Where do old programmers go?

Old programmers usually go… home after work, same as young programmers. Okay, with that joke aside, let’s get serious.

Old programmers don’t just disappear. The programming field is still quite young and there have only been a few “generations” of programmers who went their entire careers writing software.

So what happens?

First, many programmers can work until they retire at the same age as everyone else. This is sort of the same style career path as being an accountant or engineer. Both of those careers can easily last into someone’s 60’s, even in a purely technical role.

Second, many programmers as they get older move into various kinds of leadership roles. With more experience and more responsibility comes more pay. Many people like getting paid more, so they figure out how to become leaders and managers. Some even work themselves into VP or CTO type roles and make significant sums of money late in their career.

Third, some might choose to get into some kind of teaching, coaching, or mentorship role. That is different than management. It might be teaching classes at a local college at night or possibly full time.

Fourth, there is a point for many developers where they move into a freelancing or consulting role. This can pay much better than a salaried position, but it comes with a different required skillset and much greater risk. For example, a consulting engineer might only have a contract for 6–12 months at a time, and then they have to find another gig. However, with that risk comes greater pay and expectations to deliver value.

Fifth, a programmer might decide to strike out on their own and start their own company. This seems to coincide with the freelance and consulting route. Once you learn how to sell your time, it makes sense to try your hand at selling other products or services. This isn’t a guaranteed path to riches, but for those who can make it work it’s life changing.

Sixth, some programmers get burned out and go into a totally separate career. For some, writing code every day is dreadfully dull and you can only write so many CRUD applications to replace spreadsheets. In those cases, a different career is the right change of pace.

Last, some programmers decide to retire early. If you make enough money as a programmer, and you manage it well (live frugal!) it is possible to retire decades earlier than most do. This depends largely on both how much you make and where you live. But still, it is possible to retire as early as 35, 40, or 50 if you are diligent and a bit lucky.

I’m sure there are other things older programmers do and there are much better answers than mine (probably from programmers much older than myself). But, that is my take on what late stage software careers look like from what I can see.

-Brian

P.S. I write about code and career issues elsewhere too

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