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How often are the unfortunate stereotypes associated with older techies true?

When people get settled into a career--Do people lose their passion to learn new things? Do people get comfortable and stuck with one skillset and incapable of change? How common is this? I don't mean to be offensive with this question. I know many skilled older programmers. But you do sometimes see a "failure mode" when people get too comfortable in their jobs, skills, and lifestyle--too much so that they get irritated at the thought of having to learn something new. I see this and I'm deathly afraid of it happening to me. I want to emphasize I think there is also a "failure mode" for youth -- not really having the experience to know how to get a project done. The "youth" failure mode may be worse then the one I'm describing. I think the best teams have both junior and senior members.

Am I just rehashing old, wrong stereotypes? Is there something to guard against when one gets settled into a career? Or am I just another ageist young programmer keeping the old-(wo)man down?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, GlenH7, MichaelT, Dan Pichelman, Kilian Foth Sep 23 '13 at 8:54

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

possible duplicate of How old is "too old"? – ChrisF Sep 10 '10 at 14:51
@ChrisF I think I'm asking from a slightly different direction. I updated the title to hopefully reflect what I'm really asking. – Doug T. Sep 10 '10 at 15:15
OK - I can't remove close votes, so we'll have to let it decay away over time. – ChrisF Sep 10 '10 at 15:36
They live in another planet. – bigown Sep 11 '10 at 0:13
... and so will you... – Mike Dunlavey Apr 27 '11 at 17:03

6 Answers 6

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Stereotypes exist because there is some basis in truth. But only some. Yes some programmers are resistant to change or start to take the easy way out. This has less to do with their age than with their basic personality but it seems to be easier to spot with age because we assume something else about the bad young programmers.

And yes, sometimes you reach a point where you are tired of beating your head against a wall by suggesting changes that never are approved and you give up. Clearly it takes time to get to this point, so most of those people are older.

Then as you get older and have family obligations, you just don't have as much personal time to research new things and contribute to open source projects etc.

But on the other hand as you get older, you've seen alot of these tools come and go and seen the disasters that happen when basing a redesign on an untried tool that no one on the team knows and that turns out doesn't work for your particular problem, but it took six months to realize it. So maybe experience is telling you that jumping on the bandwagon of every new nifty thing that comes along is counterproductive in the long run. And yes as you've gotten older you've been on a few death marches or had to maintain software designed with some cool new thing that is no longer being used and there is very little information about it. So yeah, sometimes we aren't as willing to leap into yet another canyon with no parachute. Once burned, twice shy.

Older programmers also may have the opportunity to learn something in depth rather than skimming the top out of a whole bunch of new things. So sometimes they know they can easily build something in the existing tool rather than spend months getting to that level of knowledge is yet another tool. We are here to deliver products not use the newest shinest things and older developers who have stayed in development are often quite good at delivering things. So why should we listen to the young person who have never delivered a finished business application in his life about what to use?

And while stereotypes always have a grain of truth, they aren't truth. There are good and bad older programmers just like there are good and bad young programmers and so forth for any group of people. It is better to treat people as individuals. Talk to each other across group boundaries, you may find out they have valid reasons for what they do or you may learn something or you may teach them something when you don't come across as a know-it-all kid who thinks everyone else is stupid. (I had a Navy Master Chief point this out to me when I was 24, it was painful but ultimately it made me more effective at work.) If you want your ideas to be respected and even implemented, then treat your co-workers (even the ones you don't like) with respect. People will start treating you better and start listening to you more.

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I feel developers who are not truly passionate about software will burn out over time. The fact they are older simply has to do with the fact they couldn't force themselves, eternally, to love something they were never truly in love with in the first place.

Also, family responsibilities take away from time to learn new technology and code all hours of the day. In my parent's day (I'm 30), 30% of households had dual working relationships, now 70% of them do. Take that into account when trying to juggle 2 kids, daycare, a mortgage, etc. to the kid fresh out of school with no wife, no mortgage, and no kids.

I think a lot of things change with age, and while some of them may be worse, some are better. I'd say the main benefit which comes from age is maturity. A young developer (and I still consider myself young) has no clue about how the real business world operates until they have spent some time in it. Once that has happened, that individual becomes qualified for a larger list of roles (management, sales, etc).

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But also passionate developers can burn out. Non-passionate developers have the advantage that they either don't know that the code is a mess or they don't care. – LennyProgrammers Sep 10 '10 at 15:35
The fact that they are older has more to do with not dying. No matter how much you love your art, age or death are the only options currently available to humans. – Pete Kirkham Sep 10 '10 at 19:43
there are plenty of burned out passionate programmers that have had the passion scrubbed out by sausage factories – geocoin Sep 13 '10 at 10:18

You mean that someone old enough to have programmed Lisp and Smalltalk isn't that enthused by learning Python and Ruby? Much of what is 'new' is simply history repeated, with a few more CPU cycles to back it up.

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You don't have to be old too have programmed Lisp and Smalltalk. Both are still around. Old is if you programmed Algol. – Don Roby Oct 10 '10 at 23:17
Ruby isn't a new language by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is Python ;) – luis.espinal Oct 18 '10 at 13:06
Actually yes, this is exactly the sort of attitude the old programmers are stereotyped with. 'I don't have to learn anything new because things were better in the old days anyhow'. – N Reed Jan 23 '11 at 14:12
++ You mean with a few more CPU cycles to waste? – Mike Dunlavey Apr 27 '11 at 16:03
@Don: I programmed Fortran 2/4/77/95, Algol, Lisp, Pascal, C, C++, C#, Matlab, S, numerous assembly languages. New languages are OK, if I happen to need them. When machines ran at 100khz, performance was important. It still is. I always knew this, but I'm amazed most people don't. I've mellowed. The last time I was really creative was in 1986, when I invented this, but I still do the tough stuff. – Mike Dunlavey Apr 27 '11 at 16:14

Well, actually, I guess you can add me to that crowd you're so afraid of. I'm not even 30, but I really, really hate the flying over clouds nowadays.

The reason is simple, over the course of 10+ years I've seen ton of technologies that are being hyped, .NET, Cloud computing, Cloud services, OWL, Web only computing, parallel computing, ray-tracing via Larabree, etc.

And IMHO, most of these technologies have only obtained 5% of what they've been hyped up-to.

Yet... We have ton of half baked amateurish solutions on each of those platforms. There are good ones too, but a lot of bad ones as well.

People say you have to learn new languages, technologies, etc., etc. But this has caused the decline in proficiency in everything. Because the quality of code you write in a platform with less than 3 year experience is substandard. When all you see is new half baked prototypes, what you code, also turns out into half baked prototypes.

Most of new coders wouldn't find their way around linked list with all the Visual Studio generated code nowadays, and the very moment you learn 5 languages in 21 days, you joint that quality standard.

That's of course is only my opinion.

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Ah grasshopper, we all have crosses to bear. You too will reach that age, unless you die young. I am somewhere 2X the age of most of these posters, but I keep myself up to speed on "the next big thing"(tm). This means that I regularly push myself to learn something new. I am now looking at Scala to do Android development. I don't care whether it is more or less efficient that iOS, I only care that it is a technology with which I am not familiar.

All of us get older. Some are born curmudgeons. Don't confuse the two.

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Career change requires new skills. New skills don't always come by reading a book. Even if one is able to educate one's self, employers don't always respect this.

To make the situation worse, recruiting agencies step in between the applicant and the job and judge your skills based on their background. So, they'd think that DataStage 7.2 is very different from DataStage 7.0 and accordingly, you are not the one for the job.

I know lots of MVS CICS COBOL developers that could not make it in the business even though they tried.

Even within the same language base, new comers are not always welcome. How many employers would be eager to hire a senior windows forms developer in an ASP.NET job?

The job market is very selective, and employers will seek the most talented, educated and the younger. Sequence in the last sentence matters.

The lesson here is, if you get older and you were not able to catch the skill or tool of the day, say goodbye to a career in this business (unless you are willing to accept junior positions).

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It would help me if you say why you are giving my thought a negative value! – NoChance Aug 30 '11 at 22:33

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