Saturday, March 5, 2011

My Thoughts on Thoughts on Developer Longevity

Davy Brion's post Thoughts on Developer Longevity has received considerable attention in the blogosphere as evidenced by the following statistics (as of this writing):

The post begins with this introduction:
How many developers over 40 do you know? For quite a few of you, the answer will be 0. For those of you who do know of one or more developers over 40: how many of them are good? If you know any good developers over 40, then do yourself a favor: start picking their brain and figure out how they keep their skills sharp. Once you've done that, do us all a favor and publish it somewhere because there really aren't that many older developers that are any good in this industry.

The post has some points which I completely agree with. For example, many organizations do "reward" or "expect" that the best developers will be managers when they "grow up." As the post states, others do move into management essentially because they find the repetition of software development less interesting or less challenging than they used to and think there are more interesting (or more effective) tactics employed in management. Bruce Eckel provides an excellent example of the latter: one would be hard-pressed to say the the author of Thinking in C++ and Thinking in Java is not "any good in this industry," but Eckel has started changing interests. Note that Eckel is still heavily involved in the industry, but his interests are obviously broadening. Some might argue this is a natural maturation and evolution of the best overall software engineers who understand there is more to software development than coding.

I also agree with Brion's two pieces of advice for developers who want to maintain heavily involved in coding even after they turn forty. Brion recommends "keep feeling stupid" and "question what you know and think, all the time.". I have written about similar concepts in my post Are You the Best Developer You Know? and a commenter left a similar comment on his post.

Although many of the post author's observations are similar to my own, there are also some aspects of this post that I believe are misguided or perhaps a little naive, perhaps because of the perceived youth of the author. I believe many of these are due to coming to sweeping conclusions based on limited exposure to a limited piece of the software development industry. For example, it may be true that "there really aren't that many older developers that are any good in this industry" in some of the tinker toy application development projects or in some of the many projects that dominate the blogosphere. However, in more complex domains where mathematical algorithms and deep scientific knowledge are involved, I've found that the older developers generally outshine their younger, less experienced counterparts. Even the most talented young developer has a difficult time competing with the breadth and depth of knowledge acquired over years or even decades of working in such domains.

Brion's post is an example of how a post with appropriate title and subject can lead to interesting and useful community discussion. His post is worth reading in and of itself, but the comments on his post are at least equally insightful. In the remainder of this post, I look at how some of these comments reflect some of my own observations.

Our World is Not The World

In the movies Men in Black and Men in Black II, there is a recurring theme that even the Men in Black themselves don't realize their relationship to the outer world(s). The first movie ends with a scene showing huge extraterrestrial beings placing with the planet Earth as if it is a marble. The second movie shows Agent Jay's and Agent Kay's residence (again, the Earth) simply being one of many lockers in another world's locker area. The point is that there is a much bigger world out there than the one which they live in and know. They don't know it's out there and so think the whole world is what they do know. In a sense, it's easy in any aspect in life (including development) to make sweeping judgments about the world in general or software development in particular based on our own little piece of that space. We cannot help it because we simply don't know better and often don't realize what we don't know or are missing.

It's likely that there are some projects or areas or organizations where there are few to no strong developers over forty. Having stated that, I'm aware of colleagues working on some projects and products who don't have anyone under 35 on their team because they require breadth and depth that simply aren't generally available in developers with less than 10 years experience. In either situation, it would be all too easy to make erroneous conclusions and stereotypes about developers of different age groups.

Ryan Cromwell left a short but insightful comment along these lines on that post: "I know plenty of very good 40+ developers. Be careful not to assume your world is the norm."

Achilleas Margaritis's comment on this post is also insightful in this regard:
I am 38. The developer that sits at the right position of me is 44. The developer that sits at the left position of me is 43. The guy behind him is 55. The group of developers in the end of the office space is from 35 to 60.

Please don't consider people over 40 as old. They are not. While they are not as active as those in their 20s, they have lots of experience, they know algorithms, and they can easily learn new platforms due to their experience.

In the comments section, TedT writes, "You probably don't know any because your hyper cool little startup discriminates by age so they won't hire anyone that doesn't look exactly themselves" and Nunya Biznes writes, "I don't know where you work or have worked that there are no developers over 40."

What, There's More to Life?

Ian Smith left another insightful comment on this post:
You're missing one key reason why many leave the industry before 40. After 20+ years the whole "be happy with no life" approach to keeping up-to-date (always in your own time because firms don't bother with training any more) becomes kind of lame.

I've definitely observed this. It does seem that many developers change their interests (some might say develop a better perspective) as they approach the age of forty. For many developers in this age group, new family and/or personal considerations take on a new level of importance. Time for "playing" with the latest technology can become more limited as demands for their time increase. Some developers simply want to try something new. This is not all that unusual because I think there is some satisfaction to learning more about an area in which one knows very little.

The Software Craftsman

I'm a believer in the concept of software craftsmanship. It's difficult to believe that someone can become a "craftsman" in anything in one or two years. It's far more believable that someone can become a true craftsman after many more years (seven years is often used in other industries) of experience.

The Value of History

In The Life of Reason, George Santayana stated, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Many of us have heard or even quoted a slightly altered form of this: "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." I have found that more experienced developers often have experience in certain areas that allows them to be better judges of whether the latest language, framework, or library is simply another passing fad or something really worth future investment and consideration. Software development is a cyclic industry in which a certain approach can be in fashion for a few years, fall out of fashion for a few years, and come back into fashion again for a few years. The more experienced software developers are less likely to be easily swayed by the Lemming Effect.

Mike has an interesting comment related to this:
There is another possibility the author overlooks: younger coders' idea of what makes someone "good" is wrong. Refusing to jump on a fad until it's proven to be valuable does not make you a bad coder. Refusing to use the latest alpha release of some open source framework that was posted on freshmeat for the first time yesterday does not mean you're "behind the times". Refusing to take part in the alpha-geeking process of proving who is the techiest of all does not mean that you have no skills.

I have envied some of the instinctive skills I have witnessed some developers older than me illustrate and I have been on the other end as well when I have had younger developers ask "How did you know how to do that?" and I was able to trace it back to an experience on an earlier project.

I like baeocystin's comment on the "Thought on Developer Longevity" post: "You ask some good questions, but you should add one more- what do these intelligent, experienced ex-developers know that you don't?"

Not All Experience is Created Equal

It is my opinion that twenty years working with multiple domains, multiple problems, and multiple customer needs is far more significant and useful than twenty years doing the same thing. This has been described as the difference between doing the same thing twenty times or doing twenty different things. I extend this to learning new languages, frameworks, and tools. Although I think there's tremendous value in learning new languages and tools, my feeling is that I'd rather have a developer who knows a small number of languages well and has applied them in diverse situations over the developer who knows numerous languages but has used them all for solving the same basic or simple problem. Knowing how to write "Hello, World" in 35 different languages is not a very useful skill in and of itself. The developer who can solve complex problems in a particular language is more likely to be able to pick up a new language for solving another complex problem than the person knowing a bunch of languages only used in simple applications.

Disadvantages for More Experienced Developers

There's no question that experienced developers do face some disadvantages. While their experience can help them avoid the Lemming Effect, they can go too far the other way and not be willing to consider anything new or doing something a different way. This is covered in Brion's post. Other posts on disadvantages of experienced developers include How Experienced Developers Can Handicap a Lean Startup and Older Developers: Bad Habits Are Killing Your Career. While there may be some gross stereotyping in some of these, I do think it's worth every developer's time to always consider whether he or she is letting established habits and comfort misguide decisions.

Early in my software development career, I observed several older software developers who had been effective in days of procedural programming, but really struggled with object-oriented languages. It was not that there people were unintelligent or slow-witted. On the contrary, they had implemented some sophisticated applications despite having significantly less tools to work with than we do today. Unfortunately, they had trouble making the mental shift from procedural style to what many of us do today (object-oriented with some procedural skeletons in the closet).

What is 'Good'?

A problem with any of these types of discussions surrounds the use of subjective terms like "good." This is pointed out well by the Foredecker comment that points out problems of perception of what makes a good developer. As the comment points out, perceived outward excitement is not necessarily an indicator of a better developer.

Examples of Software Developers Over 40 Who Are At Least 'Any Good'

There are numerous examples of good software developers over the age of forty. Tim O'Brien's comment on the "Thoughts on Developer Longevity" post is: "Most of the developers I know are over 40, and they are all so good at what they do they put everyone else to shame."

I previously mentioned Bruce Eckel, who is 53 years old according to Wikipedia. The first edition of Thinking in C++ was published when he was 42 years old and he was over 40 when the first edition of Thinking in Java was published.

According to Wikipedia, Bjarne Stroustrup was born in 1950, Tim Bray, James Gosling, Grady Booch, and Tim Berners-Lee were born in 1955 (what was in the water that year?), Martin Odersky was born in 1958, Josh Bloch and Kent Beck were born in 1961, Martin Fowler was born in 1963, and Yukihiro Matsumoto was born in 1965. I think we could find room on our team for any of these individuals.


The post Thoughts on Developer Longevity and its associated comments are well worth the read. I agree with Brion's assertions as often, but not always, true. My major disagreement is with the percentage or ratio of good/bad developers over age forty and I think this may be due to different experiences in our careers. In the end, Brion's reasoning for the post (to determine what drives developers to remain effective after age forty) is a good way to start potentially valuable community discussion. A user going by the name "Public" perhaps answered the question most succinctly: "I'm a 42 year old developer and my secret is this: love learning new things and spend the time to do so. There you go."

My experience has been that the most successful software development projects often are made up of a mixture of young developers who are already skilled and have even more potential with master craftsman who can guide the team through political and technological challenges they have seen many times before. 23 December 2010


Seth said...

As I get closer to 40, this post certainly hits home.

The trend I've certainly seen with "senior" developers is that they eventually find a niche where their domain experience keeps them as a valued resource for a particular flavor of project, or moving to a higher level architect role where they can guide less experienced developers. That's not to say that they stagnate in a particular technology, though the domain they apply new technologies may become narrower.

Since these senior developers have now become "established" in a particular field, they no longer hop from contract to contract and job to job as often as their younger counterparts. I think that this tendency is the main reason younger developers don't see them... they just aren't traveling in the same circles any more.

Now having said all that, I will certainly not say this is always the case. In the last couple years, I had the opportunity to work with a contractor in his 60s who had a good grasp on the latest and greatest technologies and brought some new frameworks into our environment.

Thanks for the article Dustin, and I look forward to stretching my legs on some new tools and technology as I ramp up into my next project!

Dustin said...


Thanks for the comment; it is well stated.

Because I'm older than you, this post definitely hit home for me as well.

I cannot help but remember the days that seem not so long ago that we were the brash young developers wondering why the numbers of "senior developers" was so much smaller than the number of "junior developers."


Dustin said...

The discussion at Do people lose interest in programming as they age? is interesting and highly related to this post. I also find Is Programming Less Exciting Today? to be interesting and perhaps related.