Am I Too Old to Learn Programming?

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Am I Too Old to Learn Programming?

Often the most common answer when people are challenged or encouraged to pick up coding is: “I’m too old for that.” The facts surrounding this issue are more complex than an age limit or cutoff. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Are you ever too old to learn something new? Am I Too Old to Learn Programming?

The short answer is no; you’re never too old to learn a new skill. Many protections, support systems, and free resources exist for people trying to change careers or learn a new trade. You’re never too old to learn programming.

Principal Skinner: Am I out of touch? No, it's the children who are wrong.

When people talk about learning programming, it is almost always for employment or career purposes. Very rarely would someone who was inclined to learn programming as a hobbyist be nervous about their performance or abilities. Learning to code can greatly increase your ability to do hobby projects, why not build that automatic sprinkler timer using Arduino? Or create a system to Take Care of My Plant

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Ok elephant in the room: tech is for young people. Tech jobs skew slightly younger than average, and the stigma and marketing surrounding electronics and new technology is that it applies to young people only. Out of the way grandma, if you’re not on the bleeding edge, you’re nothing. Job postings use language like “fun,” “energetic,” and even “recent graduates,” (which can be illegal) to invoke the image of their perfect candidate. Rarely does it portray the senior developer with more stories of the olden days than knowledge of upcoming tech conferences and releases.

Legal Protections Are There, but Are They Enough?

Before you continue read more about protected classes here:

https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_group

And read about age discrimination here:

https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/age.cfm

Reasonable Factors other than Age (RFOA) has been a hot topic among those campaigning for the rights of employers and organizations such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Recently a request for clarification was made for this part of the law, the results were slightly difficult to understand but essentially boil down to this:

Discrimination does not have to be cut and dry or limited only to the factors listed in the rules. Different factors have different impacts, and each case will be considered individually, regardless of the presence or levels of discrimination.

and a recent request for clarification of “Reasonable Factors Other than Age (RFOA)”:

https://www.natlawreview.com/article/qa-rfoa-reasonable-factors-other-age-defense-provides-practical-guidance-unintention

The Tech Industry Can be Difficult

If your only goal is to get into a Silicon Valley tech giant, it might be very difficult at an older age. It’s easy to say that a large tech giant is hard to get into at any age. The task is not even close to impossible, as these companies are subject to EOE and all the other federally mandated hiring rules. This means they can’t discriminate against people based on a protected class, such as age.

Small child explores photos on a laptop

Many projects and companies are available if you just have clean, professional code and a desire to learn.

Freelance clients never need to know your age, likewise so many projects are available out there for people who just want to get into the industry.

https://www.freecodecamp.org/ is a great way to get in and work on real-world projects, and so many nonprofits and small organizations welcome all comers. Paid coding bootcamps exist with a very high success rate for those wishing to break in the industry. Free options can be just as good, but don’t come with the practicality, networking, and career advice that most coding bootcamps include.

When you cocmbine the need for experience and the difficulty in the job search process, sometimes learning to code

Building Experience and Paying Your Dues

The number one barrier to entry in programming at an advanced age is the ability to suck up pride and do “grunt work.” 

Do you remember what kind of horrible treatment you got at jobs when you were 15-16, even 18-20? Most people will not tolerate that sort of treatment now and may see tasks and jobs as beneath them. The bottom line is that software development and programming is an industry, and while it is massively skewed towards younger generations, just like every other industry it has difficult and easy entry points. 

The question should almost never be “am I too old to learn something,” as there are so many more factors in becoming a professional in an industry than can possibly be addressed in one blog article. Arguably the main difficulty that many older professionals run into is lack of flexibility. The adages of being set in their ways and being difficult to work with do nothing more than further the stereotype of the old timer who refuses to fit in and be a productive member of the team.

Getting Hired is an Already Difficult Process

The programming and software development industry skews much younger than the average. Software publishing has a media age of 40 while internet publishing has a median age of 37, way below many other industries.

https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18b.pdf

It seems that if a candidate has the right experience they should be completely protected under the laws. However, and this is a big exception, there are almost infinite ways for an employer to not hire a candidate, and an almost equally large number of ways to let someone go. There are several age discrimination cases and proceedings that do not necessarily side with the older worker.

Decisions which are based on other factors, such as seniority or cost, generally do not amount to age discrimination. In Law v. Thames Valley District School Board, for example, the Human Rights Tribunal upheld a policy (requiring retired teachers who wanted to work to have an additional certification) because the distinction was based on pension status and not age, despite the obvious relationship between pension and age. Similarly, comments such as “You’re overqualified” or “Your salary expectations are too high” might be tainted by ageism but are often not classified as cases of age discrimination.

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Hiring Challenges and Resources

Getting into the tech industry has its own industry. Pages and pages of resources exist for those looking to change careers or upgrade their current position. One of the main hurdles that needs to be cleared is the technical interview. Everyone who has been through one just groaned, and remembered the awkward silences while questions go unanswered, and both side’s hopes drain from the room.

Technical interviews can resemble quiz shows, torture chambers, or medieval study rooms where the ancient arts are discussed, and all new practices are disregarded. The one thing they almost never resemble is a straightforward and easy process. In order to beat the tech interview, a job seeker should get help from gurus, coaches, and strategists. These recruiters and life coaches exist in large numbers on sites such as LinkedIn and Upwork.

Career advice is some of the most plentiful information on the internet, good career advice can be hard to come by. This article will not help you overcome the challenges of breaking into a competitive industry who’s pay and benefits well outpace others. It will help give you the confidence you may need to take the first step, knowing full well that you are NEVER too old to learn programming.

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