A 42-Year-Old Developer’s Advice on Working in Tech

photo credit: Aliis Sinisalu
photo credit: Aliis Sinisalu

Adrian Kosmaczewski, a 42-year-old, self-taught developer, published an article today titled Being A Developer After 40. The piece is full of sage advice that is resonating with developers of all ages. His post is a summary of a talk he gave at the App Builders Switzerland conference in April with the accompanying slides available on Speaker Deck.

Kosmaczewski gives readers a glimpse into what the world of technology was like in 1997, the year he began his career as a developer before the days of unit tests and continuous integration, before SVN even existed.

My first job consisted of writing ASP pages in various editors, ranging from Microsoft FrontPage, to HotMeTaL Pro to EditPlus, managing cross-browser compatibility between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer 4, and writing stored procedures in SQL Server 6.5 powering a commercial website published in Japanese, Russian, English and Spanish — without any consistent UTF-8 support across the software stack.

If you worked as a developer in those days you may fondly remember working with some of these technologies. Since then, countless new ones have been introduced but the requirement to keep learning remains unchanged. Kosmaczewski offers advice on navigating the hype surrounding the newest programming languages.

Do not worry about hype. Keep doing your thing, keep learning what you were learning, and move on. Pay attention to it only if you have a genuine interest, or if you feel that it could bring you some benefit in the medium or long run.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the new languages and frameworks that people say you need to learn in order to stay relevant, but Kosmaczewski encourages readers to follow their own interests and learn about software history. Otherwise, you’ll be forever chasing new architectures and ideas but never learning them in depth or gaining more than a shallow understanding of their implementation.

In an industry where professionals are valued by their abilities in specific languages, many programmers allow their identity to be wrapped up in the tools they use. Kosmaczewski encourages readers to be ready to change course:

Do not criticize or make fun of the technology choices of your peers; for other people will have their own reasons to choose them, and they must be respected. Be prepared to change your mind at any time through learning. One day you might like Windows. One day you might like Android. I am actually liking some parts of Android lately. And that is OK.

His perspective comes from nearly 20 years of working as a developer. The lesson I saw in this section of his essay is that the technologies you work with are part of your journey, and you’ll cycle through many of them. However, be careful not to allow them to become your whole identity, because you are still learning.

The Value of Teaching

One of the most inspiring parts of his post is the section on teaching. We often hear the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” thrown around smugly, but this devalues educators. Teaching is somewhat of a lost art in an industry where many professionals are self-taught. Yet, Kosmaczewski says there are some things you cannot learn without having taught someone else:

Teaching will make you more humble, because it will painfully show you how limited your knowledge is. Teaching is the best way to learn. Only by testing your knowledge against others are you going to learn properly. This will also make you more respectful regarding other developers and other technologies; every language, no matter how humble or arcane, has its place within the Tao of Programming, and only through teaching will you be able to feel it.

Kosmaczewski also shares some moving stories of how his teaching and mentoring have made a difference in the world, especially for those who are just beginning.

If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend reading “Being A Developer After 40.” This article is a window into one developer’s journey but his advice and habit recommendations are relevant to everyone from experienced programmers to those just starting out. Kosmaczewski explores some of the darker aspects of the industry but also the beauty of sticking with it. His closing statement sums it up nicely:

As long as your heart tells you to keep on coding and building new things, you will be young, forever.


12 responses to “A 42-Year-Old Developer’s Advice on Working in Tech”

  1. Hi Adrian,
    Great article, but you are only a “pup”.
    I am 67 years old, retired, but still building websites.
    I started in IT in 1969, when punched cards and paper tape were the main media input and output devices, and COBOL, FORTRAN and ALGOL were the incumbent business languages.
    Very little has changed in language design over the years. The principles are the same now. If you understood it then, you can understand it now. The only difference now is that languages are “interpreted” in real time, rather than being pre-compiled.
    You had to understand “machine code” in those days, which is why it is so easy to adapt to current languages.
    css and html each had equivalents in COBOL, as did scripts. There is nothing earth shattering or “new” about these modern tools. You just need to understand the syntax and the context.
    It is easy to pick up if you were around then.
    Keep trucking.
    Best regards

  2. The other big thing is recognizing the wisdom gained and personal growth in balance with coding (or whatever) hard skills. I started out (after a venture in electronic engineering) as a Novell CNE which is useless as a hard skill these days. But, what I learned about computer networking and technology, as well as dealing with clients big to small during those years are very valuable.

    The big thing is keeping up in the learning department (and energy/time to do so department!) no matter what career you have.


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