Thoughts for the Aging Web Developer
If you’re not old, you’ll get old. You know that—nothing new. But if you’re a web developer, and also a web designer, as well as a software developer, or however you or someone else labels your role, that is likely to change some things for you.
What may change for you is that there may be a time when you’ll feel “too old” for our field. It will be easy for you to tell whether you’re at the age targeted with this post. (You can still read it anyway and either brace yourself or update me on what was different for you.)
When you begin to feel too old for web development, here are a few thoughts. They might not be all you need, and perhaps they don’t even mean any of what you need, but—maybe they are of use.
How old am I? At the time of writing this, 42. It’s a great age. I enjoy getting older. (Ageists, by the way, would be a lot smarter if they were immortal.)
Focus on Your Strengths
There are many things you may not like anymore about being in our field. There’s too much going on, things shouldn’t be done that way, and mistakes are being repeated. You might doubt whether you’re still in the right place.
You stay in the right place when you focus on your strengths.
That is, there are certain things that made you good at what you’re doing. Perhaps it’s a particular technology, say, you’re great at CSS. Or you’re good at certain tooling, say, package management. Or you have a great overview over the field and have no difficulty putting things together. Perhaps you have this great sense for how to efficiently translate designs into code. Or your experience has made you exude this confident calm, that helps the teams you’re working with.
You probably already know your strengths. If not, you have them. Find out what they are. Ask colleagues and clients for feedback. Note them. Keep them in mind. Your strengths should not only serve you by anchoring and motivating you, no, they will also suit you elsewhere:
If you haven’t already, it’s useful to specialize. The times of the all-knowing web developer are long over. You stand better chances to promote yourself and your work, and to stay on top of at least something technical, if you can identify one or two topics to invest in. These topics should be but may not need to be topics you’re already an expert in.
I speak from experience on this one. In the late 90s and early 2000s it was possible to work as a web developer and web designer. Then came a split, and one decided for either; I opted for web development. In the 2010s I tried to keep alive this idea of being a web developer generalist, but that led to more and more problems: No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t stay on top of all the different topics (in an accelerating field), and it eventually became little credible as a selling point.
After a professional identity crisis that spanned three years and required reading a number of books (recommendation: The One Thing) and the sinking in of what I learned, it clicked: In order to live up to my ambitions I had to specialize. Since 2018, that focus is clear, crystal-clear, to me: HTML and CSS optimization. Check out my books.
For you as a developer who gets older, further specialization may likewise prove invaluable.
Perhaps I’ve implied this, perhaps I contradict myself: Have a good look at your career, your profile, yourself, and use this moment to reflect on what you want to do and stand for.
Maybe you’re already clear about it, and you didn’t even need to specialize as the last point suggested. But maybe this is the moment to reinvent yourself: Do you still identify as a developer or technical lead… or has that changed? Would this be a time to become a manager? Or a technical project lead? Or a consultant?
This can be one defining moment, one that turns concerns about time passing into an opportunity to move forward. I genuinely believe that’s how we should think about time and age. They bring opportunities.
Take the Next Step
Ultimately, you’ll need to choose and you need to take the next step. You identified your strengths, you specialized, or you reinvented yourself. It comes to life when you take action on these choices:
- Develop a new growth plan.
- Update your career plan.
- Update your CV.
- Update your website and other public profiles.
- Consider applying for new positions.
- Consider starting your own business.
…and consider enjoying.
❧ I did lose track after writing the first half of this post, months before I wrote the second half. This may not have helped the quality of it, but maybe its authenticity: Web development (just as software development) is a pretty exciting as well as privileged field, and it offers us plenty of options. We may feel a little lost at times, given the size and complexity of it all—but that shouldn’t make us fret. Our fields, and our age, all come with opportunity. Take good care!
Figure: Previously, on the benefits of aging. (Copyright King Features Syndicate, Inc., distr. Bulls.)
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have questions or suggestions about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message.
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Perhaps my most comprehensive book: The Web Development Glossary (2020). With explanations and definitions for literally thousands of terms from Web Development and related fields, building on Wikipedia as well as the MDN Web Docs. Available at Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.