I thought I'd write another article which is a follow-up to my previous post advising the folks who might be considering an engineering career.
In this post, I want to explain the reasons why engineers and tech professionals wind up becoming road-kill at middle age. Why is the old engineer is always the bitter one who laments about how much higher their less academically brilliant sales counterpart is earning twice their incomes when they are still grinding in data centres.
As it was recently said on social media :
Retired bankers play golf, retired engineers drive taxi.
First of all, I did work with some engineering managers in their 50s. A lot of them are stuck in their old ways having worked in major MNCs for decades and then finding out that they are retrenched when the company decides that their services are no longer required. These are pleasant people but they are stuck in the old world of mainframes when the IT department is rapidly moving into the cloud. Being retrenched workers, they are also unable to tap into their deep networks in their old companies. One case I worked with have a tendency to keep repeating themselves using old cliches and I think this turned off their younger subordinates who consider themselves better than they are.
Over in school, I was also able to experience working with people in their 20s and 30s as peers and I can empathise why some of us folks in our 40s are disliked as team workers in Law School. We can be overly directive and some of us like to repeat ourselves over and over again. A few of us are just not as good as the younger guys, our analysis can be sub-par and lacking in substance. It's something I feel bad about because law firm HR departments are going to mark us down for the actions and tendencies of some of us.
So my experience allows me to take a stab at answering the question as to why engineers end up being road-kill at middle age but not other professions.
The key insight is this :
Our schools choose engineers based on their proficiency of physics and math subjects - subjects which require constant grinding and solving new problems using 10 year series assessments. This ensures that only the most conscientious students wind up joining engineering school. Because of the rigorous content of a technical subject, there is also a bias towards introverts when assessing academic excellence.
More importantly are the kinds of students engineering faculties fail to attract - Openness to new experiences is crucial to technological work because it affects how much a professional is able to learn new programming languages and find innovative ways to solve technical problems.
So here are the results - local universities produce introverted, conscientious professionals and average or below-average openness.
This is fine for the first 15 years of an engineer's life. But due to changes in the human brain of a person in their 40s. The engineer becomes less open to new ideas and lose the ability to learn new things. Furthermore, while introverts are still very smart at middle age, they would not have built the weak networks to sustain future careers as the extroverts would have done.
The older tech professional starts become set in his ways - And you always know such an engineer if you work in a real IT environment, the guy who makes $8,000 a month looking after the AS/400 who talked about how robust and reliable the iSeries IBM servers were even they are being displaced by Linux machines. Some even claim that the cloud is marketing jargon and just a new way to market server racks in a data centre.
How can you retool this guy into Data Scientist ? How can he even learn AngularJS or NodeJS ? Graph databases ? SDKs are now being released and deprecated at a ridiculous rate.
In the past, operational IT folks fight aging by becoming process folks covering ITSM to remain relevant only to be displaced by wider changes in the ITSM software and new frameworks like DevOps.
The case within the legal and accounting profession is different. Changes in the legal world are rarely earth-shaking, any abrupt confirmation in case law has been hinted at by the House of Lords a decade ago. Ditto for accounting, because one can only imagine what earth-shaking consequences there would be if we overhaul GAAP. This is why even though accountants take on the same kind of students as the engineering faculty, you don't see so many bean counters driving taxis in their 40s.
As it stands, engineering schools are quite far behind the tech industry. This latest article by Tech In Asia hints at how far behind engineers of my generation who are currently teaching in local polytechnics are ensuring that a fresh polytechnic student graduates with obsolete skills.
The government is already doing the right thing to absorb graduate engineers. It generates baseline job guarantees and the narrow minded ones can always do government procurement at middle age. The government needs to realise that $500 in a learning account is not enough for tech professions.
The solution to this is not to just look into a student's extra curricular's record when selecting candidates for engineering programs. The system has to ensure that openness to new experiences is a criteria when hiring an engineering lecturer. I will not trust an engineering lecturer who is precise and dogmatic in his ideas, I would rather pick one who has some geeky interests like RPGs, music, cosplay, or arcade game programming because it subtly hints that he has multiple and varied interests.
At a personal level, some of my other articles already provide the general advise for engineers reaching middle-age.
Start saving, investing and networking with other because, beyond 45, it may be too late.