Is it too late to learn coding at 30 (or 40, or 50)?
The stereotypical Silicon Valley startup: a group of 22-year-old men with zero social skills, coding late into the night, trying to launch some app that is supposedly going to change the world.
This image is responsible for many misconceptions about the tech industry. Like many stereotypes, there's some truth in it if you look hard enough. Even today, there are startups that look like this, and of course many of the largest success stories in tech followed this pattern in their early days.
But there are also companies that are—through effort or coincidence—much more diverse. Of the various types of diversity, gender and ethnicity are more commonly discussed. But age is worthy of just as much attention.
So, is 30 too old to start a new career in software?
It's never too late to learn to code. People have learned coding skills into their 60s and beyond, and plenty of career changers have found new roles as software developers. But if you are learning to code after 30, there are certain things you should consider to set yourself up for success.
Why are people in tech so young?
I didn't write my first line of code until I was 25.
I realize that will still seem young to anyone over 30, but even then, I knew I was never going to be able to compete with folks who'd learned in college, let alone the people who'd been programming since they were 6 years old.
This is what sets coding apart from other skills: it is relatable and accessible enough for people to learn as kids (if they have the resources to do so). And this is why you can find people in the tech industry with advanced programming skills before they've even celebrated their 20th birthday.
Pros and cons of learning to code after 30
You might think the existence of such young software developers is bad news for career changers, but that's not necessarily true.
It's still totally possible to learn to code and have a successful career change to software development after 30, and there are actually some advantages of learning to code later in life that could give you the edge over your younger peers.
A tech career change is quick
Relative to other high-salary professions you could reskill in, learning to code is fast. When other options require lengthy official training, complicated certifications, or even years of your life to go back to school, the fact that you can make a tech career change in just a few months—and with skills you can learn entirely at home—is a big plus.
That's not to say it's easy (learning to code and finding your first job will likely be one of the hardest periods of your life), but if you find it's something you enjoy, that hard work will absolutely pay off.
You have previous experience
Whatever you've done for work up until this point, you've been gaining skills from it. Whether that's interacting with customers, managing teams, or working on something that requires a different type of technical skill, don't think that has to go to waste.
Those 22 year olds with 15 years of coding experience? They don't have this.
Sure, they may be advanced programmers, but they lack the kind of skills you can only gain through maturity and experience.
Maybe you have specific knowledge of another field like law, education, science or real estate. That's good news! For almost every industry you can imagine, there's a startup building a tech product for or around that industry. And you can bet they would be very keen to have someone on board who not only has coding skills, but also already understands their field.
You've had time to develop soft skills
Despite the tech industry's reputation as the home of socially awkward genuises, the people that really succeed do so because they have more than just technical ability.
If you have experience navigating complex business situations, building consensus in teams, public speaking, or knowing how to prioritize work so a project gets done on time, these skills will put you ahead of many engineers in the tech industry.
More life experience means more unique projects
One thing any coder needs to get hired is a way to show that they can code. This is often done through projects; companies love to see that you can take a real-world problem and build a piece of software to solve that problem.
Your advantage here is that you've encountered more life situations than a 20 year old. Maybe you could build a web page to promote an event in your industry for work. Perhaps you're a new parent and could build an app to record your baby's sleeping patterns and visualize the data.
The point is, you can use your unique experiences to create unusual projects that employers won't see from their average entry-level applicant.
If you have design or project management skills, even better. You'll get bonus points for talking about how you planned and executed the project, and efficiently solved the problem without just building features for the sake of it.
Other commitments can get in the way of learning
One thing you may have less of than your younger peers is free time. Whether you're a parent, or already busy with a stressful career in a different field, you'll need to work harder to dedicate time and space to learning to code.
Coding requires concentration and consistency. You'll need uninterrupted periods of time as you try to wrap your head around difficult concepts, and you'll need to stick with it to see results. Like any new skill with a learning curve, if you just do bits here and there, you'll struggle to make progress.
You could report to someone younger than you
If your goal is to eventually work in tech, you'll need to accept that there will be people intervewing you, or managing you, who could be (in some cases) decades younger.
This can be a shock if you've come from more traditional industries where age generally increases with corporate hierarchy. There's no real way around this other than to try to accept you'll get used to it with time. If it bothers you, there are some types of companies who are more likely to have age diversity in their engineering teams, and others you might want to avoid.
Certain companies might not be a good fit
As a general rule, the larger the company, the wider the range of ages you'll find. There are a few reasons for this.
A 4-person company is likely to have just been started, often by friends, who are likely to be similar in age. These types of companies also often involve much more 'hustle' as they try to get off the ground. This means long or irregular hours, and lack of job security (will the company even exist in a year's time?). This style of work and amount of risk can make such early-stage companies unattractive for older people with commitments like families and mortgages.
Larger companies can offer more stability, regular hours, and better policies around family needs and retirement.
You could encounter ageism
The tech industry can and does hire people of all ages. That said, ageism still happens, and it's not guaranteed that you won't experience it in your job search.
Of course, to reject someone for a job because of their age is illegal, but—like most forms of discrimination—it will be subtle rather than overt.
Hiring biases are often subtle enough that your interviewers may not even be aware of them. And this is how companies end up with a lack of diversity—because people often favor candidates most like them.
Tips for learning to code after 30
If you enjoy coding, age doesn't have to be a barrier to learning to code, or finding a job in tech. Here's what you can do to maximize your chances of success:
- Carve out time to learn: Whether it's your lunch break or a couple of hours each evening after the kids have gone to bed, designate some uninterrupted coding time, where everyone knows you're off limits and need peace and quiet.
- Connect with other coders your age: Learn with a friend, or find people online to share your journey with. People of all ages learn to code, and having peers who understand your unique challenges will make the process more enjoyable.
- Don't compare yourself to others: Learning to code is not a competition, and if you think of it like one you'll just get discouraged. Focus on your unique journey, strengths and goals, and not on how far 'behind' anyone else you may feel.
- Aim for more established companies: When it's time to look for a job, consider focusing your efforts on larger companies. That's not to say you should never work for a startup, but just be aware that they offer less stability, and you may have more trouble feeling like you belong in that environment.