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It's Hard For Techies Over 40 To Stay Relevant, Says SAP Lab Director 441

Posted by timothy
from the cannon-fodder dept.
New submitter NewYork writes with this chestnut from an article about the role of age in the high-tech workplace: 'The shelf life of a software engineer today is no more than that of a cricketer — about 15 years,' says V R Ferose, MD of German software major SAP's India R&D Labs that has over 4,500 employees . 'The 20-year-old guys provide me more value than the 35-year-olds do.'" The article features similar sentiments from Mukund Mohan, CEO of Microsoft's India-based startup initiative.
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It's Hard For Techies Over 40 To Stay Relevant, Says SAP Lab Director

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  • by rtp (49744) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @10:36AM (#42018771) Homepage

    Youth is idealistic, therefore generally willing to commit much longer work hours "for the cause." Older adults understand the value in applying time toward family, raising children, and focusing more on quality solutions versus brute-force/take-the-hill/quantity solutions.

    And/or, do we have a generation shift where the 40+ year-old workforce today operates at a different tempo versus the newest generation? Is the next generation that enters the workforce committed more to work for a rapid increase in pay? The 26 year-old knucklehead in his mom's basement suggests otherwise, but perhaps he is the rare exception at the bottom left of the bell curve?

  • by kbonin (58917) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @10:46AM (#42018815) Homepage

    Writing as someone coding professionally since the early 80s, in project teams sizes from 3 to 10k, and at the highest primarily engineering position I can achieve without becoming a non-coding manager (Systems Architect)...

    As engineers age, they may gain experience, but productivity does often drop. We also have those pesky families and/or work-life balance goals. And an unfortunately repeating pattern for engineers is reaching a point where they now think they know everything they need to, and learning grinds down, sometimes to nothing. If they only work on legacy code that might be OK if no innovation is required. Domain knowledge is difficult to quantify the value of, and varies greatly by organization and project, and I would argue that all seniors should work hard at making sure this is clearly documented AND passed down.

    Most companies are happy to keep a few older experienced engineers around to try and direct teams of young high productivity programmers (no family / life, willing to work 60-100 hour weeks) and attempt to mentor them to make less mistakes. Increasingly these teams are in low cost regions, most commonly India.

    I would begrudgingly agree that in most cases, in terms of a cost / benefit analysis of 'value to the organization / stockholder', which is what really matters, this is true a statistically significant percentage of the time.

    Of course, most of the time comments like this are merely the result of a HR directive to cull expensive engineers to reduce payroll and make room for more low cost region 'resources', driven by a suit that doesn't understand the full value of their older engineers. Unfortunately we live in a world where most important decisions are made by MBAs without a clue. Older engineers must learn to make sure the layers above them understand their real value to the organization.

  • by ElRabbit (2624627) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @10:47AM (#42018823)
    I am running a small high tech company in Digital TV and we are mostly experienced people in there (20 yr experience). We recently hired a young programmer but I know this guy will probably cost us money for at least the next two year, this is an investment we make into training him so he don't get spoiled with javascript and powerpoints. For now, he is nearly useless, he is full of "thing", but cannot manage to turn this into a product or even a useful feature. Other experienced guys can run mostly unmonitored without the fear that they will get lost in the wild, produce something useless or bug stuffed code spaghetti bowl (hail the great flying paste monster). Of course if your running a business where you invoice (a lot) companies for creating data entry forms with a cryptic software which was supposed to enable to create them themselves in the first place, you will need a lot of don't-think-don't-ask-question coding monkey ...
  • Re:Here you go (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rob the Bold (788862) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @10:48AM (#42018833)

    Why the FUCK should students going to college today sign up to go into a career where they know they'll be out of work in 15 years?

    Bingo. Whether this guy's comment is accurate or just reflects the attitude of employers in the field, the fruits of this policy would be a vast reduction in available 20-year-olds in the future. And the 20-year-olds he would still get would be the ones that we sufficiently short-sighted to consider 15 years to be a lifetime.

  • Re:India (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 18, 2012 @10:49AM (#42018839)

    20 years ago in school, I have a friend from India, who was worried that the computer skills he was then learning in the US would be useless in India when he returns because computers were too expensive in India at that time.

    So you can guess that, in India, techies over 40 have just as little experience with computers as techies in their 30s, since they all started 10-20 years ago! No wonder India managers found older techies giving them no additional value.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 18, 2012 @10:58AM (#42018871)

    ...companies that bought "awesome" Indian dev companies filled with hundreds of 20 year olds.

    They were totally useless (not because of the kids, but the fact that effective software engineering LEADERSHIP doesn't seem to exist in the majority of Indian software companies.)

    Now, that's often the case elsewhere, but it seems to be particularly endemic to the Indian way of doing things. It's too bad as well, because some of the best software engineers I've worked worth are ex-pat Indians. Plenty of talent over there, total lack of leadership.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 18, 2012 @11:11AM (#42018919)

    once people hit 40 they actually expect to have decent pay and some time to spend with their family...

    As a hiring manager I see the opposite. The 20-somethings are the ones who expect easy money and have an active social life outside the job. The 40's are more realistic about raises and have grown kids, so less demands on their time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 18, 2012 @11:14AM (#42018937)

    It's SAP and it's India. It's probably a lab that is one step up on data entry.

  • Re:Corporate value (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ultima (3696) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @11:25AM (#42018999)

    'The 20-year-old guys provide me more value than the 35-year-olds do.'"

    Value=lower salary & willing to give up having a life outside of work.

    And that's really it.

    Older folks, generally, cost more.

    In the US, (I'll make some numbers up, but depending on where you are, the proportions are correct) corporate hiring knows they can hire a rockstar out of college for less than $90k, or an average programmer for less than $70k. (Even as that rockstar is 3-10* as productive as an average employee). Why pay $120-50k for an average 45 year old engineer? They assume the experienced rockstars figured it out, started their own businesses, or otherwise moved into senior non-coder roles, and the aged coders are people who just couldn't cut it doing something else. So your software engineering degree isn't necessarily worth less, but if you expect to be doing the same thing with it at 45 that you did at 21, you have a surprise coming unless you plan very well. There are great ways of doing this - becoming a subject-matter expert in something rare, consulting, moving into a mentoring role, or working for companies that are less bottom-line focused (government/military-industrial complex). But there's a substantial number of software developers for whom there is someone else willing to try to do their job for less $. That's one of the big reasons for both unions and professional licensure, but that's another discussion.

    This isn't unique at all to us. Any job enjoys this - "Step Up or Step Out". If you're an aging worker, you've always got to ask yourself what you provide that a college grad doesn't. (And hope you aren't asking what you provide that a HS grad doesn't, like many folks had to during/after the .com bubble). The canonical answer is "experience", but the professions show that isn't really true unless you can directly demonstrate it. More senior doctors in some fields are more prone to mistakes than younger doctors, because the senior doctors trust their "experience" whereas the younger doctors trust research. But the senior doctors also handle more patients, due in part to the same corner-cutting.

  • Indian sweat shops (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mrops (927562) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @11:57AM (#42019229)

    I am an Indian. And he is correct for the wrong reasons. Western countries should actually do something about this, kind of like how they (at the very least) frown upon sweat shops of china.

    Guys like him exploit young IT workers as they are starting their career trying to prove something. This results in 12+ hour working days and often weekends too. If AT&T pays some company in India to do some software, they need it done. the company in India treats these folks like work horses and 11:00AM to 11:00PM, 7 day a routine is quite common. Hence a 40 year with family with a PM around his age will say screw you and go to his kids. It has nothing much to do with tehcnologically relevant or not, so the 20 year slave labour does provide him more value. Not only does he work hours on end, he asks lesser money. A shit peace of software with a pretty interface is delivered to the client, non-techie iPhone generation business people see this bit, say, ooh look slide to unlock, this must be good, lets cut the check. Off to another client.

    Anyhow, I am 37 and learned to say no to pushy managers long back, clearly I don't provide the value I did 10 years ago when 11-11 was the norm.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 18, 2012 @12:13PM (#42019363)

    Yeah, this whole concept is idiotic. I'm 35 and I consider myself closer to the beginning than the end of my career as a software engineer. I work for a huge company with over 100k employees and most of the engineers I work with are older than me by anywhere from a decade to two (and in some cases, more). I would say that by 35, you are only starting to really hit your stride in being a domain expert and having a lot of information *and* experience to be of true value. You rely less on other people, you know your shit, you don't hesitate and need to "check on that".

    I don't know who is promoting this whole "ageism durp durp durp!" thing, but it's complete bullshit.

  • by Ramley (1168049) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @12:17PM (#42019373)
    I'm 48, self-employed, and spend a good deal of time putting out security fires, and/or filling in the gaps that the younger, (very) less experienced guys didn't think through their solutions.

    As one of my roles, I am the "go-to" guy for organizations which have development staff, but only have 1/2 of the required talent, if that makes any sense.

    The more companies begin to understand / evolve online, the more open their eyes will be when they realize they've had their first SQL injection, etc. This is when people like us come in -- but the key to our success is keeping up with constantly changing technology, and doing it well.
  • by Jawnn (445279) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @12:28PM (#42019453)

    Finally - having just gone through a project with 3 oldsters pushing 50+ & three young guns just out of school (one a PHD & the other two youngsters Masters degree holders) I can tell you with certainty that the company took over a year recovering from the mistakes made by the newbies.

    BS to the whole thing.

    Precisely. Our shop is small, but I can tell you with certainty that most valuable developers are the oldest. Certainly, that's not a hard an fast rule - there are poor coders in all age groups, but the best young ones can't hold a candle to the best veterans. Not even close. Wisdom and knowledge are two different things. If I had a nickle for every time our most senior developer smiled wryly and shook his head when someone offered up some unworkable approach to this or that problem, I'd have a lot of nickles. The insight that allows him to immediately identify dead-ends is something that is born only from long experience. Sure, we'd all reach the same conclusion, eventually, but he's able to jump over the time-wasters because he's been down there.
    Then there's the actual quality of his work. Generally speaking, he can to in n lines of well-documented and easy to follow code what it might take the new guys 1.5n, or more. That ability has value that doesn't show up well in most metrics.

  • Re:Here you go (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Xeranar (2029624) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @12:31PM (#42019489)

    Short answer: Capitalism is a meat grinder. We don't have a shortage of science and tech workers, just cheap ones. Our world's economy is run by business majors not economists just as our governments are dominated by lawyers not political scientists. They aren't interested in fact-based outcome decision making. If they were we would be in anmuch different and better world.

  • by I_am_Jack (1116205) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @12:46PM (#42019655)

    Meanwhile if you had gone to business school you would be relevant forever and probably better paid.

    Nope, the same applies to business. People in their 20's are willing to worker longer hours and for less money than someone who is older, has a longer resume and is worth more in salary, and is less willing to devote stupidly long hours to a career which is already established. Those industries which can make their quarterly reports look good by throwing more workers at a problem will always be inclined to hire those who work longer for less. When I think back to my 20's and what I thought was a lot of money then versus what I know I need now, I realize why I was easily exploitable. It's not because you're good and smart, it's because you might be good, you might be smart, but they'll settle for how long you'll work for as little as they can pay. If you turn out to be a rockstar, they might promote you, but more than likely they'll use you for what they can get out of you, and then hire a replacement when you get a job that pays more for fewer hours.

    Not that correlation equals causality, but the fact an employee thinks it's a great idea to work hard to buy an expensive cell phone to take pictures of food from a trendy restaurant is not lost on upper management.

  • by HornWumpus (783565) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @12:53PM (#42019721)

    When you realize that you would have done more better work on a more reasonable schedule then you will be somewhere.

    The reason you work about 40-50 hours/week is so you have something in the tank when a genuine crises happens.

    Work 2 weeks of 7x12 and you are wrecking things when you think you are working productively. Don't do that. Managers that crack the whip to get this are morons or are being rated with broken metrics. Insane hours are a peter principle consequence. He's too incompetent to rate anything but hours (whoever he is).

  • by ink (4325) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @01:42PM (#42020139) Homepage

    You hit the nail on the head. I was willing to put up with a lot more bullshit when I was in my 20's. I was willing to "write to spec" at the behest of bad managers even when the spec was clearly ridiculous. I was willing to put in extra time at work because I did not have a family or much savings. Now, I prefer to do meaningful work and pursue my own interests in off-hours. The video game companies went through this problem about ten years ago (full disclosure: I work in that industry). They would hire a bunch of young, hungry developers and burn them out on a few titles, then shut down the studio. It turns out that doing that is not a long-term strategy because you destroy your capital -- and so they changed course (well, most companies did) and started investing in long-term, productive work forces.

  • Re:Or even older (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Gorobei (127755) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @02:36PM (#42020625)

    Of course, that one example is the type of thing would actually REQUIRE older guys because of the old code involved. How often, really, does that come up anymore, when viewed as a percentage of all software work?

    Probably about as much as the type of thing that would actually REQUIRE young cheap guys: a "business solutions provider" that sells the next big thing to customers every five years, while making profits on customization, support, migrations, and extensions. The company just needs a endless supply of cheap beginners willing to learn quirky frameworks and hack out a ton of code to lock in the clients.

    Fat clients, thin clients, server-client, SOA, compute-on-demand, the cloud, log-in anywhere, computing fabric, XML, beans, enterprise architectures tend to be little more the the last decade's technology renamed, rebranded, and resold to the same customers, but with a new set of 25 year-old faces assuring them it's going to be better this time.

  • by BenEnglishAtHome (449670) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @02:39PM (#42020671)

    The people who are still around after 20 years ... are binary: they're either wizards or burnouts.

    What gets me is how quick they can flip. I was a wizard, though not a coder, more of a crypto specialist with a TLA who did lots of other stuff on the side.

    We went through a management re-shuffle from top to bottom that just about killed morale in the entire organization. In my case, no other function could borrow me for a project without a writ from on high. In the past, IT could lend me to another division to help them over a hump and build up favors that helped *everyone* the next time a new project came along and workload negotiations were happening. No longer. I got all my "interesting" work taken away. This was the stuff I did all day, every day, for years. I was re-directed to my core duties (which were fine...if boring) *only*. Literally, the last time I was lent from my division to another, the person who asked to borrow me had to take the request all the way up to the office of a presidential appointee to get me for two weeks (and I worked in one of the few TLAs where there are almost no political appointees except at the very top.)

    It took me less than 5 years to flip from wizard to burnout.

    They wanted to reduce staff and one day, out of the blue, offered me a few bucks and a reduced pension to retire early. I was out the door so fast, I feared the vacuum behind me would suck all the furniture out into the hallway.

    A few months later, I got invited back for a Christmas party. Management had been lying (of course) and they had not reduced staff. They had replaced me with 2 contractors. My old work partner described them as "#1 sits around and plays with his smartphone all day. #2 has a brain; in 10 years, we'll be able to get half the work out of him we used to get from you. Neither of them will ever have a clue where all the bodies are buried like you did." He then proceeded to tell me he was getting out within 6 months.

    Mod parent up; "...hire wizards and ...shift... burnouts into doing something they ... enjoy more, because older workers bring a lot of experience and realism to the game" is the best advice I've seen yet in all the replies to this article.

  • Re:Or even older (Score:4, Interesting)

    by asmkm22 (1902712) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @04:09PM (#42021423)

    I would agree with this. Coders tend to be considered in their prime during the early 20's simply because it's probably something they've been doing for 5 or 10 years anyway. It's the sort of hobby that gets picked up early on, and with enthusiasm.

    Learning how to be a systems or network admin, or any of the specialized variants (Cisco admin, etc) isn't something most people even consider until they have to. It's not glamorous work. It doesn't have the immediate gratification that, say, building a web site or updating a piece of software does. Not only that, but if a sys admin does his job well, he goes unnoticed, which means anyone who places importance on satisfaction gained through recognition will quickly burn out, move into another field, or try for management.

    There's a place for every age and personality type. The article does seem to be talking more about the coders than the admins, and that's a really important group of people to miss.

  • Re:Or even older (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gmack (197796) <{ten.erifrenni} {ta} {kcamg}> on Sunday November 18, 2012 @06:06PM (#42022151) Homepage Journal

    The counter point to that was a programmer I once worked with named Marc who was an accountant who taught himself to code in his 30s first with ASP and then with PHP. The simple fact is that he was an amazing programmer. He didn't know every silly trick with the language but he was careful and put out mostly bug free code on his first try.

    The fact is that most programmers I know spend their early 20s making mistakes and learning the hard way why showing off while coding only leads to tears and I'll take older and experienced over young and foolish anyday.

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