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This is a question regarding engineers with 20+ years experience, but it is a question for everybody, as it has to do with career development.

I'm in a surprisingly long job hunt, and the problem seems to be that employers will not accept me as a coder. Yes, I have done lots of things, had my own company, sold it too early, etc. But the world always needs productive workers, and my skills are current and sharp. The market I am in has fewer openings for senior people, and I don't mind taking a step or two back if I can find a place to contribute. What are your thoughts about career management that prepares the 40, 50 year-old for a sudden career disruption?

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Develop multiple streams of income because the ageism in this industry isn't going away anytime soon. This can also help you deal with accepting reduced pay. Other than that, find a company to work for where age isn't a factor. –  jfrankcarr Mar 6 '12 at 16:45
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fyi, this is somewhat a common question here that gets closed, so it may be off topic or too localized for this site. You may want to clean it up and make it more generic. –  jmq Mar 6 '12 at 16:47
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Even with a willingness to go back potential employers will always worry that you will be looking for managerial roles and you're just trying to start getting a paycheck again. –  brian Mar 6 '12 at 17:15
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Whereabouts are you based/willing to work? –  JBRWilkinson Mar 6 '12 at 19:29
    
JBRWilkinson: Thanks for the question. I don't want to use this forum to find a job, but if you could send your contact info to rocketman dot tom at gm ail dot c om, I would like to talk to you offline. –  Tom McNamee Mar 6 '12 at 20:35
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5 Answers

In a word, consulting.

If you've got domain specific knowledge and can walk in, solve difficult problems or implement the exact solution they need, you can charge them an arm and a leg for the amount of time you spend on it. They'd take months to tackle it cold anyway.

But getting hired as a consultant is usually a matter of who knows you, which is why all the consultants are either a) people who have been in the industry for decades, b) people who are working for the consulting agency that has been servicing the industry for decades, or c) someone's son-in-law.

Downsides are that there could be a lot more travel, sometimes there's resentment from the locals, and you're always in that initial first-impression schmoozing phase. Consultants can be like nomadic gypsies looking for the next sweet spot. This could be in terms of industry, technical skill-set, or physical location. Life on the road can be tough. (And I know a guy who flies from Iowa to Florida every other weekend, it's one hell of a commute). You get to see a lot of code shops, and I've heard that they're not always happy to have other people coming in to do their job. Other times you are their savior coming down with divine solutions and banishing the beasts that plague them. Rarely do you settle down in one company long enough to be comfortable, and even if you've been there for years, you can still be "just" the contractor.

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Oh, and tackle an open source project. Not that I really think you need to fill out your resume or prove that you're still a sharp coder, but because the open source community always needs more senior engineers. –  Philip Mar 6 '12 at 17:25
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There is definitely plenty of contract and consulting work out there for senior people. –  maple_shaft Mar 6 '12 at 17:36
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Terrific ideas, thanks. I was a consultant once, until the kids reached 9th grade, then I needed to be home. I could do it again if I had to, but Philip's description is right on. The money can be great. –  Tom McNamee Mar 6 '12 at 20:39
    
I agree about the consulting. I have been doing consulting/contracting work for over 30 years. I just turned 65 and am as busy as ever -- I currently have multiple contracts and am turning work away every week. I have no desire to retire. –  tcrosley Mar 13 '12 at 21:52
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Ageism is a very real problem. The proble is people assume if you are any good, you don't need help finding a job. Unfortunately anti-discrimination laws sometimes make the job search harder in some countries, since nobody wants to hire someone that they can't fire.

Some thoughts:

1) Go back to satisfied customers and prior employers.

2) Package yourself as an independent consultant.

3) Look for ways your non-programming experience can complement your tech skills.

4) Look for a place that can get value from your 20 plus years of contacts.

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My first answer is the same as Philip's: consulting. I've done that, enjoyed the challenges, and find I still prefer traditional employment.

My second answer is a strategy I've found useful to keep my hand in development, even after 33 years. Let's call this "internal consulting". I interact with customers, sales, marketing, technical teams and C-level management, speak each group's language and learn what's important to each group. I often find myself in a position to suggest ideas that have potential value to the company and also bridge the goals of each group. These ideas usually require development of a proof of concept prototype. Project time varies from an afternoon to ~12 months. I am never in critical path development, and no longer lead a development team, but I get to do early concept development. This post-Senior Engineer sort of thing may not be for everyone. However, it works for me and provides value to my employer.

In terms of concrete advice to become an "internal consultant":

  1. Listen. Listen some more. Repeat. Learn what's important to people.
  2. Do not be attached to concepts, opinions & ideas you may have.
  3. Be willing to tackle the "impossible" tasks.
  4. Practice learning anything quickly.
  5. Embrace failure as an integral and necessary part of any process.
  6. Be willing to look foolish by asking questions.
  7. See #1.
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I like a football analogy here. You're like a seasoned lineman in the NFL. You're really good at your job, but you cost a lot. The team believes that they can get enough productivity out of someone younger for less money and the performance will be good enough. You're basically priced high for the market with a lot of experience. The jobs become a little harder to find, but there is someone who will pay you.

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And even if you aren't actually too expensive, most companies will assume you are. –  Matt Grande Mar 6 '12 at 16:53
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I would be careful how much non-programming content you put on your resume and try to limit it as much as you can to being relevant to software development.

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+1 and I would add tailor your resume to each role you apply for. You don't want to out right lie, but make sure relevant experience is highlighted more. –  Ozz Mar 7 '12 at 16:39
    
CFL_Jeff, Ozz: Absolutely. Once you have a couple of decades of experience, an exhaustive resume would be, well, exhausting. So I pick and choose, and keep track of who gets what version. –  Tom McNamee Mar 9 '12 at 18:44
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