Wrinkly old people make better programmers

Posted by Mike Magee

The industry perception that you have to be a freshly scrubbed schoolboy to be any good as a developer is rubbish, according to research.

While many companies have refused to hire older developers because they think that they cannot deal with many of the new technology changes, research from North Carolina State University indicates that firms are getting rid of the best.

The study indicates that the knowledge and skills of programmers actually improve over time and that older programmers know more than their younger peers when it comes to recent software platforms.

Emerson Murphy-Hill, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of a paper on the research wanted to see if the perceptions of veteran programmers as being out of step with emerging technologies were valid.

He found that, in some cases, veteran programmers even had a slight edge when it came to knowledge of new software trends.

Murphy-Hill's team looked at the profiles of more than 80,000 programmers on a site called StackOverflow, which is an online community that allows users to ask and answer programming questions.

Users who are rated as asking good questions and providing good answers receive points that are reflected in their "reputation score". The higher an individual's reputation score, the more likely it is that the user has a robust understanding of programming.

In the first part of the study, researchers compared the age of users with their reputation scores. It was clear that an individual's reputation increases with age, at least into a user's 40s.

But when they looked at the number of different subjects that users asked and answered questions about, which reflects the breadth of their programming interests. The researchers found that there is a sharp decline in the number of subjects younger users knew about.   But the range of subjects increased steadily through the programmers' 30s and into their early 50s.

Looking at the knowledge of older programmers compared to younger programmers for iOS and Windows Phone 7, the veteran programmers had a significant edge in knowledge over their younger counterparts.

The paper, with the catchy title "Is Programming Knowledge Related To Age?", noted that for every other technology there was no statistically significant difference between older and younger programmers.