At 57, He’s Learning to Code. Will it Become His New Career?

Mike Vaughn will be the first person to tell you he isn’t a “real” web developer. But at 57 years old, he’s learning a skill often associated with teams of 20-somethings: how to code.

Vaughn has been around computers for the last 37 years, before the proliferation of personal computers and back when processing was done by one mainframe computer connected to a number of terminals. Back then, his job involved using a low-level assembly language to develop software that ran system mainframes.

Now, he works as the director of professional services for a software company, installing software, teaching clients how to use it, and troubleshooting when things go wrong. He oversees a team of developers who work to develop product updates and improvements. When his job duties expanded to include development, Vaughn saw an opportunity to learn more about the code that makes the software work.

“I really got enthralled with it,” Vaughn said during a recent phone conversation. “I got excited again about the idea of programming. Even though I’ve done so many things with computers—management, consulting, technical work—I’d never really programmed. And it just became so apparent to me that this is really cool.”

In 2016, Vaughn started using FreeCodeCamp.org, a free online learning platform dedicated to teaching people about web development. But self-directed learning can be a challenge, especially when the topic is akin to learning a new series of languages.

“It’s not a natural thing,” Vaughn said. “It’s a very esoteric thing in terms of the language and translating what you’re trying to achieve into that language. You have these errors and you just don’t know why it’s not working, you’re googling everything you need to google.”

JavaScript, especially, has been a sticking point for Vaughn.

“In terms of my progression in web development, it’s been really start-stop,” Vaughn said. “And that’s just because, you know, I get into learning HTML and CSS, and then I get into JavaScript and then I just fall off. And then I pick it back up and fall off.”

But he’s completed small projects—a matching game that functions using a combination HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, for example—and has learned the lessons in persistence and problem-solving that all developers learn in time. Luckily, Vaughn said, the resources available to today’s developers far surpass those that were available early in his career.

“I came from a world in 1982 where you had a library of manuals that you used to look up error codes,” Vaughn said. “There was an internet, but there was no world wide web like we have today. Today, the resources are tremendous. You can just google the error you’re getting.”

Vaughn also recommends learning to use Chrome developer tools early. The console view allows users to inspect the elements of a webpage, which can help them to see how their code is behaving in a test environment.

“And if you still don’t get it,” Vaughn said, “you can always google that. The chances are when you google that exact error, you’re going to be take  to a site called Stack Overflow. Chances are, somebody has already answered that question.”

At work, Vaughn manages a team of software developers—most of them younger than him. Occasionally, he interrupts their work to learn how they’re doing it. He said while they’re all more facile than he is at using their smartphones (Vaughn sticks to phone calls and the occasional picture), there isn’t much of a difference in the ways they approach problems.

“Whether it’s a digital native or a boomer like myself, there’s a mentality of ‘Let’s figure it out, because we can figure it out,’ ” Vaughn said. “We have the tools to come up with a solution or an answer. I think that’s probably a common thread for anybody that is still vibrant in technology—regardless of age.”

Working with his team has also allowed Vaughn to explore whether, as he enters retirement age, he really wants to build a second career as a web or software developer. As of now, he’s focused on building a portfolio that can lead to freelance opportunities.

That means there’s still time for him to become a “real” developer.

“Freelance is a viable way to make an income,” he said. “So if I sold a freelance project where I developed even a simple website for a client, then at that point, I’m a web developer.”

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