35 year old programmer, early middle age crisis

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Source: Sanlian Life Weekly Author: Zhang Congzhi
Programmers have many nicknames, such as “program ape”, “code farmer” and “siege lion” – all of which have the meaning of self mockery. But in the past 20 years, they have been one of the fastest accumulating professionals in China. Where they gather, even the house price is one grade higher than the surrounding area. They are also a highly homogeneous group, with high income, casual clothes and technical words that outsiders don’t understand. In the process of the rise of domestic Internet technology giants, programmers play a crucial role.
However, as they grow older, they are faced with increasingly narrow career paths and increasingly complex social pressures.
Early middle age crisis
Nanshan Science and Technology Park in Shenzhen is a place where programmers live as well as Zhongguancun in Haidian, Beijing. Within a radius of three or four kilometers, there are many layers of office buildings, in which there are all kinds of Internet companies and complete supporting business services.
On weekdays, the busiest time in the restaurant is from 12:00 to 13:30. After 13:30, the table empties quickly. Young people with work cards around their necks leave in droves, and the waiters begin to pick up the pieces. At 22 p.m., many buildings are still brightly lit. You can see from a distance that one of the brightest buildings must be Tencent Binhai building. This building is located at the intersection of Binhai Avenue and Houhai Avenue. In 2011, it broke the ground and was capped in 2015. It is divided into North and south buildings, which can accommodate 12000 employees at the same time.
During the two weeks of our reporter’s stay in Nanshan Science and Technology Park, almost everyone we met had countless ties with this company, including programmers, former HR, and researchers who took Tencent as the observation sample. This is not unusual. Hou Feng, who worked as HR for Tencent for three years, predicted to our reporter that at most, thousands of people left the company a year, and a considerable number or more people entered it.
If Tencent is compared to a sponge, in the past 20 years, it has gradually expanded itself in the process of constantly absorbing and spitting water, and finally become extremely huge. Such a process has been experienced by domestic Internet and technology giants. Under the action of the sponge, the young people who hang their work cards around their necks all day are flowing like water.
In 2015, that is, the year when Binhai building was capped, Su Jianxiang left Tencent. That was his fourth year in the company. He was in trouble, failed to improve his performance, and had no hope of promotion. His colleagues in the project team left one after another. He finally decided to go out to find a breakthrough. This year, born in 1985, he entered the age of 30, got married and moved to Weizhong bank. Weizhong bank is the first Internet Bank in China. It was founded by Tencent in 2014. Therefore, although it is a job hopping, it has not jumped out of Tencent’s “ecosystem”.
2021 is his sixth year in micro focus bank. Although the company is developing steadily and there is no news of layoffs, Su Jianxiang’s personal crisis has arrived. After he missed a promotion opportunity in 2019, this sense of crisis becomes more intense. When he first came out of the big factory, his sense of superiority had already disappeared. He found that he could see the end of the road of technology. He panicked and became more afraid of being thrown out.
In the past 10 years, it seems that something has gone wrong. In 2011, when he graduated from the school of computer science of Sichuan University, he refused offers from several other companies for Tencent without hesitation. Among his classmates, the starting point is not high. He left his hometown Chengdu and went south to Shenzhen.
An era has begun. Su Jianxiang is in it. He may not even know it. In 2009, China’s Ministry of industry and information technology issued the first 3G license, accelerating the arrival of the era of mobile Internet. Tencent, the social and game overlord in the PC era, is laying out the mobile Internet and expanding its talent pool. Su Jianxiang, recruited by the school, was assigned to the mobile QQ product group at the beginning. He was soon transferred to do the mobile browser, which was later the kernel development of QQ browser. With great passion, he hoped to do a big job, but after a few years, he became exhausted and his situation became complicated.
It was said that our reporter wanted to talk to a senior programmer, so Jianxiang agreed to interview him soon. He chose a fast food restaurant in Shenzhen Bay ecological science and Technology Park as the meeting place. He was a little late and went to the drugstore on the way because of stomach trouble. Su Jianxiang is not tall, with a thin face and short shaved hair. He wears a typical programmer’s coat with brown lapels, loose casual pants and sports shoes.
What kind of situation will a 35 year old programmer with a family and a good job face? Su Jianxiang is a typical sample: he has a 4-year-old child with a monthly kindergarten tuition of 5000 yuan and a variety of training class expenses of 1000 yuan and 2000 yuan; he bought two suites in Shenzhen, one for his own living, and another for his children’s future school district housing, only 20-30 square meters, but the housing loans add up to 30000 yuan a month. Roughly speaking, the expenditure of almost 40000 yuan a month is very high And his wife, who works in the hospital, have just made ends meet. Su Jianxiang once calculated how long his family could support him once he lost his job. The result was pessimistic. He said that he was one of those people who could not afford to lose his job.
Among the global technology giants, younger employees are a common reality
Su Jianxiang is just worried about his career. Ren Hai, a Shenyang native, was laid off by Oracle last year and is unemployed. He was born in 1980 and over 40 years old. Fortunately, he was ready for unemployment a few years ago. Oracle is one of the largest IT software companies in the world. In 2002, it set up its first R & D center in Shenzhen. Since 2018, the news of major layoffs in China has never stopped. Ren Hai graduated from Shenyang University in 2004, joined Huawei in 2005, and transferred from Huawei to Oracle in 2008.

Ren Hai had planned to resign from Oracle before he was 35 years old. At that time, compared with the domestic Internet companies, Oracle’s salary was almost to the point of being teased by peers. But the leader asked him to stay and allowed him to go back to Shenyang for telecommuting and report to Shenzhen several times a year. Ren Hai is also planning to go home. He returned to Shenyang in 2014. From then on, he knew that he would accept the fate of being marginalized or being laid off sooner or later.
Standing in Shenyang and looking at Shenzhen, Ren Hai often refreshes his own cognition, such as soaring house prices, and a colleague’s job hopping and getting a million annual salary. “Too fast!” Ren Hai always exclaimed when he came to Shenzhen. When a programmer from a large factory comes back to Shenyang, it basically means that he has lost the channel of career advancement. It wasn’t long before Ren Hai went back to work on his own entrepreneurial projects. He spent a few years writing a program to help enterprises manage software outsourcing, which is just right for such an old unemployed programmer as him.
Ren Hai has a small team. In renting a house and inviting everyone to a barbecue, he spent $1.2 million, but the team didn’t get paid. If such a project is put in Shenzhen, it will die in a few months. However, Ren Hai has stayed up for a few years. As for whether it can succeed or not, it seems that he doesn’t hold much hope. A few years ago, Ren Hai talked with the leaders and said in a half joking tone that he could be considered for dismissal in the future. When he was really laid off, he found that his 40 year old self was at the end of his career.
Behind the youth worship
In the global technology giants, it is a common reality that employees are younger. According to PayScale, an American salary survey agency, the average age of Apple’s employees in 2018 was 31, Google was 30, and Facebook and LinkedIn were 29. However, domestic technology companies are even younger. For example, the average age of employees of Tencent and Huawei is 27 or 78 years old, which is equivalent to two or three years after graduation.
Why do technology giants prefer young employees? With this problem, our reporter found Shenzhen University next to Tencent building, which not only cultivates the founder of Tencent, but also transports a large number of talents for this company every year. Professor Jiang Jianwu, director of the human resources department of the University, told this magazine that this problem is not difficult to explain. As a creative economy, the Internet industry pursues innovation and does not have high requirements for experience inheritance, which is very different from the traditional manufacturing industry. For example, the older the mechanic in the mechanical processing factory, the more popular he is; and don’t forget that nearly 9 million colleges and universities graduate in China every year Students enter the job market.
This is a huge and relatively cheap labor force. They have received higher education. After years of knowledge reserve, the best of them have a keen ability to analyze and judge cutting-edge technology. The price of these smart minds is not too high. More importantly, they are more enthusiastic about their work than most people in the workplace. In the process of the rise of domestic technology giants, without exception, they have seized this demographic dividend.
Facebook’s new headquarters in Menlo Park, San Francisco, USA (photo taken in 2018)
If you want to ask, the hidden age discrimination is nothing new in all walks of life. Hou Feng, who has worked as HR in Huawei and Tencent, told this magazine that when he worked in the human resources department of a manufacturing enterprise more than ten years ago, he set a threshold for age when he went out to recruit. “Senior executives can be relaxed to around 45 years old, but we also tend to be under 35 years old in the middle and basic level.”. From the perspective of enterprises, this logic is easy to understand. The main reason is that people over age are not cost-effective. “In the same job, a person with ten years of experience can do it, and a person who has graduated for three or five years can do it. Even if you only need the same salary, you have no development potential for the enterprise. As far as the enterprise is concerned, I have managed to cultivate a person. I certainly hope that I can make you contribute more years. The older you are, the lower the marginal benefit will be. ”
The “contribution” required by the Internet industry, of course, is not a normal 9-to-5 commute. It needs young people who will obey the overtime culture even if they are full of complaints. As a programmer, Su Jianxiang wants to understand the origin of this culture from the perspective of technology itself. “The feature of Internet products is that you need to send a new version, the front end and back end negotiate, and you can go online immediately after the test, which is very fast.” This point, after he came out from Tencent and went to Weizhong bank, he had a deeper understanding.
Although micro focus bank is positioned as an internet bank, it is essentially a financial service with corresponding regulatory requirements. “So we have to go through strict pre verification before we release the new version. We have to finish it step by step and meet the specifications before we can go online. The process is much longer and the space for fault tolerance is much smaller. If there is something wrong with the Internet products, you can explain it a little. We won’t care about it in two days. But if there is something wrong with the financial products, the CBRC may have to intervene. ”
Another feature of Internet products is to ensure that they run 24 hours after they go online. “How to achieve it? It’s going to have to be sustained. If you have only two people in this project, you can only work on two shifts. Naturally, it will be very hard. If the enterprise is willing to pay more people and take turns on duty, it will be easier. So, in the end, it’s up to your boss and leadership to think about it. ” Su Jianxiang said.
Picture | visual China
Although the domestic Internet industry has been very successful in commercialization, for a long time, it has followed the foreign technology giants in the technical route. When Su Jianxiang developed the mobile browser at Tencent, their product strategy was to follow Google, “but there were thousands of people in Google’s browser team who only made the kernel, and we only had more than 30 people at that time. When people change, you have to move with them. You are very passive and the team is very tired.
Su Jianxiang’s friend Yao Gang also worked in Tencent, he wants to push the analysis to a deeper place. In his view, this kind of culture of pursuing speed and liking the new and hating the old is not unique to the Internet and technology industry, but a common mentality that pervades the whole society.

“All fields in China like to start over. They purchase new information software almost every few years. Foreigners who buy a set of things will regard it as an asset and will not easily lose it. I have seen a case before. It was said that the temperature control system of an airport in France still used DOS. As a result, something went wrong and an old retired engineer had to be invited from home to solve the problem. Of course, it’s hard to say who’s right and who’s wrong. But the domestic atmosphere naturally determines the preference of big companies for young people. ” Yao Gang said that this culture has actually brought about a consequence, that is, domestic companies can make Internet products with many users, but in some municipal public facilities, such as the control system of subway and electric power, the stability and safety of domestic products are not as good as foreign companies.
From one ivory tower to another
It is in this kind of market atmosphere that “996” and unrestrained overtime have become the hidden rules, along with the development of the whole domestic science and technology industry. Ren Hai’s three years in Huawei (2005-2008) are exactly the years when Huawei launched the final sprint to 3G. His project team is responsible for a module in 3G core network. “How busy were you then?” Ren Hai asked himself, “even in meetings, we have to grab the meeting room. Sometimes I have to stay in the company at midnight to book a meeting room, otherwise I won’t be able to open it the next day. ” Most of the contemporaries who went in with Ren Hai left after a year or two.
The loss of personnel is serious, and the human resources department is too busy, so the business department has to recruit people by itself. In addition to R & D, Ren Hai used to work on the company’s internal website at 12:00 in the middle of the night. “Because every department is robbing people. If you grab your resume in advance and save it in your own talent pool, no one else will get it. These can only be operated in the company intranet, so you have to stay up late in the company. ”
At the busiest time of the project, Ren Hai didn’t see the sun at noon for several months. “At that time, for the sake of information security, the company prohibited computers from entering the laboratory. If we wanted to test products, we could only soak them in the laboratory room. Because staring at the display screen for a long time, my eyes are very congested, and the roar of the computer room is too loud. It’s also common to stay up late and get tinnitus. ” It’s usually one or two o’clock in the middle of the night when Ren Hai returns from work. As soon as he gets on the ferry back home, he can fall asleep. Sometimes when he’s over the station, he can sleep until two or three o’clock in the middle of the night until the driver wakes him up.
Illustration young people in Dachang
“Huawei often has customers’ needs, and we have to answer them if we don’t have them. Then we go back and organize people to work overtime. We ask programmers to write the code overnight and provide it to testers. The next day, the functions the customers want will be online.” This led to Huawei employees looking for girlfriends during the intermission of the project. “The intermission period of the project may last for a month. The intermission period is not for you to have a holiday, but for you to be relatively free. For example, you can get off work around 8 o’clock.”
What matches this high-intensity overtime is Huawei’s well-known high return. Even around 2005, Huawei’s salary was far higher than the industry average. Ren Hai said that at that time, the monthly salary of fresh graduates was about 5000 yuan, and that of undergraduates was 4000 yuan. The main income was overtime allowance and year-end bonus. Taking these into account, the average annual salary of grass-roots employees was about 150000 yuan. For young people who have just graduated for a few years, this income is difficult to obtain in other industries at that time. In order to gain a foothold in big cities, they can only trade time for space.
But around 2008, Ren Hai worked overtime for several months, and suddenly found that the house prices around all rose. “We’ve seen it around before. At that time, you can buy it without paying down payment, as long as you have a stable job. But I was too busy to take care of it. ” Ren Hai remembers that Tencent next door still yelled that when the house price rose, the salary would go up. Many people jumped from Huawei, but the salary would not go up soon, and Tencent did not yell like that. When I was in Shenzhen, the Renhai family had been renting. If they were stable, they moved every three years. If they were unstable, they moved every year. They first lived in Meilin pass, then went to Xiasha in Futian and Taoyuan Village in Nanshan, and finally moved to Bao’an, where they lived farther and farther away.
And overtime has long become a kind of inertia in the industry, which has penetrated into the system, and the individual employees are almost unable to resist. In Huawei, Tencent and other technology companies, strict performance appraisal system is implemented, and the performance is directly related to your rank promotion and income. Although the length of overtime will not be included in the evaluation index in quantitative form, it is directly related to the business supervisor’s evaluation of your work attitude.
Sina Weibo office work scene April 16, 2014, Beijing office work scene
“Sometimes, you don’t have so many things to do, but you can’t leave early. That kind of atmosphere means that if you leave early, the leader will think that you have a problem with your work attitude. He may say, your technology is not so outstanding, why not seize the time to learn? But it’s doubtful how much overtime you really have Su Jianxiang reflected.
Before leaving Tencent, Su Jianxiang was also hit in the performance appraisal. At that time, the leaders took a group of people from their team to do browser development in wechat group. When they finished the task, they went back to the original team, and many technologies were changed. After that, the KPI of the whole team plummeted, and before long, their group of people left one after another. In 2014, Su Jianxiang also considered internal job transfer and wanted to go to other departments. At that time, there was a game project team in need of manpower, but this year, his body sounded the alarm. He began to suffer from frequent stomach problems, which doctors believed were caused by long-term stress and staying up late. Su Jianxiang weighed it over and finally gave up the idea of going to the game department. He chose the former between his health and the possible huge returns.

After such intensive vocational training in a large factory, how about the competitiveness of people coming out of it? Different people have different answers to this question. Ran Tao, former head of Huawei’s global recruitment team, said that many people who have been in big companies for a long time are stable minded and will lose ambition. “A person who graduated from a graduate school at the age of 25 and entered a company like Huawei through school recruitment is actually going from one ivory tower to another.” However, large companies can also let people see better talents and enjoy more learning resources. In fact, people from big factories are indeed the main force of entrepreneurship in the domestic science and technology industry.
Su Jianxiang thinks that this problem should be viewed from different levels. If we only consider the middle and basic level, people from big factories generally have a psychological advantage – “for example, in Tencent, we have faced 1 billion level users, so the products with hundreds of thousands or millions of users are stable in our hearts.” But the people from big factories also have disadvantages, “because the division of labor in big factories is very detailed. Take the browser as an example, there are at least four or five hundred people from top to bottom. They are divided into business, front-end, back-end and kernel, and they are divided into various kinds of very small jobs. If you do optimization, you will not do business. If you do kernel, you will not understand UI. So if you’ve been in a big factory for 10 years or more, and you don’t have a solid technical foundation, after you come out, your competitive advantage may not be as strong as you think, or even less than those excellent people in a small factory. ”
Find your way
Many people feel uncomfortable when they come out of the big factory. In 2008, Ren Hai switched from HUAWEI to Oracle Shenzhen research and development center, suddenly released from a state of mental stress. Suddenly he felt very idle. He could go home from work at 6 in the evening, but it was particularly easy to get tired. What surprised Ren Hai most was not that he could get off work at any time, but that some people would walk around the office carpet barefoot, and some people would play football on the table during working hours, NAG around with coffee, and take photos in the company with mobile phones – in Huawei, researchers were not even allowed to bring mobile phones with cameras into the company in the early days. “People don’t work overtime all the time, but I leave first and go back to do the work. It’s very flexible and the progress control is in my own hands.”
Ren Hai said that from the perspective of companies, it is difficult to evaluate which is better or worse. The fundamental difference lies in different companies’ different understanding of people. “Oracle’s management of people is based on trust. It doesn’t need to punch in and hold meetings all the time. Some companies are based on distrust. They have cameras everywhere and access control. They punch in every day.”
When Ren Hai was at Huawei, one of his projects was to cooperate with Oracle, which is why he later switched to Oracle. At the beginning of the project, Ren Hai and his colleagues went to Oracle for a meeting. They all took the bus, and it was very troublesome to pay for the round-trip bus tickets. Later, people from Oracle came to Huawei and said, “good guy, there are three or four people who come here. One person takes a taxi, and the project manager who leads the team is yellow headed. He looks like he just came out of the dance hall. Next to him, there is a female employee wearing a miniskirt.”. Finally, because the miniskirt didn’t conform to Huawei’s dress code, the company fined Ren Hai 50 yuan because he was in charge of docking. One of the things Ren Hai talked about with relish was that a foreigner took them to study abroad at that time. He was more than 60 years old. “He said that he had worked as a carpenter for more than ten years before, and then changed his career to become a programmer, because he thought it was interesting.”.
Although working in foreign enterprises is loose and free, the treatment of domestic giants is obviously not attractive after their rise. In 2017, Yao Gang chose to resign because he couldn’t stand Oracle’s long-term salary rise and jumped to Huawei, which started the cycle of his subsequent entry and exit. In the next four years, he changed jobs four times. Yao Gang studied in Shanghai Jiaotong University as an undergraduate and studied in Shenzhen Research Institute of Harbin Engineering University as a postgraduate. After graduating in 2009, he enrolled in oracle bone inscriptions through school recruitment and stayed there for nearly eight years. On the day he left Oracle, although he was a little reluctant, he was thinking about how to come back a few years later. But a few years later, Oracle’s R & D center in Shenzhen was abolished.
Yao Gang didn’t go well in Huawei, so he moved to Tencent, stayed in Tencent for about a year, and left in 2019. The reason is that the new leader changed his job six months later, and the new leader didn’t deal with him. Yao Gang felt that he was always criticized by the leader in his work. Before leaving, Yao Gang had an interesting conversation with the new leader. He asked the leader, “is it good for you if I go?” The leader replied: “I’m a part-time worker. What’s the matter?” Yao Gang then asked, “is it a bad thing for you to leave me?” The leader replied: “I’m a part-time worker. What’s wrong with me?” After the interview, Yao Gang quickly went through the resignation procedures.
In a casserole porridge shop in Nanshan Science and Technology Park, Yao Gang talked about this experience. He was born in 1984. He likes to talk with his head on the side and looks more real. We met on the evening of January 3, Sunday, new year’s Day holiday is not over, his neck hanging a work card. That’s from his current company, which gave him the position of technical expert with a monthly salary of 40000 yuan. Yao Gang is quite satisfied with this figure.
After Tencent was “squeezed out”, Yao Gang first went to a foreign enterprise for a temporary transition, and then sent his resume everywhere. “I set a line in my heart. I won’t leave until the price is reached. In this line, the monthly salary is more than 40000 yuan. I’m going to filter on the recruitment platform according to this line. ” Yao Gang put in dozens of resumes and finally found his present job. “When my skills don’t sell at this price, I’ll find a small place to retire.” Yao Gang’s financial account is like this: he has three properties in Shenzhen, two of which are rented, and his savings are enough for his daily expenses.

After being laid off by Oracle, Ren Hai also tried to find a full-time job, but he was repeatedly frustrated. “Here, people over 40 are called ninja turtles. If someone gives you some work, you have to stick to it.” However, Ren Hai said that even if he had the chance, he would not go to the big factory again. “Life is like this, you have been blindfolded to go forward, but those may not be what you really want, sometimes take a step back, the sea and the sky.”
Among the group of people who joined Su Jianxiang, some were promoted to team leader, some chose to “go ashore” and went home to test for civil servants or career editors, or went to state-owned enterprises or banks, while others were still wandering in big factories. “Everyone has their own crisis. When they are promoted, they think about how to continue to be promoted and how to make themselves in a relatively safe position in the company. If they are not promoted, they have to pay off their mortgage and raise their children, and they think about how to improve their family economic safety coefficient.”
He also has classmates who don’t buy a house or get married and live in a natural and comfortable life. But Su Jianxiang thinks that people still need something in their bones. For these things, you need to get more resources. In Shenzhen, you have to have a room for your children to go to school, otherwise the kindergartens will not be arranged. In order to repay the mortgage, your income should not be too low. When you are busy with work, you don’t have much time to take care of your children. Su Jianxiang feels that this is not a normal state after all.
(Su Jianxiang, Ren Hai and Yao Gang are all pseudonyms)