Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
5/15/2014
10:15 AM
Doug Neumann
Doug Neumann
Commentary
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Sorry, Peter Pan: Developers Can Grow Up

Is programming a young person's game, with developers doomed to obsolescence as they grow older? Not if an organization keeps them fresh. Try these three strategies.

Picture the face of modern technology. Do you see a male or female? Old or young? If you're imagining a 20-something boy geek with four days of razor stubble wearing a Darth Vader T-shirt, you're not alone.

We all may be searching for the fountain of youth, but is technology more of a young person's game than it's ever been?

Some of our technology compatriots say yes. One of the best studies I've seen comes from SAP, which analyzed reports from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and PayScale and found that the average age of the US worker is 42 -- but the average age of a Facebook employee is 28, at Google 29, and at InfoSys a geezerish 30.

[IT administrators are unhappy on the job. Read IT Pros Stressed Out, Looking To Jump Ship.]

The facts back up a common archetype in technology circles: An ambitious, young, talented programmer moves to Silicon Valley, rents a garage (apparently all successful companies were founded in garages), and changes the world forever. Many of us have experienced the excitement that comes with working on these types of technologies. It's why we entered the tech industry in the first place.  

But do things really change when we "grow up"? Are we treated differently when we do? Should we try to be Peter Pan -- refusing to mature as developers for fear we won't fit the norms for success?

Of course not. For one, we do grow up. And when we do, we shouldn't be in the position to blame society for discriminating or treating us differently. Success in the developer world is not dependent on age, but instead on the skills we master and continue to develop. It's each individual's responsibility to stay fresh in the field and maintain a modern-day skillset that gives any 28-year-old a run for his or her money. For developers, it's skills like big data, cloud computing, and HTML5.

Although the ability to learn those skills is usually unlimited, the available time to learn often is not. "Little" things like family dinners, Little League, and home improvement projects often get in the way. As a result, we do find that we face a shortage of older, more seasoned developers. And it's not because we don't want older candidates. It's often because the older candidates haven't successfully modernized their developer skills.

How can they do that? The best way is on the job. Tech leaders should be placing their more mature developers in environments where they can grow and succeed, while continuing to develop those critical core skills. This can best be accomplished through three key principles:

1. Create an egalitarian culture. All developers need to have meaningful work, and everyone contributes an equal amount to the success of the organization. At Bandwidth, for example, the founder and CEO doesn't have an office or an admin. This philosophy empowers employees and makes them responsible for their own success or failure. This is critical to keeping things fresh, no matter how old you are or what role you're in.

2. Embrace new technologies. Many mature developers have found themselves with an outdated skillset because their employers stuck with what works, rather than encouraging modern technologies. Employers need to embrace the latest open-source tools, languages, and frameworks, in order to grow and retain the best talent.

3. Use "sprint sabbaticals." Developers also need a chance to take a few steps back from their daily work and think about the big picture. That's where the majority of professional development occurs. We have "sprint sabbaticals," which fits in well with the Scrum framework. As some developers are sprinting to complete a big project, others are taking time off to work on another project of their choice. It's rejuvenating and encourages different approaches to solving common development problems.

We all have a tendency to resist change. But in the technology community, change is part of what we all strive to create each day. If developers cannot identify and seek out opportunities to change their skills and capabilities, then it's a matter of natural selection to have the industry pass them by.

The Peter Pan complex in the developer world has had legitimate causes and consequences. But it's not truly an age issue that's holding anyone back. It's a skills issue, and the entire technology community needs to recognize the things that are holding good developers back. Once we all agree on what the problem is, then we can implement internal policies and structures to help keep our developers' skillsets sharp and the big ideas coming.

Doug Neumann is a senior director of systems and software development at Bandwidth, one of the fastest-growing mobile and telecom providers in the U.S. He's been a developer for over 15 years at such companies as Microsoft and BMC. View Full Bio

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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
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5/15/2014 | 11:46:59 AM
"Sprint sabbaticals"
"Sprint sabbaticals" idea makes sense to me. Thanks for the practical advice. Anyone have similar strategies to share?
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
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5/15/2014 | 6:00:34 PM
Re: "Sprint sabbaticals"
I don't see age bias against programmers as a reflection of ability. Rather, it seems to me that it comes from the same place that the tech company no-poaching conspiracy came from -- a desire to control labor costs. Older programmers presumably have more experience and will be less likely to accept low salaries or work 12 hour days for years on end the way a 20-year-old might.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
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5/16/2014 | 10:46:48 AM
Re: "Sprint sabbaticals"
We also have to dispense with this cliche that the only clever code written in the world comes out of Silicon Valley after midnight. I started my morning riding my bike through a midwestern city and chatted away with a fellow rider who's a 40-ish year old software developer working on a high-priority, customer-facing software project for a Fortune 500 company. And yes, he talked about working late into the night on a particularly meddlesome problem -- that's dedication, even if you're drinking green tea and eating carrots rather than scarfing pizza and Rockstar.
triptyx
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triptyx,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/19/2014 | 12:27:14 PM
Re: "Sprint sabbaticals"
Another similar method I've seen used is management or the scrum master will allow their team to spend x% a week on a personal project.  Google does 20%, a recent job I worked at did 10%, so for 4 hours on a particular day, you'd shut down your IM, go offline, and work on a personal project.

It can be an excellent way to allow your devs to work on new skills and methodologies.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
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5/15/2014 | 12:30:07 PM
Age at start?
Nice column. Question: Do you feel that to be a really good developer one must start very young? In other words, is it like speaking a second language, where someone who starts learning in his 20s or later might get competent but will rarely be fluent? 

If so, then I wonder about the idea of spending on retraining programs versus investing in getting kids excited about coding at a young age.
Doug Neumann
IW Pick
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Doug Neumann,
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5/19/2014 | 2:16:06 PM
Re: Age at start?
That's an interesting question.  In thinking about it, I'm not sure the same limitations apply.

First, natural languages (what you're referring to here) are way more complicated than programming languages.  It takes months or years for people, even young people, to learn a second language.  A competent developer can learn a second programming language in days or weeks.

Second, I'm not an expert, but I understand the reason that young people can learn languages more quickly is that their neural pathways are still developing.  Different natural languages require different pathways, and when you're an adult those pathways may compete with other entrenched pathways. Software development, however, is basically a process of expressing logic in a programming language. So if you've previously developed the pathways that support logic, you've developed the pathways that support programming.
caracarn
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caracarn,
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5/20/2014 | 8:48:16 AM
Re: Age at start?
I agree with Doug's comment.  For years as I have hired developers I have always held the belief that the skills I look for are the ability to "program", which to me means to dissect a problem into it's logical segments and develop and set of instructions to work through those segments.  Which language they use is irrelevant.  I have always felt it is easier to teach someone a new programming langiuage than it is to teach them to program in the first place.  Find a good developer and they can pick up the latest language very quickly.  I liken it to learning grammar versus learning a language.  Getting the basic structure of how to form sentences, what sentences are and how they form into paragraphs and then into entire stories give you the buildng blocks on which to hang English, then French, then Swahili.  Development builds the same way.
hughbarnard
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hughbarnard,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/17/2014 | 2:10:58 AM
Old, how old? Sprint Sabbaticals
I'm 63 and I still write code [mainly Perl, it's what I like] on contract as well as contributing to my own and other open source projects. I was more senior in my 30s, but I like the flexibility that this gives me, I can work for a few months and then stop work. It's pretty easy to learn new things as I still enjoy the industry, in general. I'm probably slower than 20 years ago but more measured, which brings me on the the next point.

I'm horrified by the amount of 'directionless agile' that I see, mainly as a result of ideology. Oh, there's a sprint so we have to add code/features, no thought of user-story, architectural integrity, documentation or maintenance. Also, it's a hamster wheel for the coders who live inside it. I've seen a lot of methodology trends in the past 40-odd years, this is probably one of the most misused.

 
I give
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I give,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/17/2014 | 1:10:06 PM
What's old is new again
Not only applies to software developers, but all "workers".  Eventually you will be displaced and you may be replaced if on a whim, necessity, or competition.  Given the low birth rates in the "developed" (pun intended) nations, you are likely to be replaced by someone born in another country.  And as technology progresses there will be even less demand for human resources anyway. This is nature and nurture at work, disguised as bias and economics.  Tech is the new natural.

Technature, to coin a term, Old Peter.  
james.igoe
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james.igoe,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/19/2014 | 6:39:15 AM
Absurd Characterization
Rather than focus on the employees of a few major coporations, one might consider the average programmer, who is male, 37 years old, married with two (2) children. Yes, some companies agressively pursue the young, but they hire very few people. The problem has more to do with the pace of change and how companies hire, in that you are hired and used for your recent experience, and even if you learn new things, it is hard to put them to use with management's approval. Often, workers are simply repurposed to the same technologies they used before, and you can get paid mroe for your deep experience, but that often puts you into a career hole, where you are paid well for an outdated technology, and then often replaced with newer technology.
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