The dictionary defines shelf life as “the length of time that foods, beverages, pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals and many other perishable items are given before they are considered to be unsuitable for sale, use or consumption”.

Author: Jü (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jü (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to “use” it appears that we now need to add humans to this list of perishable items with a shelf life.

I recently came across a series of discussions, amongst senior executives in the IT industry in India, on the shelf life of a techie, and there was general agreement that the current shelf life of a “techie” is about 15 years.

The Times of India led off the reporting of this discussion with:

If you have seen Skyfall, you will doubtless remember the 20-something Q. It’s the first time ever in a James Bond film that Q or the Quartermaster – MI6’s resident tinkerer who creates all the wonderful spy gadgets that Bond uses – is younger than Bond himself, much younger. So when Bond meets Q in Skyfall, he scoffs, “You still have spots (pimples),” to which Q replies, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.In the world of technology, that’s almost a truism today. Youthful Qs are becoming the norm. Technology is changing so rapidly that older engineers must put in an extraordinary amount of time and effort into new learning and also to unlearn old ones. Otherwise, they are likely to find themselves less relevant.

“The shelf life of a software engineer today is no more than that of a cricketer – about 15 years”, said one of the senior executives of a European technology company with over 4,500 employees in India. “The 20-year-old guys provide me more value than the 35-year-olds do.”

Scary to think that one could be past their “use-by-date” as an individual contributor by the age of 35.

Some companies guide technical professionals towards taking on more managerial responsibilities over time. One Indian Head of HR for a large IT multinational says he “advises employees to map their career graph into a 5-5-5 formula, three blocks of 5 years each. In the first five years, the employee is a technical contributor. In the next five, he or she moves on to become a team leader or an architect, understanding the P&L (profit & loss) requirements of the company. Subsequently, the employee takes on much stronger leadership responsibilities, with technical skills upgrade”.

Great for those who are cut out to be in a management role, but what then happens to those individuals who are brilliant technically but have no desire to move into management. Firstly, there are never enough management roles for everyone, and secondly not everyone is suited to, nor desirous of, taking up the added responsibilities of leading a team. (see “To be or not to be … a manager” posted August 20, 2012).

Author: Wayiran (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Wayiran (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

I have always believed that education is a journey rather than a destination, and I have no doubt in my mind that smart, sharp, young technical specialists can spend the time and energy needed to ensure that they stay up-to-date with changes in technology, even despite the accelerating speed of change.

I also know that most IT companies have courses available that enable technical people to upgrade their skills on an ongoing basis. Infosys, Indian IT giant as just one example, says that they have over 1000 courses that employees can choose from as part of their competence plan, but what hope do people really have if the people leading the major companies have the attitude that that most of their people are heading for the scrap heap at such an early age.

What I find most interesting however, is that very few companies appear to have the same requirements for testing and upgrading the shelf life of their executives, in the same way that they seem to do for their technical people. It appears that once you reach the heady heights of a management role you are generally safe, as long as you keep meeting your goals and don’t actually screw up really badly.

But the reality today is that the global business landscape is changing at much the same rate as the technology that it is built on. The emergence of new BRIC-like nations, new competitors, new business challenges, new business models driven by the internet and social media, changing expectations of the workforce, the upheavals in the economies of most countries creating new “economic realities” (see “Growing a new leg” posted June 20, 2010), means that the management skills and capabilities that were relevant for success 15 years ago (a la techie shelf life) are not necessarily all relevant today.

Author: Chafis; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Chafis; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I found it very telling that one of the Indian executives said “I can’t be just a manager, I have to be technically hands-on. If I have to have a conversation with my CTO, and if I say I don’t understand technology, then there is no conversation.”

More importantly in today’s ever changing business environment, I feel that he should be worrying just as much about being management-relevant as he does about being technically-relevant for his own survival and continued success.

As one of my favourite quotes from Charles Darwin (1809-1882) says so well “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

This is just as true today for managers as it is for technicians.



  1. Adriana says:

    Dear Mr. Hayman,

    I’ve always believed that “Best sellers” are books that speak about common sense things that everyone feels right about but no one else except the author actually expressed them simple and wrote a book on that. I think that the “5-5-5 formula” might become a best seller if put in a book (just a reader’s opinion …). I think the formula works with some modifications in other fields too.

    Thank you for this article! It gave me a lot of common sense things that I have never thought of putting in words like that and some totally new things too to meditate about…


    P.S. I just finished my first 5+5 and looking forward for my next 5.

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, you may be right. I spent the first 5 years as a programmer/analyst, the second 5 years as a CIO, and the next 30 years running businesses/companies. Les

      • Profundareflexion says:

        Mr. Hayman,
        Doesn’t what you do after 5 years or 10 years, also depend on the chances that you receive e.g. you became a CIO quite early in your career, by simply being in the right place at the right time? How many good people really get that kind of a chance – all they get is being sidelined at every turn by office politics while they are busy doing their work thinking that work would speak for itself? And that is why at present, in most of the work places you would find people in higher management who neither have the respect of the employees nor any visions for the organization.

      • leshayman says:

        Profundareflexion, you are right that a large part of promotion (and even success) is due to good luck as well as good management, but I have found that much of good luck is when preparation and opportunity meet. I therefore feel that working to a plan such as a 5-5-5 is not a bad starting point, and better than just leaving it to chance which just makes it easier for the politicians. Les

      • Profundareflexion says:

        Thanks Mr. Hayman. That sounds right – being prepared from the beginning of one’s career instead of leaving things to chance.

  2. Adriana says:

    My 10 years experience in 10 different teams showed me that you can find in every organization all kinds of people. The mischievous nature of mind leads you naturally to pay attention to those people described by Profundareflexion, and to see even in well intended people some hidden agenda.

    However, if you train your mind not to go in that direction, emptying your cup, you’ll start to see how many great people work in all organizations, and how even those “disrespectful” ones might have hidden gems inside their hearts. I’m not saying these people do not exist. They are present for sure. I’m just saying that the mind set is very important to find the great ones.


  3. Naik, Bhuvaneswar says:

    Hello Les,

    Hope you are well. and thank you for the continued insights I gain from your blog. I wanted to share with you the below link related to the shelf life topic. Its true and its hard to accept.

    Best Regards

    • leshayman says:

      Bhuvan, thanks for sharing this article that shows how widespread is this ageism, particularly when it comes to saving money on salaries.
      PS: I am ready for a followup lecture series trip to India 🙂

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