How to build a business in development when you are 40

Frame from the film “Crossroads” (1986)

I was born in 1981, so last year I turned 40. According to Wikipedia, this is the first year Generation Y (millennials). Millennials are usually associated with a pretentious personality, and in my case, they are. My parents told me many times how hard they had to work and make sacrifices to provide me with a decent education. It followed that I should study as hard as I could and work hard, which I did (thank you for the advice Mom and Dad ✝). And here’s what I learned. This is my story about growth, responsibilities and limits.

▍ Studying computer science in the early 2000s

More than 15 years ago I graduated from the Swedish State Institute of Technology with a PhD in Computer Science. Then it was very interesting to be in this area – the Internet was just gaining momentum, people were creating various software products, and the founders of Google even visited us with a lecture on information systems. In those years, this industry was not yet burdened with privacy, security and usability issues – a kind of Wild West.

I once participated in a programming competition where I wrote a JIT compiler that generated SPARC assembler code for a stack virtual machine. Later, during a boring family Christmas get-together, I happened to have a copy of the SPARC instruction set with me, and I tried to find a way to speed up my code using smarter instructions. I really liked to dig deep into the software, taking everything apart bit by bit. In this I was a real bore.

Sun Blade 100 is a fun machine that taught me a lot

I completed my studies within the allotted time and, having proudly completed my resume with all the incredible college skills, I immediately started looking for a job, since I did not have much money to live on. Although in the end, the skill of working with Python 2.x, acquired during third-party part-time jobs, was surprisingly more valuable than knowledge of Oberon and SPARC assembler. I wrote the resume itself in LaTeX.

Take a Look at Me – SPARC Assembly God (2006)

And even in those distant times, finding a job in IT was not difficult. The painful effects of the bursting of the dot-com bubble were still felt then, but this event was already fading into the past, and the financial crisis of 2008 had not yet arrived.

▍ First job in the industry – welcome to the real world

I was hired almost immediately as a “Middleware Engineer” in which I learned all the basics. It was an interesting position that involved low-level security development (C/C++, Apache, OpenSSL, etc.), tracking memory leaks, and working in mission-critical environments with talented people.

Debugging memory leaks on Solaris (2007)

Then I learned that software development is much more than just writing code – my company was one of the first to implement automatic build and deployment systems (done manually using Hudson even before Jenkins appeared), relying on a strong engineering culture.

Overall, it was a great place to start and learn all aspects of writing software for a production environment, but my inner millennial was starting to get bored.

▍ Transition to the field of mobile applications

In 2009, my boss (CTO) made a fatal mistake. He pushed me to learn iOS programming and apply that skill to a project for which he had already set up pre-sales. Back then, iOS was also called iPhone OS.

Well, I bought a book from O’Reilly, fired up a now ancient MacBook Pro, and wrote a little app for a Swedish car rental company. In this program, using GPS data, the user was informed of the location of the nearest rental point, its distance, and the cars available there were listed. The application did not have a backend – I used a script that turned an Excel file into an Objective-C module, exposing all rental locations. However, the program coped with the task, and was eventually placed in the App Store.

I was very encouraged that I could write a program that is understandable and accessible for use by ordinary people. At the same time, it was performed on a device that even my mother later met – an ordinary smartphone.

Unfortunately, smartphone applications were still at an early stage of development, and my employer was not ready to invest in this area in advance, perceiving it as a “temporary whim”. As a result, the reluctance of management to go further, coinciding with organizational changes within the company that affected me, led me to start looking for a job again.

▍ Another job

By a happy coincidence, in 2009 I had the opportunity to participate in the iPhone Developer Day conference in Zurich, where I was inspired by a speech about Android. The speaker was a representative of a company that, although relatively small, was involved in writing the core Android libraries for Google. It sounded cool to me, so I sent them my resume and got a new job a couple of weeks later.

Over the next few months, I delved into a whole new realm of mobile app development and Embedded Android. At some point, I wrote an application for the on-board computer of a heavy-duty Mercedes AMG SLS supercar. It allowed the driver to record race tracks (of course, only off the main roads) and then drive along them, fixing various indicators. This app worked on Android. It had cool graphics, algorithms like Dead Reckoning, and most importantly, it could only be tested by being in a real machine.

AMG Performance Media Track app (2010)

This project turned out to be one of the most difficult and interesting ones I’ve ever been involved in, besides, while working on it, I met many wonderful people. Of course, not all projects were like this, but here I immersed myself in a completely different culture compared to the previous company, and this place was definitely worth working for.

▍ Work for yourself

About two years later, again due to organizational changes, and partly due to my own insanity, I decided to change jobs. Then I just turned 30, and I thought it was the right time for a serious change.

Working in a small company where employees were forced to take on more responsibility and interact directly with customers, I realized that I had a rather atypical skill set. Not only was I technically competent, but I was also able to communicate with clients, understand their needs and develop suitable solutions.

It was then that I thought: “Why don’t I do all this myself, eliminating the intermediary? Break free from the shackles of recruitment and become your own boss.” My inner millennial rejoiced.

Unrealistic representation of the working conditions of self-employed software developers

After working for myself for five years, I managed to gradually create my own network, increase my client base and income. I won’t bore you with another list of my own achievements, but it was an interesting period full of learning. At the same time, the successes felt more significant, because now I could fully appropriate them for myself.

Later, I partnered with a friend to be able to take on larger projects, and we even hired staff.

This was followed by a period full of significant events that had nothing to do with technology. I met my future wife, we got married, had two children and bought a house.

▍ Limits to Growth

Approaching the age of 40, I gradually took on more and more responsibility – for my family, relationships, business … I began to doubt everything and slowly but surely approached the fact that I completely lost my personal time.

I tried to be everything at the same time – a sympathetic parent, a loving husband, a successful businessman. This may sound like the words of a pretentious millennial, but I forgot what it’s like to be myself and have fun from the heart.

I gradually became aware of the deep-rooted expectation in my mind that growth and personal development are an endless series of upward movements, that there is always another step, and that it must lead “above” the previous one.

The reality is that in the end something has to be sacrificed.

It’s hard to be everywhere at the same time

▍ Difficult questions

During the pandemic, I went through a difficult period of reflection, which I jokingly called a midlife crisis. I started asking myself tough questions like:

In the end, I came to the conclusion that the main source of stress was my work situation. All the responsibilities that the company had brought into my life weighed me down unnecessarily, and I wanted to get rid of them.

▍ Reverse

Then I made one of the hardest choices of my life – I decided to leave my own company. I went to this decision for a long time, but in the end it was accepted, and the further path was clear to me. My business partner, unfortunately, did not want to continue the business without my participation, so it was time to close the company.

There are many guides to starting your own business, but no one teaches you how to close it. My decision was followed by a difficult and emotionally draining year of insecurity, failure, and awkward conversations. I’m not talking about all the administrative fuss associated with closing a business.

▍ Bitter Truth

Today, after more than a year has passed since then, and the transformation is almost complete, I feel that for the first time in many years I have time to think about myself. But there are still some bitter facts that cannot be avoided:

At 40, I’m not nearly as flexible as I used to be. I still have a lot of responsibilities: providing for children, paying loans, etc. Although I believe that my experience has taught me to understand different things much better and discard the excess.

My mind no longer works like a sponge. I still love learning new things, but it’s not so easy anymore. Take, for example, programming languages. I’ve come to the conclusion that, after nearly twenty years of coding, I’m not really an expert on any of them. The knowledge I receive is becoming obsolete, and more and more rapidly.

Now I like to think of programming languages ​​like screwdriver bits. Some you use most often, others are specialized and rarely come in handy, and there are probably a few that never come in handy. However, if you know how to handle a screwdriver, bits no longer play such an important role. And this principle extends far beyond programming languages.

Today it is already more difficult to create something.

This has nothing to do with me personally, but rather refers to the general environment in the field of technology. Large corporations with virtually limitless resources attract the most talented people by offering unparalleled rewards that are very difficult to compete with.

It is very difficult to get into the “advanced technologies” sector like AI and machine learning, unless you are already sitting on a pile of data and money. At the same time, as a result of planting business models built on advertising, the end consumer is already used to the fact that everything is either free or cheap for him.

Age discrimination is real. “What?! Are you still programming?” is a relevant question, and it sounds real. And although in most cases people do not mean anything bad, he just gets bored 😉

So now, raise the white flag?

▍ Why I remain optimistic

Despite all these grim truths, I sometimes remind myself that after 40, all is not lost.

I love learning new things – I was once told that in IT you never stop learning. It really is, and I like it. I also read a lot of books that have nothing to do with IT.

I know what I’m good at I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I know how to present myself, and I am aware of the value that I can give. In addition, I perfectly understand all my weaknesses.

I am efficient With age comes experience. For me, experience is the art of minimizing the number of wrong turns along the way.

I’m still addicted When I do something, I want to do it perfectly. My attitude to work has not changed, but now I try to work more competently.

Well, in addition to pouring my thoughts into this article, I am building a new company called pixelversefocused on the use of IT technologies in creative processes, as well as implementing a project based on computer vision, STRICHwhich I plan to launch soon.

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