Stack OverflowAm I a dinosaur programmer?
[+73] [13] dlb
[2010-05-26 14:11:26]
[ career-development legacy hiring ]

I have been a professional programmer for more than 30 years, and have chosen a career path involving hands-on programming. Programming is something that I love, and I take great pride in the fact that I have continued to keep up to date with current technology. Projects on which I have worked include large enterprise projects as well as smaller desktop programs.

The problem I am facing is that I do not have any web-based experience other than some web services. Most of the jobs now available have some web component.

I have now been out of work for a year and a half, and have been keeping busy by studying technology that will bridge that gap: CSS, Java Script, JQuery, and Ruby on Rails; AJAX is next.

Hiring managers give no consideration whatsoever to the studying that I have been doing. I know that I cannot compete at a senior software level, but companies will not hire someone with my experience at a more junior level. Is there any way to break out of this Catch 22?

(24) Why do you think you cannot compete at senior software level after being professional programmer for 30 years? - ArunSaha
(12) AJAX is a fancy buzzword for the feature of JavaScript that loads pages in the background. It's really not a big deal from a programming perspective, and jQuery has an AJAX module that makes it no harder than anything else in JavaScript. - Ricket
(26) I have to say, something is seriously wrong with any hiring manager that blindly dismisses all of your independent pursuit and passion for learning. That's one of the first things they should be looking for. - Tesserex
(2) I can compete senior level in the area that I have work experience in. It is the area that I have studied but do not have work experience that I feel I can not compete at a senior level. - dlb
(53) Sorry, I'm a real dinosaur programmer. I literally have a degree in Paleontology. - Jay Riggs
(15) ROAR! I've got a big head! And tiny arms! - samoz
@Tesserex The last job I applied for, the recruitment agent saw fit to trim my professional PHP/MySQL experience by 4 years (10 -> 6) for some reason. My first position was a web designer (where I quickly moved into PHP / server side coding) and another role was director of my own company! Perhaps he thought neither qualified as 'professional' somehow? Either way, I've never liked recruitment agents! - Greg K
(3) Where are the "CLOSED" nazis? This isn't a question with an answer. - Stephanie Page
(1) @Stephanie Page: it was already closed, then reopened. - Neil N
(7) Stack Overflow is not a career advice site. Try - gnovice
(1) In Soviet Russia dinosaurs program you. - Ben
(1) @gnovice: No shit man, I thought that was a subtile joke before I actually tried the URL... - ypnos
Have you tried signing up for SO careers? You might have a higher probability to get found by people that value learning. - temp2290
(2) @RCIX: 1) There are clearly a number of people in the community who agree with me, since many of these types of questions do get closed. 2) really is the more appropriate venue for these sorts of topics. 3) Most of the time that I or someone else posts a message like that, there are people who comment that they hadn't heard about CO yet. So, as long as there are people who still haven't heard of CO, and as long as there is no official position on career advice questions, I'll keep making the comment. Discussion here: - gnovice
(1) @gnovice: Then just add the career overflow link; if the question is really that bad, it will get closed anyway. A lot of us find these questions interesting and valuable. Moreover, the community vote from that thread is that specific career advice questions are allowed. - RCIX
(1) @RCIX: You can always go to if you find that type of question interesting and valuable. - community_owned
(1) What's frustrating now is that the community explicitly said this question and others like it (specific career questions) were ok, but you close it anyway. - RCIX
(1) @gnovice and @Roger Pate:… Take a look at Jeff Atwood's answer. These questions should be allowed. - jasonh
(1) @jasonh: And that answer says, "To be fair, there's a pretty big drop-off [before career-related questions]". - community_owned
(1) @RCIX: 5 reopen votes is not the community. - community_owned
(1) @Roger Pate: and a few close votes are? Besides, Jeff Atwood is the community and he said it was OK. - RCIX
(2) No, both are part of the community. But you said "don't close vote---let the community decide!" which doesn't make any sense. Jeff acknowledged no community consensus in the answer linked above. I find it incredulous that you'd say "Atwood is the community"; he is "just" the founder and administrator (which are certainly important). @rci - community_owned
@Roger: i state he's the community because he can decide to do something and no community member can overrule them. I'm just asking that you respect the wish of all those who want it open and be a little less uptight about what you close. - RCIX
(1) Being able to make unilateral decisions is called being the administrator, not "the community". I'm just asking that you respect my wish that questions be on-topic: there is no malice, hate, or being uptight about it, and I wish this guy the best---in fact, pointing him to alternatives where he can be on-topic is possibly the best I can do to help him. @rci - community_owned
@Roger: ok, that was poor wording :) I still think this question is fine for this site though, perhaps we should leave it at that. - RCIX
[+95] [2010-05-26 14:16:46] Neil N [ACCEPTED]

Forget study. MAKE SOMETHING. Make silly demo sites that demonstrate what you can do. Make a homepage for your dogs feeding schedule, with all kinds of jQuery UI interface pizazz. Make a forum for your kids soccer team or something, anything. Then put them on your resume or show them in your interviews

(9) +1; studying only takes you so far. At some point you should just make something. See if you can get other people to use it. I can think of at least 3 web projects that I would dive into right now if I was unemployed. Bam instant experience that you can demo to a potential employer. - Pretzel
How would you MAKE SOMETHING if you don't know how and you should forget to study? Seems like another catch 22 to me. ;) - Filip Ekberg
(1) @Filip Ekberg: you start with Hello World, and go from there. - Neil N
@Neil N, If one doesn't know how to make a forum, you will need to study a bit.. - Filip Ekberg
(2) You dont have to know to start, and figure it out as you go. - Neil N
build something like this… - Moak
(6) I'd rephrase to: "Have the desire to make something. Study to accomplish it". Meaning, start on a challenging project to yours skills. When you are stuck about how to implement a feature/architecture/etc then investigate, search the web, books, what others have done and how. Then apply what you've learnt. And keep this circle. And don't loose CURIOSITY. It's hard when you have a big GAP. So don't rush it. Be glad for every little thing you learn, because it takes you closer to closing the gap... Good Luck! - user347594
(1) I'll tell you that I once applied for a job and only had a short telephone interview. He asked me if I could send in a sample of my work. I was looking for my first job, so I didn't have any. A few hours later, I called him again and suggested that I could code something new. I spent about a week coding and documenting a solution to a small robotics program. After that, I was invited to visit the office in person. I was never hired by that company, but I definitely had a better chance with a good code sample. - Rice Flour Cookies
(1) As someone who hires this works. If we get resumes with no demos' they go to the end of the line. People with lots of experience but nothing to show for it our worthless to use. - Ryan Detzel
[+22] [2010-05-26 14:16:07] Kelly French

Design/build a website on your own or for some local charity. That will show initiative and familiarity with the latest technology. Be active in user groups and take advantage of any networking opportunities. The people attending user groups will be much more open-minded to hearing about your experience and not discounting it.

(1) This. I know a couple of (non-IT) managers who reckon they can tell within a couple of minutes if someone already has a job or not. The best way to get a job is already have a job, second best is to be as active DOING SOMETHING. - Wudang
[+18] [2010-05-26 14:18:13] Filip Ekberg

Become active on SO and put your profile-link on the CV.

I put my profile-link on my CV and every job interview I went on commented on how great it is to be active on a forum like this.

Programming isn't only about what language/framework you can and can't. If you have been a programmer for 30 years and would compete with someone that worked with web-development for 3 years, yes, of course he would know how to add a text-field faster than you.

But when it comes to the more "relevant" parts of programming, deeper understanding if how software works, how to design for scalability, all those "mindsets" work on almost all different type of developments.

If you have worked as a proffessional developer for 30 years, you have probably your share of stories about patterns that none should ever try and why O(n^100) would be bad.

It's about the possiblity to adapt and learn new things, you must be able to adapt and to take in new knowledge, after 30 years of development or even 10 years or 5 years, it doesn't matter, you will be somewhat good at understanding problems, understandhing how to solve them; what tools to use and how to get there.

After 30 years of development you should know how google works and that will probably get you in the right direction no matter what problem you are facing.

I would also recommend to fine-tune your CV a bit, maybe get one of those CV's at stackoverflow or why not put a couple of quotations from former employees on your CV?

Remember that it's all about how well you sell yourself and you don't need to fully understand how the newest web-framework works, you just need to know how to get the information once you need it.

That's what software engineering is all about; adaptability.

(1) In most interviews I had, telling that I was active on a forum (or SO) had the same result: "Forums are great but if you join our company, you'll have to work, not to chat". I however agree with the idea: if I ever have to interview someone, I will take this in consideration. - ereOn
(6) @ereOn, SO, Forums, IRC, google are all stock-in-trade and I use it in my daily work and noone complains about my effort, software or how I do things. I wouldn't want to work at a company that doesn't understand that Internet is a tool that you should use. - Filip Ekberg
@F.Ekberg -- I wanted to up-vote this a few more times. This was far and away one of the more excellent and comprehensive answers I've ever encountered to someone in a predicament like NeilN's. - Hardryv
@Filip Ekberg: You are absolutely right. That's one of the reason while I want to leave my current job. However, from where I come from, a lot of people seem old-minded. - ereOn
@ereOn, I can relate to that.. Mind I ask in what country this is? In Sweden at least I feel that a lot of companies are open minded, as long as one does their job, it's not questioned :) - Filip Ekberg
@Filip Ekberg: France... :/ - ereOn
(6) +1, I actually hired someone after researching some of his answers on SO. Not only was he knowledgeable, he also went out of his way to try and help other people understand things .. and was extremely friendly in all of his posts and comments. It also showed me that he likes talking about programming :) - Tim Post
@Tim, It's nice to hear that more people think like I do! :) - Filip Ekberg
Oh I would like to know why this was downvoted :) - Filip Ekberg
[+16] [2010-05-26 14:33:54] High Performance Mark

Your approach seems to boil down to:

  • I have 30 years experience with technology set A;
  • It's hard to get jobs with technology set A so I will ...
  • Learn technology set B and see how difficult it is to get a job with no practical experience.

I think you'd be much better off repackaging your skills in technology set A and in putting your efforts into finding a job which uses the experience you have. You seem to be planning to throw away most of your experience, which is exactly what marks you out as different from the rest of the herd. Don't do that.

I write as a 30+ year Fortran programmer in a similar situation to your own a few years back. I updated my skills by learning OpenMP, MPI, etc, and worked hard on re-presenting myself to the marketplace. It was hard work but it paid off.

(1) +1 - nice. I'd love to hear about your MPI experience. I know some folks who do large scale CFD using that technology. - duffymo
+1 - Indeed. Why to try and find job in just that one area where one does not have experience? - PauliL
[+7] [2010-05-26 14:57:15] Matthew Sposato

It pains me to hear about your experience. First because it's a shame you've been unemployed for so long. Second, because hiring managers are so narrowly focused on specific technologies.

Here's a couple of thoughts. In any programming job, the current technology is only part of the mix. Dedication, analytical ability, hard work, team spirit are also important.

First, emphasize your accomplishments, not a specific technology. In your experience you've undoubtedly solved some difficult and interesting problems. Focus your discussions on those.

Second, explain how in your 30 years of experience you've had to adapt many times. Emphasize your ability to adapt and overcome.

Third, because you're an older person you will be perceived as being less energetic than younger applicants. During an interview try to present yourself as wise, patient, calm, enthusiastic and energetic. In other words, emphasize your strengths overcome perceived weaknesses.

Fourth, There surely must be local technology user groups in your area. If so, join and become active. If not, start one. Google groups is a great way to get started.

Fifth, Present yourself as willing, able and ready to move into a junior role. Tell them you would relish the opportunity to apply your experience to a new approach.

Sixth, Federal contracting is a growing area. When gov't changes it almost always means new work for federal contracting thought workers. A great deal of this work is not web-based. Contact me for more details.

Good Luck


[+5] [2010-05-26 20:24:48] user351329

Your experience is good. Why not try for your field of experience - there are plenty of jobs without web experience out there. Unless you've been a COBOL programmer for the last few years, why not try within your field. Of course, do not turn your back on learning the new technologies, but go with what you know, aka your strengths.

Also, another note. The big companies like younger, cheaper programmers. You're not mistaken if you've noticed this. Offshore programmers, fresh out of school, and immigrants who work cheaply are the rule here in Silicon Valley. Startups and smaller companies are the ones who will appreciate you and your excellent experience.

On the other hand, I came over from C/Assembly for embedded systems to PHP/MySQL/JavaScript on my own. By taking on a lot of small jobs, you can learn, maybe profit (fingers crossed), and get your experience. I was laid off 8 years ago, and went for a teaching gig. In the interim of education and embedded systems, I did my sis-n-laws ecommerce site, from start to finish. It was HELL, but I got it working and learned a lot! She got a deal and I got a free trip to California and good experience.

I used my experience to get my tech coordinator job, and did many side jobs for website development. The rule: keep learning, practicing, then learning, and practicing more! Networking is key!

I have been in this biz since 1984!

(2) +1 for the comment about startups and smaller companies appreciating you more. Generally very true. - Pretzel
Ditto. Just keep in mind that startups are most often grueling and demanding (not that you don't already know this, with thirty years in!) - Tripp Lilley
[+2] [2010-05-26 19:45:46] Paul Reiners

It's pretty hard to break out of that Catch-22. You just have to find a hiring manager who is smart enough to realize that intelligence, knowledge, and willingness to learn is more important than professional experience in technology XYZ (which is web technologies in your case).

My advice would be to do some sort of open-source project in technology XYZ. Then I would write up an article on it and get it published somewhere reputable such as developerWorks [1]. That should give you more credibility.


[+2] [2010-05-26 14:22:07] duffymo

Learn more than the languages. Go beyond to design, colors, fonts, and asthetic considerations. People don't want "developer pages" - they want stuff that looks good, too. You'll help your case if you can go beyond just the code and hypertext on the page.

(4) I've got mixed feelings on this one. Yes, things should look good. but for coders, sometimes the functionality is whats important. "I'm a plumber not a painter" I want to make something cool that works, and let a designer pretty it up. - Neil N
Human computer interaction is important, sure. But there has to be a line between Programmers and Designers. - Filip Ekberg
Has to be? Not so. I'm arguing that hybrids can be more employable. - duffymo
(3) @Filip a bit of study in these fields makes one less dependent on others for trivial tasks, while improving perception of where that line stands, and why it's important. - Agos
@Agos, I agree completely. - duffymo
@duffymo, I like teams where the developers do the programming and the designers do the design. I now HCI which helps me communicate with the designers. Maybe it's just a matter of taste.. - Filip Ekberg
(1) @Filip Programmers doing programming and designers doing designs are more efficient, agreed. However, what is even more efficient is that if both teams have some knowledge of each other's tasks. It improves communication greatly (because one group knows what the other is talking about) and prevent bad decisions from both sides. - Stephen Eilert
@Stephen: Don't forget that having a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It can make you think you're smarter than you are. - Matt Ellen
[+1] [2010-05-26 14:32:20] Christopher Barber

I second the suggestion that you actually try to build something rather than just study, but it would require a lot work to create something from scratch that is really going to impress someone enough to hire you. Instead I would find an existing open source project that you can contribute to.

[+1] [2010-05-26 16:13:14] Gary L Cox Jr

I think with your experience you would make a great choice of hire. Learning web development is not a problem, besides development is all about constant learning. I'm constantly reading open source projects to learn from others. Maybe you should build a site and use that as an example of what you can do when you go into your interview. Some managers just don't know what they are doing.

[+1] [2010-05-26 17:41:30] Shivam

The simple fact that you are still learning new things would make you a non-dinosaur. I know alot of younger developers who tell me they are tried of learning new things and I admire people who have the drive to learn new things.

I also think if you want to enter a new field jst learning is not enough as most hiring or HR people don'e know the value of learning in IT. The best way forward is to build something small to showcase your skills.

But I also think you should use your strength. With 30 years of experience it is a very good thing. You should use this to your advantage and show the hiring managers that with your level of experience you would be handle the new technology.

Hope this is helpful.

[+1] [2010-05-26 19:59:55] kphilmat

My two boys are running into the same thing, just out of school. Have the smarts, just not the experience. They are working as interns with church and local companies. Not much money, but experience.

Odd, I find that employers are ALL over us guys that are just finishing up school. - Chris Buckler
[+1] [2010-05-31 18:40:07] Kim Reece

Most of the jobs are 'web' stuff.

Most of the programmers are 'web' programmers...

But this means any company that needs a non-web programmer is quite possibly desperate! I noticed you mentioned the technologies you have yet to pick up, not so much those you already are an expert in. And after 30 years, you're an expert, no doubt about it. What about translating older stuff (COBOL, FORTRAN?) into modern programming technologies (Java, Python, C... GPU programming, MPI...)? It's an easier transition, IMHO (I don't grok web easily myself; hand me a computation that computes something!), and I suspect there is a strong need for it buried under all the competition for web positions.