Older Developers: Bad Habits Are Killing Your Career

OK, so my last post about five pervasive myths about older software developers was definitely getting a lot of:

Who do we appreciate?
Go old guys!

“Old guys! Old guys! Rah-rah-rah!”

in the comments.  And it wasn’t necessarily undeserved…after all, it was about debunking myths that have crept in as supposed truisms over the years.  But I left out a tiny little detail about something important.

Older developers are killing their careers from their bad habits.

Sorry, the sound you just heard is your jaw hitting the keyboard.  “What!?  But Dave, you said experience was valuable and…”

Yes, I know what I said.  And I meant it.  Every word.  But there is one distinct advantage the younger set has over us fogeys:  they haven’t formed as many habits yet.

I’m not talking about a $5,000-a-day-hooker-and-blow* kind of habit.  I’m talking about the practices that you’ve codified into your daily routines as a developer since you started.  Like your (in)ability to write clear, concise comments.  Or comments at all.  Your constant lack of communication with other team members when you’re making major changes because you don’t think it’s necessary.  Your refusal to write documentation.  Or your passive refusal to learn new technologies because you think you have enough information to do your job already.

These are all habits we’ve picked up over the years.  Some are good, like making sure you always have a bug tracking system in place, or using source control like a religion.  But not all of them are, like some I mentioned above.  If you’ve been developing for more than 10 years, you’ve got a mix of both.  Don’t kid yourself.  You get them out of sloth or complacency from doing the same things over and over.  You don’t bother changing them because well, they’ve worked just GREAT so far.  There’s no motive to change.  It’s Newton’s First Law of Motion applied to software learning:

Sir Issac Newton
Maybe I'll rest since I nailed that gravity thing...

“Any object in motion will tend to stay in motion; any object at rest, will tend to remain at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.”

After you reach a certain level of competency, assuming you aren’t subject to the Peter Principle and haven’t been promoted out of your competence yet, your motives for advancement are reduced by your motives for maintaining the status quo.  You’ve been considered the Senior Software Engineer for 5 years now and you don’t want to become a Pointy Haired Boss anytime soon, so Senior Software Engineer looks like a happy place to stay.

Wrong. Dead wrong.

This kind of thinking is exactly what generates the age-based bias and discrimination on older workers.  An attitude of complacency gets you labeled as a slacker.  Being a slacker didn’t get you where you are today, so why would you suddenly think this change of strategy is a good idea?

As a younger worker, your mind was more a tabula rasa than the Statue of David.  Adding new habits was easy because everything was new to you–doing design, learning frameworks, figuring out how to estimate schedules.  You’re cutting a road in your mind with a wagon.  The first time is hard because the ruts for the wheels just aren’t there yet.  But every time you complete a project, your mind adds depth to the ruts in the road.  And after 10 years, that road is well traveled and harder to veer from.

Habits are hard to break, but not impossible.  Studies have shown that a new habit takes about nine weeks to take shape and really stick in your mind.  That means, on average if you’re really working at it, you can break around 5 bad habits a year, or add 5 new habits, assuming you want to focus all your extra effort into adding a single habit during a nine week period.

Think about it:  You can alter your habits such that every year, you spend the time to add 5 new technologies or practices to your repertoire, one about every 9 weeks. Been thinking about learning Agile?  How about picking up a new language?  Maybe changing source code repositories from CVS to Mercurial?  This is exactly how we can all stay relevant in the face of ever-changing technologies.

As far as the bad habits go, what kind of recommendation would you get from a colleague that saw you go from the least-documented code to the best in a 6 month time frame?  Wouldn’t that impress them enough to say, “Hey, that old dog can learn new tricks…I’ll be damned.”

If you’re under 30, don’t laugh too hard about these habit-breaking notes.  You’ll be here soon enough yourself.  Best to cultivate the good habits upfront so you can add more good ones rather than break the bad ones later.

OK, back to the cheering now…that was more fun anyway:

“Old guys! Old guys! Rah-rah-rah!”

* Although you probably want to stay away from the hookers and blow too.  I can’t see how that’s good for your career, either. No experience there, just sayin’.  🙂

Five Pervasive Myths About Older Software Developers

I recently celebrated my 40th birthday.  A friend joked to me, “Hey, guess that means you’re too old to program anymore!”  I laughed on the outside, but it gave me pause.  Age discrimination is nothing to laugh about in our field.  COBOL guys faced this problem years ago as Java guys like me were ascending the ranks, and we laughed heartily about legacy code and their inflexibility with new technology.

Now the joke’s on me.  Maybe you too.  And if it’s not now, it will be soon enough.  Still laughing now?  Yeah, I thought so.

Computer Science Degree Trends 1996-2008
Source: CRE Taulbee Survey, 2007-2008, pub 5/09
Computer Science Enrollment Trends, 1995-2008
Source: CRE Taulbee Report

Our field is ripe for age discrimination in so many ways.  We value hot, new technologies, the ability to absorb them at unheard of rates, working insane hours to push products out the door–all things attributed to the younger workers of our field.  And did I mention that younger workers are cheaper?  A lot cheaper.  But the trends of computer science degrees do not bode well for having a plethora of young, cheap workers at a manager’s disposal indefinitely.  In fact, all data point to one conclusion:  CS degrees enrollments have been declining or flat for almost a decade.  And if anything, the candidate pool for hiring is getting worse, at least according to Jeff Atwood.  You’re going to have to hire someone to write your next project, and with the backlash against outsourcing, who you gonna call, Egon?

If you’re thinking you’re going to avoid the “grey matter” of software development, think again.  There are a number of myths about older software developers that continue to be perpetuated in IT and software development that somehow put older, experienced workers at a disadvantage in our field.  But they’re largely crap and considering the degree trends, ignoring everyone 40 and over because we’re too old seems plain foolish.  Let’s debunk these myths one-by-one.

MYTH: Older software developers are more expensive than younger ones, making younger developers more desirable.

REALITY: The real reason experienced developers are labeled as expensive is because staff salaries are the #1 expense of any software organization.  The fact is, younger means cheaper.  But, while inexperienced, younger developers may save you budget, but they will cost you in the long run if that’s all you have on your team.  Younger developers haven’t taken the lessons of failure to heart.  They haven’t had enough time to learn those lessons yet. And guess whose money they’re going to be learning on?  Yours.  Think that won’t cost you money in missed deadlines and incomplete projects?  Think again.

Yes, older software developers have higher salaries than younger ones.  But what exactly are you paying for here?  With an experienced software developer, you’re paying for all the experience that comes with past project successes and failures.  Those are expensive lessons if you want to pay for them directly during your tenure as a manager.  But if you buy into an experienced worker, that’s like getting insurance against some of those classic mistakes in project management and software development that you don’t have to repeat.  Meaning you look better on your annual review because you hired smart people that know how to get the job done.

MYTH: Older software developers are less flexible and less capable of learning new technologies because of their legacy knowledge.

REALITY: It’s actually because of their past experience, that more experienced software developers can migrate to new technologies, frameworks, and systems more quickly and in greater depth.  For example, if you learn a GUI framework in C/C++, you have a mental model about message passing, event handling, MVC patterns used to design the system and separate presentation from back-end logic.  The very first time you learn a GUI framework, in addition to the syntax, the examples, and the quirks of the library, you also need to learn all the conceptual stuff.  And after two, three or more GUI frameworks, you notice that they all have very deep similarities outside of the syntax.  You might even notice newer frameworks have overcome substantial limitations that you used to have to work around with complicated hacks.  Those insights are lost on someone new to the framework.  And those insights can really boost productivity in ways you’re not able to directly measure.

MYTH: Older software developers are less able to perform the arduous tasks of software development (read:  work long, painful hours) because of family commitments and other attachments that younger workers don’t have.

REALITY: I think it would be fair to state that experienced software developers are less willing to work those long, painful hours because they’ve learned the hard way that there are productive limits to pushing yourself 80 hours a week for months on end.  It’s called burnout, and I’m willing to bet that anyone who has already experienced it in the past simply isn’t as eager to go there again.  But with that said, the supposed reason of “family commitments” is bogus.  High-quality, experienced software engineers are ruthless time managers, and those with families are even more motivated to get things done in allotted times.  They may have dance recitals and soccer games to attend to, but they also make up that time in off hours and highly focused work during the 40 hours they’re given in a week.  Good software engineers with families must become highly efficient with personal time management or they quickly get buried with the deluge of work coming their way.

MYTH: Older software developers are less mentally agile than younger ones.

REALITY: Aging does affect the brain and it is measurable to show that older workers think more somewhat slowly than younger ones.  But mental agility is only part of the equation.  Thinking faster isn’t always better.  What about judgment?  There’s an old expression:

Good judgment comes from experience, experience from bad judgment.

Lost mental agility is a poor excuse to not hire an older software engineer in light of the fact they’ve seen, done, and lived many more successes and failures than a younger developer.  Experienced developers have tons of past projects to draw from and assist in avoiding bad decisions today.  Younger developers have new ideas which are important, but often untested and unproven.  Having both perspectives on your team is of great value.

MYTH: Older software developers are more jaded and cynical and therefore, less desirable in the workplace than younger ones.  Younger developers are more enthusiastic than older ones.

REALITY: Anyone who believes this is probably someone who doesn’t like their ideas criticized by those who’ve been around long enough to see really stupid decisions put into practice again and again.  Experienced software developers smell crap a mile away.  They don’t buy your stories about how the product isn’t well received in the marketplace because they’ve been interacting with the customers for years and know you’re trying to cover up a future layoff in the company.  They won’t put up with managers asking them to work 80 hours a week because the customer wants the software next month and they already told you it will take 3 more months to complete with the features agreed upon.

Younger developers haven’t been in those situations as frequently and therefore, have less resistance to bad management practices.  The only desirable trait management wants here is naivete.  If you want a great team and great products coming out of it, having people that can call you out on bad decisions will save your bacon again and again.  But only if you have the courage to admit you don’t know everything.

And as far as enthusiasm goes, you can’t tell me age dampens enthusiasm.  If that was the case, Donald Knuth, Ward Cunningham, Bill Joy, Bill Gates and hundreds of others who’ve crossed the magic 40 barrier would be less interested in our field just because of age.  But they’re not.  Passion is passion. If you have it when you’re 40, chances are you really love that field.  That kind of love isn’t going to die overnight.  Younger developers still finding their footing in the world may have short-term passion, but that can be swayed in the face of obstacles and challenges in the field along the way.

In conclusion, let me be absolutely clear about a few things:  Young is not necessarily bad. Old is not necessarily good. And most importantly, anyone who can’t program their way out of a wet paper bag shouldn’t be hired, no matter how old or young they are. Keep your teams a vibrant mix of age and experience–where diversity exists, learning can take place.  But if you’re the person looking to hire someone, don’t write off the dude with the gray hair sitting across from you.  Let go of your age prejudice and see if they can impress you.

Someday that dude (or dudette) may be you.