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One thing that I've heard a lot over the years is that those working in the IT world generally don't make life time careers out of it, but tend to "burn out" and start a new career doing something else unrelated (e.g. going from software development to being an accountant). Have you found this to be generally true in your experience and if so, what is the general impression on how long people work as developers before starting a new career?

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Working in IT != being a programmer. –  JB King Oct 5 '10 at 17:18
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@JB King - This is true, but most people consider programmers to be in the IT field and quite a few companies have us all working near each other. As such, I've talked with some system administrators and the like who have commented on programmers. –  rob Oct 11 '10 at 14:59
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Good answers, however one needs to bear in mind that the the IT industry (be it in SysAdmin, Developer, Designer, etc) did not really become main stream until about the mid to late 1970s. So the oldest person that you are most likely to meet that are still working is about going to be in their late 40s or 50s. I imagine that majority of them will be in their late 30s or early 40s. –  tehnyit Sep 14 '11 at 9:31
    
@tehnyit: You'd be surprised. I know a number of programmers in their 50s who've resisted the "promotion" to management. –  khedron Feb 9 '12 at 16:18
    
It's a bit early to tell, as people who are retiring (in the UK) today only started working around the end of the 1960s, and as @tehnyit points out most people probably joined after that. We can say what fraction of people leave within 0-30 years, but not yet how long the average stay is. –  user4051 Feb 11 '13 at 13:26
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14 Answers

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I've been in software development all my working life from junior developer, through senior developer to team lead/manager and now back developing (though hoping to get back into management sooner rather than later).

My working life is now well over 25 years.

All that time I've known developers as old or older than me.

I think "burn out" happens if you try to do too much - working 12+ hour days and/or weekends for extended periods and happens in any industry not just computing. I know that if I had to do that I'd be looking for something less stressful to do.

If you find a working style that fits your temperament then there's no reason why you can't continue working until you retire at 65 (or when ever).

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Well said ChrisF, I can only hope to make it that long myself! –  Chris Oct 5 '10 at 12:54
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+1 Burn out is universal. –  user2567 Oct 5 '10 at 13:18
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@ChrisF - Will you stop programming at 65? –  John MacIntyre Oct 5 '10 at 14:33
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How can you stop programming but still do it as your profession? –  Joren Oct 5 '10 at 22:00
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@Jason - you've got it the wrong way round! I probably won't be a full time/professional developer any more, but I will still be programming, even if it's only personal projects. –  ChrisF Oct 6 '10 at 8:32
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I've found that for many colleagues that once they've started families they start thinking about new careers / getting out of IT. This is often due to the hours they are 'expected' to work and/or the mental pressure of looking after new little 'uns and trying to keep up with a fast moving industry.

I'm not necessarily agreeing with the reasoning, but that's what fireside chats at the pub are telling me.

I'm not sure what the actual numbers/percentage would be, there are still plenty of developers who stay in this career for a lifetime, and they're valuable resources in my opinion (I've been lucky to have great mentors).

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+1 More than burnouts, they are forced to move away from IT due the family commitments. –  Karthik Sreenivasan Feb 9 '12 at 10:06
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It is not family commitments that are the problem here however; it is the workplace culture in many IT shops. –  temptar Feb 9 '12 at 11:49
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I did the opposite. I used to teach students with special needs and decided I was not going to be able to do that until retirement. Fortunately, I was able to stop before I burned out and have no regrets about my previous career.

There's the fear that I will be perceived as not being able to keep up(Always wonder if there are people out there smart enough to hire me ;) ) or worse discovering for myself that I can't handle the new technology.

As far as the long hours, hopefully you'll be a better programmer 10 years from now. I'm not going to beat myself up because I can do more in 8 hours than others do in 12 (I suggest they have the teacher put them in a slower reading group.). Even in IT you have to "walk through a lot of snow to get to the cabin" but the amount of B.S. in other fields is unbearable.

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In my experience this is not true, although I realize now that I do not know a lot of old developers. The oldest one I know is just over 40 years old, and he's still keeping up with new technologies.

While most of the people I know in the IT industry are in their late 20s or early 30s, I don't think this is because everyone who's older have burned out - more likely it's because the industry has grown so tremendously the last 20 years, and there has been such a need for more people that has been filled by younger people.

So for many in the IT industry there have not been enough time yet to have a lifetime career yet. Although there have been times where I have considered doing something completely different, this has just been a consequence of being close to burning out, and I'm much happier now that I've changed my working style. I'm pretty sure I will have a lifetime career in the IT industry, in some way or another.

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I agree, the industry is just too young to have seen a ton of older programmers. There was a time when programmers were a pretty rare breed, as the industry matures so will the programmers working in it. –  Bill Oct 5 '10 at 21:19
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In my field, embedded systems, I've rarely met anyone younger than 40. At my startup we've had four different contractors at various times besides myself, and three of the four were over 50.

I'm over 60 and have no plans to retire anytime soon. (Well I might semi-retire and cut back to 40 hours a week someday.) I've been doing this type of work for nearly 40 years and it's still fun. Some days I can't believe I'm getting paid to do what I do.

I know there are some younger guys entering the field, because I've seen them post over on the Electronics and Robotics SE site. There was a question re level of electronics experience, and just about everyone that answered was doing some type of embedded work. Experience ranged from those just graduating to old-timers like myself. Many had a combination of EE and CS degrees like I do.

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+1 ... so inspiring –  explorest Sep 14 '11 at 11:38
    
+1 - True passion for a subject is irreplaceable. –  Polynomial Feb 9 '12 at 12:26
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This is a pretty demanding career if you don't love it.

I think you see a lot of people who get into programming for the money, but when they realize how difficult it is, they quickly look to move into management.

If you don't love it, it's a pretty fast treadmill to run on.

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+1 but not completely true. I prefer managmant because of the salary and status and the ability to change things to the best. I am a good programmer and enjoy it but I hope to be a CTO someday. –  the_drow Oct 5 '10 at 16:30
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Most managers are not CEOs or CTOs though. The average ex-programmer-become-department-manager does not (or at least should not in my opinion) earn more money or respect than the top coder in an organisation where code is core business. –  Teun D Oct 5 '10 at 17:05
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@the_drow - I'm not saying all managers are failed programmers. But if you are a failed programmer (or one who doesn't enjoy it) & want to get out, management seems like a pretty good direction to go in. –  John MacIntyre Oct 5 '10 at 18:09
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+1 The day I get forced into management (at least anything more managerial than my current lead-developer role) is the day I leave the industry. I am 41 years old, although I joined the industry in my mid-late 20s after a career as an audio engineer. I completely agree with the sentiment that you have to love what you are doing. I couldn't imagine doing anything else anymore. –  johnc Oct 6 '10 at 2:24
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Being 'bad' or failing at programming does not automatically make you a good manager. –  JBRWilkinson Nov 10 '10 at 15:47
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My father is a developer and he is 60 years old, he started at his late 20s. He is working freelance for his old company now, and he has become more of a manager, but he still enjoys developing though. I think he will continue till his death.

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I think it depends which industry you are working in. The nature of the working conditions in a bank say, is rather different to a .com style startup or a goverment institution even if you are doing essentially the same job. I certainly found I was far more stressed at the end of a week working at an investment bank than I was working for a DVD manufacturer even though my job was basically the same.

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+1 Working for the finance sector is incredibly draining –  johnc Oct 6 '10 at 3:58
    
Not necessarily, there are financial services companies (e.g. Markit) where the work is quite relaxed. Also European banks are more relaxed than American banks. –  quant_dev Feb 9 '12 at 10:19
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Interestingly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has statistics on the number of jobs a person holds in a lifetime, but does not have any statistics on how many times a person changes careers.

They never attempted this for a couple reasons:

  1. There's no consensus among economists, sociologists, etc. as to what constitutes a career change. E.g., if I get laid off from my programming job, start a lawn care company, then get a new programming job two years later, did I change careers?

  2. It requires a longitudinal study: following the same person over the course of his entire life.

Regarding burnout, the Psychologist Jon Snodgrass said "Work that is not personally satisfying reflects a basic conflict you have with yourself. You may think the conflict is caused by your career, and that if you change careers, the conflict will go away. But, you cannot pick the right career without first resolving the inner conflict."

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+1 for Jon Snodgrass's burnout comment. This is very true. I'm burning out at the moment, and at least 90% of it has nothing to do with programming in particular. More to do with not finding personal satisfaction in the "model" of working that I've been in. –  Bobby Tables Oct 26 '10 at 5:24
    
I completely disagree that Snodgrass's comment relates to burnout. Burnout is when your mind and body forcibly shut themselves down because you didn't listen to all the warnings they were sending to you. –  Dunk Oct 14 '11 at 15:26
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Well, I started programming as a hobbyist in high school in 1971, and professionally in 1985, when I dropped out of a doctoral program in chemistry at 27. So that's 39 years hobbyist, and 25 professionally, and I'm 52 now.

Yeah, I tried being a manager and an entrepreneur, and I suck at both of them. So for the last ten years I've stuck strictly to programming, which I'm not only far better at but make way more money doing.

I expect to be tottering around open-source conferences and hackfests with a walker when I'm 90. For some folks, it's a profession or a career, but for me it's a calling. I'm constantly astonished people pay me (and well, too) to do something that's so much fun, and they'll pry the keyboard from my cold dead fingers.

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I like your answer and your enthusiasm. Its the case where when you have a job/profession you love, it feels more like fun than work. –  fjxx Oct 12 '10 at 20:53
    
+1 Passion fuels fun. –  Karthik Sreenivasan Feb 9 '12 at 10:16
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I don't know anyone who has burnt out in IT. The stories you hear are largely from people who were, shall we say, obsessed and yes people like that burn out but it's not specific to IT and it's very rare.

I know a couple of people who've gone on to do different things but generally that was because it was more appealing to them rather than anything preventing them carrying on in IT.

I've been working in IT for nearly 20 years and have no plans to stop and see no reason why I should want or need to.

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Do you work with anyone else? I know reams of developers who wash out in their first 5 years alone. They realize that software development done professionally is far different than they expected and by year 4 or 5 they dread coming to work and become zombies. Those people either leave the profession or jump ship to management. That doesn't even count the people that leave after death march projects. I can't imagine that in 20 years that you haven't run into people that have burned out unless you don't socialize much. Which I don't and I still know a lot of burned out people no longer in SW. –  Dunk Oct 14 '11 at 15:34
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The following is my personal opinion - All figures are based on my own experience and may not be scientifically correct. Observations are geographically biased.

Your observation is correct. Many people will either burn out or will have obsolete experiences within 15 years or so unless:

A) They have very good IQ and

B) Work very hard

C) Maintain an excellent track record

D) Gain marketable skills with experience

E) Have good network

The reason many leave the career may be (not an ordered list)

  1. There is not a continuous demand on old technologies

  2. Many technologies become old fast and rarely used outside of the maintenance work

  3. The 90s made lots of older technologies near obsolete (with the exception of few golden years near Y2K)

  4. Most companies don't train people in core techs. They can get any skill in 1 phone call

  5. Training path in core technologies takes too long and too much

  6. Many jobs are contracting jobs, the older you get the more secure you want to be

  7. Even if you learn the next technology, it will last you only 5 years or so (on the average)

  8. Recruiters can't appreciate old experience almost at all

  9. Recruiters are the front end for many employers

  10. It takes a higher IQ to understand today's tech.

  11. Most employers want a CS degree or the likes - Older folks did not use to require those

  12. If you are 50 chances are you don't want an arrogant 25 years old to boss you just because he knows CSS 3.0 and you don't!

  13. Outsourcing affected local demand

  14. Competition is tough

  15. Most worthwhile applications have already been built (SAP, etc.) - Ready made software is everywhere

  16. Moving to other related disciplines is not that easy. Certification and demand of very good experience is a barrier in many cases. For example, those who can't do HTML/CSS can't become DBAs overnight.

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I am hovering with over 14 years now from graduate developer to lead developer and solution architect. I have always found projects that are no just maintenance but new development/migration in new technology and I absolutely love it. There are couple guys in my team whom we recently recruited and are 40+ years and they are up to date on new technology. But yes you have to be passionate, read voraciously, see videos, follow blogs, go to user groups and conferences to keep on with continuous learning.

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Well, personal experience counterpoint. I'm rapidly approaching 40 (a few months to go) and am looking for a way out of development because ... I've just had enough. I work in a great place with interesting people, but find programming itself to be frustratingly grey, drudging and uninspiring work for me. (Other people's experience, thankfully, differs!)

It is really fantastic to read the experiences of people who are lovingly engaged in the crafting of software; people for whom the work is fulfilling and inspiring. I have friends who just love development, and who relish the challenges it presents. But I am not one of those people. It's not that I can't do the work -- hell, I wouldn't have survived a dozen + years in this business if that was the case. I just don't like it.

As for me, I'm busy trying to navigate my way back into my first career (which I foolishly left when I found that (a) I could program, (b) people would willingly pay me for this, and (c) I needed to pay the rent). So I'm heading back into research science, and the warm feeling that fills me when I walk into the lab, when I talk with colleagues in that space, and when I apply my mind to the challenge of unraveling how the world works, and where I use reasoning and analytical skills (at least) as challenging as in software, tells me that this really is about different careers appealing to different temperaments.

So this "old" programmer is just busy reinventing himself and moving on :) (Even though that will mean something of a financial risk) Pax

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