Old dog, new tricks

Doghouse – Updating Technical Skills

Article from Issue 229/2019

As operating systems and computer languages evolve, programmers need to keep learning new skills.

I belong to several social media sites that are frequented by older programmers and engineers. We exchange memories and technical tidbits from the past. Many of these people are retired, but some are not.

Recently, one person mentioned that people do not listen to him anymore, particularly when he is telling a story about something that happened to him years ago in the tech field. Many others chimed in and said the same thing happened to them. Some stated that they had stopped talking about technical items altogether.

Over time, it became clear that often these people were either talking to non-technical people and the technical conversation went way over their heads, or the person was talking about technical detail from many years ago that was just not relevant to their audience.

While the fact that you had to toggle in 17 12-bit instructions to a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8 computer system in order to get it to read a binary tape loader into memory may be interesting in terms of computer history, most people (unless they are at a computer museum) would not care. They are more interested in trying to get their iPhone to work or figure out how to more quickly create a document.

Sometimes a conversation might turn to a deep technical issue that calls for some interesting bit of technical data, but that would be a rare cocktail party indeed.

When I mentioned that most people today are more interested in modern day operating systems and languages than the ones used 30 years ago, a frosty silence came over the conversation. One person said "I am not going to learn anything new … what is the use."

I find that philosophy puzzling. As a technical person, I always like reading about new technology. Perhaps I do not have the time to learn exactly how that new technology works, but I do like knowing of its existence and why it is valuable. With the explosion of new software and hardware in so many different areas, I often may not know what a new piece of technology is or does. I simply tell other people that I have not had the time to read about it, and therefore I have no opinion as to its use. After that, I will do a quick Internet search and get at least a little insight into what the product or project does for the next conversation.

Many times, I run into programmers who have used older systems and languages and now do not fit into the work environment. Their technical skills are old and jobs using those skills are few and far between. However, if they took just a little time to learn a new language or some of the newer skills, they would "refresh themselves" and probably could re-enter the job market very successfully. They have skills that younger programmers do not have yet, and both groups could learn from each other.

Often at a conference, young people will come up and ask questions about their career path or whether they need heavy math skills for programming. They listen as I pull out real-life examples of why my advice should be a sound foundation for their decision making. I can not make the decision for them, but I can help them see different parts of the decision tree based on my experiences.

Another group of people whose skills often need "refreshing" are young parents who learned computer science or computer engineering and then took time off to start and raise a family. After their children are old enough to start attending school, the parent now wishes to go back to work, but finds out that their former skills are "stale." At the university where I taught from 1977-1980, we had a program that taught these bright, knowledgeable people the latest methods and procedures that would let them re-enter the workforce. The course lasted only nine months, but most of them were successful at re-entering after being out of the industry for 10 years or more. These days, people can go to the web and find the information about what they need to study and even the study materials they need.

There is a young man of 16 years who is giving a lecture on quantum computing at my conference. He started programming at the age of eight and started a PHP user's group at the age of 14.

We had a great conversation at breakfast about different types of processors that will probably be used in the near term along with new types of computing that may not be seen in production for some time.

It was the right conversation with the right person at the right time, and we both enjoyed it.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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