Shahzad Bhatti

June 15, 2009

My plan B for being a programmer

Filed under: Computing — admin @ 11:29 am

I came across an interesting blog on Programmers: Before you turn 40, get a plan B, where the author sites age discrimination in programming career. The author shows how in IT industry, technology shift every 10 years levels the plainfield so there is a little difference between junior and senior programmer. The author also asserts that more experienced programmer will have a lot of irrelevent experience that employer may not be willing to consider when hiring or may not pay higher salary for those skills. I have been programming for over twenty two years and working professionally for over seventeen years and I certainly have seen effects of technology shift. In early 90s, I worked for a physics lab that had plenty of VAX computers using FORTRAN, and they were migrating most of the system to UNIX so people with VMS skills had to adopt to UNIX. I then had to work on mainframe system for another company and used COBOL and CICS. I saw plenty of people who worked on mainframe system for over 10-15 years and knew a little outside mainframe technology. When that company also migrated to NT and UNIX platform, it was quite stressful to many people. Though, there are still companies who are willing to pay top dollars for mainframe experience but opportunities are very few. I myself had to adopt and learn C++ and object-oriented design and found other opportunties that used those skills. I was young and unmarried so switching to another technology was not hard. In mid 90s I switched to Java, CORBA and Web development and there was some learning and adopting involved. In late 90s and early 2000s, I started using Java Enterprise Beans (EJBs) and SOAP based Web services. From 2003-onward, I started using more open source technologies like Spring, Hibernate, Tomcat, REST, etc and I had to abandoned my past CORBA or EJB expertise. This was followed by rise of dynamic languages and I started using Ruby on Rails and built a couple of sites using it. After that I became interested functional programming such as Erlang. These days, I have been spending my spare time in iPhone development.

I completely agree that in programming career, the past experience becomes irrelevant and most companies won’t pay me for the irrelevant experience such as VMS, mainframe, CORBA or EJBs. Also, as I became older and started family, switching jobs just for technology became a lot harder. I believe experienced programmers who have worked with varied technologies bring useful perspective and a bit of pessimism that is often needed. I also believe most experienced programmers have better design skills and pay more attention to writing maintainable or scalable code, but it probably doesn’t matter in may places that just want to get shit done.

Another aspect that differentiates programming career from other professions is lack of predictability. I have found that in our industry, project scope, requirements and estimates are poorly defined and most companies expect programmers to be heros or martyrs who will abandoned their life and dedicate completely to the work. IT people also have to pay for the global culture of 24×7 service and have to be oncall when things break. This becomes a lot harder with the family so many companies prefer young and unmarried folks who are more willing to be heros and those young programmers like the extra attention.

So what is my plan B? It is to continually learn new skills and be a little better than the competition. Many of my past colleagues have moved to the dark site and now are directors or senior managers at other companies. And truth is that in most companies managers carry more respect and authority so no wonder most programmers aspire to become one. I on the other hand, just can’t give up programming and usually spend my spare time on a number of small projects. So I will continue to be a lowly code monkey for the rest of my life.

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