Friday, April 5, 2019

The aging puzzle

Recently I came across this site. Looks like Sebastian Baltes has been doing interesting work. He studies the human aspects of software engineering. He interviews software engineers to learn about their work habits and processes, for example, how they achieve software development expertise by practicing through some tasks, and how this expertise helps them perform better in other software development tasks.

One of the things he investigated is how aging effects performance for software development. He inspects this through self-reporting of the developers, so the data is subjective and not empirical. The developers reported they felt their short term memory became limited and it got harder to write code as they aged. Some of the developers said "when you are young you are more competitive, but as you get old, you don't feel like competing that much."

Is this true? What do we have to look forward to as we age?

What does the data say?

"Young people are just smarter." 
--Mark Zuckerberg (2007), when he was 24

It turns out, among some other things, Mark Zuckerberg got this very wrong. Longstanding beliefs say the adult brain is best in its youth, but research now suggests otherwise. The middle-aged mind preserves many of its youthful skills and even develops some new strengths. I was surprised to learn that bilateralization of the brain is a real thing:
Several groups, including Grady’s, have also found that older adults tend to use both brain hemispheres for tasks that only activate one hemisphere in younger adults. Younger adults show similar bilateralization of brain activity if the task is difficult enough, Reuter-Lorenz says, but older adults use both hemispheres at lower levels of difficulty. 
The strategy seems to work. According to work published in Neuroimage (Vol. 17, No. 3) in 2002, the best-performing older adults are the most likely to show this bilateralization. Older adults who continue to use only one hemisphere don’t perform as well.

There have been studies of the effects of aging on professors' publication records. These studies show that there was no slow down of publications with age. 

But it looks like there is no data on whether or how developers' performance degrade as they age.

My speculations

The old professors I interacted with throughout my career were sharp, and some of them surprisingly sharp. I don't think the aging puts a big strain on the brain. As you age, the body starts to suffer first, not the brain. If you take care of your body, most importantly if you are able to keep slim and  sleep well at night, you can get a lot of mileage from your brain.

I think the self-reported observations from old knowledge workers may have many underlying causes. One cause could be confirmation bias. People may be getting more sensitive about age (which is especially the case in an ageist work environment), and pay more attention to this. Inevitably they see what they look for, and take this as real.

For the some of the old developers the loss of meaning could be a problem. When things get too monotonous and development work loses its novelty, it would be hard to extract meaning from the job.

It is often said that old people are slow to adopt new things. Douglas Adams has a famous quote, which you may have seen:
1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you're 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things. 

While this is witty, this is not true for the 35+ years old I interact with in the academia and in the tech industry.

I think the first part is true. As a kid, you adapt quickly and since you don't have much experience, you don't question or reject something. But as you grow up, you develop some taste, so you may reject some things, even when you are between 15-35. And after 35, maybe you have too many experiences and scars, which may be make you more cautious and closed-minded about things.

In any case this may be an important point. To avoid falling behind technology and keep your edge as you get older, it would help to keep your curiosity alive. The other day, I got into an elevator with my 4 year old daughter, and she was utterly delighted by the elevator. I envied her and wished I could get that excited about things. But it is possible to keep curiosity alive and it is possible to look at things in a new light by being more mindful about this.

Finally, it is a fact that young people are statistically more likely to be risk takers.
But there is one talent that does decline over time—our willingness to take risks. For evolutionary reasons, risk-taking peaks between the ages of 17 to 27, then drops off precipitously.
Well, risk taking is not necessarily good, as it often does not pay off. The survivorship bias means that only the successful risk-takers gets all the publicity. On the other hand, I agree that old people may tend to get overly conservative and cautious. But, do you know why old people check 3 times if they locked the door or turned off the oven? Because they have been bitten by it before.

To avoid becoming overly-cautious and overly risk-averse, we may need to reset our attitudes every 5-10 years or so. Some people say psychedelics help for covering over the old beaten tracks, and resetting bad habits/thoughts. I think just taking time off, going on a journey, and reflecting on our behavior/attitudes could be very effective solutions for this.

MAD Questions 

This entire thing was already very speculative anyways. So I will be lazy and leave it with one MAD question.

How do we dig our way out of ageism?

Many people say (and I agree) that ageism in software industry is a real problem.
The software industry is overwhelmingly young. The median age of Google and Amazon employees is 30, whereas the median age of American workers is 42. A 2018 Stack Overflow survey of 100,000 programmers around the world found that three-quarters of them were under 35. Periodic posts on Hacker News ask, "What happens to older developers?" Anxious developers in their late thirties chime in and identify themselves as among the "older." 
Kevin Stevens, a 55-year-old programmer, faced a similar attitude when he applied for a position at Stack Exchange six years ago. He was interviewed by a younger engineer who told him, "I'm always surprised when older programmers keep up on technology." Stevens was rejected for the job. He now works as a programmer at a hospitality company where he says his age is not an issue.

How do we dig our way out of this situation? Could the capitalist free market offer a solution eventually? How likely is it that we will see a company that disrupts the agist companies by hiring and making better use of older developers?

No comments:

Two-phase commit and beyond

In this post, we model and explore the two-phase commit protocol using TLA+. The two-phase commit protocol is practical and is used in man...