The Value of a 70-Year-Old Software Engineer

I was chatting with a 70-year-old man who is an independent “software engineer”—a programmer. I asked him how he keeps up with all the young hot-shots who know the latest fancy programming languages. Simple, he said: There are many companies that are just converting very old systems, and the young programmers don’t know the older languages.

Being technically obsolete gives him an advantage. Economists believe that human capital and technology are complements (something I show by negative example when I can’t get my Powerpoint presentations to work on a projector!). But so long as companies don’t introduce new technologies, those workers with “obsolete” human capital will do OK. Indeed, this man charges higher than average fees, because there are so few other programmers left who can deal with the old technology!


YX

Remember Y2K bug... so many company was scrambling to patch up old apps (mostly Fortran). My old CS teacher quit his job, became a contractor for 2 years, and never worked a day since.

awaysaway

They were not paying that much... low 6 figures perhaps. If you were used to 40k a year and could work 2 or 3 years and not change your lifestyle then you could sock some away for early retirement.

kenny

The dopes that think you have to be young to program, are idiots. If anything, programming has become easier over the years and seems to following my supposed debilitating drop in intelligence.

YX

People assume that programming is creative. Occasionally it is, but most of the time it is very repetitive, and more so with more experience. Researcher would try to come up with some new cutting edge algorithm, but work of corporate peons (or code monkeys) mainly consist of copy paste methods and library calls that has used thousands of times.

David

Is this true? I tried my hand at CS and realized I am terrible at it. I do software testing so I am in awe of my colleagues who program. But this is not the first time I heard that programming is more mechanical than creative. How often do you come across some code that is truly ground-breaking or awe-inspiring? Not a rhetorical question ...

ChrisB

As a programmer, I will say No. Followed up by a hell no. Programming is very creative. If you aren't creative, inquisitive, and willing to learn you will have a very hard time in this field. Copy Paste programming doesn't cut it in the real world.

YX is probably just a troll.

James

Well, as another programmer, I have to say that it's not as creative as all that. Indeed, if your goal is to produce good code (by my definition of good, which means that a) it runs correctly, b) it makes appropriately efficient use of resources, and c) someone can come along, maybe years later, and easily understand what the code's doing and how to modify it), you have to learn to rein in your natural creativity in favour of competence.

Donovan Kliegg

I think the story subject's success is because of the extreme shortage of skilled labor. There is a giant long tail of technology to maintain and tail is increasing faster than the labor pool. Any new entrants into the labor pool are going to be focused on the largest growing segment of the market and are not going to waste their effort learning a hodge-podge of obsolete technologies. Anyone software engineer that move around in the tail will have lots of options.

That being said, I question the implied premise that older engineers cannot operate in the newest technologies. I wrote my first "hello world" code 30 years ago on a computer I soldered together from its constituant chips. I find the breadth of experience that comes with age enables me to be productive in new languages, software frameworks, and architectural patterns in hours rather than weeks. There hasn't been anything new in software engineering for decades and all of it is combinatorial. To an outsider, it all looks complicated and mysterious, but to a wise software engineer there still isn't anything new under the sun.

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awaysaway

Agreed. Certainly some older programmers can't hack the change to a new paradigm but many / most can. I think there is often reluctance to learn new things as it is hard work and who enjoys being 100% skilled at something and then have to go through a painful learning curve on something new - its just human nature.

Jens Fiederer

I once had the pleasure of working with a fellow who was the last living programmer that understood a particular cash register system that was still widely used in Eastern Europe.

He did a lot of traveling and apparently made a lot of money, based on the size of his estate.

James

As someone in a similar position, I have to say that often the latest programming language fads just get in the way. They're fine (I suppose) when you want fancy interfaces layered on a core that really doesn't do much at all. But if you're doing heavy-duty number crunching, and your goal is to have a solution in hours rather than days or weeks, there's an answer (to an old Beatles tune, too):

"When I find myself in times of trouble,
K&R they come to me,
Speaking words of wisdom: Code In C"

Doc

For every defunct package installed years ago there is at least one person making a living supporting it and keeping it alive with code patches.

Lord

I bet he has to work for many, many, different employers. Few have even the work to keep one employed and higher rates don't really amount to a hill of beans without benefits and keeping employed. Often finding work is much more time consuming than the work itself and being unrenumerated becomes a waste of time at any rate.

Gary

Until the asteroid hit, the declining dinosaur populations occupied niches for millennia. Even for a while afterward a few lingered on. Y2K was an asteroid that wiped out a lot of old code, but the pace of technological change is so rapid now that languages get orphaned pretty rapidly and eventual dinosaurs are being minted every day.

GPO

I have an uncle that took an early retirement package from a large oil company. Then he went off and worked as a contractor programming old languages. Except for the travel it was a great gig. Although I don't think he minded being away from his wife all that much.

Steven

In my opinion the big software companies should never fire old software engineers. I say this becasue their experience is priceless. Basically they have years ans years of working with old and also new softwares. Softworld

DaveyNC

Reminds me of the old joke about the retired engineer:

After 30 years working at the same factory, the engineer retired. 2 or 3 months later, he gets a panicked call from the GM of the factory. Something has gone wrong on the production line and nobody can figure it out. They are shut down and losing millions of dollars a day in business. Can the engineer help?

The engineer says that he will do the work on a contract basis and goes to the factory. He wanders around checking the various machines and systems and after a while, walks over to one, draws an X on the side of one of the machines and tells them to drill a hole right there. They do and instantly the production line fires up and runs perfectly.

The GM is amazed and grateful. "How much do we owe you?"
"$50,000", says the engineer.
The GM is taken aback. "That's a lot of money for what you did. I'll need an itemized invoice for that much."
The engineer pulls out a notebook and writes the following on it:

"Piece of chalk: $1
Knowing where to make chalk mark: $49,999"

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AaronS

They even made a movie about this: "Space Cowboys." It starred Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland.

For me, I PREFER old timers. Certainly you want a doctor who is up on the latest greatest, but you also need that doctor who realizes from vast experience that a symptom is not as scary as it seems, etc.

I especially like older ministers. It helps me to know that someone has been through harder, deeper things than me...and yet still has faith.