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Programming Businesses

Ask Slashdot: Joining a Startup As an Older Programmer? 274

First time accepted submitter bdrasin (17319) writes "I've had a series of interviews with a late-term startup (approx. 300 employees) and I think there is a good chance they will make me an offer. The technology is great, my skills and interests are a good fit for the position, I think the company has a promising future, and I like they team. Frankly I'm damn excited about it, more so than for any job in my career. However, I'm worried about what could euphemistically be called 'cultural' issues. I'm a few years over 40, with a wife and kids, and all of the engineers at the company seem to be at least 10 years younger than I am. Being at the company's office gives me a distinct old guy at the club feeling. I don't think the overall number of hours the team works is more than I could handle, but the team does a lot of young-single-guy-at-a-startup group activities (rent-a-limo-and-go-clubbing night, weekends in Tahoe, Burning Man, in-office happy hour) that I wouldn't want or be able to participate in; I need to be home with my family for dinner most nights and weekends and so on. I'm wondering if anyone else has had the experience of working at a startup with, or as, an older programmer, and how it worked out?"
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Ask Slashdot: Joining a Startup As an Older Programmer?

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  • Been there (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Strudelkugel ( 594414 ) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @04:37PM (#46914975)

    I was involved in a startup in my 40s. It ultimately failed, but I learned lessons that will hopefully be valuable to you to. What you describe sounds like a dream job for most people. As long as you get it, I don't think you have to be concerned at all about being older than the others. They will appreciate the times when someone comes up with a bad idea that looks good, but you can say "I've seen this before, here's what happened..." - as long as you are right. Even better will be the times when someone has an unproven idea and you can say, "I remember a couple of times when one of our developers had an off the wall idea that we all wondered about, but it was appealing enough that we went with it anyway and it worked." As for the hours, there will be 20 and 30 somethings who will go on 24+ hour coding binges. Did you do that when you were in your 20s? Do you think you would be productive doing it? Does management expect you to disrupt your family life? It's hard to believe a company that has grown to have 300 employees would have leadership that expects all of their employees to destroy their personal life. If they do, the company won't be the success everyone hopes for anyway. (Well, the founders might walk away with a lot of money before it implodes, but you won't. You have to assess that risk.)

    The great thing about a good startup is the chance it offers to to new kinds of work and see it succeed in the marketplace. This can be really exciting. It's possible that you might have a similar opportunity in a large company but the odds are very low since you will be separated from the product or service by layers of management and bureaucratic rules. Yes you will get a steady paycheck, but it will never compare with the huge win you can get at a startup and the satisfaction of knowing you had a direct role in the success. You can also ask yourself if the startup role will make you a better developer. If the company fails, will you have improved your technical knowledge so that you are still valuable to other companies? In an established company it's more likely that you will just be a code monkey whose skills slowly evaporate without you realizing it, although you don't sound like the kind of person who would let that happen. If OTOH, the company you work for is run by PHBs who are forcing you to work on obsolete stuff, you have to leave anyway. Some large companies do have great jobs, though, but I don't think you would be looking if you were really happy where you are.

    From your description of the job and given that you don't sound like the Get Off My Lawn type, I would suggest that you join the startup if they make you an offer that is reasonable.

  • by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @04:51PM (#46915039)

    I'm only in my mid-30s, but I've worked at 2 startups with a successful exit, and am currently at a 3rd. Both of the successful ones had older programmers (the new one doesn't because it's tiny. When we hire next older programmers will be considered). They were all respected for their contribution at work. Both startups had some of the "startup atmosphere", but there was never more than friendly invitations to join in, rather than pressure to be there. If you want to join in once in a while you'd likely be welcome, and a beer with your colleagues every few weeks can be a great way to lower tensions (or in my case a soda as I watched them drink).

    The main thing is to remember to treat the younger people with respect. At a startup you'll likely hire a lot of young people because they're cheap, especially for non-critical roles. Remember that they're young, not stupid (at least most of them)- show them why they're wrong politely and show them why your way is better respectfully. There's great opportunities for mentorship there. Do that and you'll fit in just fine. You may even make friends with the more mature younger people- the age difference tends not to be as big a deal as people think.

  • by Intron ( 870560 ) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @04:58PM (#46915067)

    I used to be a project manager. Although I wrote some code, I didn't become a full time software developer until I went with a startup 6 years ago when I was 55. I don't think I ever ran into problems with culture, maybe because the company was not a monoculture as described above. The software group had Indians, an Orthodox Jew, Asians, etc. That might be more typical of East Coast companies. Ages ranged from 20's up and I think all ideas were respected. The problems I had were not with the engineers but with the company management who made some pretty terrible decisions and did not respect my (or anyone else's) experience. I am now a happy Principal Software Engineer at a larger company, also with no problems with the engineers and with much better management.

  • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @11:33PM (#46916393) Journal

    What surprises me about it is that they're still having the party even though they've got 300 employees. My experience watching startups in Silicon Valley over the last few decades is that the typical pattern is that somewhere between 100 and 200 employees, the company hires a professional HR department instead of doing it informally, and the first thing the HR department does is shut down the beer party.

    The purpose of the beer party isn't drinking beer. It's getting everybody to hang around and socialize and have unfocused discussions about what they're doing. It's especially valuable after the company reaches the first dozen or two people, because cross-organizational discussions tend to slow down by that point, and you desperately need them.

    And if you're the old-timer joining the group? You really want to be at that beer party, because you'll have heard all those discussions a dozen times before at your previous companies, and you've got a lot to add. (On the other hand, you don't actually need to go to Burning Man with them, and going skiing depends on whether you're the skiing type; at one of my wife's previous startups, the 50-somethings were more likely to be skiers than the kids.)

  • by matria ( 157464 ) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @11:49PM (#46916465)
    I worked for a startup like this, pure software (a website). When I started, there were ~80 employees in one office. Within two years this grew to over 400 employees in three offices, with regular outings, breakfasts, etc etc which I never attended, except for one breakfast that was held at a fancy hotel within walking distance of my home.

    At one point, my department manager "volunteered" us to work on the weekend. He was quite surprised when all but one or two of us were not at all agreeable.

    During the third year, the layoffs started. My department manager was in the first wave of layoffs, and the poor young man was actually in tears from the shock. By the end, after the fourth wave of layoffs when I specifically asked to be laid off since I couldn't handle the stresses in the office any more, there were around ~60 employees left, and the owners sold out for several hundred million dollars. The site did go on to become a part of a very large corporate web presence, but in a different country.

    It was all done deliberately, to build the business, then "downsize" until the bottom line looked good, then sell. Meanwhile, young people had gotten married, started families, bought homes. All based on this huge lie. During one of the performance reviews, just before the layoffs began, everyone was asked "do you believe in (x company)?" Not being young and inexperienced in corporate behavior, and having researched the owner's previous start-up behavior, I baldly said "No". Their long-promised IP (I'd been given 2,500 of their vaporware shares in an effort to persuade me to stay) didn't happen until just a few weeks before the sale.

    In four years they had burned through $70,000,000 in venture capital.

The rich get rich, and the poor get poorer. The haves get more, the have-nots die.