Is There Life After Programming? What Will You Do Next?

Today you’re a successful programmer, developer, programmer-analyst, or web developer. But where will you be in ten or twenty years?

Look around most IT organizations and you’ll see few, if any, techies in their forties or fifties doing your job. As I argued in my LAST POST <>, regardless of how talented you may be, regardless of how unfair it is, age discrimination will probably force you out of your programming job someday.

Even if you feel totally secure today, now is a great time to think about what you’ll do next. This way you can manage a smooth transition to your next career phase when the time comes. Think ahead! Here are some options.

Go Management

One alternative is to migrate up the IT career ladder. Start as a techie, get promoted to project leader or supervisor, then progress into higher IT management. Many relish this route because they get a decision-making role in the organization. You’ll direct projects, not just implement them. You attain higher status in the company and get paid more, too.

On the downside, management is a pyramidal structure. The higher you go, the fewer slots are available. Promotion slows towards the top. And the skills required are very different than those required in programming. It’s all about people, politics, socializing, and the ability to work effectively with various managers, employees, and contractors (even those you don’t like).

Pick this route and over time you’ll lose your technical skills. You’ll mate your fate to the company where you manage, since the outside market for IT management hires is thin. (One exception: CIOs and VPs.) Your higher pay compensates for this risk.

The questions to ask yourself are: Does management fit my personality? Do the increased influence and pay make it worth leaving behind the technical skills that have sustained my career thus far?

Go Native

Another option: join the company’s business. Become one of your users. Migrate from being a developer supporting marketing, manufacturing, or product development, into one of those business areas.

This transition may be simple for those who perform business analysis, or for programmer-analysts who report directly to user areas. It’s more difficult for techies isolated inside the IT reporting structure or those whose responsibilities are restricted to IT technology.

As with a move into management, over time this route diminishes your marketability as a techie. Your business acumen increases in compensation. You also join the management ladder for the business side of the company, with all the pluses and minuses this implies.

Consider carefully whether you enjoy your company’s business. Would you like being a business person?

Go Super-Techie

Another way to thwart the threat to your viability as a programmer is to migrate deeper into the technical realm. Become the programmer who supports the programmers! Shift to DBA or SA or systems support person. Or make yourself into the ultimate guru in a specific technology like Oracle or SAP or Linux.

At this point in your career you should have a good idea whether you have the interest and aptitude to go this route. Most find it takes lots of overtime and constant learning to succeed. In return, you may be able to finish your career as a techie and enjoy higher pay than most.

An intriguing variation on the super-techie option is to become an independent contractor. You run your own business and capture the part of your pay otherwise given to the company that employs you. But you’ll have to fight I.R.S. 1706 to succeed, the law that causes many corporations to deal only with intermediary firms and not directly with those doing the work. Read the threads on this forum and you’ll discover lots of excellent advice from those who have succeeded in this approach.

Go Vendor

You’ve seen their representatives at your site: employees from hardware, software and application vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP, or wherever. Some of these people install and support the vendor products, while others are in the client relationship or marketing or sales areas. There’s a rich range of possibilities. A great way to get explore them is to be friendly and talk with these folks when they’re onsite. Get an idea of what they do and what’s required to make the leap from IT to the vendor community. Many programmers find their next career with a vendor.

The Bottom Line

Yes, there is life after programming! But only for those who think ahead. I’ve offered a few ideas about the possibilities. Please add your own experiences and ideas in the Comments.

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Tod Techie is a decades-long IT survivor who chose the super-techie route and became an independent consultant. He’s seen friends do well with all the approaches mentioned in this article. He believes each person needs to discover his or her own preferences and strengths and follow their personal inclination.

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