Is there any value to a CS degree at 50?

I’m 50. I’ve been building hardware and programming since I was 18.

I live in the Santa Clarita, CA.

College was touch-and-go. It was always going too slow for me. By age 20 I was working as an engineer doing both hardware and software. At age 24 I had saved-up enough to buy my first house. I had a good career and was soon making over $100K per year doing the stuff I really enjoyed.

I eventually started a tech business in my garage. Within three years it grew out of the garage and into a good size industrial facility with a dozen employees or so, in-house SMT assembly, CNC machining, low volume manufacturing, etc.

As is the case with most businesses, there were ups and downs.

The economic implosion of 2008 caught me in a perfect storm that ultimately led to killing the business after a two year gut-wrenching attempt to save it any which way I could. At the end of 2010 I had to capitulate and let it die.

Three years later. No job. I’ve sent out hundreds of applications. Very few call-backs. I’ve even lied and implied I have a degree just to see what might happen. No difference whatsoever. I had a recruiter tell me I scare the shit out of people because of the experience I have and the number of roles I’ve played, from rank-and-file engineer to founder/entrepreneur, CEO, CTO, etc. And, he also said, reality is I cannot water-down my resume because my life is all over the Internet in one way or the other.

The good news is that my wife is more than able to support our family and we’ve been OK. No urgent financial needs at this point.

The last three years have come with a lot of soul searching on my part. You go from knowing you can tackle any project anyone could care to place in front of you to thinking you are absolutely worthless. You navigate this imaginary line back and forth over time. Back and forth.

I’ve kept busy. I had dabbled in web and mobile development before but the bulk of my work –where most of my value in the business was found– was in high performance FPGA and embedded hardware and software development. I’ve developed entire product lines from scratch on my own. I am no stranger to hard work.

Not wanting to remain idle I decided I needed to shift away from doing hardware –due to how capital intensive it is– and focus on software. I jumped head first into web and mobile technologies did a few experimental websites and published a free iPhone app. Making money in the app store is hard.

In the end, technology requires money. I’ve made a little money here and there, enough to pay for servers and have a few thousand laying around for judicious experiments. I told myself I would never touch my wife’s income for my experiments and have stayed true to that over the last three years.

During this time I’ve also logged hundreds of potential business ideas spanning the range from pure software to web, mobile, physical and hardware products. Most are admittedly bad. That’s OK. I forced myself not to pre-judge anything. The other day I saw these guys on Shark Tank who sold over a million dollars in ugly sweaters. My prior self would have discounted that as a dumb product and a dumb idea. I try not to think that way any more. Lessons such as watching something like Instagram do what it did have taught me things I just didn’t know.

I have convinced myself I am not employable because of my past and my age. I never thought I’d say something like that in my life. A past of constant learning, accomplishments, entrepreneurship, hard work and, yes, success and failure. And no degree. I can’t rightly describe what this feels like.

During dinner last night my wife said she wants me to focus on finishing a Bachelors and then a Masters starting next year. She said she doesn’t care if I don’t work during that time. She feels this will be good for me mentally and that it will/might bring opportunities to the table at one point or another.

If you ask me today I am absolutely convinced that a degree will be useless to me. I’ve tried to imply I had a degree in resumes just to see what would happen and it made zero difference. I’ve also seen countless articles, some of which on HN, highlighting the fact that older engineers are having one hell of a time finding work, credentials or not. I don’t know. It could take five years to get to a Masters in, say, CS. I’ll be 55 years old, not having held a job for eight years and looking for work. How is that going to help me?

My current view is that my only way out is through entrepreneurship. I need to keep trying until I hit upon something that works. I know I have a few potentially good ones but I don’t have enough money to launch them correctly. I have to bootstrap from small ideas to larger ones.

I tried a startup pitch competition. I the judges where real assholes to everyone, it was a regular “let’s see who’s dick is longest” fest. Not my scene. Regrettably. I also think a lot of VC’s want young 20-somethings who will virtually kill themselves working. I can’t neglect my family and simply can’t live like that at this stage.

Looking for thoughts, ideas, opinion. I am sure there’s something I might be missing in my thought process. It’d sure be nice to go back to feeling like a productive member of society as well as to contribute to the financial well-being of my family. The kids are getting older. It isn’t going to get any cheaper.


Based on what I’ve read so far, you’re in a really comfortable position, so don’t shift specializations.

Capitalize on your rich experience with embedded hardware and software development. At 50 I’m pretty sure you have a wealth of contacts from people in that field (people you consulted for, past work buddies, etc.) warm them up and make contact: you now have a client/referral list. Ask them how they’re doing, take them out for coffee. Discuss what they’re currently doing and what they need help with. Start with one tiny project.

Ask your wife for a little help, ask her for some contacts. Talk to others in your field, take them out for breakfast or lunch, offer to speak in an event, you can offer consulting or training workshops.

Go back to building a business, it’s your best bet, and you’ve done it before. Outsource the bulk of your work into your other known contacts that can refer you to high-end consulting shops in the South-east asian or Indian region. Disclaimer: I’m from the Philippines. It’s 2013, there’s so much more tools for remote collaboration than it was a decade ago, you’ll get a good english speaking/writing workforce for less than US salary rates.

Don’t study unless you really really want to. 4+ years is a lot of time. You could have made another business up and running at that amount of time.

Don’t shift specializations just because of current market trends. Who knows, hardware might boom in the next decade. Honestly, currently, the web itself and all mobile app stores are over-saturated with everyone trying to make a dent.

The point is, no one can predict what is going to happen in the next 10 years, just stick with what you know and what you can do to answer a need from your contacts. If a specific “solution” you’re offering picks up traction, “productize” it and put a little more focus on that, but don’t bank the entire consulting shop for a product unless it dwarfs your consulting revenue by 3x-5x. Consulting cultivates client relationships, and business is all about building professional relationships that would earn you more money.

I’m not 50, I’m only 26, the 50+ year old people I know end up in three ways:

  • Teaching (writing books with their knowledge, offering workshops, teaching in universities, etc.)
  • Retired
  • Business

Again, I’m only 26. Take the input with a grain of salt.

Discussion on HackerNews