It must be a new meaning of the word “qualified”

“Arthur: If I asked you where the hell we were, would I regret it?
Ford: We’re safe.
Arthur: Oh good.
Ford: We’re in a small galley cabin in one of the spaceships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet.
Arthur: Ah, this is obviously some strange use of the word safe that I wasn’t previously aware of.”

This is one of my favorite parts of one of my favorite books, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It states beautifully a feeling I often have when someone is using words in English, which is a language I know well, and yet when I interpret each of those words in the usual way,  I came to a conclusion that makes no sense at all.

For example, I have been repeatedly told that all of the innovations in tech fields happen with young people. I even read an article recently in which an IT manager from  a company in India was quoted as saying that they bring in people at age 20 and after 15 years, by age 35, they are of less value than the new 20-year-olds coming in. This caused me to ask myself,

What the fuck? In India, does “people” actually mean “cars”?

Because I can understand that if you got a 20-year-old car and used it for 15 years then it would probably be ready for the junk heap. (Note: I am by no means suggesting that saying stupid things is limited to managers in India. That just happened to be the article I was reading. I am fairly certain that saying stupid things and pretending they are correct is an international phenomena.)

Now, as Wendy said in Peter Pan, I am ever so much more than twenty. In looking back at what I knew when I was twenty, and at the students not much over twenty who I get the fun of interacting with on a regular basis, I am pretty darn certain that I, and the overwhelming majority of other technical people I know over 35 are one hell of  a lot more qualified. All of us have worked with multiple operating systems and programmed in multiple languages, allowing us to see possibilities beyond the one language our young friends might know relatively well. All of us are very, very good in at least one aspect of a field, having 20+ years of experience in programming in objective C, statistical analysis, etc.

At age 19, I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with my BSBA, so I think it is fair to say that I was relatively intelligent. I knew a bit of Fortran, a bit of Basic, had a couple of courses in Calculus and statistics, a bunch of economics courses, a smattering of finance and other good stuff. What I know now dwarfs what I knew then. Of course, computers have changed dramatically as well. Back then, we started out with punched cards, which we fed through card readers. By the end of my undergraduate career we had progressed to dumb terminals. I worked with Vax mini-computers and IBM mainframes for years before DOS came out, and the Apple II. I won’t bore you with what a long strange trip it’s been.

My point, and I assure you that I really do have one, is that everything I have learned in educational psychology suggests that people learn MORE when they have a context within which to make it meaningful. This is why it is always easier to teach students multiple regression than to teach them the idea of a simple linear regression, because you can relate to and extrapolate from what they learned previously.

So why, when it comes to programming or developing new technology should everything that had been documented about how people learn go out the window? Now it is BETTER if you don’t have 20 or 30 years of related technical experience to connect to new knowledge?

Perhaps I need someone under 35 to explain to me how this works?

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  1. I am Indian and close about 29 and feel qualified to answer this. Before I started school I was a curious child who was not afraid to experiment. School takes away the pleasure of learning and forces students to pretend that they understood something that the teachers pretend to know. High school give a brief hope, when you start preparing for the universities. Once in the university you are at the mercy of unqualified teacher. The pretend game starts again. After college as for most graduates outside the west the available jobs are generally dead end dumb ones (unrelated to ones major) that any kid or monkey can be trained to do. The pretense game starts all over again. Spend 35 years pretending you know what you are doing one is sure to come out lot more dumber and lot less spirited. Like the high school student who gets a brief glimmer of hope so does a 20 year old fresh out of college. The US is in a similar trend – standardized test, inflated college grades. The manager was not very wrong in his observation.

  2. it’s not that hard. think about the state india was in even just 15 or 20 years ago, and think about how much education in india has improved since then. now does it make sense for that manager to say that?

    ~ a 22 year old

  3. Very interesting to hear these comments on education in India because we are always hearing about how US students are such lazy slackers and supposedly students everywhere else study so much harder and learn so much more.

    Still, aaa – even if education is better now, that isn’t the whole issue. I’d think over 15 or 20 years since graduation people would learn stuff – they would want to learn new languages, techniques, ideas.

    I’d THINK that, but I admit that my experience in the US has been that many people don’t. I am amazed by people who can work at a major research university and NEVER once go to the library, attend a lecture. Still, there are also people who continue learning and innovating their whole lives, which is where my issue comes in with the “All new technology comes from young people” .

  4. I hear that in North America as well, where tech companies prefer new grads than those with 10-15 years of experience. Some of the reasonings are:

    1) they don’t have bad habits to unlearn that they’ve gained from other employers,
    2) they typically care less about work-life balance since they are childless, have no mortgages, and are typically more energetic,
    3) they are more eager to learn and do not have to feel like insecure about how they’re treated (i.e. a 20-year-old will be more content being the “worst” programmer on the team and be unafraid to ask questions)
    4) they are more open to, more familiar with, and more likely to experiment with newer technologies (not always a plus though)
    5) if the people with 10-15 years of experience are any good, they would have been promoted a long time ago, or at least won’t be on the job market

    Also, many of today’s 20-something’s DO know multiple languages and do have many years of experience. Although most of us have never touched a punch-card in our lives, we (I’m in my mid-20’s) did grow up with computers and had the chance to hack on it at a younger age. In grade 6, my best friend and I would code up websites on geocities for fun. I formally learned programming in the first year of High School, and many of my peers had started before me. My university also had us to spend 24 months on six different internships before we graduated.

    Exposure to computers since we’re young means that my generation see technology differently. We’re more accustomed to the interface and tools: we’re typically faster typists (I’m convinced it’s easier to learn as a kid), we naturally go to google when we have questions (it existed when we’re young), and we typically have a better understanding of what resources are on the web. Of course this is a very broad generation that does not apply to everyone!

    The way we think of programming languages seems different as well: you (Dr. De Mars) stressed importance of knowing a variety of languages, and I feel that most of my peers have gone past that. I’ve had to learn 4+ different languages formally (HTML in middle school doesn’t count, Turing & Java in high school, Scheme & C in first year university). If I count projects and internships the list would grow, and if I actually majored in CS the list would be even longer. We’re so used to picking up, using, and forgetting (!!) languages that it’s a non-issue. Yes, there are hard-to-pick up languages like C++, Lisp, and Haskell, but most others are more similar than they are different. Yes, knowing the quirks and the standard libraries are very important — especially in PHP and JavaScript (CoffeeScript solved JavaScript though!) — and thankfully google and stackoverflow are much better now than even 3-4 years ago!

    I think one can argue both ways: older people are more mature with better “soft” skills, have more professional experience, and don’t goof off as much. Fresh grads grew up with computers, don’t have as many bad habits, and have the energy goof off more. Of course, the most important is the quality of the individuals: the 20-somethings you know of seem very different from the ones I know of, and you are very different from the 35-40+ year olds programmers that I’ve come across with.

  5. Hi, Lisa –
    Yes, you are very different than many of the 20-year-olds that I know. I have three daughters aged 25-30, have taught statistics, primarily at the graduate level, since 1985. I am always running into young people who claim to have been programming since the sixth grade – and I am very willing to accept your personal claim – however, since I am writing a game now for children in grades 4-6 and another one for middle school students, I spend A LOT of time in various schools with students from age 11- 14 years and I have not yet seen ONE who is programming in any language. This is not to say that those students or schools do not exist but that they are not all that common.

    It’s kind of like judo. I competed for 14 years, back in the 1970s and 1980s. Probably half the black belts my age that I run across claim to have won medals in the national championships. This is funny, because I actually WON many of those tournaments, and I don’t recall seeing these people there. Of course, there were medalists, but there are far more people claiming medals than were actually awarded.

    Similarly, I can guarantee you that there are far fewer people who actually started programming at 12 or 14 years old than claim to have done so. Also, like judo, when I look at a kid who starts at age 6 or one who starts at age 13, there is a huge difference. IN GENERAL, the programming class that will be taught in high school and what you will take in college is quite different. And I DID take a programming class in high school, back in the 1970s. We had to write out our code and then someone would go up to St. Louis University and type it on cards to run through the card reader because they did not trust us to use it. (They were right, too, we were little hellions.)

    As far as having more time and being childless – well, I had my first three children when I was 24-28 years old, so that was when I had the LEAST time. Somehow I still managed to get two masters degrees and a PhD by 31.

    Now that 3 of the 4 are on their own and self-supporting, I have a lot more time than I did in my twenties.

    Of course you are right that the quality of the individual is the most important thing, and that was kind of my point, the gross generalizations seem just obviously silly to me.

  6. AnnMarie, This trend has been going on since about the mid-1990’s and its HR hiring “snake oil”. Who in their right minds would think that a twenty something would know as much or more than someone in studied in the field for 20 or more years? There are of course outliers—those very few twenty something math geniuses, but even then, these genius may solve individual problems but lack the experience to see how these individual problem relate to the whole science of math. Sorry I digress.

    The reason for removing someone with 15 years of experience or more is simply labour arbitrage. And it is a great mistake. By removing those with more experience your removing the “craftsmen” (using a Patricia Pitcher analogy —see book Artists, Craftsmen and Technocrats) from your company hollowing it out. Sure you’ll see some gains for a few quarters but when push becomes shove these twenty somethings do not have the experience to deal with the more difficult aspects of business. They lack the mentor-ship needed…..because well, the mentors had more than 15 years experience.

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