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Joining The Half-Century Club

This blog is almost a year overdue since my 50th birthday was in September 2020. But I just kept forgetting to post it. Ba dum tss. This is my first “senior joke”, ha-ha!

No, I am not losing my marbles. It’s just a variety of unrelated factors that made me feel unmotivated to write this post. I had big plans for celebration, finally updating my circa 2013 profile picture with a new professionally done photo, etc. But then 2020 happened… So, here we are, with suddenly more important concerns.

50 is an interesting age. At 40, you still look at the average life expectancy and think “hey, it’s not so bad, I might have almost as much time ahead of me”. But at 50, it really dawns on you that it’s way past mid-life point, and the time is ticking. Even society’s perception of your potential demise changes. Death in 30s: tragedy. 40s: taken too soon. 50s: well, you had a good run.

In the media, we might still see some “40 under 40” lists (with emphasis on “under”). After that, there are no more lists. No one cares to read about “50 over/under 50”. In all fairness, that would be a pretty long list and kids these days have short attention spans.

When I was a kid, I thought about older people who had important jobs like presidents or top managers: how are they so wise and not afraid to make important decisions that can affect the whole world? Well, the truth is somewhere deep inside every adult is a scared and confused 16-year-old. The wisdom means learning to surround yourself with trusted advisors and knowing when to listen to them. The fear of decision-making kind of wears off: do it that many times and you get tired of being afraid. Some people just never grow up. And then they end up being elected a president of the United States. That’s the real mystery.

Also, when I was younger, I used to look at the celebrities and sometimes felt like a failure. Britney Spears was born in 1981. When “Oops! I did it again” came out in 2000, I thought wow, she’s so young and already rich and famous while I have nothing to my name. Well, look how that turned out… (I still think Britney Spears is an amazing person though and wish her best of luck. #FreeBritney)

For women, aging is different than for men. There is no female equivalent of comfy “dad bod” and no hair color “with a touch of grey” to appear more worldly and wise. On the bright side, due to newly acquired wisdom, I don’t care. Jennifer Lopez is a year older than me and she looks incredible. But looking good is what she does, so why wouldn’t she be good at her job? No disrespect but I bet her ABAP skills suck.

Hashtag Ageism

In the recent years, we’ve seen the rise of great movements to end discrimination and social injustice, such as BLM and #MeToo. But ageism has not had its hashtag moment, at least not yet. Which is strange because most people will never change their gender or race but everyone ages. However, ageism lives on as if everyone believes it will not affect them. Oh, it will.

The first generation of programmers who worked with the punch cards and wore white coats in 1960s-70s has already retired and a bigger wave of Gen-Xers, followed by a tsunami of Millennials, is moving in the same direction. But it seems that IT and software industry still have not figured out what to do with the mature professionals. And if you think that by “mature professionals” I mean just the old fogies in their 50s or (gasp!) 60s, think again. “What happens to older (over 30) programmers?” inquires a random Quora user. “Is software development really a dead-end job after age 35-40?” ponders another.

In his great blog on this subject, Jason Gorman writes: “[…]I’m becoming only too aware of this predilection employers have for younger – cheaper – developers. […] The net effect of this – aside from throwing great talent and experience on the scrapheap – is we’re a profession of perpetual beginners. Young people entering software development are very lucky if they’re exposed to industry veterans in any practical way.”

I’m not sure in what profession “perpetual beginners” would be considered a good thing… Unlike doctors or engineers, rookie mistakes of software developers are not as apparent. But they are out there and becoming increasingly more difficult to conceal.

Elephants and Buffaloes

At the same time, the mature developers are thinking not only how to stay afloat but what are the next career steps for them. Many developers are feeling pressure to move to the management positions. But as Peter Wiggle’s blog Career Paths for Ageing Software Developers notes, this is not a promotion, management is a completely different job. And most developers are worse in it than Jennifer Lopez in ABAP.

Lack of motivation puts some developers at risk of becoming a Grumpy Old Programmer, as Peter calls it:

“If there is little reward in putting in the extra effort, many people just give up. Instead they focus on job security, trying to keep being valuable to their employer not by bringing up great new ideas but by being the guy (it is usually a guy) that knows everything about the old business critical systems. This usually means they actively or passively fight against any new ideas brought up by younger colleagues. They have become the Grumpy Old Programmer.”

There ought to be better opportunities for the developers who wish to continue their work successfully even past the ripe old age of 30. Ideally, a technology career track with jobs like Lead Developer, Solution Architect or even Chief Nerd. The organizations that do not provide such opportunities will see their top talent scooped up by those who do in the times of Great Resignation.

In a recent episode of our Mindset Nebula podcast, Ethan Jewett questioned whether a career path even needs to be the thing. What if someone doesn’t want to be on any path? If someone is happy and productive in their current job, then it’s perfectly fine to continue the same line of work. (And in many countries, it’s a legally protected right.)

In his 2012 blog post The Most Balanced Piece I Could Write About the Stupidity of Ageism, SAP Mentor Thorsten Franz mentions how the matriarchs in the African elephant herds lead the group to the best food sources. Even though comparison to an elephant matriarch is not the most flattering one, it is a noble endeavor to lead new generations of developers to where the juiciest SAP fruit is.

There is another expression from the animal world: “the herd moves with the speed of the slowest buffalo”. There is no number of years of experience or grey hair that gives one the right to be that slowest buffalo and create obstruction for the whole team. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel unable to go on, to learn and accept new knowledge, to support others, staying behind is a brave and honorable thing to do.

I hope that this does not happen to me for quite a while but if you hear me say “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, please pack my bags for a trip to a farm upstate.

Thank you for continuous readership and cheers to another year!

(This post originally appeared on the SAP Community website)

Jelena Perfiljeva is a Lead SAP Developer at Mindset. She is an experienced SAP generalist with focus in development and system integration. Jelena is an SAP Community influencer and a recipient of many awards, including Member of the Month and Community Hero. She is an international SAP conference speaker and author of the books What on Earth is an SAP IDoc? and ABAP: An Introduction. In her spare time, Jelena enjoys baking and playing Civilization.

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