“Tech is a young person’s game” is something I hear a lot. I get emails from readers and podcast listeners who are considering a career change at 40, 50, 60, or beyond, and are wondering: am I too old to be a programmer?
That’s one question I’ll NEVER answer with a “yes.”
Because if a career change at 40+ is something you want to do, it’s absolutely possible. And here to prove it are four people who’ve done it themselves. They have tons of useful advice about starting a programming career at 40+.
Here are their 12 top tips about getting into tech after 40!
- Don’t buy the lie that it’s too late
- Know that tech welcomes all backgrounds
- But don’t underestimate the challenge ahead of you
- Work out how your previous career/skills relate and use them to your advantage
- Start with free/cheap online courses before committing to a more expensive course
- Try different sites, languages, and projects
- Set a deadline
- Build things on your own
- Surround yourself with a network
- Build an online presence
- Let your interesting personality shine
- Never stop learning
1. Don’t buy the lie that it’s too late
Syk Houdeib has experienced several industries over his career, from studying music to working in the restaurant business to teaching English as a second language. He didn’t write his first HTML snippet until he was 39. Now, he works as a front-end developer at a startup in Madrid. “I wanted a new challenge,” he said. “Something that would push me well out of my comfort zone.”
As Syk points out, “Time will pass, whether you start now or not. Never think that it’s too late. Once you start the only thing that will stop you is if you stop. If you keep going, you will make it.”
2. Know that tech welcomes all backgrounds
You can absolutely get a great job in tech without a background in tech. When Syk first started thinking about becoming a developer, he would read articles about others who had changed careers into tech, and feel skeptical that he could do the same. “I kept on looking for something in the writer’s background that made them ‘special,’” he says. “Something that made them suited for this job. Something that I didn’t have.”
But, he continues, “I have since come to understand that this is not how it works. There aren’t any ‘special’ requirements to becoming a developer. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy, but all the requirements are things that are in everyone’s reach. You have to be willing to work hard, learn a lot, and be consistent. You need to persist when things get tough. Everyone can do these things with a bit of practice.”
Coming from a background of music, restaurant work, and teaching, Syk knows better than most that tech is accessible to anyone. “I started with no related background study, no money to spend on expensive courses, and wasn’t even particularly skilled with computers,” he says. ‘Everyone’s circumstances are different, but I learned that if you put your mind to it, you can do it.”
3. But don’t underestimate the challenge ahead of you
Kevin Smith’s journey in tech has come full circle. After high school, he got a job as a technician building computer chips, and loaded up on programming classes as he studied electrical engineering in college. However, during his junior year, he quit school and his tech job to pursue his passion for music. He became a jazz guitarist, a cruise ship musician, and a music teacher after earning a master’s degree in music.
But programming stayed in the back of Kevin’s mind, and at age 47, he jumped back in and started learning web development for real. “I found Free Code Camp and started there. I worked my butt off. I struggled through a lot of things, but some things started to click. YouTube videos helped me get through difficult spots.”
The real challenge began once Kevin began job-hunting. “I probably sent out 500 applications, did 30 coding challenges, 20 phone interviews, and about 10 times I got to the second interview. I made it to the final stage three times.”
After all that, Kevin accepted a full-time job as a React Native developer, but he emphasizes that it wasn’t easy. “Yes, it is more difficult for someone over 40,” he says. “Disabuse yourself of the idea of getting a job fast. There are people that won't even consider you. But there are also people that will value life experience and wisdom. There are great jobs out there and one has your name on it. But it's going to take time and work to get to it, and that’s a good thing. If this were easy, everyone would do it.”
4. Work out how your previous career/skills relate and use them to your advantage
Debby Alberts has spent her career in all things design and creativity, from graphic design to advertising to merchandising to heading up creative departments. So for her transition into tech at 58, UX design was the perfect fit: it gave her the chance to learn new things, but also complemented her current skillset. “I wish I had known how smooth the transition would be,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I already knew both in the research side and the UI side. Best practices are best practices no matter what the field.”
It was a smart choice, as Debby now works as a UX strategist full-time. “Leverage your past experience in any way you can,” she advises. “You might be surprised at how much you already know.” If you can find a tech role that overlaps with things you’re already doing, it will make your transition that much easier.
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5. Start with free/cheap online courses before committing to a more expensive course
When Debby was transitioning into UX design, she jumped straight into the UX Design Immersive course at General Assembly in Santa Monica. While it worked out in the end, she wishes that she’d prepared with more self-learning first. “I would have done some online learning before I took the GA course.”
Check out these 71 places to learn to code for free. The other benefit of starting this way is that you can make sure you enjoy the subject you’ve chosen before committing a significant amount of time and money. Which brings us to the next piece of advice!
6. Try different sites, languages, and projects
There’s not just one path to success. Different methods will appeal to different people—and Syk has seen this firsthand. “Three of us started around the same time learning to code for a career change: my partner, myself, and a good friend. All three of us are now working in the field, and there is very little in common between our approaches. Each one followed the material and methods that worked for them.”
When you’re first starting to dabble, try free coding tutorials to see what languages appeal to you. The goal is not to hop around for too long, but to explore your options long enough to find something that clicks. Once you’ve chosen a path, start diving deeper with paid courses, coding bootcamps, meetup groups, etc.
7. Set a deadline
Deadlines might be intimidating, but for Syk, it was a useful step. “I did not want this objective to end up on a to-do list I never see again,” he said. “It was spring of 2017, so I promised myself that the following school course was going to be my last as a teacher. So by September 2018, a little over a year later, I had to be working in the field.” (Spoiler alert: he did it!)
8. Build things on your own
A sure-fire way to put your new skills to the test is to start a project of your own. “Don't get me wrong, all those tutorials and such are great at getting you ready,” Kevin says. “But you actually need to build things—actual apps and sites. And the apps and sites you build from tutorials don't count. Interviewers can smell those from a mile away and roll their eyes. They don't want to see if you can copy the Mona Lisa. They want to see if you can create your own work of art, from beginning to end.”
During Kevin’s job hunt, he saw this personally. “When I interviewed and they looked through my portfolio, that's what interested them. 90% of their attention was on the stuff that I'd built of my own volition, even though that probably only represented 25% of my portfolio.”
9. Surround yourself with a network
Nathalie Christmann-Cooper started dabbling with code in her late 30s. Her gateway was running a business with her husband: they needed a website, didn’t have the budget to hire someone, and the rest was history. She quickly found herself enjoying everything she was learning about web development and design and the challenges she encountered.
In her 40s, Nathalie launched a tech startup of her own, but decided that having more professional tech experience would benefit her as a founder. She joined the Le Wagon bootcamp to study full-stack development, and loved that challenge too. At age 48, she landed her first full-time job as a software engineer. She now works at Buyapowa.
For her, support and community was invaluable. “Surround yourself with a good support network to help you push through the hard moments when you’re really out of your comfort zone deep in a learning curve,” she says. “Tech moves so fast that we are all constantly learning, even the most seasoned developers. You’ll be in good company.”
Connections come in handy beyond the learning process too, says Kevin. “This can't be stressed enough—a lot of job opportunities will come from people you know. Go to meetups and meet people. Talk about your hopes. Talk about what you're building. Ask other people the same. Try to think of development as a social activity. Maybe they know someone with a job for which you are qualified. Maybe they can review your code or work with you on a project. And you could learn some cool things by returning the favor.”
This can even be done online, as Syk experienced: “Twitter was a cornerstone of my experience. Especially the incredibly supportive and warm #100DaysOfCode community.”
If you connect with someone who’s experienced in the field, it could even turn into mentorship, like it did for Debby. “Try to develop a mentor relationship with someone in the field that you admire,” she says. “I did with my instructor, and it’s thanks to her that I got UX work.”
10. Build an online presence
Making a name for yourself is often done online these days. Let colleagues and companies know who you are. “Get an email, web domain name, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube channel, etc.,” says Kevin. “A professional portfolio site is an important tool, it is your primary form of advertising. Whether you want to work as a freelancer or are trying to land a full-time job, this is your billboard. It needs to be a good site. If you are cursed with a very common name (like me) you may have to find a way to make your ‘brand’ unique.”
A LinkedIn profile is the other professional must-do. “Not all, but some employers rely very heavily on LinkedIn,” Kevin adds. “Some recruiters exclusively hunt there.”
11. Let your interesting personality shine
While this should be tailored to the vibe of the interview, it’s not always in your best interests to be too formal at a tech company. “I think a lot of people are afraid of hiring an old fuddy-duddy,” Kevin says. “In interviews, try to seem young at heart and easy going. Your goal is to sound like someone they want to see for 40 hours a week. In interviews, I always tried to be animated and open. I had a few jokes on hand. I sounded competent, but also fun. I think that my life's experience (years of working as a musician, working on cruise ships, travelling the world, an MA in Music) helped me seem more interesting and more well rounded.”
Using this method, Kevin even made an impression at a company where he didn’t get the job. The interviewer personally called to say, “Hey, I'm sorry you didn't get the job. But I wanted to call and let you know that I think you're doing well and are on the right path. I also wanted to thank you because it was so much fun to talk with you.” He remarked that interviewing a lot of people was like talking to a block of wood.
12. Never stop learning
If you’re interested in a career change at 40+, lifelong learning is probably a prospect that excites you!
“If you don't love learning, this may not be the field for you,” Kevin says. “Language specifications change, libraries evolve, APIs get revamped. You need to keep learning.”
Keeping up-to-date with industry news is important too. “I follow UX blogs, subscribe to UX related newsletters and try to learn something new every day,” Debby says. “UX is a constantly changing and evolving discipline.”
Professional development may come with your job, or you might seek out your own opportunities to keep your knowledge and skills fresh, like meetup groups, conferences, or courses.
Learning to code and getting a job in tech is never easy, no matter what age you are. But there’s a reason people say that “nothing worth having comes easy.” You’re never too old to change your life, and if tech is something that ignites a passion for you, you owe it to yourself to give it a go.
For more tips and inspiration, listen to this LTCWM podcast episode on how to make a midlife career change into tech!
Then, check out the LTCWM Tools page for ideas on where to learn the skills you need to prep for your own career change.