Visual Artist 52yo, Looking to Pivot to SW Engineering

Hello. I am 52, married with a 13yo and have a BFA in visual art. For years I have been a stay at home dad and earned intermittent income. But I may possibly find myself in the position of needing to earn significant, solid income and am interested in software development. I understand the job market is trashed right now but you can’t argue with 25% job growth/450,000 new jobs over the next 10 years (BLS estimate for software engineers) so it will come back at some point. But I need to know if this is a fool’s errand or not at my age. I’ve outlined what I perceive to be my assets and liabilities (below). Please don’t give me false hope here. If it’s not a good idea I need to know so I can maybe pursue more age-friendly opportunities in teaching, banking or HR (MUCH prefer software dev though). I don’t need to be able to work remote and am in the Denver/Boulder area.

Assets

  • College degree cum laude. Yes, it’s in art but I did a lot of conceptual and/or technical work including digital video and photography. I’ve studied philosophy, aesthetics and formal logic as well.
  • I also completed 3 years of architecture school and did well. God I wish I had finished because I do feel too old to go back and finish that at this point.
  • I’ve been technical and taken things apart out of curiosity my whole life…tvs, computers, audio equipment, speakers, bicycles. I’ve also built my own Windows computers.
  • I’ve built MANY Wordpress sites, customized code, created several websites from scratch. I have good understanding of HTML and CSS. Built my first website in 1995!
  • I have self-hosted websites continuously for the last 20 years, so I am no stranger to everything that goes into that.
  • My education in architecture and fine art has developed significant creativity with regard to solving problems and thinking outside the box. I can’t imagine anyone outside of art or design having similar training.
  • Exceptional written communication skills.
  • I don’t feel or appear my age. In fact most 30-somethings I meet seem older than me with regard to personality.
  • I can spend the time to develop the necessary skills. I am perfectly happy to go through all of CS50, Odin Project, Full Stack Open and whatever else I need in order to kick ass at this.
  • I live between Denver and Boulder. Lots of tech jobs around here and I don’t mind going in to the office (and might even enjoy it).

Liabilities

  • My age. I am worried about it because I would be entry-level and that’s kind of odd.
  • Denver/Boulder…is it too trendy here? Not the best for older tech workers?
  • I don’t know if I will love it (pretty sure I could like it a lot though).
  • I don’t want to work overtime. 40 hours is enough with the occasional late evening or weekend.
  • I doubt I can go back for a CS degree. If that is absolutely necessary I could try to line something up online but it would be costly, take valuable time and probably not even be worth it.

Couple more questions:

  • If I want this bad enough can I just skill-up until I am desirable regardless of age? I have some time to acquire skills. I could learn full stack web and if that’s not enough I could start adding languages, UX/UI, etc. until it is basically stupid not to at least talk to me about a job. Whatever I could do to level the playing field.
  • Is web development the best place for me? It seems like that from what I’ve read but I am open to other tracks. Creating Mac/Windows/mobile apps seems more interesting but I will go where the best chance of success is.
  • What about freelancing? How many people do that successfully? I would imagine age matters very little there.
  • I am rarely 100% satisfied with apps I use on my computer or phone…as long as I had the skill I could have a lot of fun creating my own stuff, improving upon what is out there. This is honestly the most exciting prospect—being an inventor/entrepreneur but I realize it comes with the biggest risks.

This is an epic post I know but I wanted to get the most accurate responses and people need background info to do that. Any help is appreciated, thank you!

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I am not going to give you advice on what you should do, but I will give you the requesed blunt and honest advice.

General Statements

The job market is shit right now. People are still getting programming jobs, but it sucks worse than it has in a long time.

Most people undersestimate how much time it takes to build job-ready skills in software development. Since it sounds like you currently have a very flexible schedule, you’ll probably be able to put in lots of hours per week on learning and practicing, but one of the things that we look for in interviews is experience seeing projects through and dealing with challenges that emerge over time. Without knowing you personally, I recommend budgeting at least a year of work to get professional skills.

Maybe by the time you’re ready for a job, getting a job will suck less. You can hope

Age

I’m not going to pretend that this doesn’t make it harder. Firstly, those of us who have been out of school and focused on daily life for the last few decades do have a harder time learning brand new skills. We’ve lost some of that mental plasticity. We’re out of practice on studying skills. And we’re just damned busy. We are just as capable of learning new tricks, but we have more inertia to ovecome.

I’m also not going to pretend that the people interviewing you, and then working with you, won’t have biases. Wide age gaps make communication a little harder and we are simply not as good at empathizing with people who are not like us. If you pursue software engineering, many of your interviewers will be under 30. The leaders on your team might be younger than Pokemon. The flip side of this is that we are a bit more used to people coming to software engineering from a non-traditional path. I do think that web development especially is one of the professions that is the most comfortable with it.

Besides how people percieve you, you’ll also want to do some introspection and preperation for what it will be like to be mentored by some kid named Tyler who seems barely older than your child but has still been programming for 10 years longer than you. It can be surprisingly alienating and stresfull to not have peers who you identify with. I’m being entirely genuine when I say that throughout this potential major life change, it would be a really good idea to work with a mental health professional.

Of the assets you listed, these are the ones that are worth turning into resume points. Depending on what your self-hosted website experiences have been, your easiest career entry point might be in DevOps. If you haven’t considered that yet, I recommend looking into it.

I don’t mean to discount all of your transferrable professional skills. Good communication, organization, and time management are absolutely essential. On the whole those are going to be skills that you show more than you tell though, so be very thoughtful about not drowning out your more specific assets.

When you’re looking at the local tech job market, you are probably going to have to filter out an government contract work (Ball, Lockheed, NG, etc) who are big players in the area. Usually the government restrictions mean that they can only hire developers with specific degrees or 4+ years of specific job experience. There is still a pretty good tech job market here even without the Aerospace folk. The commutes are likely to be rough (I tend to see Downtown and DTC a lot with in-office or hybrid requirements), but I’ve found that a lot of times they’re pretty chill about letting you flex your hours to avoid the worst of rush hour.

Good. Don’t. When I interview I always ask how common it is for people to work more than 40 hours and I tell them that I only want to continue if they are happy with my drawing very firm boundaries around my personal time. So far it’s been fine except with early-stage startups (which is a young fools’ game anyway imho).

If you have the time and resources to skill-up and you learn job hunting and interviewing skills (which are their own thing), then sure. I was a late-bloomer and I’ve worked with other devs who were later-bloomers than me.

I don’t know your life, but it sounds like it’s probably the best place to start. You’ve already built skills and experience there and it’s relatively welcoming. You never know where a career will end up, but web dev is a good place to start it.

Pursue that mindset during your learning journey. If you can walk into a technical interview and talk for 10 minutes about that time you were so annoyed by an app that you spent 6 months trying to build a better one yourself, you move to the tippy top of the candidate list. I’m not joking.

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You have many skills and experiences that would be valuable in software development. Go for it!

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First of all, I’m always encouraged when I see that I’m not the only one who’s 50+ around here. It means that maybe, I’m not as crazy as I sometimes think I am, because at least someone else is thinking along similar lines as me!

I can’t speak directly to starting a new career as a developer: I got sidetracked into working in IT support these past few years. What I can comment on are some issues I’ve come across as I switched to a tech field in my mid-to-late 40’s.

If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading (or listening to) Quincy Larson’s free book about his journey from teacher to developer. He was younger when he made the switch, but I think you would find his reflections on job networking and reputation building to be particularly insightful: How to Learn to Code & Get a Developer Job .

Maybe I am in denial about how easily I can learn new tricks, but I haven’t noticed a significant decline over the years. My brain plasticity probably has declined, but much like you, I’ve kept learning new things and life experience and (mostly unconscious) alternate coping strategies allow me to stay fresh. I believe your point about training in art or design has some truth to it - I credit learning how to draw as a key component in my technical successes, as it leads me to try looking at problems as they are, and not as I believe they ought to be, if that makes sense.

I’ve never let working with or for significantly younger people bother me, but I can understand a certain level of apprehension about standing out as the “junior old guy” in a worksplace where the average age is probably close to early 30’s. I ended up just owning it, and the fact that I made a career switch later in life earned me some admiration from all but the cockiest of coworkers.

Plus, sometimes I’m not the oldest junior tech in the office. Other people of our generation (sounding like an old guy now) have also found a reason to re-invent themselves.

Good luck on your adventure!

Wow, thanks everyone for the highly valuable information! I’ve read so much negativity on reddit concerning this kind of job switch that I was ready to call it quits and go for something else. But I keep coming back to the insane job growth, only health care can match it and I absolutely cannot do health care. I think I am going for it, I just need to figure out the right path.

My plan has evolved a bit since my original post. I understand that my art and design abilities will be somewhat useful in engineering, but it seems to me that I would be a fool to ignore UX/UI as an alternative even if the job market for those roles is also terrible right now. I’m going through the Uxcel curriculum right now and I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve used the word “architecture” and I have 3 years of it under my belt. I’m cruising through the UX stuff, it’s second nature.

So what about working inward from both ends? Say I leverage my creative/design abilities and study every UX course I can find but also start the engineering thing (probably web dev.) and work through the courses here, edX/Harvard’s CS50 course, Odin Project, Full Stack Open, etc. Tell me if I’m wrong but it doesn’t seem like too many people can do both quality UX/UI design work AND handle both front and back-end development. If (and I understand the engineering thing will take effort from where I am) I can pull this off I would have two distinct career options in the job market no? Maybe bringing both of these things online at the same time is the best way to have a crack at the highest number of available jobs? I think I could be happy doing either one and may end up with a position that utilizes everything I can do.

On a more sobering note, I am reading stuff on reddit that basically says people without CS degrees are not getting hired, period. And that to do anything but pursue a CS degree is a waste of time. Any comments on that? Does anyone think the job market will come back enough that people with degrees in other fields AND a good portfolio of projects will be competitive? Maybe reddit is just full of trolls and negativity? I could do a second bachelors but of course I’d rather not and I think I can get the skills without going back to college. I just don’t think there are unlimited numbers of people who are cut out for technical work like this and that if you can prove yourself you should be ok. I could be wrong though.

Thanks again for the great information.

Hello!
You don’t need a degree, just show talent and skill in your work and be able to talk about it (sell it).

Most of my colleagues have no “Informatik” degree (German CS) and are coming from other fields, including me that came from design like yourself.

That said you should still learn all computer science basics you can grasp, including system design, data structures, “Big O”. The droves of under-skilled developers from both bootcamps and even uni is a big issue for hiring staff.

If you want to go into UX/UI, your knowledge in programming will be a great advantage, because you will think like a developer when coming up with designs.
Yes, UX/UI is crowded, but with mostly under-skilled people that are just in for the money, from what I hear from hiring managers.

Tldr: Transfer your design skills to tech. Become a developer with a good knowledge of the computer science basics. Build a great portfolio that shows you’re qualified for both UX/UI and developer roles.

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Thank you for the further info! Yes this is my plan exactly. Leverage my design background in UX and turn up the heat on the technical stuff until I am very hard to overlook regardless of age. Having a firm grasp of everything from UX to back-end would also be good for freelancing which I am open to doing if necessary.

When building your portfolio, take full advantage of your artistic experience: Great layout, typography, custom thumbnails for your projects etc., you know the drill.

You will get noticed, I know from experience.
Much success on your way.