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50 Years and Counting. How Long a Software Developer’s Career Can Last?

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How long a software developer’s career can last? This is something the majority of people who are seriously considering being professional programmers can’t help but wonder. It’s a very natural question to ask when talking about such a demanding profession by all means. No one wants to invest years in learning a skill that will cease to stay relevant in a few years or would get harder to monetize when you reach older age. So today we will try to answer this question and provide some information that would help you to get a clearer understanding of what to expect. 50 Years and Counting. How Long a Software Developer’s Career Can Last?  - 1

How many years an average career in software development lasts?

Of course, when it comes to specific numbers and projections of how long you can expect your career in software development to last, there will be no defined answers, as all of this is very subjective and individual. We do know, however, that many professional programmers like their jobs so much they remain Senior Developer for decades in some cases, even when they have options for career advancement, such as moving from coding to managerial positions. Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2023, which is considered to be one of the most comprehensive professional developer surveys out there, can provide us with some relevant information on how long typical software developers tend to stay in this career path. Overall, out of 90,000 professional developers who took part in the survey, around 58% have learned how to code more than ten years ago, and 26% mastered programming over 20 years ago. 50 Years and Counting. How Long a Software Developer’s Career Can Last?  - 2Regarding the number of years coding professionally, 47.4% of responders, or almost 43,000 people around the globe said they have been working as software developers for more than 10 years already. 18.6% of responders said their professional career has been ongoing for more than 20 years. Given that the software development industry itself isn’t very old, true veterans who have been in this profession throughout their whole life are harder to find, but such people exist and aren’t super rare. Specifically, 0.9% or 810 out of 90,000 professional developers who participated in Stack Overflow’s survey said they have been coding for more than 40 years. And 144 people said they have been in the profession for over half a century! This is not surprising as we know that software developers on average tend to really like their jobs. And Java developers especially. According to research by recruiting website Indeed, Java developers are the least likely to leave their profession among all professionals in general, not just in the tech sector. Their career-switch rate is less than 8%, while for the software developer profession in general it’s 27%, and for database administrators, for example, it’s 35%. Even when offered a higher-level managerial position, the majority of Java coders just don’t want to give it up. This may be the best proof of Java programming being the right profession choice for the majority of coders.

Career advancement options for software developers

As you can see, it is not very unusual for software developers to have life-long careers in various coding roles. Of course, this is not for everyone, and many people do prefer moving to other positions or even taking other career paths eventually. Luckily, there are plenty of career advancement options for software developers within the industry. Let us name just a few.

Higher management positions

  • CTO (Chief Technical Officer)
  • CIO (Chief Information Officer)
  • Chief Digital Officer
  • Chief Innovation Officer
  • Team Lead Software Engineer
  • Software Architect
  • VP of Engineering
  • Head of Product

Product roles

  • QA Engineer
  • Project Manager
  • Product Manager
  • Scrum Master
  • UX Designer

Customer-oriented roles

  • Sales Engineer
  • Developer Marketer
  • Technical Recruiter
  • Evangelist/Tech PR Executive
  • Customer Support

Development operations support

  • DevOps Engineer
  • Technical support
  • Database Administrator
  • Reliability Engineer

Analytical roles

  • Security Analyst
  • R&D Engineer
  • Data Scientist

Independent roles

  • Freelance Developer
  • Development Consultant
  • Startup Founder

Thoughts and opinions

All the options listed above, and this is not the full list, should serve as a proof that software developers do have plenty of options for career advancement, as well as pretty great mobility within other specializations in their field. And despite that, many experienced and respected programmers still choose to work as senior coders throughout their whole career. Why? No one would explain it better than coding veterans themselves. “I am a 65-year-old software engineer who has worked for Apple, Adobe, eBay, Microsoft, VMware, Cisco, FileMaker, XO Communications, 2Wire, Egnyte, Nexsan, and two other start-ups. I have been laid off five times in my career. I always find another job within 3 to 4 weeks — even during a recession. I have had my job outsourced to India or China four times: especially in the last eight years. Nonetheless, there is always another employment opportunity waiting afterwards. I love what I do. I’m still doing it; and, I have no immediate plans to stop doing it. Moreover, I am good at it. That’s not so much because I am a genius but rather because I have been doing software development for a really long time and I learned from my mistakes,” Steven Ussery, a software developer with over 30 years of professional experience behind his back, said. You can get an offer from Google even if you're 66 years old, Connor Stricklan, a software developer from the U.S., told us: “A software developer I know recently got a call from a recruiter at Google, asking what it would take for him to come to work for them. This developer had actually already worked for Google, but he left about five years ago to pursue other projects, and he didn’t want to live in one of the cities that have a Google office. That 66-year-old developer is my father. He is collecting social security while being courted by Google. He had a fulfilling career running his own company, consulting, and being an employee. He made contributions during the early stages of numerous technologies such as TCP networking, USB protocols, 802.11b implementation, and military GPS. Then he was hired by Google in 2008 when he was 58. While at Google, he wrote software in Java, a language that wasn’t even invented until he was 45. And he was an individual contributor, without having any other engineer report to him.” 50 Years and Counting. How Long a Software Developer’s Career Can Last?  - 3“I've been in software development all my working life from junior developer, through senior developer to team lead/manager and now back developing (though hoping to get back into management sooner rather than later). My working life is now nearly 40 years and in that time I've changed domains and technologies as the companies I've worked for have changed. I've then used that new experience to find new positions when I've had to, which has in turn led to other new domains and technologies. All that time I've known developers as old or older than me,” ChrisF, a user of StackExchange developers community, said. Apparently, in some tech fields developers being predominantly old is a norm. This is what tcrosley, a Senior Embedded Systems Engineer and a user of StackExchange, had to say on the matter: “In my field, embedded systems, I've rarely met anyone younger than 40. At my startup we've had four different contractors at various times besides myself, and three of the four were over 50. I'm over 60 and have no plans to retire anytime soon. I've been doing this type of work for nearly 40 years and it's still fun. Some days I can't believe I'm getting paid to do what I do.”