Monday, 24 December 2018

The Fear of Age and Irrelevancy - On the Tester's Midlife Crisis (1)

I have managed some notable achievements this year which I am proud of. I have spoken at three conferences (to mixed responses admittedly), been invited as a guest onto a couple of podcasts and got a new job with great colleagues that I am very happy with - only my third employer in testing in a ten year career. Thay was after seven years working for a really good testing consultancy on various projects.

However despite the achievements above I am just as uncertain about my career and progress as before. My father, who I was the main carer for was battling cancer for the past year, sadly passing away on the 3rd December. In order to look after and be there for him I stood down from various activities and roles I was proud of - notably my co-chair role in the Sydney Testers Meetup and my blog and test automation live stream. I also withdrew from my postgrad studies in CS for a semester, my second withdrawal in 18 months - delaying my graduation by a year.

My Worries Set In

I don't begrudge any of the above - one's family is invariably more important than one's job, extracurricular test-related activities and university studies - however I do feel angst about it. Angst that I am getting older and my technical skills in testing (learning Postman aside) haven't developed in the past year. Angst that everything is changing and my experience is no longer relevant - a redundant dinosaur. Angst that there are so many tools and techniques I haven't learned or had much commercial experience in - Devops, CI/CD, NoSQL, Protractor, mobile automation etc.

Angst that in a tech industry that values - even fetishises - youth and dynamism and where change can wipe out the benefits of experience in a heartbeat, I feel close to being seen as "past it" and "over the hill" as I imminently approach my 40s - to be replaced by younger hotshots on the cutting edge of testing.

Is this just Paul's paranoia getting to him? Maybe. However anecdotally, in chatting with Sydney Testers and conference attendees I have come across similar angst in others. Testers in their middle age concerned about being left on the scrapheap or not finding a job at all, or alternatively desperate to learn automation even if they don't like programming particularly. I have spoken to a few who have noticed their colleagues being younger, more technically skilled, clued up on the latest buzzwords and willing to put in long hours. Sydney, Australia where I live is about as brutal and competitive a tester job market as you can find with 300-400 job applications per advertised role a routine occurrence.

I have also come across people around my age and older who are greatly dissatisfied or apathetic with testing. They feel that they aren't getting anywhere in their careers or are tired of the constant learning to stay relevant. They feel that they are being poorly treated or paid much less than their developer colleagues even though they all work in the same teams. They hate the low status of testing compared to other areas of software development. They regret not choosing other employers or doing something else earlier.

A Tester's Mid-Life Crisis?

Within the past month, and especially with the inevitable introspection arising from my father's death,  I have begun to think of the above as a sort of tester's mid-life crisis - a career or professional identity crisis caused by one's approach to middle age. What are the features of a mid-life crisis?

According to Wikipedia, typical career related mid-life crisis symptoms may be -

  • a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished
  • a fear of humiliation among more successful colleagues
  • longing to achieve a feeling of youthfulness
  • ennui, confusion, resentment or anger due to their discontent with their marital, work, health, economic, or social status
  • ambitious to right the missteps they feel they have taken early in life

The term "Mid-Life Crisis" itself is contentious. Evidence that it exists at a grand scale at all or the ages when it starts is mixed. According to this article it happens anywhere between between the ages of about 37 and 50.

While it is anecdotal and not scientific there is some evidence that the particular nature of the tech industry makes things worse and harder. This article in KrAsia uses the stories of various high fliers in the Chinese tech industry where long hours and high pressure, ageism, rapid change arising from company acquisition and restructuring and resulting periods of unemployment forced them into a mid-life crisis while in their mid to late 30s. This article in CNBC, following on a from a post on Quora, reports that Silicon Valley tech staff even no more than 35-40 years of age can feel over the hill in the tech job market. This was deemed partly down to ageism, an interview process that favours young recent CS grads and being surrounded by younger talent. Encouragingly it did also list success stories of those who were in their 40s and above who were progressing in their careers in the big Silicon Valley tech firms.

A Twitter Chat

I posted on Twitter the following update -

I was surprised at the number of responses I had from testers far more established and famed in the industry than I who offered consolation or stated that I was not alone. Posts of being unhappy with being a tester or that the testing community was great but stifling.


This is the first of a sequence of articles detailing what I consider my "tester's mid-life crisis". Based on the feedback from this and resources existing to alleviate the kinds of angst and worry listed above I will write further articles in the coming weeks. I would like to know your opinions and your experience - if you can share them then I would be most grateful.

In the meantime I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


  1. ArleneAndrews_1 on the Twitter thing: You are far from alone. I'm older than you, and trying to break into the testing field as a second career. Learning everything the first time, plus the obligations of family and sanity, has made this something that is even tougher than expected.
    The studies also show that one easy way to learn things is reinforcement with positive feedback: I try and do this, but listening to those more experienced as well as those in other fields,it feels like such small steps.
    We will get through this! I have those cheering me on, and I will cheer you on.

  2. Some interesting thoughts there Paul. Thanks for sharing. I would certainly count myself among many who have shared the feelings you described: I experienced the same kind of angst a few years back (even while in the midst of quite deep involvement within the testing community) and knew that I needed to make some changes.

    I'm a few years down the road now and have transitioned over to product management, with some degree of success. I have to say though that it's not very different in terms of pressure to constantly learn and evolve.

    Personally, I've come around to thinking that it's just not worth investing too much effort on learning cutting edge tech skills. I think you're better off focusing on skills and competencies that are a) applicable across domains and industries and b) have stood the test of time. To that end, I try to make sure that anything I'm working on or investing in learning during my own time, correlates with areas I've already identified as having longevity. Which goes some way towards mitigating the feelings of potential future irrelevance.

    The other thing I've become careful to do, is not to allow my identity to become too intertwined with my career choices. To wit, my value as a human being is not defined by my employment status. In theory, this means I could leave my job tomorrow without any negative psychological impact.

    The reality, I suspect, would be somewhat more challenging. But it's a start.

  3. Fear is what keeps me blogging, coming up with sample projects to illustrate what I am doing at work, networking on Twitter, or running the MOT Boston Meetup. Fear of unemployment. Fear of being washed up. Fear of not being able to find a job in software testing, the field I love.

    I somehow was able to jump to being an automation developer, and that has helped somewhat keeping me employed, but I do worry. A lot.

  4. Thanks for your thought provoking post Paul. I felt disillusioned with testing a few years ago and considered moving onto something else. However, I stuck with it and got more involved in the testing community and I'm now happy as a tester. I've also found that I'm now quite in demand due to my extensive experience.

    So if any other testers are thinking of getting out of testing, I would say think carefully. If you have 10 or more years of experience that is quite valuable. A lot of companies are not sure about what testing to do and how to do it. If you can advise on those sorts of things, you are much more valuable than a newbie tester no matter how skilled.

  5. Paul,firstly, sorry to hear about your Dad. I'm not surprised to hear that you are re-evaluating your life, it really is not that uncommon. Secondly, age is a number. I'm 58 this year and still working as a tester in the UK, with lots of very young, modern, tech companies.

    I've been a freelance tester and technical author for 20 years now, nobody bats an eye at my age and I work with great people, less than half my age, all the time. The really important thing about testing is to deliver quality software. I don't care what trendy names the new techniques are given, nor what technology I'm testing.

    A piece of software takes an input value, does something with it, and outputs a value (usually different) and for me, making sure it does that is one third of the job. Making sure it doesn't do something daft and ensuring the test is effortlessly repeatable (automated) are the other two thirds.

    The other point regarding how testing can become stale, you need to have change, new challenges. Anything over a year on one project and I start to get bored. For me unravelling how a system works, and how I can break it, is the fun part and I will never get bored with that.

  6. Echoing some of the other comments here. I went through my mid-life crisis about ten years ago, when I was becoming jaded with testing different annual iterations of the same product for nearly 15 years but was denied a minor promotion into a different type of role because, despite a frankly stunning performance at interview (he said, modestly - I really wanted that job BADLY), the interviewers effectively said "We never thought you wanted to do anything else, so we decided which candidate we wanted before the interviews" :-(

    At the age of 53 I ditched a job I'd been in for thirty years and went off to freelance as an author and photographer. After three years of that, I plunged back into testing and did a range of contract roles. A few years later, I landed a new permanent role where there had been no previous permanent testing resource but it also meant my uprooting my home to be closer to the new job. After two years there, I was made redundant and went back onto the job market.

    Yes, I experienced ageism; but after nearly six months I landed a role with an employer who already had a range of technical skills on-tap with a team that had all the cutting-edge knowledge. I made my varied business experience my unique selling feature and found an employer who saw that as filling a gap in their skills mix. I was 59 at that point.

    I've now been in that role for two years and I'm enjoying it immensely. I am learning new stuff from my colleagues almost every day; and they are learning stuff from me. There is life after 40; and you might just find that it turns into the best time of your career.