Are younger devs better devs?

Published on the 26/09/2018 | Written by Pat Pilcher

Generation of programmers

Add ageism to prickly issues to avoid in your dev team...

It is an age-old debate: Are younger programmers better than their older counterparts? Mozart might have composed his best works before he turned 30, but others say that with age comes wisdom.

The internet is awash with stories of older programmers who say they got pushed out of roles in favour of younger hires who are often regarded as being better able to embrace newer technologies.

It is not just about age though. Getting good coders with the right attitude is just as important as age-related experience says Intergen’s Kate Phillips, practice manager for Enterprise Solutions, Southern.

“We need developers who can talk in terms our clients can understand and relate to.”

“For me, it’s all about their attitude – we need developers who can talk in terms our clients can understand and relate to,” she says.

“When interviewing for a developer or technical type person, I can usually tell very quickly if they’ll fit in or not based on how they greet me and how they describe themselves and their career. I need people who have ‘learnt how to learn’ as the skills required change so frequently.”

According to Phillips, hiring mature programmers has definite upsides. “I see far less entitlement with older programmers, I’m often reminding people that the grass isn’t always greener! I love seeing older programmers’ mentor and support younger programmers, it’s a win-win”.

Phillips also notes that mentoring works both ways and those younger programmers come with “Enthusiasm, passion, hard-working, bringing a different perspective to work. I love seeing reverse mentoring in action”.

That said, Phillips also says there are downsides with older programmers whom she says are “… sometimes reluctant to take on new technologies, less able to adapt to change.”

While some older programmers can be trickier to re-skill, there is little to no scientific basis for the stereotype of younger programmers being more intellectually nimble.

Studies conducted by North Carolina State (NCSU) University found that older programmers can often be more schooled up on emerging technologies than their younger peers.

The NCSU study looked at online communities of coders such as Stack Overflow, a coder’s online hangout where users accumulate reputation points by asking and answering questions. NCSU Researchers used these points as well as analysis of the breadth of questions and answers as a surrogate for knowledge. For older users, reputation scores increased.

Also, when it came to tech developed over the past decade, scores for older and younger developers did not vary significantly. There were, however, a few exceptions – iOS and Windows 7. It turned out that with these platforms, mature developers were often more knowledgeable than their younger counterparts which seemingly flies in the face of perceived wisdom.

It turns out that the NCSU’s findings are grounded in scientific fact, with human beings typically possessing two different types of innate learning abilities according to Dr Anne McLaughlin, director of NCSU’s Learning, Aging and Cognitive Ergonomics Lab.

“Crystallised abilities include things like your vocabulary, your knowledge of history and your memory of your life. All of these things have accumulated over time. These abilities are well-preserved and keep rising over the course of your life,” she says.

McLaughlin calls the other ‘fluid abilities’ which includes reasoning, storing and working with information. “The prime time for this knowledge is around age 30, whereas the prime time for a person’s crystallised abilities is at a much higher age,” McLaughlin says.

She says because programming tends to make use of crystallised abilities, it stands to reason that as long as a programmer continues to work, their skills and knowledge should continue to accumulate (i.e. the type of knowledge this crusty old coder lays out).

While the NCSU’s results have their limitations (not all the Stack Overflow users had stated their age and more mature members were underrepresented as a percentage of the overall Stack Overflow community) they were backed up by several separate but more detailed studies from MIT that found different cognitive abilities peaked and began to decline at different ages.

So, if ageism were to happen in your workplace, what legal protections exist? Both Australia and New Zealand have legislated against age discrimination. The Age Discrimination Act 2004 makes it against the law to discriminate based on age in workplaces in Australia, while New Zealand’s Human Rights Act affords similar legal cover.

The last word on this prickly issue goes to Phillips who says that: “In my experience, the best teams are absolutely a mix of older and younger AND male and female programmers”.

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