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Think Coding Is a Young Person’s Game?

Rumors of ageism are highly exaggerated. Truth is, if you’re good, you’re in

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by Elizabeth MacBride

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Dennis Drenner, 44, walked into his first networking meeting of computer programmers and thought uh-oh. "There's a bunch of 27-year-old guys eating pizza and drinking beer," said Drenner, a photographer who lives in Baltimore and is studying the computer language Python. "I was like, I'm the old man in the group. But I was wrong. They were very, very welcoming."

People think of coding, or computer programming, as a kid's game. But, the new sitcom Silicon Valley aside, it's not all hoodie-wearing, unshaven 24-year-olds. Midlife professionals are joining the field too, drawn by steady, high incomes at companies in industries ranging from software to publishing to education.

Almost every industry has help wanted signs out for coders, and many midlife workers, especially men, say the welcome mat is out for them too. Dozens of companies and web sites have sprung up encouraging aspiring coders of any age to learn one of the languages of the Internet, from Ruby to Python. Doing so can open new avenues in an existing career or create a new career altogether. Nearly 3,000 jobs for computer programmers were listed on CareerBuilder in the last 30 days. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that upwards of 82% of students at six popular coding boot camps received a job offer within 90 days of graduation.

"This is like Lego without physical limitations," said Chris Smith, 45, a former writer who taught himself to code and now works as a senior software engineer at Salt Lake City-based VitalVu, a video monitoring company. "There are millions of people worldwide sharing new ideas and tools. Almost all of it is free."

But, while you may not have to face down ageism, there are other challenges to overcome. Some of the evangelists undersell how difficult coding is to learn. The work required to become a competent programmer is more analogous to learning a foreign language than adding a simple skill to your quiver. Be prepared to work and follow the following guidelines, say experts.

Choose the right program for your mission. Do you aim to pick up the basics of an online language to maintain a website or be part of a database programming project in your current career? If so, online classes at Udacity, Treehouse or General Assembly, which are free or low-cost, could reposition you in your current career or job.

Jane Scharankov, 50, who recently graduated from Dev Bootcamp , an intensive 9-week program with locations in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, hopes her new coding skills in Ruby, Sinatra and JQuery help her land a job in the highly competitive education world. (She also has a Ph.D.) While she looks for a job, she is working on freelance coding projects.

Or, are you looking to switch careers? Computer programmers, who translate a software engineer's designs into instructions a computer can follow, earn a median salary of $74,280 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, which projects the number of jobs to grow 8% a year. A serious self-study program supplemented by classes at Codecademy or Code School could be a good bet. General Assembly has campuses and 8-12 week courses.

No matter what your goals, understand that there are few if any certifications in the field—it's too fast moving—so you'll have to develop a portfolio of work to sell yourself to an employer or as a participant in projects at work.

Train for an intellectual heavy-lift. "It's really, really hard," said Scharankov, who took 15 weeks to complete the 9-week program. If you want to become fluent, not just conversant, you’ll commit to plenty of hands-on work. Drenner spends about an hour a day on the work, using books he's downloaded and frequent conversations with mentor-coders.

Be prepared for jock culture. Few people report ageism—in fact, the need for managers with tech skills is so great, Smith said, that a mid-career professional willing to put serious time into learning a language and then spend a year or two in an entry level coding job would probably quickly be promoted. "I thought they would have a lot more problems," said Dave Hoover, 40, co-founder of Dev Bootcamp. Still, just one in 10 attendees of the company’s programs in San Francisco, Chicago and New York are over 40. Those who graduate "have the exact same results as other age groups. In some cases they get jobs faster because they interview better."

The male-dominated culture has a heavy jock element. Organizations such as Girls Who Code and Girls Develop It (aimed at women, too) are trying to make the field friendlier to women, but change is slow, so you'll need to meet the jock culture head-on. Basically, it's not your age that matters, it's your ability to project confidence. Drenner, a photojournalist who has worked for the Washington Post and New York Times, established himself early with Baltimore's community of young coders. "Hell, when I was their age I was traveling through Pakistan, not working in a cubicle," he said. With photojournalism in crisis, he hopes learning to code will allow him to take on high-paying projects that allow him to continue his artistic work too.

Commit to maintaining the skills. Both Drenner and Scharankov acknowledge how important it is to attend networking meetings—there are many in different cities—to keep skills up-to-date and find people with whom to work on projects, even volunteer ones. If you are seeking a group, Meetup.org is a good place to start.