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Hiring developers who are old is new again

Migration is the same as legacy modernization when it comes to its end result. That's change, even if the applications in the 3000 world still look and act just as they did on an HP 3000. Migration sounds more drastic because it describes the transition of apps from one platform to another. Modernization -- especially in the hands of services companies -- takes smaller steps but still wants to shift operations toward something more popular, current, and easier to hire for.

However, that ease can become a disappointment if the only goal is to hire newer and younger programmers who work cheaper. A recent study showed that the old programmer is not only a better value, but now in shorter supply.

Bruce Hobbs, a veteran 3000 developer, pointed out the article in IT World which said, "Like a fine wine, programmers get better with age."

Researchers from the computer science department at North Carolina State University have released a study in which they examined whether programming knowledge gets better with age. Specifically, they used data on over 84,000 members of the Stack Overflow website community: the questions they ask and answer in that forum, and the site reputations for each user as proxies for the general population of programmers and their level of programming knowledge. 

Does age have a positive effect on programming knowledge?
Do older programmers possess a wider variety of technologies and skills?
To what degree do older programmers learn new technologies?

3000 managers who are planning for the future know it's not easy to find a senior programmer. "I'll be looking for a couple of experienced HP 3000 MPE resources very soon," said one IT director recently, "and I know they won't be easy to find. Been there and done that." 

At the Stack Overflow site, younger programmers demonstrated a shorter range of knowledge, asked and answered questions about a narrower set of topics, and even scored lower than programmers in their 30s about nouveau topics such as iOS and Windows Phone 7.

Based on all this, one can conclude that as programmers get older, they get better; they know more about more programming topics, and they learn new technologies just as well if not better, than their younger counterparts. Take that, whippersnappers!

This is a development, so to speak, that runs counter to one of the driving mantras of migration and modernization: older technical choices, and the human resources that understand them, are more costly, because these programmers are harder to find. As it turns out, the value in a programmer is correlated with knowledge rather than age. But the gurus at places like Gartner are delivering a different message.

In a briefing on how IT changed after the economic downturn of 2008, VP Dale Vecchio advised IT managers to control costs by looking at a calendar of birthdays.

Organizations are dependent on an aging workforce to deliver their applications. It’s become one of the single biggest drivers we’ve seen. We recommend that you ask HR to provide a chart of retirement dates for specific job titles.Tell them, ”I don’t care who the person is; just let me understand when these retirements are likely to occur." It’s about managing this skills challenge, managing the retirements of Baby Boomers.

Understand, Vecchio isn't crazy enough to presume that the technologies running modern business -- tech that's anything but nouveau -- should be replaced. No, COBOL will always lead business tech choices, it seems, at least in enteprise settings. But local schools should be enouraged to train young programmers in these elder skills.

We believe organizations must engage with the secondary education institutions, to help support these declining skills where necessary. You need to tell those institutions, “If you train ‘em, we’ll hire ‘em.”

It might be easier to hire younger IT pros, but that won't make them as productive or as experienced as the older programmer who's becoming harder to find. All programmers seem to become elusive after 50, not just those schooled in MPE skills. Vecchio suggested that the solution is to procure for the younger programmer a better development toolkit. "There are development environments to help improve the productivity of your existing workforce — to help you manage more change with potentially fewer people as they inevitably retire."

But the applications are not retiring soon enough to make a difference. Even HP-branded 3000 hardware is being purchased to keep the apps running. At one marketing company in the Northeast, "we are moving to an HP 3000 N4000-400-750 box, which is being built with a XP12000 disk array subsystem. Our backup HP 3000 will be the N4000-400-500 with a XP12000 disk array subsytem -- which is our current production machine."

The applications in place on systems which are modernization targets are best understood by older programmers. Not because they were on hand to document the building of the apps. The wisdom of interviewing users and developing to needs is difficult to replicate without the years of experience. If you see an older programmer available, sieze on the chance to employ them. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the median age of a programmer at about 42 years old.

BLS Programmers

Phil Johnson, who wrote the articles for IT World, sums it up thusly: "Just because a guy finds himself getting up more in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom doesn’t mean he can’t still knock out a killer iPhone app for you. He just made need to take a few naps along the way."