30 Sept 2014

Career Options for the Older Developer

I recently read a Hacker News post asking what happens to older developers, and thought it would be useful to summarize the various options discussed across the 60+ page post.  As I’m in my late 30’s is a topic I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about personally.
  1. Become a Senior Developer/Architect - This is the route that majority of developers will follow. The main advantages are that you keep on coding (hopefully) and you continue to learn new skills and technologies.  The disadvantages are that as you grow more senior, you are increasing pulled away from development into team management (see below).  There are also the issues of burnout (seeing the same mistakes being made over & over again in new technologies).  You also need to beware of being side-lined into maintaining legacy systems, and having your skills and experience becoming less relevant. Senior developers will typically also see their pay plateau, and will earn significantly less than some of other career options listed below.
  2. Move into Management – Some developers will expect to move through the progression of team leader and project manager into an IT management role.  Indeed, many (too many) organisations encourage/force developers along this path, simply because they don’t have senior technical career path. The advantages are that is such a common career path, and will generally be associated with higher pay.  The disadvantages – the higher the management ladder you climb the less coding you do. Also, being a manager is an  extremely demanding role, requiring a very different mindset to that of a developer.
  3. Consultancy/Contractor – This option is particularly popular due to the current demand for programmers. The main advantages are obviously the higher salary you can command as a consultant/contractor. You get to work on the projects and technologies you’re interested in, generally for short engagements. In theory, you no longer need to worry about department politics. The major disadvantage is the greater risk you’re exposed to when you’re effectively self-employed. 
  4. Move into other Sectors - Some developers will step out of development and move into other IT related roles (System Security, Testing, Business Analysis), while others still will move into different fields where their skills and experience are relevant (i.e. sales, scientific and engineering roles). 
  5. Become an Entrepreneur – This is particularly popular at the minute, with a growing number of developers moving to startup their own company.  You build a product or a SaaS solution or service company.  You may gain financially, or you may not.  At least you are your own boss (or maybe you’re really at the beck & call of all your customers). It will definitely require a significant investment of time and possibly money to become your primary means of making money.
Know of a career path I’ve missed?  Let me know below in the comments, or ping me on Twitter (@AndyParkhill)

P.S. I tried really hard to find a gender neutral icon for a programmer, and the image of the Lego mini-figure above was the best I could come up with.  I’m not particularly happy with it, as it uses the usual lazy stereotype of software developers (male, geeky).  If you know of a better icon or image I can use, please get in touch!

* Photo by wiredforlego used under Creative Commons