It was fishkeeping, of all things, that lured Ken Hart, then age 43, to the world of web design. After years of caring for aquatic life in his own home, Hart started a fishkeeping blog using free website builders like Wix. The blog struck a chord with other fishkeepers, and it soon began seeing steady traffic. The newfound popularity caused Hart to take a hard look at his website, and reevaluate his design choices.
“I almost felt embarrassed that I was still using a free website template rather than having a proper website,” Hart said. “So I took the plunge and decided to learn how to build one.”
Whether it’s fishkeeping, beekeeping, or some other type of animal-oriented hobby that ultimately tips the scales, plenty of people learn to code after they hit 40, an age when many begin to feel out of touch with new technology.
“For us older folks, the web can be a mysterious and often confusing place,” Hart said. “But rather than cowering behind my newspaper and angrily shaking my fist at the internet savvy kids, I decided to embrace the web and learn how to design websites.”
After considering paying for a tutor, Hart decided to teach himself, and dove down the YouTube rabbit hole. He eventually found a video series by Tyler Moore, which focused on building websites using WordPress. The videos were comprehensive and easy to follow, and to reinforce what he’d learned, Hart would watch each video a second time on the train to work. The series gave him the confidence to purchase a new domain, upload a free WordPress template, and start digging into the code. Soon he had something considerably more attractive than the free website he’d used before. And he was hooked.
“I started building websites for friends and family, even if they didn’t really need them!” Hart said. “I was just desperate to hone my skills.”
After building a website for a local dog walker, Hart caught the attention of the walker’s father, who was looking for a web design intern for his digital agency Aims Media Glasgow. Hart decided to give the internship a chance.
“I felt like my online reading had only taken me so far, and if I really wanted to improve my skills as a web designer, I knew that I’d be better off working in a team, even if it was only part time.”
Bill Barnett, another coder who took up the craft as a quadragenarian, also benefited from team collaboration.
After 17 years as an aircraft mechanic, Barnett injured himself and was put behind a desk. Bored and restless, he began using his IBM 386 to sort tools and figure out how to track and log them. From there, he started reading about relational databases, and began playing around with programming to generate inventory reports.
“I was fascinated by the ability to organize information in useful ways,” Barnett said, who was soon automating data in seconds and generating up-to-date calibration schedules for precision measuring equipment. He’d hoped his work would lead to a promotion, but while it caught the attention of management, nothing more came from it.
“It really bummed me out for about six months,” Barnett said. “Then I realized that I was the one holding myself back, and decided to head back to school.”
At the age of 40, Barnett enrolled in the University of Cincinnati to study Computer Science. Being the oldest student in class, he made it a point to hang out with the brightest classmates, and encouraged them to form study groups and collaborate. To his surprise, his classmates were more than willing to do this, and accepted him into their fold. Aside from some occasional ‘old man’ razing, Barnett experienced no ageism, and credits much of his success to this positive collaboration process.
A development mentor can make a huge difference to your career, and so can a supportive peer group working through similar problems.
“There’s no one method for learning,” Barnett said. “It’s more of an ethic, which is work hard and be persistent. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get involved in the developer community. Go to user groups. Talk to people. Especially as an older developer, don’t be afraid to approach younger developers who might be senior in experience. Don’t fall into the mindset that, ‘Because I’m older, I know better.’”
Barnett is now a partner at Gaslight, a 27-person software development shop in Cincinnati. He started the company with five others from the tech community, who he met through meetups and other community involvement.
Hart, meanwhile, is still with the same agency, four years after joining. He works from home, visiting the office every two weeks to meet with the team and share ideas. His core strength is still design, but he is adamant about improving his development skills. In fact, his agency saw enough potential in Hart that they paid for him to take a six-week development course.
“It’s been a crazy journey, but I’ve loved every minute,” Hart said. “I still work full-time on top of my web design, but hope that one day I’ll be able to focus on it full-time.”
Learning to code can be daunting to those of any age, but after three decades of technological absence, it’s easy to doubt your abilities entirely. Fortunately, people like Hart and Barnett are here to tell you that learning to code after 40 is not only possible, one can even make a new career out of it.