Old Programmers Never Die, They Just Become Managers. Not!

For the better part of the past dozen years, I have worked as an itinerant software developer, sort of a "have computer, will travel" consultant. For a long time, everywhere I went I was one of the young guns. Now, it all of a sudden seems like I am an old timer. When did that happen? Now, I routinely work with people who are closer to my oldest son's age.

After many turns of the calendar and years of whacking on a keyboard—in addition to a bad back, carpal tunnel, poor eye sight, and more flab than I like to see in the mirror—I am old enough to know a thing or two about my line of work. In this article, I share the pearls of professional wisdom I've accumulated over the years, starting with my favorite: Old programmers don't simply disappear.

Continuing Education and Working Smarter

Continuing education is going to really pay off over the long haul. At 40+, one will not be able to put in 80- or 100-hour work weeks like the kids will. To compete against young programmers with raw horsepower, you will need a lot of wisdom.

If you are too tired to continually train yourself, your skills eventually will become outdated and you will find yourself at an increased risk of job loss. It's okay to slow down, but never stop learning—not in this business.

What if you feel too old or too tired to work as many hours as your younger co-workers? Well, the truth is that there is no correlation between hours worked per week and good software. There isn't even any proof that excessive work even really helps improve a project's timeline. Good (or great) software is a function of team work, good planning, sound management, and a level head. More than likely, if one or more people are working 50+ hours a week, people are trying to compensate for poor planning by heroic effort and there is a very good chance the outcome will be poor too.

If you're working 50+ hours a week at a fixed rate, and/or your peers or management don't respect you enough to provide adequate planning and resources to do the job well without killing yourself, find a new job. An unwillingness to work your life away means you are smart enough to live a balanced life. It does not mean you are undedicated.

Up or Out: Is It Myth or Reality?

I worked at an East coast investment firm recently and very few people seemed to be above the age of 35. Such work environments might make one wonder, "Will I be either forced into management or forced out of programming after I turn 30 or 40?" The answer is no, not if you make yourself valuable through continuing education and eschewing long hours in favor of proper planning and wisdom.

Why do people assume that an older programmer eventually has to become a manager? Do we make older doctors stop practicing medicine? How about lawyers? Do all lawyers have to become judges or politicians? Generally, no. The good news is that the industry is growing older and the median programmer/developer age has increased too. It's not just kids any more. Remember, what young programmers have in energy you have in experience by now. Brain beats brawn almost every time.

About the Author

Paul Kimmel is the VB Today columnist for www.codeguru.com and has written several books on object-oriented programming and .NET. Check out his new book UML DeMystified from McGraw-Hill/Osborne. Paul is an architect for Tri-State Hospital Supply Corporation. You may contact him for technology questions at pkimmel@softconcepts.com.

If you are interested in joining or sponsoring a .NET Users Group, check out www.glugnet.org.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul T. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.



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    That's what one of the consultants whom I worked with used to say. I don't really see age as a problem. In fact, the youngsters nowadays seem to require a lot of sleep: many of them couldn't do consecutive 50 hour weeks. They know all the modern stuff but a lot of the new ideas are ones which were thrown out in the old days because they were too slow. For instance, on screen programming - no paper designs: just start coding straight away. The difference is, nowadays, the machines are faster and disk space is plentiful so bloatware is actually acceptable; it wouldn't have been 20 years ago. Also, with remote viewing facilities, nobody bothers about telephone debugging conversations like "look for the cwnd and cast it to a clistview". Perfectly reasonable request except that there is CWnd, cwnd, CWND and cWnd in the code. If you have to say "look for upper c, upper w, lower n lower d...", they'd think twice about that sort of coding. Many 'modern' ideas are just old ones which have been re-badged or actually given a name. For instance PIMPL. That idea has been around since before X windows started - all X window handles use that principle. In 2000 someone gave it a name. Standing up for short meetings (SCRUM/Agile) - the British ministers have been doing that with the Queen for years! I know of very few people who assume older programmers eventually become managers. Most of those I work with don't want the responsibility. Once you become a manager, you're a grounded pilot. You have to let go - you cannot fly anymore.

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