The Old Programmer’s Home

by bob on August 17, 2007

Today, Andrew Wulf wondered aloud what a number of us old codgers have been thinking: is age starting to work against us? Andrew aced several phone interviews with a prospective employer and had enthusiastic references, yet when the employer met him in person they lost interest.

This happens, of course; no one gets an offer from every interview, and companies often change course midstream for inexplicable reasons. The interviewer may not have “clicked” with Andrew for some subjective reason. Andrew may have not known about that booger protruding from his left nostril. But still, he’s beginning to wonder if in this young man’s game his advanced age (i.e., “over 40”) isn’t starting to turn some people off. Maybe he should go to the Old Programmer’s Home and hold forth on how in his day, they didn’t have ones and zeroes, and had to use i’s and oh’s.

Personally I’ve never suspected significant ageism directed against me. I’m 50, but a very young-looking 50; I had dinner with my 27 year old daughter the other day and the waitress mistook me for her husband. It’s embarrassing. So I’m probably not the one to speak with great authority on the topic. But I have noticed that some companies favor younger developers for different reasons than you’d expect.

Younger developers who haven’t yet married or started a family, and are eager to prove themselves, are generally much more willing to work ridiculous amounts of unpaid overtime, sacrifice their personal lives and peace of mind, work for deferred (imaginary) wages, and generally prostitute themselves, than are more experienced workers.

Younger workers are more apt to value free soft drinks and worthless stock options, whereas older workers are more prone to say, “show me the money”.

Put less delicately, younger workers are more naive and easier to take advantage of.

In a business atmosphere that looks strictly at cost per hour as if it’s the only variable that matters, there is inevitably an emphasis on getting as much as possible out of workers while making as few commitments as possible and paying as little as possible. This rises to a fever pitch with IT workers, who command pay rates that make middle-aged pointy-haired bosses bristle with resentment.

If you’ve passed beyond your 40th birthday in the IT world, the odds are great that who ever interviews you will be younger than you. That can be pretty intimidating for the interviewer, who will often not be an HR hack because of the need to evaluate your technical abilities; they will probably be your boss or at least your co-worker. The prospect of hiring a venerable father figure can give them pause, and in any case, no one wants to take the risk of being shown up by someone with superior chops (and quite possibly, better political skills). I can believe that older candidates get passed over, not because of a sense that they are in they are dated and washed up — just the opposite. They pose a real or perceived threat to someone’s status or ego.

So, Andrew, if a company genuinely blows you off because of your experience or age, they may be doing you a favor. If you come across as knowledgeable, humble, personable, articulate, confident and enthusiastic, you have a good CV and references, and handle yourself well in the interview, yet they still don’t want you — well, whatever the reason for that, you might not enjoy working for them anyway. Come to think of it, that thought applies regardless of age.

As for you young whipper-snappers out there, guys like me may not make your best foosball or drinking buddy, and we may listen to music from before dirt was invented, but we have a lot to teach you just the same. We’re to the point where everything we encounter looks at least vaguely familiar, and we’ve probably already experienced all the ways to screw it up. Listen to us; we may save you some time and effort!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

JonR August 20, 2007 at 7:34 am

> We’re to the point where everything we encounter looks at least vaguely familiar

unintentionally hilarious! :-)

Evan August 30, 2007 at 8:04 am

Think of it this way, if you get turned away because of your age, that’s not where you want to be anyway. The young guys would do well to run as well. Write that shop off as a nightmare.

And yes, as a young whippersnapper, I can say that developer abuse is rampant. Imaginary wages and free overtime are king. I interviewed in January and part of an offer I received was heafty stock options (which of course added an imaginary number into my “total compensation package”). I politely said no and mentioned that paper isn’t worth anything unless someone is willing to purchase it. Oh, and no paid overtime. ;-)

I’ve been down that road before. It’s called 80 hours of work for 40 hours of pay, and the numbers don’t look so good for me at the end of the day.

But then again, I’ve also come to the conclusion that headhunters are your best friend–just make sure to know your strengths and how much you are worth. They like seeing you paid for all that overtime and will generally congregate where the big money shops are.

Sergey May 3, 2012 at 1:21 am

Nice article. I have been working in such a company for some time. The most personal were students, who blowed their asses for minimal payment.
But there is another problem with older coders. As far as I know it’s hard to study new technologies for them. So older coders use older languages and technologies and when company needs flexebility or has small projects they hire younger coders.
Bob responds: It’s no harder for me at age 55 to study new languages, if anything it’s easier. I’m learning Python as we speak, and loving it. Rigidity is not a function of age, it’s a function of personality. I’ve met young coders who are very hide-bound and resistant to new ways of doing things even while they do their best to appear superficially hip. When you see older developer’s response to new ideas, you may be mistaking a lack of interest in change for change’s sake as resistance to any change at all. You may also find it easier to see burn-out in older workers than in younger ones. This is how stereotypes are started an perpetuated.

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