Many older computer programmers believe they are victims of discrimination; they think companies push them out in favor of younger IT hires who are perceived as more knowledgable about the latest technologies. But a preliminary study conducted by North Carolina State University (NCSU) helps fight this perceived ageism: It found that older programmers may know more about emergent technology than their younger counterparts.
"We looked at the knowledge of younger and older programmers on 10 technologies that have been developed in the last 10 years," said Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at NCSU and co-author of a paper on the study. "For the most part, older and younger developers don't vary greatly on their knowledge of those technologies."
However, Murphy-Hill said there were two exceptions -- in iOS and Windows 7. "The older developers seemed to know more than the younger developers did," he said. "That runs contrary to what the popular expectation is."
To find out how the knowledge of computer programmers changes as they grow older, Murphy-Hill and his team turned to Stack Overflow, a Web-based community of software developers where people accumulate points from their peers by asking and answering good questions. They used this points mechanism, the overall sum of which is called "reputation," as a proxy for knowledge. It turns out, he said, that as people grew older, their reputation scores and, transitively, their knowledge tended to increase.
"We should be re-evaluating our biases about older and younger programmers," Murphy Hill said. "We should evaluate people directly on their merits and not what our preconceived notions are. A lot of times, those can be wrong."
Governments tend to run more on legacy systems, and Murphy-Hill noted that older programmers tend to work on legacy systems more so than younger software developers. "The thinking is that these people are more qualified to work on these technologies because they've been around since the technology's release," he said, adding that this approach makes it hard for them to be employed in the future. "I caution government IT departments to think about their human capital. Developers naturally want to learn new skills. They're very inquisitive people. It's important to encourage that."
And every human being contains two types of abilities, says Dr. Anne Collins McLaughlin, director of NCSU's Learning, Aging and Cognitive Ergonomics Lab, which is helping Murphy-Hill with a related study.
"Crystallized abilities include things like your vocabulary, your knowledge of history and your memory of your life," she said. "All of these things have accumulated over time. These abilities are well-preserved and keep rising over the course of your life."
The second type of ability -- fluid abilities -- include reasoning or holding information in your head and working with it, McLaughlin said. "The prime time for this knowledge is around age 30, whereas the prime time for a person's crystallized abilities is at a much higher age."
Because computer programming fits into the crystallized ability category, one can deduce that as long as a programmer is working in the field, his or her skills and knowledge in that field continue to accumulate.
Though the NCSU study may have far-reaching impacts on the way government agencies hire and retain IT talent, Michigan CIO David Behen suggests that the perceived discrimination toward hiring younger programmers is greatly exaggerated, at least in his state.
"We have a good mix of programmers of all different ages in the state of Michigan," he said. "I never looked at whether they were keeping up their skills like that. I guess I should have; I've just never really thought about it. We have some older talent who are awesome and we have younger talent who are bringing a fresh perspective. I think it does ring true that our senior folks have the skills to be competitive in this market."
Behen noted that a lot of the older programmers in the state left in 2009 and 2010, which left a void. "It was almost a brain drain," he said. "We're fortunate that Michigan hasn't seen a big group of these people retire at this point; we don't have enough seasoned talent and we don't have enough younger talent."
And Behen said he thinks this study will help focus the conversation. "Will it change our perspective and how we've been dealing with things? I don't think so, because the talent pool is not big enough."
"I think we are all going to have to keep focusing on getting the right skills at the right level at the right position, but it's great to hear that this study says that the seasoned talent keeps up with the new technology," says Behen. "I don't think this was a big secret in the industry, but to have the data to back it up is really good. This study shows that there are opportunities no matter where you are in your career."