Older programmers with families considered harmful?

2012-02-03 13:24:00

At a recent meetup, a guy in the community (a guy whom I generally have a lot of respect for) said one of the stupidest things I've heard in a long time (and that's saying something, given the silly shit I hear coming out of my own mouth day to day).

We were talking about an open-source project I started working on quite a while back, and why development on it kind of stalled for a while. He was totally convinced that the reason it had stalled was because I'm an older guy with a family. I told him no, it was because my work on Yammer takes up most of my time. We're pretty busy these days at Yammer.

Now, this guy is at a startup, so I would assume he'd totally get this, but bizarrely, he acted as if he hadn't even heard me (we were at a noisy bar; I guess it's possible somehow he actually didn't hear me), and continued to hold forth, saying, with a big grin, "that's why I'd never hire an older guy with a family."

Yeah, sure, I'm rolling my eyes at this because I'm one of those older dudes with a family. But you can see this same silliness in other places: "I'd never hire a woman, because she might get pregnant and have to quit." "I'd never hire a person without a comp-sci degree from an elite univerity and a high GPA, because we want smart people." "I'd never hire a person from Uzbekistan, because fluctuations in their currency's exchange-rate might distract them from their work." "I'd never hire a person who's lactose-intolerant, because we'd have to keep that special milk in the office." None of these make any fucking sense either.

As wrong as it is, I guess I can understand where the idea comes from -- it seems obvious that younger folks have a lot more time to hack. That is, unless they're spending their free time rock-climbing, or snow-boarding, hanging out at bars, or even, say, recovering from hangovers (okay, I still do this last one from time to time, too).

A previous startup where I worked was populated overwhelmingly with younger dudes who prided themselves on their ability to code for days and days at a time. They produced prodigious amounts of code -- and it was some of the most appallingly bad code I've ever seen. Piles and piles of it.

It's possible that older guys with families work fewer hours (although that hasn't been my experience in startups so far), but it's also highly likely that with their experience they spend more time writing the right code. Just sayin'.


Rick (2012-02-19)

Agreed. I’m a recovering academic — still, um, finishing up my, uh… degree — so all I’m used to seeing is pale twenty-something students pulling regular all-nighters for minimum wage. I might even be among them.

The moment I realized it was time to get out and never look back was on a random walk through the library when I chanced upon the book, “Winning the Games Scientists Play” by Carl Sindermann ( http://www.amazon.com/Winning-Games-Scientists-Play-Sindermann/dp/0738204250/ ). It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a detailed manual of what to do and what to avoid if your goal is to win research contracts, advance your career, and win the respect and admiration of everyone around you. Strictly speaking, it’s all sound advice, but it made me sick to my stomach.

You’ll have to trust my paraphrasing, but the part that really stuck with me was where he discussed the different types of researchers. There’s the young go-fer who wastes time with undergrads. There’s the hot young researcher with piles of money. And then there’s the nine-to-fiver who does the research and teaching, then goes home and spends time (presumably with his or her family) thinking about other interests. The type who just maintains the appearance of the academic. The type, he says, that should be discovered and exposed with great pleasure.

As much as I’d like to be idealistic about this I do think it’s pretty much correct. The people willing to sacrifice everything for their career will get ahead. Some will be mediocre, some will be brilliant, but all of them will make you feel insecure about how many hours of work per day you can stomach.

So to make a long story short, I absolutely agree with you. I’d rather produce good work and live my life than utilize every available moment toward the advancement of my career. This weekend I’m setting up timezones on a newsfeed at 1am on a Saturday night; next weekend I’m going snowshoeing.

Yikes. That was long. Sorry. Guess I’m passionate about this after wasting so many years in a dark office. Anyway, thanks again for an interesting post! This new world of programming interests me greatly.


This is the blog for Matthew Eernisse. I currently work at Yammer as a developer, working mostly with JavaScript. All opinions expressed here are my own, not my employer's.


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