Learning to Code at 56

By VM Vaughn

(This article previously appeared on Medium.com.)

(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Chasing the Dream and Next Avenue.)

(Editor’s Note: A 2016 Pew Research Center survey showed that more than half (54%) of adults in the labor force say it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace. Here’s one man’s account of why he’s learning new skills to better position himself in today’s job market.)

I’m 56 years old and learning to code.

Why? Because I love it. And I’ve got a knack for it.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard. And that’s OK.

I love losing myself in an algorithm challenge. I love squeezing in a few extra minutes testing just one more thing. I love thinking “maybe I’ve got it this time.” And getting to “Yes! It finally works!”

But here’s the thing. I’ve never been one for hobbies. I don’t like activities that don’t pay. I can’t keep on doing something simply for the fun of it.

The Economic Upside of Learning to Code

What I work on during my off time has to have some economic upside for me.

OK, coding pays. It can pay big. So what’s the problem?

Well, before I could fully embrace myself as a 56-year-old programming rookie, I had to deal with my Critical Inner Self (let’s call him CIS for short).

Learning all this stuff is hard enough without my CIS whispering in my ear the whole time.

If I can give my CIS an epic beat-down, then I should be able to handle anyone who appears to work on his behalf. And these agents of CIS often appear out of nowhere, asking critical questions.

A Conversation With My Critical Inner Self

CIS: Why are you doing this at your age?

Me: What you really mean is: How much longer will I live? And do I really have enough time left to make money programming? Let’s break that down.

I’m an American. My life expectancy is 78.8 years. So that means I’ve got a better than average chance of living another 22.8 years. That may not seem like a lot when you’re 20, but I’m 56 and dancing in the street over here.

(And because I’m 56, I’ve got better odds of making it to 78 than a 20-year-old. But that’s beside the point.)

Now, let’s say I’m a snail and it takes me four years to finish Free Code Camp’s one-year curriculum to become a fledgling full stack developer. That puts me at 60-years-old looking for a job as a junior developer.

Let’s say it takes me another two years to land a job because of my age, and let’s assume that 70 is the limit for how long an employer wants me hanging around.

That’s eight years to practice my craft. That’s plenty of runway to get pretty good. And because I’ve been around the block and know the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, I’m much more likely to stay with that employer who hired me first.

What 20-year-old stays with his or her first developer job that long?

CIS: But who’s going to pay you the kind of money that you already make now?

Me: You could ask me that even if I didn’t learn to program. But I know what you’re getting at. Chances are an entry-level developer job will pay me less than I’m making now.

Well here’s a thought for you. My paycheck is less today than it was five years ago. And that’s with five more years of experience.

There’s no guarantee that the job I have now will last. And when it doesn’t, I’ll have to find a new job anyway. At my age, I very well may have to accept entry level wages doing something… anything.

I’d rather have the skills and portfolio to go for an entry-level position that can lead to much greater earnings — or at least the ability to beat the bushes and pick up some freelance work.

CIS: But all the big tech companies want to hire young kids right out of college.

Me: That’s easy. I don’t want to move to Silicon Valley and I’m not looking to work for a big tech company.

You’ve read the same stats as me. By 2020, there will be 1 million more programming jobs than people trained to fill them. Not all of those openings will be at the “Big Fou” — Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. In fact, most programming jobs aren’t even in the technology industry.

My first computer job was in a hospital. I didn’t program, but most of the employees in the IT department were programmers.

And that was way back in 1982.

CIS: Then how are you going to get a job?

Me: First things first, I’m going to apply to a lot of jobs, build a network of hiring managers, and make sure I get a lot of interviews. It’s a numbers game and I’m going to play it.

All that wonderful stuff I did before the year 2000? Gone from my resumé.

Once I’m in the door for an interview, it’s not like I’m going to act like someone’s grandfather. I’ll be just another candidate who’s passionate about programming and excited to learn more. And I won’t act like I know more than I do.

And most importantly, I’ll be prepared for common coding challenges and whiteboard interview questions.

I’m sure I’ll mess up a few interviews. But the good news? There are plenty of companies out there hiring developers. I’ll keep trying.

CIS: Programming teams are full of young people. How are you going to fit in?

Me: If by “fit in” you mean how do I become one of the bros? In that case, you’re right. I won’t fit in.

At my current job, I show up every day knowing that somebody at work has something to teach me. So I listen. I don’t presume to know everything that’s going on in my boss’s day, so I give him a break. And when I mess up, I say so.

That’s how I’ve fit in at every job I’ve had over the last 36 years.

CIS: You’ve got a decent job. Why not just accept it? You are where you’re going to be, especially at your age.

Me: Accept it? Too late. I’ve already re-framed it.

Learning to program energizes me. Working toward a second career gives me the boost I need to get through the daily slog of the one I’ve got now.

And really? You know where I’m going to be at 60, 70 and (hopefully) beyond? I sure don’t.

CIS: How do you know you’re not just wasting time?

Me: What you’re really asking is: “What if you don’t get a 9-to-5 paycheck after this?”

My answer: “So what?”

I can get good enough, in time enough, to program well enough:

  • to build web apps to build an audience…and offer them even more value from my billable services.
  • from my billable services
  • to grow a web business helping local businesses grow and nurture their own customers.
  • to combine my programming know-how with existing SaaS APIs [SaaS is a category of cloud computing; API is Application Programming Interface for building software applications] to offer a productized service to a niche community.

To put it another way, I can learn how to build an idea. To put it out there for people to use. To offer value. To make money.

With or without a 9-to-5 J.O.B.

So that’s why even though I’m 56, I’m learning to code.

This story is part of our partnership with Next Avenue. Next Avenue is public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population. Their daily content delivers vital ideas, context and perspectives on issues that matter most as we age.