Who says younger is always better?

Not researchers at North Carolina State. 

New research from NCSU has found that conventional wisdom about older programmers losing their skills or being unable to learn new ones is not correct.

In fact, the report says, older is often better.

Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill, an assistant professor of computer science at NCSU, and a research team data mined profiles of more than 80,000 programmers at an online community called StackOverflow to tackle the age question.

“We wanted to explore these perceptions of veteran programmers as being out of step with emerging technologies and see if we could determine whether older programmers are actually keeping up with changes in the field,” Murphy-Hill says. “And we found that, in some cases, veteran programmers even have a slight edge.”

Murphy-Hill, who joined the NCSU faculty in 2010, focuses on “Graphics and Human Computer Interaction” as well as “Software Engineering and Programming Languages.”

He co-authored the paper that is based on a review of StackOverflow members where users rate the usefulness of other members’ questions and answers. Ratings produce “reputation scores,” with higher scores indicating in-depth understanding of all things programming. 

The site touts itself as “a question and answer site for professional and enthusiast programmers” where anyone can ask a question, anyone can answer and the best answers are “voted to the top.”

The questions are NOT for the faint of heart – or unskilled.

Some samples:

  • “Issues with `’cd` ubuntu”
  • “what is difference between public and private Intents”
  • “SqlBulkCopy – InvalidOperationException – Which field is causing this”

In the paper, the NCSU team noted that “programmer reputation scores increase relative to age well into the 50’s, that programmers in their 30’s tend to focus on fewer areas relative to those younger or older in age, and that there is not a strong correlation between age and scores in specific knowledge areas.”

Their conclusions have “implications for staff development and career planning,” the paper points out.

“We have shown a correlation between age and [StackOverflow] reputation, which may indicate that programming knowledge can be maintained at a high level in to a person’s 50’s and 60’s,” they wrote. 

“It appears that older SO users not only can acquire additional knowledge, but that they acquire knowledge of new technologies, in the case of the technologies we have examined. Further investigation is needed to determine under what conditions this occurs.”

The researchers found that “veteran” programmers age 37 or over had a “significant edge in knowledge” in dealing with Apple’s iOS for smartphones as well as Windows Phone 7. In fact, they say, with every technology reviewed they found no significant difference statistically between seasoned and young programmers. 

“The data doesn’t support the bias against older programmers – if anything, just the opposite,” Murphy-Hill said.

The paper can be read online.