Are Older Programmers Relevant?

by Robert John Stevens, June 13, 2016

A potential employer sent me an email today which includes these classic but insightful statements that are akin to firing a cannon bow over the bow of an old ship:

Andrew [their software development manager] firmly believes that years of experience and years of learning are not necessarily correlated, so in many cases, if the software engineer has not spent a lot of time in continuous learning, they are not valuable just because they are older engineers and have been in the industry for years. Many companies have opted to get rid of the older engineers and hire two younger ones for the same salary. We are seeing this happen all of the time, mostly at the larger companies.

As we get older we think and accumulate insights about our profession. Although I’m a programmer, I suspect these thoughts are relevant for many other technical professions:

Looking back on your career, did you become smarter and more valuable? How will that change in another five or ten years? Will you be more or less relevant? How will you compete with younger professionals?

Have you realized that 75% of startups and 90% of projects fail? These statistics apply to the companies you worked for, the projects you worked on and your friends’ resumes.

What makes a good programmer? Is success a result of hard work, passion, dedication, knowledge, teamwork, teachability, wisdom, drive, insights and persuasion? How could you have identified past failures and predicted winners?

Over time do you think more about correct principles than details such as programming language syntax?

Can you identify programming teams that spent millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that were challenged by one to six programmers who created a competitor offering in a fraction of the time and on a very small budget?

Have you noticed that new college graduates, although smart and fast, never learned in school how to perfect and release a product as we did at work?

Is programming really a career or a short-term opportunity for the young as is professional football ?

Is a programmer’s career a bell curve that peaks out at a certain age and becomes less valuable over time?

I haven’t quit to become a Realtor or a car salesman because I enjoy programming, have a genuine love and passionate for software development, am fascinating by emerging web technologies, am motivated to provide for my wife and young children, and am still passionate about doing something great with my life.

The best programmer I know is Dallan Quass, the former CTO of FamilySearch.org — a billion dollar software project. He’s in his early fifties and is rewriting FamilySearch all by himself using modern technologies. I’ve seen it. He can do it. He will do it. My goal is to be more like Dallan.

I know living near work is a huge benefit, especially for older programmers. Working outside my own startups I may learn a lot and feel great satisfaction working with other smart people. I’m sure I’d mentor others, freely share wisdom and help steer them better. I am also sure I’d fix critical problems where others gave up.

Corporate teams know what competitive salaries are and what motivates good people to join and become top contributors, but how do those rules apply to older programmers?

No interview will compensate for working alongside new programmers. We learn a lot after a day, more in a few months and the most in hindsight.

Are older programmers relevant? Maybe. Maybe not. StackOverflow reports only 2.4% of programmers are 51 and older. I think it really depends on how motivated we are, whether or not we’ve kept current, and our ability to focus.

Personally, I’d just like to find one other good programmer to work with, or perhaps a small team of programmers who are dedicated to a cause, on a project we mutually believe in, somewhere where we can work without interruption, for a salary that will relieve us from financial pressures, and for enough time for us to succeed.

Comments

From Dr. Phil Windley

The problem, as you point out is that keeping up with changing tech is real work. Many people don’t want to do it. Software development isn’t like bricklaying or plumbing where skills don’t change quickly. Heck, there’s a new JS framework every day. You can ignore some of them, but you can’t ignore the trends. You can’t stop doing new things. I’ve been teaching CS462 for 17 years. And I’ve redone it a dozen times.

Younger programmers are often more enthusiastic about learning new things. And so they come across as more capable in a world that rewards cutting and pasting stuff from StackOverflow or wrangling a new framework.

I’ve hired older programmers in my career and I was attracted to them for their knowledge of the fundamentals of computer science, including parsing, AST optimization, operating system design, etc.

One advantage of younger programmers is that they’re sometimes freed by what they don’t know. Consequently they enthusiastically push forward undeterred by the problems down the road. Provided they don’t work themselves into a cul-de-sac, that’s probably OK.

From Al Gregory, Hyde Park Pros:

Thanks Robert! It’s funny, when I was a younger recruiter (in my late thirties) I would chuckle at candidates complaining about age discrimination. Now, in my low 50’s, especially in IT, I see it as a rampant problem. I believe that it is primarily a result of hiring managers being lazy. You kind of know what you get with two young programmer – but you have to dig pretty deep to find out if an older candidate is a Dynamo, a Cruiser, or a Loser (concepts from a book I read by David Maister).

It’s definitely a challenge to find a hiring manager who is willing to take on the challenge of really determining the potential value of an older candidate!