Are old programmers still useful?

Posted: February 14, 2017 19:32 | By: serge

When are you too old?

I asked myself that question in the last few years. I am a programmer of the first wave, started coding in assembler on Z80s and 8080s... that is how old I am... I still have fond memories of those days, we had to do everything... learn from books and know how to solder... Yes, those were the days. Naturally, in time, I went from tech guru to manager to entrepreneur... and now pulling myself back to tech by choice. I still love programming... And this is a key I think, but love alone won't do it.

I was talking to a friend about this journey and what I found along the way. We were wondering if older programmers are still worth hiring for new/startup type ventures. Naturally, most are pigeonned holed into old technology support roles... believe it or not, there is still good money to be made maintaining Cobol and C apps... But that is not where I want to be. 

Is the old knowledge transferable?

This is part of the intangible part of hiring a revamped older programmer. There is value in this old knowledge but measuring it is difficult. How does the fact that I understand memory fault interrupts in an operating system context help me with Node or React? Sure, I can whip out a C++ PHP extension if I need to... but you still need to connect it to the present context. 

Naturally, this deeper understanding of the machine (I wrote a couple of real time OSes in my time...) sure helps... but does not make me a proficient programmer today. In this business there is no such thing as sitting on one's laurels... knowledge is perishable. Not because it is no longer true but just because it is no longer needed... Virtual memory is something we don't think about much anymore... 

Changing times, changing tools

The other problem we were identifying with older programmers is the fact that they are often pigeon holed into work that has lost its technical relevance. Large enterprise software is still reliant on old code for the most part. Darn, I still have clients that are stuck with software that have fixed sized (non resizable) form windows... lol So spending your days in old code does nothing for your relevance... Are you still a programmer? Probably, I guess it depends on the individual and how much the flame still burns. Mind you that excellence in VB 5 will probably bring you work until you retire... 

The journey

Well like anyone else in the field that knows the relevant technologies, old or young, we still have to learn them... This takes time. Mind you, that coming at it from my old tech background made me a fast learner... I actually understood what I was doing... and this is I think the strength of someone coming to it with a long experience of the underbelly of the beast. Having written hardware drivers for X.25 level network communication gives you a good understanding of the protocols you are using... It is this kind of depth that probably makes older techies still relevant, but only if they kept up to date. 

But make no mistake, making yourself relevant is no less work because you understand stuff at a lower level. You still have to GET IT... The tools have changed, the philosophies, the best practices... New workflows, open source and it's 20,000,000 libraries... front end/back end... It's work... you still have to want it bad enough to reinvent yourself... 


Passion is the techie driver by excellence, without it you are only going through the motions... That is probably where I see the biggest problem with folks my age... many are pretty much done... They are still very competent in their world, but have little interest for the new stuff...until they end up needing a job... lol Well, that is where our discussion turned funny. My buddy was telling me he would only hire an older guy if he was working already... lol And I sort of agreed... Gee... life is rough for old techies... 

Still exciting

I have more than 30 years in this industry and I am still excited as ever. It is a different world. We had nothing, had to figure out everything by ourselves in our basements... today we have to power of the collective... and what a collective it is. Resistance is futile as they say... one trip to Github and you are sucked in for good.

I am amazed at the level of talent and hunger in the open source community. Code is art to me, and there are some wonderful artists in there. Free for all to use, wonderful code that was viewed and reviewed by the collective. A self-organizing swarm of talent... I am in awe, literally a thing of beauty... Naturally, you have to dig a little to find the gold... but that is what it is all about... 

So are old programmers still relevant? 




Hi, my name is Serge Lachapelle, a nerdy entrepreneur from Montreal, Canada. I love tech, startups, business and freedom in general. I share my experiences here as I re-invent the way I work. Let's connect and create something cool...

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This is my personal blog. I decided to share my journey as I re-invent the way I work. I figured that other older programmers and entrepreneurs would share this quest to return to understanding the mechanics in order to reboot our creativity. I would be delighted if you followed my ramblings on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn...

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