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How Old is Too Old? 223

NewtonEatPalm! asks: "I started college back when I was too young to carefully weigh options about my future. I entered a prominent art school at age 17, coasted through, and was spit out at age 22 with a film degree that I don't really want nor do I feel qualified to use as the basis for a career. Three years on, I'm still working at my mundane college job, though one thing has never changed in all this time- my love of and devotion to technology, keeping up with hardware news and the intricacies of powerful software through daily reading of sites like Slashdot and lots of home-brew system building and amateur web development. I've decided that I'd like to pursue a second degree in Software Engineering at one of the major Cal State U's, but that would place me in the tech job market at nearly 30. My question is, how old is too old? Are severe changes in career direction in this sector commonplace/successful? Or have I truly already let my best chance for entry pass me by?"
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How Old is Too Old?

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  • Thinking Experience (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 10, 2006 @11:54PM (#15886706)
    "It's true that the neurons harden as your mind differentiates itself (much like a fetus' maturing organs); "

    And yet some of the best work has been produced by men and women well past 30.
  • In a word, No. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ezratrumpet ( 937206 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:01AM (#15886734) Journal
    You're never too old to retool or change. Every day, someone your age (and someone 2-3x your age) leaves a successful career for a completely different field.

    You only get One Life - and one chance to be whatever age you are. There's no dress rehearsal. Figure out how to "do" your passion for enough money to maintain a lifestyle sufficiency, and then go do it.

    Remember, this is a one-life game. Use it up.
  • Hmmm (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Reality Master 101 ( 179095 ) <RealityMaster101 AT gmail DOT com> on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:03AM (#15886744) Homepage Journal

    Three years on, I'm still working at my mundane college job, though one thing has never changed in all this time- my love of and devotion to technology, keeping up with hardware news and the intricacies of powerful software through daily reading of sites like Slashdot and lots of home-brew system building and amateur web development.

    I'm a little suspicious of this. If you have a "love and devotion" to technology, then what's stopped you so far from learning programming? You say you've done some amateur web development, so that's a gateway that normally might've led you to it.

    I'm assuming you haven't learned any programming to speak of. If that's the case, then I suspect you have some romantic notion of what programming is all about that probably won't live up to your expectations. Coding is not all hot tubs full of babes. :) I'd say that people with a passion for programming already know that's what they want to do and don't need to "ask Slashdot", especially when you're looking at a career change for a job you think is boring.

    I could be wrong, of course, but I think you need to consider that the career grass isn't greener on the other side.

  • Never too old (Score:4, Interesting)

    by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:08AM (#15886766)
    I changed jobs and started programming for money at 37. I may change again later on if it suits me. Do what YOU want to do, and screw the norm.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:11AM (#15886778)
    I don't think this is true. It seems that the original data for the lack of brain elasticity in older monkeys was drawn from crappy experiments - they took samples from monkeys that spent all their time caged and such. Once the monkeys were placed in novel environments with new toys and opportunities for learning, presto! New neuronal growth.
  • Never too old... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jhon ( 241832 ) * on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:13AM (#15886789) Homepage Journal
    Or have I truly already let my best chance for entry pass me by"
    While my career timing in life seems to mirror yours, my circumstances were quite different. Long story short: I entered my "current" field at age 28. (Homeless for a while, and taking 8 years to get a 4-year degree -- switched majors a few times. Phil, math, CS)

    I decided to I worked as a private contractor and took sub-contract jobs for minor network installs (Doctors offices, dental offices, law and accounting offices). I did that for about 5 years. One of my clients, a smallish lab, offered me a full time job. Over the years, that smallish lab has grown to around 200 workstations, 5 servers, 3 remote offices, etc. I went from a department of one to being a manager of 8 (both IT and Data processing departments).

    Advice: Find a small or medium sized privately owned company. Learn to do a lot... SQL, networking, admin, support, word, excel (show some pivot table magic), etc. Forget working for anyone or anything with stock-holders. You'll enjoy the work, probably like the owner/boss and add a few years to your life.
  • by BunnyClaws ( 753889 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:15AM (#15886798) Homepage
    If you choose to make this type of career switch you better make sure you really love this field. The starting pay probably won't be good. The work hours will be demanding and the respect from business management will never shine down on you. More than likely you will not be able to pursue a project that you are passionate about only one that management wants done. Just make sure you really love this field before you make the change. Enjoying technology as a hobby is one thing doing it for a career is whole different story.
  • Re:Never too old... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by JBL2 ( 994604 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:24AM (#15886847)
    That sounds sensible. Like some other respondents here, I got into the field around age 30. I picked up an MS in Computer Science, which I recommend (night school), while working in the industry. I had some CS training in college and worked as a programmer in a field I was well acquainted with, both of which helped. Getting some broad experience looks good on a resume and will inform and help direct your career search later. (And btw, a LOT of people use Excel, so it pays to have a good feel for it.)

    Further advice: pay attention to "best practices." They're the difference between a well-trained amateur and a professional. For instance, professionals will: spend enough time on design; refactor early and often; test earlier and oftener (built-in regression tests help, along the lines of XUnit); and remain open to new ideas.

    Good luck.
  • by freeweed ( 309734 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:45AM (#15886936)
    but that would place me in the tech job market at nearly 30

    Wow. Your story (other than the art school) just about parallels mine. High school, then post-secondary, then a crappy job for a bunch of years. Been there, did that, got the t-shirt.

    A few years back I realized people would actually pay me money to do what I enjoy doing in my spare time (that is, mess with computers), but the big cash was in the degree'd jobs. Like it or not, that's the way in these days. So, I left the job, swallowed my pride and moved back in with the family, lived like a starving student otherwise for 4 years, and graduated with a B.C.Sc. when I was 29.

    I got a job right out of school (actually, while I was still in school - internships RULE), and one day I got bored and did the math: it will have taken me only 3 years since graduation before I break even financially. That's including all the income lost over those 4 years, and tuition. I more than doubled my take-home as a result of the career change, and love every minute of the job so far.

    Oh, the other nice thing: going to university/college as a mature student is FUN. People are very friendly to you (even though we're only talking 5-8 year age differences they think of you as the "old fogey"). You don't do the stupid things (frat parties every night during finals). It's also FAR easier to study, do homework, whatever - because you know damn well what awaits you if you don't get this degree finished, and with good marks. Personally, I found doing university the second time around to be just about the most fun I've ever had in my life. Only problem is, at an older age it seems to go by FAST.

    If I won the lottery and didn't need to work for my rent, I'd do it a third time.

    Best decision I ever made in my life.
  • by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @01:01AM (#15887002) Journal
    I remeber something about a study of brain pathways and activities on UK taxi drivers. Evedently, the test to get a taxi license there requires you to memorize the map and be able to recite the most direct way from random points to random places.

    In this study they used a die of some sorts that when new cells grew, showed up a different collor on Xrays or catscans. It turns out that 50 some year old people learning to become taxi drivers there, developed new brain cells and pathways (for lack of remebering the exact term) in a somewhat large amount.

    I think the conclusion was that the brain continues to grow deep into old age. here [] is a link to a news article, if it still works.
  • Switching careers (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Starker_Kull ( 896770 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @01:12AM (#15887050)
    I was a math major in college, because I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a programmer, a physicist, or a vulcanologist. In the end, I became an airline pilot. It was, at the beginning, thrilling, exciting, interesting, different, and I used to look forward to going to work.

    Fast forward about 15 years, and I'll tell you that the things I thought little of, like career stability, retirement funding, long term mental stimulation, etc., are a lot more important to me now then they were in my teens.

    I just earned more this past month, in doing network consulting and database development than from my "career". It was exciting all over again, that I had a mental challenge, people appreciated my work, and I had some independence from the Mother Company.

    I'm 35, and slowly building up what used to be a hobby fiddling with computers into a side business. And if (or, as I suspect, when) the airline industry really tanks, I can just pick up the pace a bit on my second career. Perhaps I wouldn't enjoy it so much if I didn't have career A to start with, and perhaps I would have advanced far more in career B if I had started there, but who cares? I DID do career A, and I am now really ENJOYING career B.

    I have an aunt who just retired from senior management one of the largest corporations in the world after 38 years. She scratched through college with a 2.01 GPA. The secret to her success? Don't let yourself get faked out by people who seem to know what they are doing. Ask questions until you understand, or research on your own until you understand, and you will be surprised how many people get by on 90% air and 10% knowledge. If you want to understand and learn, you will get far.

    Go for it - good luck!
  • by spineboy ( 22918 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @01:51AM (#15887185) Journal
    And I couldn't be happier, even after 4 years med school, 5 years residency and 2 years fellowship. I certainly don't regret the time I spent working in research(Human genome proj) for several years before I got into med school. Usually the people who start something when they're older have made a more rational, wise choice then the people who went straight thru the mill.

    If you want to stop your life and start a new phase of it, then probably you really want to do it and therefore you should.
    Just don't do anything half assed -if you're going to do it, then go all the way - be dedicated. What you get out of life is what you put into it.
  • by arivanov ( 12034 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @02:16AM (#15887257) Homepage

    In the majority of companies your CEO is not interested in your best work. Just read old slashdot article [] and the discussion on it

    He is interested in you "not doing it for the money" so he can underpay you and provide fake perks instead of a salary.

    He is interested in you "burning in your job" so he can make you work a 60+ hour week without paying you overtime.

    He is interested in you applying for the job without reading all of the small print, asking all the relevant questions about the salary, possible career progression, stock, options, benefits and all the rest so he can fire you or underpay you anytime he likes

    If you have an unhealthy interest in the small print he will know that he will have a much more difficult time screwing you left, right and center. Frankly, if you are 30, if you are smart enough to consider your career wrong and think of a career change you will be asking these questions. Why change the career if you would not. This will make finding any jobs very hard. You will not fit the prototype which the currently popular management sociopaths love to mind-rape.

    I am speaking this out of experience by the way - I have had quite a few interviews ended and offers dropped the moment I start looking through the small print. Which I will continue doing anyway. I have changed career twice (the second time at the age of 28) for a reason. And it is the old cat motoL "I do it for the money, if you want "loyalty", get a dog".

  • Just do it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by fido_dogstoyevsky ( 905893 ) <axehandle @ g> on Friday August 11, 2006 @02:24AM (#15887275)
    I'm just about to take early retirement (55).

    Sometime in the next two weeks I'll be enrolling in a DipEd (one year full time) so that I can start teaching at high school level after a lot of time working (mostly as) a chemist.

    If I can do it so can you.

    Dunno about you young people.

    When I was your age we had to walk 10 miles to go to school - uphill - after the early shift at the salt mines, then walk 15 miles - uphill again - to go home to eat last week's leftovers before 2 minutes' sleep before getting up before midnight for the paper round before the salt mine - and not all of us had the luxury of a home, I shared a hole in the road covered with a groundsheet with 18 others... but why am I wasting electrons, you youngsters just won't believe a word of it...

    Just do it.
  • by simonfunk ( 592887 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @03:51AM (#15887529) Homepage
    My mother decided she wanted to be a doctor in her mid 30's and got into NYU when she was maybe 38? She did fine, and became a great doctor. Before that she worked as a lab tech for a few years. Before that she was a waitress. A lot of my friends in college were "returning students" in their 30's getting CS degrees and went on to do good stuff. I've never personally witnessed anybody being "too old" to pull it off.
  • by smchris ( 464899 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @07:20AM (#15887995)
    Some time ago I took an evening extension with graduate credit at a Big 10 in Norwegian painting from 1750 through Munch. (And who wouldn't?) One evening the professor came in and with some exasperation in his voice said, "I've got to tell you a story. I haven't been distinguishing between the evening class and the day class. I just put all your papers in a pile and grade them together. Today, a self-appointed committee of my graduate students came into my office and complained that I wasn't being fair. The evening students were raising the curve and hurting their record. They said the evening students were just there because they were interested in the subject and we are here to train for a career! And I said, 'Yes, I can see that there is a problem. And if any of you come into my office and bring this up again, you will be in trouble with me.'"

    The moral? Don't knock maturity. Don't knock motivation. You can probably build a better relationship with your professors and forge better contacts for internships and jobs.
  • Re:You want advice? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JoeFromPhilly ( 792856 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @07:33AM (#15888019)

    I agree with the parent. Having a college education specifically in the field you want to enter can help, but it's not everything. All my hard work in school really didn't get me into a career developing software, as it was the middle of the tech bust. But, I just sat down and started writing software anyway, whatever interested me. I figured that even if I couldn't get a job, they certainly couldn't stop me from programming. Eventually a company noticed me, and it's been totally tits since then.

    However, there are some benefits to college that are worth considering:

    • It costs enough money that you'll likely stick to it even during periods where your interest wanes,
    • It will get you to learn about things you might not discover on your own,
    • and you'll feel a lot more confident when you're being interviewed.
  • age or lifecycle? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 11, 2006 @09:30AM (#15888529)
    I'm about 26, I'm sure not too old, but I've been doing software engineering for the last nine years (believe it or not) and I'm about burnt. My (counter) question is what's the lifecycle of a software engineer?
  • by real gumby ( 11516 ) on Friday August 11, 2006 @12:26PM (#15889765)
    Surprisingly, lots of good advice so far. As someone who's started five companies and generated almost 1000 jobs, let me give you my perspective:
    • Some companies, generally big ones, will rule you out. Cynicism aside ("all companies are evil"), they, or rather the HR departments, use age as a shorthand for value, even though it's illegal. At 30 you'll be in the sweet spot for many of them, but without the necessary experience. Conclusion: most large companies will probably not be right for you (though exceptions exist, but they are few).
    • When I hire, I look for people with drive and the ability to control their lives. E.g. completing a degree is not crucial (some of the best never did) but shows that you can complete a long task. If you go back to school, especially after a hiatus, it shows either that you don't know what you want to do when you grow up and are aimless, or that you know how to pick yourself up and take control over your life. I don't expect 20 year olds to have that kind of understanding; hence doing it at 24 is actually a positive sign to me.
    • As another poster said: make sure you will be doing what you want and that you're not going back to school as a tool for decision avoidance (see previous point!). Try some somple programming out -- get a book, poke at your computer, take a short course at the local community college (need not go on your resume if you don't want). javascript, surprisingly, is a good introductory interactive tool since you can just press reload in your browser to see what happened.
    Finally: from your post, you might find being a sysadmin fun. That's good because with a small amount of skill you can get a simple sysadmin job, even if it's just flipping backup tapes or babysitting servers at night. Once you're in the job you can go to school at night and you can also work your way up -- the "age thing" won't matter anyway. And the best sysadmins are programmers, but the vast majority are not, so again you can slide in and decide how much you want to have. Oh yeah: to contradict myself: these super-entry-level sysadmin jobs only exist at big companies, and are the kind they are least likely to worry about age at. Though again, they might worry about pointless certifications.

    Anyway: seize the moment and go for it. The longer you dither the longer you will answer the question by default.

If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments. -- Earl Wilson