Aging Gracefully

The first thing you need to do is convince yourself that you are still valuable.

After graduating from Georgia Tech with a mathematics degree in 1974, I soon became employed in a relatively young field, computer programming. Ive been in the software game for some 25 years, and it has been a privilege to be involved in such a dynamic field. One thing is certain, though: It doesnt get any easier the older you get.

Some programmers give it up for management—with mixed results. Some are successful, but others find themselves doing work they dont enjoy. What if technology is what you love to do? Is it possible to stay technically sharp and age gracefully in the software engineering and programming profession?

Yes, but ... Lets say you remain technically up-to-date, but gray hairs are sprouting. Youve got several valid worries: First, you will face age discrimination. Second, because you have worked on a number of technologies, some of which have become obsolete, your whole skill set will be viewed as obsolete. Third, you will be competing against younger, sometimes better-trained professionals coming into the industry.

What do you do? Here are some suggestions:

The first thing is a mental exercise: Talk to yourself. You need to convince yourself that you are still valuable, that you can continue for many years to make a significant contribution in a technical role.

Second, accept the fact that you may not be able to keep up with the youngsters in some things, such as being the first on your block to learn the latest technology. So, let them be first; just make sure that you get there next. After they have figured out the new stuff, be humble enough to learn from them.

Third, find companies that are lagging in software technology and are dying for someone who is far enough ahead of their existing programmers so that you can bring them along. There are many companies out there that havent kept up with the latest technologies. They realize that they need to upgrade and that their current employees may be unable to get there on their own.

Fourth, continue learning new stuff and get certification. If your company provides or subsidizes training, you would be crazy not to take advantage of this. Make the commitment to stay late and study or to study and learn at home—as difficult as this can be.

Fifth—and last but not least—never, never give up!

Writing software isnt an easy field in which to grow older, but I believe that it is possible, with wise planning, to age gracefully in the computer programming profession.

Robbie Peele is a senior software engineer at Management Cybernetics, an Atlanta software company specializing in insurance agency software. Peele began on IBM mainframes, worked with Digital Equipment PDPs and VAXes, and now specializes in Microsoft technologies. E-mail him at Send your comments to