How older aged devs outpace their peers and should get respect

So you think you probably code better and faster than 40- or 50-something aged programmers? Do not be too self-confident. Science shows that when a young and old developer engage in a challenge with familiar rules for both, the old one generally performs better and faster.

Crystallized intelligence is the main asset of older aged persons if you compete with them. Scientists coin crystallized intelligence as ‘the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience.’ Crystallized intelligence is related to comprehending information, verbal ability and the ability to come up with strategies to complete tasks.

Think for example of this: as long as a person continues reading throughout his life, their reading comprehension and speed will also improve. Because of this, generally older aged comprehend information better and read it faster than younger adults. The same counts for programming.

Fluid intelligence

On the other hand, fluid intelligence is one of the main assets of younger programmers. Researchers have introduced the terminology ‘fluid intelligence’ to describe the ability to deal with new situations independent of acquired knowledge. In general, an older aged person is not able to learn how to do something new as quickly as younger people because of the youth-related advantage in fluid intelligence.

Although both intelligence types increase during childhood, fluid intelligence tends to decline between the age of 30 and 40. This is why 40- or 50-something programmers would lose a hackathon based on a new technology principle and stack. However, crystallized intelligence continues to grow throughout adulthood and begins to decline only very late in life.

Crystallized intelligence experiment

Crystallized intelligence is not only an asset of the older, 40- or 50-something aged software developer of course. As experience is the big driver, also a young engineer can outpace another thanks to his/her years of programming experience.

The universities of Texas and Oklahoma demonstrated this recently by conducting a coding experiment. The experiment involved 140 students majoring in technology-related areas, aged between 19 to 54 years (with a median of 23 years). Prior to participating, all contestants received info on how to create basic computer apps with Microsoft Visual Basic. Each one got 1 hour to code a simple app to help directors of a PhD program make decisions regarding student admissions. Outcomes showed that the more coding experience a student had, strongly related to his age, the better he performed during the challenge. Results also confirmed that the less coding experience, the more stress the participant experienced.

Age bias is aged itself

But yet, still, “there is a perception that IT-associated jobs [are] less suited for older than for younger employees”. This is one of the statements of research paper ‘Do older programmers perform as well as young ones’. The statement was based on conclusions of earlier research papers, confirming the existence of age bias between 1995 and 2012. Although the technology world gains new insights every day, it still unfairly sticks to the perception that older programmers perform worse than younger ones. This is also reflected by the earnings of software developers, if you follow their salary from year to year.

The loser in this case is not only the older programmer, but also his employer. Not dealing with age biases in a company can lead to broken relationships, alienation of your employees and poor internal communication. This hugely impacts software teams, and any team that relies on creativity, collaboration and open communication.

Less age bias = more innovation

Truly innovative organizations are able to build on continuous learning and shared knowledge. For these to exist, team members first need a foundation to collaborate. Weaving collaborative practices into the fabric of your company will ultimately lead to higher productivity, fewer mistakes, and happier teams.

Less age bias = less costs

Older aged programmers do not only add crystallized intelligence to your company. Netflix for example hired the 42 aged software engineer Robert Fletcher (below). Almost 5 years later, he’s still working for the company. And he’s clearly not the only one. In general older engineers are more loyal and as such provide more continuity and value to an organization. They cut costs related to employee turnover, such as onboarding and loss of knowledge.

Robert Fletcher quoted at Belitsoft

Stimulate collaboration between young and old

Do you sense that age bias is a serious problem within your company? Then you can also build on scientific research that shows that event-based collaborations can take away harmful perceptions of colleagues. Universities of Frankfurt and Karlsruhe organized workshops for software teams of different companies in China and Europe and determined that the ones stimulating interaction and collaboration between older and younger programmers were effective in reducing age bias over a relatively long period. Read more about it in Reducing Age Stereotypes in Software Development: The Effects of Awareness- and Cooperation-based Diversity Interventions.

Image credit: Hackathon London 2014 by David Woolfall for Techcrunch.

Originally published at Jexia.