What Will You Do After Programming?

by Howard Fosdick   © 2023

Originally published at the Computer Consultants Forum

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

Look around. At most companies you’ll see few, if any, techies in their forties, fifties, or sixties doing your job. Regardless of how talented you may be, regardless of how unfair it is, you may well be forced out of your job someday.

Companies often want to get rid of employees if they've been with the company for a long time because they cost more. Their salaries are higher (after years of raises), and companies take on more costs for employee health care and retirement benefits as employees age.

You'd think companies would value your increased knowledge and experience as you age. But many don't. They would rather dump you for someone who'll work for less, even if their cost/benefit ratio doesn't approach your own.

And it's not just about age. Mergers, buy-outs, and private equity firms ensure that everyone's job is insecure these days. You have to be prepared to be dumped by your present employer at a moment's notice -- regardless of your performance or current value to the company. That's just the way in is in American business today.

So even if you feel totally secure right now, you'd be wise to think about what you’ll do next. That way you can manage a smooth transition to your next career phase when the time comes. It pays to think ahead, even if you don't plan on making any moves in the immmediate future.

Here are some options for where you could take your career next.

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. You'll definitely have to be able to work with people you don't like or maybe even don't respect to be a successful manager.

Be honest with yourself. Are these political and social skills inherent to your personality? If not, you'd be better off trying one of the other career options I'll list.

Pick the management 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 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 DevOps or systems support person. Or make yourself into the ultimate guru in a specific technology like Oracle or SAP or Linux or cloud management. Become the person everyone in the company goes to for technical answers.

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. You'll be able to make as much as many managers but still remain technical.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to manage 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. Google about 1706 to get some advice about how overcome it in getting gigs, and how it impacts filing your taxes. Don't go into independent contracting without exploring all this, or you could end up getting taken advantage of.

As should be obvious, the super-techie route only works for those who love technology -- and are good enough at it -- to really excel in this realm. If it fits your personality and your likes, go for it. If you don't love swimming in technology -- and putting in all the extra hours that sometimes requires -- try a different career option.

Go Native

If you're a programmer-analyst supporting a business area, another option might be for you to segue into the business function. So instead of programming financial apps, for example, become a financial analyst. Or instead of maintaining manufacturing apps, move into the oversight of the manufacturing process.

Whether this fits you, of course, depends on your interest and aptitude in the business function you join. Some love the challenge of evolving from an IT techie into a business person. Others prefer to grow within the IT or computer support structure. It all depends on where you see yourself doing best and feeling most satisfied.

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 explore this option is to be friendly and talk with vendor folks when they’re onsite. Get an idea of what they do and what’s required to make the leap from programming to the vendor community. Many programmers find their next career with a vendor.

Go Teach

Here's an option many never consider. Yet for a few it really fits. From high schools to community colleges to both small and large universities, many teaching positions go begging when it comes to technical talent. With a computer science degree and IT experience you'll certainly field offers in the educational sector if you seek them.

Some find teaching the perfect fit, combining student engagement, collegiality with fellow faculty, and intellectual exploration. Many educational jobs pay less but offer compensating benefits such as summers off. Again, it's all about finding out what fits you best.

The Bottom Line

Yes, there is life after programming! But only for those who think ahead.

Even if you feel totally secure in your present job, you just don't know when you'll be forced out. No matter how effective you are, they way companies work these days, between targeting employee costs, "strategic" lay-offs to reduce headcount, sudden buy-outs and mergers, and good old-fashioned age prejudice, you could well be forced out of your job someday. Even if you're darn good at it.

Since you don't know when (and if) that will happen, your best defense is to be prepared. I’ve offered a few ideas about the possibilities that I’ve seen others succeed with. Good luck!