Like a fine wine, programmers get better with age

A new study finds that older developers know more about programming than younger ones, including new technologies

Credit: Image credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Ask the average non-programmer for his or her view of the ideal software developer and odds are you’ll get a description of a whiz kid teenager or a twenty-something writing code all night. The long hours and fast pace of change in software and technology can make it seem to the uninitiated that programming is a younger person’s game. Those who’ve been in the business, however, know that there are advantages to being an older programmer and a new study supports the notion that older is better when it comes to developers.

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 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. Their approach was similar to an earlier, less formal, look at the Stack Overflow data which found that, generally, programming knowledge did seem to improve with age.

The NCSU researchers sought to answer three questions: 

Does age have a positive effect on programming knowledge?

Using linear regression they found that there was a statistically significant and positive relationship between age and site reputation, which suggests that programming knowledge does improve with age.

Do older programmers possess a wider variety of technologies and skills?

To examine this question, the researchers looked at the number topics users asked and answered questions about. They found that the number of topics associated with programmers actually declined through age 30, then increased in the following decades, suggesting an increase in the number of technologies one knows about later in one’s career.

To what degree do older programmers learn new technologies?

For this question, they divided the users into two groups, younger (under 37) and older programmers, and tested whether older programmers were given lower scores for their answers to questions about newer technologies. They found that older programmers, actually, scored (statistically) significantly higher on questions about iOS and Windows Phone 7, and were essentially even with younger programmers in their knowledge of other new technologies.

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!

Of course, like all research, there are a number of caveats to keep in mind when extrapolating the findings to the general population. As the authors point out, this is not a randomly selected sample of programmers; it’s a self-selected group that skews younger than than the actual programmer population. Also, how accurately does one’s reputation on Stack Overflow reflect one’s actual programming knowledge? And how well does programming knowledge translate to actual ability?

In any case, it’s some validation for any programmer who’s of the age where s/he occasionally forgets why s/he came into a room. 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.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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