5 min read

The oasis isn't coming to you...

Are you crawling past an oasis because you don't have a drinking straw?
The oasis isn't coming to you...
In the barren wasteland of tech, old coders are an oasis. But the oasis isn't coming to you.

Show Notes

Hello, everybody and welcome to The Imposters Club podcast. I'm your host, Teddy Kim. So, a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be on a Q&A panel for a group of new computer science graduates. While my natural instinct is to avoid any form of public speaking, the panel organizers twisted my arm, and eventually, I agreed to participate. Sigh, do it for the kids. Well, luckily, the other panelists were incredibly talkative. They talked so much that I managed to hide in the background. I went the entire session, without having to say anything. I was just sitting up there looking pretty.

Unfortunately, just as the panel was drawing to an end, one of the students targeted me for a question, Mr. Kim, he said, what is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a brand new coder who is just about to start their first day on the job? Dude, too easy. My reply was this. When you are first starting in tech, the most important thing you can do is decide what type of relationship you want to have with old developers. I can tell you, my answer landed like a ton of bricks. The entire auditorium was staring at me like I had an arm growing out of my head. And it reminded me of the episode of The Simpsons where Homer is annoyed with Grandpa Simpson and he says, you've done a lot of great things but you're a very old man now, and old people are useless.

The reason it's funny is that it's true or at least truthy. Homer is giving voice to a sentiment that many people feel but probably wouldn't say out loud. In tech, I would venture to say that most people believe old people are useless. Well, how can that be? Well, for starters, the demographics in tech are rather unique. The techie population skews very young compared to other industries. And let's face it, most tech projects and tech companies are kind of lame. And the lameness is like a forcing function that over time, pushes people into management or out of the industry altogether. That's why the vast majority of techies are millennials, or even Gen Z nowadays.

There's a little bit more to it than that. Look at it this way. If we're going to use people like cannon fodder in the great tech wars, well, why not use young people? They don't cost as much. Is that too cynical? I don't know. I'm just calling it as I see it. Anyway, back to old people. There are always a handful of older developers who resist the pressure to become managers. But many tech companies seem to wish this contingent didn't even exist. When was the last time you saw an old person of any gender working the booth at a tech conference or hiring panel? Yeah, it's not the image most tech companies are looking for. But they are out there, old people, I mean. They may not be the public face of the company. They're its backbone and the most important thing you can do your first day on the job is figure out what kind of relationship you want to have with the old farts.

There's a saying out there. I don't know where it came from, but it goes like this. Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young. Hmm, maybe old people in tech aren't useless after all. Maybe they have something going on. How else can you survive in an industry that so relentlessly chews up and discards much younger people?

No, I've had the great privilege to work with some old farts who are still in the coding game. Yeah, a couple of them are complete duds. But for the most part, old people are the most interesting, sincere, helpful, and wise people in tech. They have seen some shit. Yes, in the barren desert of tech. The old programmers are an oasis. They have knowledge, context, experience, and perspective that you can't get from documentation or Stack Overflow. They've developed vast webs of inference that allow them to make mental leaps while you're stuck plodding.

If you have a problem, they've already had it and figured it out. Otherwise, they wouldn't still be there. They have figured out the keyboard shortcuts to life. The fact that they're old doesn't make them boring. It makes them more interesting. If you make a sincere effort to connect with the old devs, their stories are incredible. What kind of crazy systems have you seen? Where have you worked? Tell me about that bug you found that saved the company. How did you find it? How did you fix it?

But despite all the wisdom, I almost never see a young dev make any effort to connect with or learn from older devs. Most younger devs seem to studiously avoid the older devs. You've done a lot of great things, but you're old and old people are useless. I've seen young devs spend days beating their head against a wall trying to figure out a problem...scouring Stack Overflow, reading blogs, getting frustrated on and on. The answer was right there inside the head of the old person, who you will never see in the booth at the company's hiring fair.

Hey kid! The old fart sitting next to you has the answer. All you have to do is ask her. To drive this home. Let me give you an analogy. Imagine you're in the desert, you're crawling on your hands and knees, you have to endure the blazing sun, the burning sand, crawling inch by inch to your destination...and that is your first year in tech. You get out of school only to discover that you don't actually know anything useful. Deadline pressure is freaking you out. You want to prove yourself, but your shit won't even compile. Stack Overflow doesn't have the answer and if you ask a question losers on the internet and make you feel stupid. If anything can make you feel more worthless, marginal, and alone, I don't know what it is.

Now, as you're dragging yourself on your hands and knees through this desert, you may encounter an oasis. So what do you do? Of course, you make a beeline for the water and drink it. What you don't do is sit around and wait for the Oasis to come to you. The Oasis isn't coming to you. You have to put in the effort. And please don't let yourself off the hook with cheap excuses. "Oh, I learn better by doing" or "our personalities clash" or "he's too intimidating." Lame, that's like crawling past an oasis because you don't have a drinking straw. Get over yourself. If you can't adapt and learn from different kinds of people in a professional setting, you have a personal problem and you need to sort that shit out.

Hey, and all you old programmers out there. Don't be a crotchety old fart. demonstrate that you care about the young members of the team. You remember what it was like starting out, have some compassion, go out of your way to be approachable, and check in on your teammates. I think Teddy Roosevelt said it best, "Nobody cares how much you know unless they know how much you care".

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