49 comments on 56
4 minutes

I turn 56 tomorrow.

Ten years ago I joined a startup software company as Director of Quality Assurance. (Broadly, software engineers write the code and people in Quality Assurance make sure it works.) My leadership colleagues on the software development side were two men, each of whom admitted to me along the way that they were 56. It always seemed to me that they both were trying to prove that they could still swim in the technology with the 20- and 30-something software developers they hired. One of them even admitted it, more or less: “I took this job to show everyone I still have it.”

I thought about those guys a lot as I took my current role as Director of Software Engineering at my current company 2½ years ago. I was 53 then, which isn’t far off 56. I did not want to be those guys. They took unwise risks and resisted project planning. They both tended to let troubles brew, or even quietly start troubles, so they could ride in on their white horses and save the day. They tried hard to appear as hip and cool as the young developers on their teams.

One of those guys and I didn’t get on well. In a display of bravado, he publicly announced that he was going to build one small product feature all by himself. I said just as publicly that I would personally test it. He left enormous and easy-to-exploit security holes in it. I don’t even pretend that I can code anymore, but I am very good at copying and pasting code from the Internet. I found some JavaScript that would make a banner appear on the screen that displayed a JPEG at a specified URL. I pasted that code into a particular text field that made that JPEG appear on the screen of everyone logged into that testing system.

That fellow instantly appeared at my office door. He looked panicked. “What did you do?” he demanded.

“You have to code defensively against hackers,” I shrugged, and nonchalantly turned back to my screen.

The next day, he handed his feature off to one of the 20-something developers to finish.

My current company is refreshing in that a few of the engineers are over 40. One of them is a little older than me. But I’m still an elder statesman to most of the engineers. I’ve decided to lean into it. When I started, I told everyone that I can’t do their job anymore. I’m not ever going to coach them on being better with the various technologies we use. I won’t ever fix a bug or code up even a minor feature. But that doesn’t matter because I bring something even better to the table: more than 30 years of experience in the industry. I have learned how to organize teams and put just the right amount of process in place so people aren’t crashing into each other trying to get the job done. Also, I see it as my duty to push back hard against the forces that lead to working nights and weekends all the time, a common malady in our industry. I have learned how to set good expectations with upper leadership and keep resetting those expectations as conditions change.

This job has been one of the tallest challenges of my career, but I’ve kept my promises to my team overall. I think they like working for me because of how I do it. “You keep things sane around here. It’s so nice,” one of them said to me not long ago.

I am trying to be much like this in my personal life. I don’t want to pretend I’m 30, or even wish I could be 30 again. I’ve gained far too much life experience. I can easily handle things now that used to utterly baffle me, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I intend to lean into that experience and let the youngsters have their fun on the way to building their own experience.

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49 responses to “56”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    With age comes perspective! I woke up one morning to find myself well over sixty with no job after a purge at my company of older people, only a first step that ended up with the company being sold and half the people being laid off. After the initial panic, I realized that I was retired, and that it was unlikely that I would be respected enough in my field to get one of those well paying jobs setting policy and direction for a department. My last professional experience was an eye opener to say the least. Hired because of my vast experience to “fix” a poorly developed department with inadequate personnel and equipment, i realized they expected me to do this without hiring the correct personnel or adding the correct equipment, and without spending a dime. Sad that the people above my head were so clueless.

    Ageism is a terrible scourge in most companies, and unlike the examples you gave of older people in the software business, seeming to cause problems, most older folks in my industry, and in upper management positions, have seen it all if they are any good, and can set up and execute a streamlined and productive department, far easier than inexperienced youth with zero perspective. Regardless of how the minutia of accomplishing the execution of a job changes in my business, someone that understands and studies those changes and how it all fits into the process is highly valuable, but for some reason today, left out of the formula; while allowing “kids” to run rampant working in multiple directions, many times trying to reinvent the wheel multiple ways that will be unsuccessful, seems to be the norm. You can have it, I’m glad I’m no longer in it, and I’m happy I don’t need to listen to and try and correct or explain the looming disasters to the inexperienced and marginally knowledgeable. As my brother in law always says: not my world any more and good riddance!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d be 100% the victim of ageism in my industry if I had not built a good reputation and have some key leaders in the industry who are willing to keep hiring me.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        All the key leaders that respected my abilities were aged out, or retired, ten years before me…you are lucky if yours are still around!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          That could start to be a problem in the coming years. However, there are plenty of 30 and 40 somethings who I’ve worked for, or who have worked for me, who might be able to help me keep doing this until I’m ready and financially able to quit.

  2. matt Avatar

    Happy birthday, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you sir!

      1. matt Avatar

        Or should I have said: Alles gute zum Geburtstag

  3. Brian Purdy Avatar
    Brian Purdy

    Loved this post, Jim. True wisdom and genuinely impressive.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Brian!

  4. DougD Avatar

    Happy Birthday tomorrow Jim, once again I got there a little ahead of you. Amazing how that seems to happen every year.

    I admire your ability to lead. My own brief foray into management quickly convinced me that I was not cut out for it. My ability to deal with new software is greatly diminished now, that part of my brain seems to be full. We’ve had constant system change for the past 10 years, now we’re on the cusp of another ERP implementation. I got asked to be a key user but declined, last time I did that the people I was supposed to be helping were helping me after a couple of weeks.

    Anyway, enjoy your day and have a great year!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think I’m in a similar spot with coding technologies. At my last job I took an online course in the language we used, and it was a major uphill climb for me. Programming languages used to just come to me naturally.

  5. Johanna Rothman Avatar

    Happy birthday! And yes, I also find that leading and serving is so much more difficult than inserting myself into the situation. Congratulations on your growth.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Johanna! I learned an important lesson from those two engineering leaders ten years ago.

  6. David Avatar

    Happy Birthday Jim! Have a great day

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you David!

  7. JR Smith Avatar

    I am a few years ahead of you on that conveyor. I am lucky in that the company I work for values the wisdom that comes with experience over a number. I have been lucky to have mentored several young people in the last decade who have become successful and that is very satisfying to me. I have my health. And I’ve been blessed to have found the love of my life, my soulmate at a point in life when many people just give up and think it will never happen. Happy Birthday Jim!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Proof positive that life isn’t over until it’s over!

  8. Suzassippi Avatar

    Interesting symbolism in your photo!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Just worked out that way. Every year I search for something with my next birthday’s number in it, and this was the 56 I found.

      I hope to find a 57 somewhere around home, but failing that, I know where State Road 57 begins and it would make a nice day trip!

      1. J P Avatar

        There’s always Heinz 57 sauce!

  9. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    Happy birthday tomorrow! I totally agree with yournway of acting: emphasize the positive points you have and let go of the idea that you still have to be able to compete with people much younger than you are. I hope you’ll be able to stay healthy and happy, during all of the next year in your life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Shirley! I plan to keep not acting like I’m younger. It’s working for me.

      1. Shirley B. Avatar
        Shirley B.

        Happy birthday today! I’m with you: I turned 58 in May and decided to stop dying my hair. Something I had been undecided about for many years. Difficult decision for many women: the pressure to continue to look young is big (in our society).

        Everyone who looks at me knows instantly that I’ve gone through menopause already. Then why hang on to a haircolour that only makes my face look younger?

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          My wife started going gray in her 20s and was fully gray by her mid 40s. She stopped dyeing her hair at about that time. She’s fortunate: her head of gray hair is glorious!


          1. Shirley B. Avatar
            Shirley B.

            You’re right: her hair is beautiful! It’s now almost 5 months ago that I dyed my hair for the last time. Turns out I’m not as grey as I thought, so it will take some time before my hair will be as grey as your wife’s.

            1. Jim Grey Avatar

              Margaret’s was still mostly black “underneath” when we started dating 10 years ago. It’s gone whiter and whiter in the years since.

              Margaret experiences having let her hair go natural as freeing! I hope you experience the same.

  10. brineb58 Avatar

    Happy Birthday!!! I do like your perspective, it’s refreshing to “see”. I’ll be 65 in a few months, enjoy the ride, you only get one ticket!!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m holding off as long as I can until my ticket is punched!!

  11. puneybones Avatar

    Happy birthday! Cheers to another trip around the sun!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you! The trips seem to go faster every year.

  12. David Avatar

    Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag!
    Enjoy tomorrow!
    I’m turning 67 in a few months and have been headhunted to take my skills back to Europe and help move a listing ship back on an even keel.
    You’re as young as you feel, Jim, you have the experience and expertise to LEAD (that’s the operative word) and manage teams, something in very short supply these days.
    All power to your arm!!
    And, like JR, I too have a soulmate to help me get there.
    As, I’m sure, you do.
    Don’t ever be afraid to be yourself; ageism doesn’t figure in my employer, simply because the hands-on cannot be learned from a computer.
    Thanks for a compelling (to me, anyway) blog and wearing your heart on your sleeve.
    Helps keep me sane.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you David! I’m happy to be a part of your sanity.

  13. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Birthdays bring benefits if you are willing to embrace them. And you do see things differently ;)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I embrace the benefits, but not so much the birthdays. The older I get the less I want to be fussed over on them.

  14. Khürt Williams Avatar

    Happy birthday, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


  15. brandib1977 Avatar

    What a nice thing to hear from your coworkers! I have been told that I have a calming influence. That is, by far, the nicest thing you can say to me especially given that so many others bring an inflammatory, disorganized approach to life.

    It sounds like you have found your place in the world, Jim. What a nice gift that is! Happy Birthday, my friend!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Brandi!

  16. Jeff Avatar

    Happy birthday!
    Really enjoy reading your blog.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m happy that you do!

  17. sumacandmilkweed Avatar

    Happy birthday from someone just a half year ahead of you! I find I like know-it-alls even less in my advancing age (never liked ’em anyway) so I’m forever trying not to sound like one. The truth is, we can learn something from folks at any age. When you stop listening and learning from those around you, that’s when you become stagnant.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Truth!! The thing that keeps my brain in order is being stretched and growing.

  18. Victor Bezrukov, photographer Avatar

    Happy birthday Jim. I just would like to say that experience is everything. I’m 58y old, doing IT managing, Information Security and other stuff. These young guys they learned the “end”, somehow know what was in the middle, but have no idea how the things started. Black box of CMD makes them nervous, even this box is still very relevant also these days of everything colorful and dynamic.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like you and I would have some things to talk about in common in our professional lives!

      I do occasionally impress one of the young engineers when I drop into a terminal box and do some Unix, er, excuse me, Linux commands. It’s rudimentary stuff, and I’ve known it for going on 40 years, but they’re still surprised when I do it.

  19. Victor Bezrukov, photographer Avatar

    Less Ux but Linux on my Firewalls and some other internal systems. Also in love with doing things in the black box. But this black box also works well for me for the regular Nsloolup (dig) or remote executing, checking and managing on MS machines. ;-)

  20. Katie Yang Avatar

    Happy 56! I hope I grow into my middle age as well as you have, truly.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a lovely thing to say! Thank you.

  21. J P Avatar

    Happy belated birthday! Looking back, 56 is a great age for setting yourself up for the late stages of a career, and it sounds like you have been doing just that. I wish I had recognized signs at that age that what I was doing then was not as fulfilling as it should have been.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m fortunate that what I’m doing is still fulfilling, and I’m still learning and growing, albeit in less-frequent chunks now than just 15 years ago.

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