The Myth of the Aging Hacker and How to Fight It

Bill Gates speaks at the XIX International Aids Conference, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Bill Gates speaks at the XIX International Aids Conference, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

One thing that you don't want to admit to in the tech world is getting old. (I guess that's true in general but in technology land it's almost a taboo.)

Technology has a reputation for being a young person's game. That's a perception that I would like to change. But it's tough when we technologists believe it ourselves. Here are three examples of ageism that happened to me all on the same day:

A young 20-something techie explained to me that she was getting old fast and needed to start a startup before she got too old to have great ideas. "Everyone knows that after 30 your mind slows down and the billion dollar ideas stop flowing."

A post-50 techie told me on the phone that he was getting old, feeling slow and unhealthy, and that perhaps his best years were behind him. He had been a giant lion in Silicon Valley in the '90s and now he feels like a little lamb.

A good friend sent me his resume: He just got suckered into early retirement by his employer of 20 years and feels totally lost in the world of hack-a-thons, meetups and fancy new Java VM languages. For the last 20 years he's been coding UNIX operating system tools while being an excellent father. And now he thinks he's competing with his post-college kids for the same jobs!

Lies! It's all lies! (Is there a Myth Busters show for misconceptions about aging?)

To counter this sort of self-inflicted ageism I'll use myself as an example:

Sure, when I was young I had a dozen ideas a day. But most of them slipped away. I hardly ever completed anything. Now that I am older, I have the ability to finish what I started. I can ensure an awesome end-product because I've been through the whole product development cycle too many times to count.

When I was young all the ideas that excited me were mine. Now, I don't care where the idea comes from. I'm much more interested in success for the team than pushing my agenda. I think this is one of the reasons why 99 percent of all startups fail: Young people, pushing their ideas, unable to gain perspective, chasing after personal success. A successful startup usually has an inter-generational mix of people at its core.

But enough about me: Let's use Bill Gates as example: He dropped out of Harvard to create Microsoft and bulldozed his way to the top of the technology heap. He did some stuff when he was young that I bet he is not proud of, just like any normal human, but he ostensibly "won" the game.

Bill's best ideas were not those from his youth. His best ideas, and what history will remember him for, came after he retired and created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife! Reinventing the toilet might not be as sexy sounding as another Pinterest-Photo-Streaming-Mobile-Coupon app, but it's 100 times more important. Long after that Pinterest-Photo-Streaming-Mobile-Coupon app is forgotten, the Gates Foundation's work in sanitation will be celebrated.

I bet Bill feels older, perhaps slower, but he looks like he's in great shape. When you're young you don't have to exercise and eat right. As you age you have to do it. I know for us aging hackers the idea of exercise is about as appealing as an hour spent with IE6. But it must be done. This morning I put Billy Blanks in the old DVD player and did my Tae Bo Flex.

And the great thing about being an old hacker is that all the stuff we learned back in the '80s and '90s is still relevant and critical: LISP, Objective-C, UNIX, POJOs, User Centered Design. Our skills are not outdated! Our skills are continually rediscovered by every new generation.

So if you're young, don't rush into an ill-thought-out startup because you fear your biological clock. And if you're old, get your game face on and keep hacking!