Opinion: Grandpa the programmer

Good older IT workers can deliver just as much, if not more, than their younger counterparts

I'm 56. I'm not a grandfather -- not yet anyway -- but I'm old enough to be one. I first used the Internet in the '70s. My first programming language was IBM 360 Assembler. My first operating system was the IBM mainframe's OS/360. I was the first journalist to write about this new network service called the Web and say it just might matter. You know what? I think I may just know a wee bit about computing.

I'm far from the only one. Lately, though, I've been noticing that the old meme about how grandpa can't understand iPhones, Linux or the cloud seems to be showing up more often even as it's becoming increasingly irrelevant. I've been guilty of using it myself.

Think about it. The big names of our field? Dennis Ritchie, creator of C and Unix, was 70 when he died last year. Ken Thompson, co-creator of Unix, is 67. James Gosling, founder of Java, is 57. Bill Gates is 56. So is Steve Ballmer. Steve Jobs was 56 when he left us. Tim Cook, his successor as head of Apple, is 51.

Linux and open source? Free software founder Richard M. Stallman is 59. His open-source philosophical rival Eric S. Raymond is 54. And even Linus Torvalds is now on the "older" side of 40, at 42.

And it's not just the big names: 27% of social network users are 45 or older.

We baby boomers like to think of ourselves as forever young. We're not. Some of us are now well into retirement. Too many of us of a "certain age" are facing an IT work environment that's hostile to older workers.

I wonder if perhaps that's why I've been hearing more about how "older" people don't get technology. Maybe that's meant to hide the age bias that is the IT business's dirty little secret.

True, people in their 50s who have families are less likely to have any desire to work 80-plus-hour weeks, but so what? Frederick Brook's The Mythical Man-Month, a classic of software management, blew out the delusion decades ago that simply throwing more man-hours at an IT problem fixes anything.

Experience Counts

Sadly, while that should have put an end to the idea that long hours are a fact of IT life, this remnant of our factory-line past lingers both in high tech and in other industries. But what really matters is who's productive and who's not.

In some jobs, such as law and accounting, the billable hour is all. The system encourages people to burn as many hours as possible on any given task. That's not how it is in IT, though. We need to get work done as fast as possible with as few mistakes as possible.

Guess what? Experienced grandpas or grandmas who cut their teeth on C can be just as effective as any 20-year-old wunderkind who's a wiz at JavaScript.

That's not to say that older workers are always better. I've known far too many people who "retire in place." They don't bother learning new skills. They can't understand that the same old server thinking doesn't work in an era in which everyone is migrating to the cloud.

But -- and this is the important thing -- good older IT workers can deliver just as much, if not more, than their younger counterparts. Remember, grandpa not only understands technology, he may well have helped invent it.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at

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