Developers to Employers
While tech employers will always prize youth, they should consider age as a factor when building out a diverse development team. Developers who have been around the block can often use their experience to identify potential issues long before a junior developer would experience the problem through trial and error.
In addition, older workers may be more likely to stick with a job for longer, which can reduce recruitment, retention, and training costs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64 is 10.1 years, compared to just 2.8 years for workers ages 25 to 34. A Gallup poll shows that 21 percent of millennials have switched jobs in the past year--more than three times the number of non-millennials. In that same poll, only half of millennials said they think they’ll be working for their current employer a year from now, compared to 60 percent of non-millennials.
How to Build a Long Career in Tech
For older workers in tech, the prospect of continued employment can feel daunting. It’s hard to look around and be surrounded by peers or even managers 10 or 20 years younger. Older developers who want to continue their career can’t afford to rest on their laurels.
“At the end of the day, performance proves value. If you bring it every day, that effort adds up to contribution, and that's something you can point to and show your value with concrete examples,” Walsh said in the interview.
If you plan on being a developer past the ripe old age of 30, there are a number of things you can do to make yourself attractive and valuable to tech employers:
- Stay humble. While tech always has room for young visionaries, it rarely has time for “elder statesperson.” “Nobody wants to hear someone say, ‘I did this in 1980 and blah, blah, blah,’” said Walsh. “You have to bring it every day.”
- Keep training. With the rate of change in technology, even developers who have been out of school for just a few years can fall behind when it comes to the latest and greatest tools and languages. An experienced developer can’t afford to become complacent relying on just a handful of skills that may suddenly become automated or obsolete. If your employer doesn’t provide ongoing training, it may be worth investing in your own continuing education so that you stay employable, while sites like GitHub let you easily study the code of others.
- Leverage your network. The good thing about working for decades is that you get to meet a lot of people. Invest time and energy in nurturing your network, even when you’re not looking for work. You never know who you worked with 15 years ago that will become a manager somewhere else and can help you get your foot in the door.