Sorry, Peter Pan: Developers Can Grow Up

Is programming a young person's game, with developers doomed to obsolescence as they grow older? Not if an organization keeps them fresh. Try these three strategies.

Doug Neumann, Senior Director, Systems and Software Development, Bandwidth

May 15, 2014

4 Min Read

Picture the face of modern technology. Do you see a male or female? Old or young? If you're imagining a 20-something boy geek with four days of razor stubble wearing a Darth Vader T-shirt, you're not alone.

We all may be searching for the fountain of youth, but is technology more of a young person's game than it's ever been?

Some of our technology compatriots say yes. One of the best studies I've seen comes from SAP, which analyzed reports from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and PayScale and found that the average age of the US worker is 42 -- but the average age of a Facebook employee is 28, at Google 29, and at InfoSys a geezerish 30.

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The facts back up a common archetype in technology circles: An ambitious, young, talented programmer moves to Silicon Valley, rents a garage (apparently all successful companies were founded in garages), and changes the world forever. Many of us have experienced the excitement that comes with working on these types of technologies. It's why we entered the tech industry in the first place.  

But do things really change when we "grow up"? Are we treated differently when we do? Should we try to be Peter Pan -- refusing to mature as developers for fear we won't fit the norms for success?

Of course not. For one, we do grow up. And when we do, we shouldn't be in the position to blame society for discriminating or treating us differently. Success in the developer world is not dependent on age, but instead on the skills we master and continue to develop. It's each individual's responsibility to stay fresh in the field and maintain a modern-day skillset that gives any 28-year-old a run for his or her money. For developers, it's skills like big data, cloud computing, and HTML5.

Although the ability to learn those skills is usually unlimited, the available time to learn often is not. "Little" things like family dinners, Little League, and home improvement projects often get in the way. As a result, we do find that we face a shortage of older, more seasoned developers. And it's not because we don't want older candidates. It's often because the older candidates haven't successfully modernized their developer skills.

How can they do that? The best way is on the job. Tech leaders should be placing their more mature developers in environments where they can grow and succeed, while continuing to develop those critical core skills. This can best be accomplished through three key principles:

1. Create an egalitarian culture. All developers need to have meaningful work, and everyone contributes an equal amount to the success of the organization. At Bandwidth, for example, the founder and CEO doesn't have an office or an admin. This philosophy empowers employees and makes them responsible for their own success or failure. This is critical to keeping things fresh, no matter how old you are or what role you're in.

2. Embrace new technologies. Many mature developers have found themselves with an outdated skillset because their employers stuck with what works, rather than encouraging modern technologies. Employers need to embrace the latest open-source tools, languages, and frameworks, in order to grow and retain the best talent.

3. Use "sprint sabbaticals." Developers also need a chance to take a few steps back from their daily work and think about the big picture. That's where the majority of professional development occurs. We have "sprint sabbaticals," which fits in well with the Scrum framework. As some developers are sprinting to complete a big project, others are taking time off to work on another project of their choice. It's rejuvenating and encourages different approaches to solving common development problems.

We all have a tendency to resist change. But in the technology community, change is part of what we all strive to create each day. If developers cannot identify and seek out opportunities to change their skills and capabilities, then it's a matter of natural selection to have the industry pass them by.

The Peter Pan complex in the developer world has had legitimate causes and consequences. But it's not truly an age issue that's holding anyone back. It's a skills issue, and the entire technology community needs to recognize the things that are holding good developers back. Once we all agree on what the problem is, then we can implement internal policies and structures to help keep our developers' skillsets sharp and the big ideas coming.

About the Author(s)

Doug Neumann

Senior Director, Systems and Software Development, Bandwidth

Doug Neumann is a senior director of systems and software development at Bandwidth, one of the fastest-growing mobile and telecom providers in the U.S. He's been a developer for over 15 years at such companies as Microsoft and BMC.

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