The tools and technology involved in application development have certainly progressed over the past 30 years. Low-level assembler programming gave way to COBOL, which gave way to client server development, Web development, PDAs, and so on.

On the other hand, the development process itself hasn’t changed all that radically over the years. Yes, there are new languages and databases but, when all is said and done, the coding still involves assignment statements, loops, and conditional logic (If-then-else). With many of the basics still the same, does the age and experience-level of developers play a role in whether they can become proficient in the newer technologies?

These ideas are especially relevant in today’s marketplace. Development positions are not as hot as they were a few years ago, and I personally know many experienced developers struggling to find replacement positions as a result of layoffs and company closures.

Technology stereotyping
One of the problems encountered by older developers is technology stereotyping. As an example, let’s say a company is looking to retrain two developers. One is 45 years old and the other is 29. The company also has two openings to fill. One opening is a mainframe COBOL position in the Application Support area. The other is for a Web developer using Java. Neither candidate has the required skills for either position, but your company will invest in training for both people. Now, which one do you slot for each position?

Given this very arbitrary and unfair scenario, let me propose what I think are the first thoughts that come to the minds of most managers. The “kid” is offered the Java Web development position. The “old-timer” gets offered the mainframe support position. Such is the fate of older developers.

Do older workers have a hard time learning new technologies?
I think one of the fundamental questions asked of older developers is whether they have the ability to pick up newer technologies. There’s no one answer that fits everyone. On one side, I can tell you that the person I know who is the most savvy with new technology is a gentleman in his mid-to-late 40s. This guy is maniacal in his interest in new technology, and he can run circles around most people in his understanding of how technology works and interacts.

On the other hand, I also know some older workers who have told me they have invested years in understanding the technology they know, and they are not necessarily interested in investing the time needed to pick up the newer development languages and tools.

Along with this, there is the fact that it’s not always easy to pick up another development language. Simply put, there are big differences between certain languages. They do not just use different syntax for “Do Loops” and “If-Then-Else” statements.

For example, when I was learning PL/1 and COBOL, to a certain degree they were just different ways of doing the same thing. However, the newer technology does require a paradigm change. Event-triggered programming and the visual development environments are definitely different than my PL/1 days. Web development is different as well. You can’t take your mental understanding of mainframe development and apply it to development in client-server or the Web. It does take a more fundamental change in thinking.

This brings me back to the question of whether people of any age can pick up and become proficient in this way of developing. In my opinion, the answer comes down to a matter of will and skills.

Do they have the will?
The first question I would ask is whether the developer has the will to learn. Perhaps because I’m in my mid-forties, I never had a problem with taking older mainframe and mid-range programmers and investing in them so that they could pick up the newer technology. However, as I mentioned previously, not everyone wants to go this route. Some older developers want to ride out the mainframe/midrange wave until they retire. In a sense, this is not a bad thing. These older applications will be with us for many more years and many younger workers are not interested in learning them or working in the technology. So, although sticking to the older technology gets riskier every year, many older developers don’t have a lot of years left until retirement, so it might work out all right. On the other hand, they’re accepting the risk that, if they get laid off, they may find it harder to find a new position given their more limited skill set.

Can they learn the skill?
For this article, I’m looking at older workers who do not have the right set of newer development skills. Now the question is, if they want to learn, can they? Of course, everyone is different. Many people are amazingly flexible in their mental outlook. Today, they may not have the current skills. But if you invest in training and coaching, they can get through the learning curve to become very productive.

Not everyone will be able to make the mental transition to the new development paradigms. I will assume that the ones who do not want to learn have already screened out. However, some who want to learn will still not be successful. In a sense, they will not be able to “get it.”

This is to be expected as well, and, again, it is not all about age. Many younger developers never make it either. In fact, as I look back over development organizations I’ve managed, those I would consider to be the weakest developers were always younger workers. They are people who just did not have the aptitude for development.

Treat everyone individually and give everyone a chance
I never had a problem asking older workers to pick up newer technologies. In fact, I never even asked them if they wanted to. Unless they came to me and said they did not want to learn new things (which some did), I tried to treat people of all ages similarly. I also knew that I needed the entire development staff to be multi-skilled so that we had the flexibility to assign people to whatever work was highest priority.

My experience was that if workers had the will, they could generally be taught the skill, regardless of their age and prior experience level.

The IT workforce is aging. Many of the elder statesmen (like me) have a broad base of experience in the development environment. They know how to develop and support applications. As companies move forward into more advanced and cutting technologies, they need to invest in many of these older workers as well. Look at your organization today. If the mainframe people are all in their 40s and 50s, and the Web developers are all in their 20s and 30s, I think you have some problems. First, you are stereotyping workers based on age, and it tells me that you’re more willing to hire younger people than retrain current staff in the newer technologies. Second, you’re not taking full advantage of the experience of these experienced workers in your vital new technologies. If they have the will to learn those new technologies, you should make a point of letting them try. If you don’t, you could be wasting valuable resources.