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Programming IT

What's the Shelf Life of a Programmer? 388

Posted by samzenpus
from the ending-the-game dept.
Esther Schindler writes "Why is it that young developers imagine that older programmers can't program in a modern environment? Too many of us of a 'certain age' are facing an IT work environment that is hostile to older workers. Lately, Steven Vaughan-Nichols has been been noticing that the old meme about how grandpa can't understand iPhones, Linux, or the cloud is showing up more often even as it's becoming increasingly irrelevant. The truth is: Many older developers are every bit as good as young programmers, and he cites plenty of example of still-relevant geeks to prove it. And he writes, 'Sadly, while that should have put an end to the idea that long hours are a fact of IT life, this remnant of our factory-line past lingers both in high tech and in other industries. But what really matters is who's productive and who's not.'"
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What's the Shelf Life of a Programmer?

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  • by seepho (1959226) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:51PM (#41887459)

    Why is it that young developers imagine that older programmers can't program in a modern environment?

    Although I'm fighting anecdote with anecdote, I've never seen this happen. The only people I and my young coworkers assume can't program in a modern environment are people who have shown that they're unable to program at all.

  • Whatever (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ios and web coder (2552484) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:52PM (#41887465) Journal
    I'm 50, and with 30 years' experience, growing up with the Software industry, I do fine.

    I learn better today, than I did at 25.

    Back then, I just knew how to do stuff.

    Now, I also know WHY it works. Right down to the bone.

    My years of experience and nonstop training (self-training, when my company didn't want to foot the bill) has paid off in a big way.

    However, I have absolutely no illusions at all that I'd have much of a chance in the job market.

    In the day of the "brogrammer," there's no room for gray hair. I'd have to start my own company (something that I'm quite prepared to do).

    I get paid to manage younger programmers. I code for fun.
  • Ageism etc (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vlm (69642) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:53PM (#41887477)

    hostile to older workers.

    Hostile to expensive workers. Combine with the notorious inability to evaluate programmer productivity, and ...

    how grandpa can't understand iPhones, Linux, or the cloud

    I'm technically old enough to be a grandpa, in fact in the inner city I'd almost certainly be one by now (its a cultural thing, "my people" tend to get married a bit older, vs some cultures its all about the teenage/highschool pregnancy, etc) The funny part is despite my apparently grandfatherly age I've been there the whole time for all three examples, and that's not even all that unusual. Great grandma might have some issues, but not my generation.

    Now pick a fad that I am the wrong age for social reasons, that I intentionally skipped because I thought it was dumb, like SMS text messaging, or twitter, or myspace, then you've possibly got a point...

  • 5 years (Score:1, Interesting)

    by eGuy (545520) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:56PM (#41887515) Homepage
    IMHO, In five years your skills will be antiquated. While your skills are in demand, demand 4-8 hours a week to keep up on new stuff.
  • What I've seen (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Synerg1y (2169962) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:57PM (#41887537)

    I'm of the younger generation, but I've worked with all the age groups at some point or other on multiple occasions, and what I've found is... older devs tend to be more encompassing, think their approaches through, and have the jist of how to tackle a wider range of techniques / fixes (experience). Younger devs tend to be faster coders, better out-of-the-box thinkers, and more motivated to do the work (typically, comes from having something to prove), as well as try various approaches at solving a problem. There are high & low programmers in all age groups, I've met people 40+ who rattle code off methodically without external references, and those that can't rewrite a render method. A lot of "newer" code is "older" code optimized, all AJAX is is javascript more or less, insanely complicated javascript at that. A lot of big wig types find it easier to deal with somebody that is more their peer also. Another thing that comes to mind is "culture", bringing a 20-something year old into a team of 50 year olds has some serious cons to consider. There's a ton more factors, but there's a reason age isn't listed on resumes, and that's because it's the shoe that fits that you'll wear.

  • by erroneus (253617) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:59PM (#41887561) Homepage

    Whether or not there is an avalanche of contradictory evidence, most people will remain true to their beliefs and will ignore and deny facts that don't agree with them until they die.

    This is a human failing. And it is pointless to blame humans for being human. It's hard if not impossible to change the thinking of a single person. Now imagine the scale of impossiblity it would be to change the thinking of the whole human species?

    Pretty darned impossible. So what do you do about it? Well? Sometimes there simply NOTHING you can do about it. Unfortunately, the economy no longer makes "retirement" an option for everyone. And if you don't have it, you're destined to end up somewhere miserable in your twilight years hoping for death to take you when you're sleeping. Why? Because there is simply no chance of changing the world of people and their ideas that older people are incapable. Best hope is comfortable retirement if you can... ...and people need to start planning for their retirement in their 20s these days. And are 20-somethings thinking about retirement in their immortal years of adulthood? No. What about 30s? Yeah, sometimes, but often times not... they are thinking of buying bigger and better things all the time for the most part. And 40s? Oh crap... now it's definitely time to think about retirement and if you're not making a lot of money to invest in your retirement, then you are either going to have to put almost all of your extra cash in there (that's money after paying your bills and buying food on a tight budget) until that fateful day arrives when you simply can't get any more work... and then... ...then? ...Then hope that a bunch of wallstreet assholes don't tank your retirement with ponzi schemes. This is what happened to a lot of people with the economic crash.


    You can't change the world. Change what you do in it and hope for the best.

  • by michaelmalak (91262) <> on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:04PM (#41887639) Homepage

    Since everyone is putting forth their sweeping generalizations, here's mine:

    From the late 90's up until 2008-2010, there were two camps: the old school and the web crowd. But now the old school is learning web, and the web crowd is finally learning OO, design patterns, etc. So now everyone's the same.

  • Re:Whatever (Score:5, Interesting)

    by WaywardGeek (1480513) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:16PM (#41887725) Journal

    I turn 49 in three weeks, and I still love programming. It remains my work, hobby, and passion. I think my ability to crank out awesome code leveled off when I was about 30, and since then I've had to settle for enjoying mentoring the next generation rather than soaking up knowledge like a sponge. At one point, I looked around and realized there wasn't anyone left to learn from, at least not anyone who I was capable of emulating, and that many people were looking at me to help them. I started a company back in 2000, and continue to work in the position I created for myself, and I am still having a great time.

    However, I agree... If I had to go find a new job as a programmer, my age would be an issue. I intend to stick with my company as long as they need me, but after that, I'll probably start another one. I haven't become a stronger programmer with time, but the experience I've gained working in startups has made me a better entrepreneur.

  • A better question: (Score:2, Interesting)

    by briancox2 (2417470) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:22PM (#41887785) Homepage Journal
    How long before the myth that you must be 20 to be a good programmer dies out?
  • by Gramie2 (411713) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:28PM (#41887841)
    Just a small correction: I'd say that programming is a craft, more than an art. I'd liken my skills to that of a master cabinetmaker or metalworker, except that I rarely get to create the same thing (or a similar one) more than once.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:34PM (#41887923)

    I think this is perhaps the biggest thing, and might explain what made my dad finally burn out (at 50).

    People keep re-inventing the wheel, with the same shortcomings as the previous iterations, only with 10x the code.

    Back in the day it used to be possible to actually know the code, both the code of your development team as well as the code of the tools you used to produce a product.

    But today? The sheer breadth of a codebase combined with it's usually short life on-market (See every version of mono producted, and every version of java past... 1.4?) has caused it to reach a point where it's senseless to put in the time to learn the cornercases and undocumented features of a library, tool, or codebase, and rather to just work around the current issue and ignore the rest because 'it'll either get fixed when it's a glaring problem, or it'll get fixed in the next version of tool X I was using.' Only half the time when one of the bugs gets fixed a new one pops up in some existing code, or a workaround for a no-solved bug. And then the mess starts all over again. Only in 2 years time it won't matter because either the dev staff has been laid off, or you're being told to do it in .)

    While it's not to say none of this happened in the past (Because it assuredly did!), the amount of different code any one person was likely to run into in a few years of development was generally less than it might be today, although the odds of any one person being overspecialized or underspecialized in a group of languages is probably about the same.

    People need to look into spending less time reinventing the hammer, and more time on consolidating the numerous nails that have been produced as a result of hammer-mania. Perhaps then people can get back to focusing on good development practices and educating themselves on new platforms and tools.

  • by StillNeedMoreCoffee (123989) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:37PM (#41887949)

    Ah, There is the difference, just as you might say that a novelist is a craftsman rather than an artist. There is a level of understanding and experience that transforms the craft to an art. If you only think of it as a craft then for you it is a craft and will always be a craft, but as the best engineering is invisible, the same is said for an artfully crafted program, with all the considerations and degrees of freedom handled, with the flow natural and maintainable. As there is an art to poetry which is just words and sentences pieced together , there is an art to programming as well. In the construction world there are carpenters, builders and architects. The architects are the artists at the top. The craft is below. It is much easier to do the art when you have wide ranging control. So not all environments allow the practice of that art. I hope at some time in the future you have that opportunity.

  • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:47PM (#41888047)

    I'm 62 and earn my living as a software engineer. I entered the field at 52 after getting tired of doing chemistry (PhD) - learned a bit of PHP and SQL to get the foot in the door and now have picked up Java, Python and C++.

    Experience is one thing, but having a sound background in math is what makes for a really long career in technical fields, and can be used to enter into many others.

    Compared to software patterns math is far more durable and broadly applicable.

  • by ATMAvatar (648864) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:05PM (#41888245) Journal
    They allow themselves to be abused like this, so as far as the market is concerned, they want to be abused like this. As long as a significant enough fraction of developers submit and H1B visas/outsourcing can make up the difference, nothing will change.
  • by bobbied (2522392) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:09PM (#41888285)

    As an over 40 programmer with more than 20 years experience, I find your post offensive on a number of grounds.

    I have a smart phone. More than one kind actually, and I've developed software for most of them over the years. Thank you.

    I know from experience that solving problems requires that you understand what needs to be done first. I know that those who jump in without enough information end up working many times as hard as they need to. Sometimes you can get lucky and hack your way into a solution, but more often than not it will cost you dearly to maintain. You apparently don't get that.

    I've programed in Java and I fully believe that it is a valuable tool for the problems it is suited for. I also know that many software developers leave school not knowing any other tool so Java gets used places where it doesn't belong. Good programers have developed many tools over the years and knows the limitations and proper applications for each. You are a one trick pony good for only one thing, but you THINK you know everything. Smart guys listen to the old farts and try to learn from others mistakes.

    I've been doing Linux since you had to compile kernels to fit on a floppy, and back when getting X-Windows started involved actually editing text configuration files. I doubt guys like you know anything about this now that installing Linux is hitting return a few times. You can thank guys like me for making your life easier. You are welcome!

    You may be some hot shot with computers (although I doubt it) but I've seen your kind come and go. I clean up the mess they leave, not because I'm smarter, faster or some hot shot computer guy myself, but because I can and will learn. Your kind won't stop and listen, won't learn something from the prattling on about all the past failures (and some successes) I've lived though. You haven't done anything of importance yet but you refuse to listen so you can avoid the same mistakes I made when I was your age.

    You sir, need to read "The Mythical Man Month" and think about how software development hasn't really changed all that much. Sure, we may be coding Java and not assembly or JCL but at its core, the really hard part about software development hasn't changed all that much. Yea, I started coding procedurally in C back when K&R where still writing their book, but now doing Object Oriented in Java and C++ is really not that different. I've done waterfall development and now Agile in an effort to "revolutionize software development" but experience proves to me that there is no silver bullet. The hard parts of software development remain the same. But you would already know that if you'd listen to us old farts from time to time.

    Go ahead hot shot. Dive in and beat yourself to death. We've seen this kind of thing before, heck, some of us had the same attitude and already made the mistakes you are going to make. We will just stand here and wait for you to come to your senses and start asking for help. Until then, good luck.

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:10PM (#41888297) Homepage

    Frustrations of being an old programmer:

    Javascript is at last a decent object-oriented programming language, but much of the Javascript out there is miserably written by people who have no clue. Much of it is cut and pasted from older bad Javascript, with special cases for different browsers. Even worse are front ends to convert Java or something else into obfuscated Javascript.

    C should have died decades ago. The problem is that all of the replacements were worse. Modula tanked because Wirth and DEC botched the marketing. Ada tanked because it was too verbose. All the languages with garbage collection are unsuitable for low-level work. The C++ committee went off into template la-la land and became irrelevant. So we still have buffer overflows, security breaches, and crashes all over the place because the key language of the infrastructure sucks. Treating arrays as pointers was a horrible mistake.

    HTML browsers should have required, from the beginning, that the opening and closing brackets balance. Instead, we now have HTML5, with clearly defined semantics for broken HTML. Have you ever seen what has to go into an HTML 5 parser to make that work?

    Machine learning is great, but the notation of the field sucks. Most of what's going on is better visualized geometrically.

    Microsoft says the future of programming is adding trivial little "apps" to a Microsoft-provided core and being paid peanuts for them. Apple insists they get to monopolize anything worth doing, and others can only develop "apps" in areas Apple can't profit from. Not a good future.

    System administration is a blue-collar job, like electricians. But without unions.

  • by BrokenHalo (565198) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:12PM (#41888315)
    Although I am no longer very active in programming, I can sort of cope with people in modern-day shops with their toytown programming languages and IDEs being a bit sniffy about my assembly, Fortran or C skills, because I can easily prove my ability to code rings around them. What really gets on my nerves are the kiddies whose tech skills run no deeper than an ability to interact with Facebook and Twitter, but who seem to imagine that an old fart like me is clueless about the internet. I usually find it satisfying to rub their noses in it by reminding them that it was old farts like me who built the net in the first place.
  • by Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:33PM (#41888491)

    Part of the problem is younger programmers who assume they're better because they put in a lot of effort to learn the latest GUI or DB libraries, and they know the intricate specifications of six trendy programming languages off the top of their head, and they can configure four different Linux web servers on auto-pilot. See, they're always keeping up to date!

    Older and wiser programmers know that usually, to a first approximation, a GUI library is a GUI library and a programming language is a programming language and a web server is a web server. They're just tools, and while some are better than others, it's what you build with those tools that ultimately matters.

    Of course, they also know when and how to check out the specifics and decide which tools are right for a given job, but they don't waste time on that until they have a need for it, which makes them less buzzword compliant in the eyes of the newbies (but a lot more productive).

    When a tool isn't just a rehash of numerous similar tools before it, it's usually the older and more experienced folks who came up with the industry-moving developments, but the newbie programmers who are buzzword aggregators always trying to improve a resume and the naive managers who hire based on buzzwords don't notice that sort of thing. They don't care that someone older could build an efficient database schema that answers the important questions in an instant, or an easy-to-use GUI that customers love, or a robust concurrent server that doesn't crash and make you look like idiots in front of those same customers. Do you have at least 7 years of experience with C# 5?

    Of course some older programmers really do slow down, stop learning, and coast along. It might be getting stuck in a rut and not bothering to do anything about it. It might be a matter of changing priorities, family commitments becoming more demanding and the like.

    But the thing that really divides the good older programmers, IME, is whether or not they know how to take advantage of their greater understanding and better transferrable skills. If you're still playing resume buzzword bingo at 40, you're doing it wrong, not least because it implies you still look for jobs by spamming resumes like a college grad. You should be landing a good position through your network contacts before it's even advertised, transferring from wage slave to freelancer/contractor/consultant arrangements, starting your own business so you're on the other side of the desk, or otherwise avoiding being a victim of ignorance.

    In short, an older developer who knows what they're doing has a more-or-less indefinite shelf life, as long as they don't play games with young, dumb people who don't understand why. As a bonus, avoiding those games is an excellent filter for avoiding crappy jobs, poor working conditions, incompetent colleagues, and low pay. :-)

  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:43PM (#41888569) Journal
    Old fart here, 20+yrs of experience, three grandchildren and still on the "shelf". I work as a developer for a Japanese mega-corp in Australia, the ~25 others who work in our department are all over 40 (except the secretary), all of them have 10+yrs of experience (including the secretary). Three of these people want to work at their projects for more than 8hrs a day, the others don't. Those 3 people are rewarded for their efforts but not sufficiently to encourage the others to do the same, they do it basically because they want to do it, not because they have to, in fact there are a few of us who could afford to retire but don't because they want to work. We are a well managed and happy crew because we know how to push back at our managers in a constructive manner, sure management would like us all to work as long and hard as those 3 people and have twice the man hours to play with but the managers are also experienced and know not to push it as an unwritten condition of employment.
  • by Kjella (173770) on Monday November 05, 2012 @08:24PM (#41888967) Homepage

    In the construction world there are carpenters, builders and architects. The architects are the artists at the top. The craft is below.

    If you're designing the Sydney Opera, you're creating a work of art. If you're doing the n'th residential house so it'll blend in with the neighborhood and comply with all the regulatory standards but otherwise little boxes all the same (cue Weeds theme) then you're doing a craft. Like with houses, there's a lot more craftsmanship than artwork to be done. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of skill that goes into making it well but unless you consider every highly skilled worker to be an artist there's not much art. Particularly in software I have the impression it's much more about making sure all the i's are dotted and t's crossed because the computer has zero tolerance for sloppiness. That kind of rigidity is hardly what most people associate with art.

  • new tricks (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PopeRatzo (965947) on Monday November 05, 2012 @08:32PM (#41889039) Homepage Journal

    " Too many of us of a 'certain age' are facing an IT work environment that is hostile to older workers. "

    It has nothing to do with the attitudes of younger workers. I work in a field where the oldest workers are treated with the most respect because experience, insight and wisdom are highly regarded. The youngest are most likely to treat the oldest with deference.

    It just so happens that like most industries, there is consolidation in the IT industry, and that means more power to fewer companies. Since those companies no longer see the communities in which they reside as having any value beyond the tax benefits they are willing to grant the company, they have no problem cutting the oldest workers loose because they tend to have been around longer and make a few dollars more than their younger counterparts. Since they worry about age discrimination suits, they just can't say, "Get lost, old man," they create a hostile work environment, hoping for attrition.

    This is one reason you are seeing such a concerted attack by businesses on workplace rules and civil rights laws. Those "age discrimination" rules are part of what they call "stifling over-regulation", along with minimum wages, child labor laws and environmental regulations.

    Left to their own devices, these companies would be more than happy to see the US turn into one big Foxconn dormitory.

  • 55 and still alive (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 05, 2012 @08:41PM (#41889137)

    Changed jobs 4 times in the last 15 years, usually due to buyouts and downsizing, though I am typically one of the last standing. Never been unemployed for longer than two months (that during the bust).

    I'm through with large corporations. They don't know how to build their talent and don't value teams, can't assess productivity, don't know their end-users (just the buyers). Too many ill-conceived projects ill-managed. Working for a smaller company now, and enjoying the impact I can make on a business this size. Pay is competitive, though I could make 20% more if I wanted to put up with the corp b.s., longer hours, and be programmer-in-a-box.

    Am I at my prime? No! My memory is not as good as it used to be, and so I've compensated by honing my research skills. I no longer like pursuing technical solutions that may be interesting but offer no business (or end-user) benefit. I enjoy working hard, 40 hours a week. I put in overtime when it's enjoyable and productive. I may not be ninja anymore, but I have loads of experience on projects from conception to completion to initial maintenance cycles. I can smell failure a mile away.

    I stay competitive. Moved from 4GL -> C -> C++ ->Java -> HTML+CSS+JS. Currently reimplementing a web site using jQuery, node.js, and Groovy. And yet perhaps the real reason I'm still in the game is that I'm not a geek's geek. I am primarily a problem solver, customer empathetic, and laaaaazy. I look for the expedient way to get things done and don't care much if I impress my colleagues with my l337 5k1llz. I communicate and write well, and would rather work in a collaborative environment than one with hotshot cowboys who can't be bothered to document or mentor and see nails everywhere the moment they discover the latest cool language/framework/service hammer.

    Unless I pop a brain vessel, I expect to be good for another 10 years. It's not been hard for me personally to find employment, and on terms that I can tolerate.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 05, 2012 @10:15PM (#41889887)

    And I'm vastly enjoying when the sharp, young programmers have their exciting new idea, and I ask them about a specific issue with the approach. They google, check the top few links, and respond with some trite answer. Then I get to walk them back to the thread and walk them through the *REST* of the thread, and to the real answer, which I *wrote* 10 years ago.

    This happens to me at least once every six months: it's a tremendous advantage in the open source world when you caught the open source project early and helped bring in lessons hard-won over the last 20 years, such as not inventing yet another replacement for "make" or inventing a new value for "successful" operations.

  • by Anne Thwacks (531696) on Tuesday November 06, 2012 @03:17AM (#41891209)
    Most managers are embarrassed at the idea of telling someone older than themselves what to do, and too poor at human relations to figure out that the answer is to ask nicely, In some cases this is made worse by them reading "the management skills of Genghis Khan" and believing that bullying people and ignoring advice is the route to success - which it probably is, if you are running some kind of Ponzi scam (eg a bank).
  • by silentcoder (1241496) on Tuesday November 06, 2012 @04:39AM (#41891517) Homepage

    >The battle cry to unionize programmers is such a thing -- it says "I expect to be useless in the near future, an obstacle to progress of any kind, and I require collective bargaining to hold onto what I can't by skill and effort alone".

    I call bullshit. You know why ? Because I first heard that battlecry on slashdot when I first started reading it, back at my first helldesk job during college in 1998.
    See your disparaging view of collective bargaining is a big giveaway that you're letting your political/economic views prevent you from rationally interpreting the evidence before you.

    The real truth is more like this - why is wallmart cheaper than the Mom and Pop store ? Because they can buy in bulk. They buy large amounts, so they get cheaper prices, so they can sell cheaper. That's EFFICIENCY.
    Bulk always works out more efficient if you can manage it.
    It works on EVERY level of the economy. For consumers collective-purchasing companies are an old and established system that works in the same way. You join an organisation, get a membership card and shops charge you less. Not because YOU are special to the shop - but because the shop has a deal with the purchasing company - "we will offer your members discounts" - the purchasing company can get those deals because it has a LOT of members - which is attractive to the store.
    That's collective bargaining's core efficiency boost on two separate levels.

    It ALSO works for employees. One employee has limited ability to truly negotiate his terms -hell even for executives most companies have fixed payscales (and this is true even in countries where unions aren't legal disproving the common gripe of blaming it ON unions). Why ? Because it's CHEAPER for the company. Having one standard "fill-in-the-blanks" contract means a LOT less money spent on lawyers. Simply refusing to hire ANYBODY who doesn't go along with the stock-standard contract and it's rules is a major saving on administrative costs (companies may be wrong about this but most consider it unlikely that any individual employees could bring SO MUCH value as to justify the massive cost increase and STILL be profitable to hire).

    But it DOES make sense for the company to negotiate with ALL the employees. All the employees together have a bargaining power no single employee can have - AND it's in the companies interest to do it this way because it means they keep the savings of "form agreements".
    Bulk agreements are ALWAYS more cost efficient. When a single entity can afford to do so, they score - but even wallmart can only get bulk deals because they have a LOT of customers.
    Bulk is only FEASIBLE when you have lots of people acting collectively.

    Collectively bargaining is the epitome of capitalist efficiency and every attempt to paint it otherwise is china-style state/crony capitalism in disguise. This is just as true for employees as it is for consumer-power organisations or bulk-stores.

Although the moon is smaller than the earth, it is farther away.