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Research explodes myth that older programmers are obsolete

Old dogs can learn new tricks, if they're allowed to

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There's a prevailing ethos among IT hirers that younger is better when it comes to programmers, but a study by academics in North Carolina suggests that employers might be missing a trick by not hiring the grizzled veterans of the coding world.

Research into how our brains evolve over time suggests our intelligence functions alter. Younger minds are more able at "fluidic" intelligence – being able to see complex and innovative connections from large data sets – while older brains have "crystalline" intelligence that's better at applying experience and long-term learning to solve problems.

IT recruiters typically look for younger, fluidic thinkers (who are coincidentally cheaper and more likely to work long hours on an inspiring project) but the research suggests that adding some crystalline intelligence to programming projects could have serious benefits

The team used data from the Stack Overflow developer forum's 1.6 million registered members (300,000 of whom listed their age), and whittled down the sample to 84,284 programmers who were active in 2012 and had decent reputation rankings.

The mean age of the sample base was just over 29, but there's a long tail of older code monkeys who still dispense advice to the young guns. These advisories were tagged and showed that what older developers lacked in numbers they more than made up for in the number of queries correctly answered or problems solved.

"The research stemmed from a panel of veteran developers we had a couple of years ago who claimed that everything that's old is being reinvented again, such as the focus on virtual machines coming from mainframes many years ago," Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill, assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University, told The Register.

"Any knowledge that people have of the past should be completely relevant today – even if the technology is 'new' there should be knowledge transfer. We can’t prove it exhaustively but it's a reasonable theory."

The Stack Overflow data showed that, contrary to received wisdom, veteran coders are just as able as young pups to adopt new programming languages, and in some cases they enjoy an advantage. Knowledge of C gives them a statistically relevant advantage when it comes to iOS and Windows Phone programming, for example.

Programmers in their 50s and 60s did as well if not better than their younger counterparts in some skill ranges, and Dr. Murphy-Hill cited research in Finland showing older coders were adept at picking up new skills. But unfortunately, management practices aren’t helping.

"There's a perception that older developers are less able to cope with new technologies and the issue is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.

"If you perceive older developers can't update to new technology you will put them in roles where they have no opportunity to learn and throw the younger programmers into new training and use older programmers for legacy systems." ®

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