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Older Computer Programmers Not Out of Touch, Study Finds

Computer User
Despite the rapid pace of changing technology, older programmers are just a (if not more) knowledgeable than their younger peers. (Image credit: Simon Cataudo)

The saying "With age comes wisdom" appears to ring true in the world of computer programming, according to a new study that examined whether older programmers really do have a harder time keeping up with rapidly changing technology.

Researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., surveyed an online community of software engineers, and found that despite frequent software platform changes, older programmers can more than keep up with their younger peers.

"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," study co-author Emerson Murphy-Hill, an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University, said in a statement. "And we found that, in some cases, veteran programmers even have a slight edge."

The researchers focused on a website called StackOverflow, an online forum where users ask and answer programming-related questions. Programmers can build up a "reputation score" on StackOverflow by asking good questions or supplying helpful answers. Individuals who have high reputation scores are thought to be more knowledgeable about programming issues, though the study does not directly assess programming performance, the researchers note in the paper.

Murphy-Hill and his colleagues examined the profiles of 80,000 StackOverflow users and looked at associations between their ages and reputation scores. The researchers found that programmers’ reputation scores increased with age, at least for those in their 40s or younger. Not enough data were available on programmers who fell above that age group, the researchers noted.

Next, the scientists evaluated the programmers' interests and levels of knowledge by looking at the diversity of subjects they responded to on StackOverflow.

The researchers noticed a sharp decline in the number of subjects commented on by programmers ages 15 to 30. In contrast, users in their 30s through their early 50s engaged in a wider variety of programming topics, the researchers said.

To assess whether older computer programmers — those ages 37 and older — are able to cope with technology changes, the researchers tested their knowledge of technologies that have existed for less than 10 years.

With iOS and Windows Phone 7 — two different smartphone operating systems — older programmers knew significantly more than their younger peers. According to the researchers, there were no statistically significant differences between older and younger generations of programmers for all of the other technologies.

"The data doesn't support the bias against older programmers — if anything, just the opposite," Murphy-Hill said. 

The findings of the new study will be presented May 18 at the 10th Working Conference on Mining Software Repositories in San Francisco.

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Denise Chow

Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.