on getting old(er) in tech – live blogging from qcon

On Getting Old(er) in Tech – Staying Relevant
Speaker: Don Denoncourt

See the list of all blog posts from the conference

Speaker is 57. In audience, nobody admitted to being older than that. About a dozen in their 50s. (I’m nowhere near 60. I came because I do want to stay in tech for my career so these problems will affect me someday)


  • Average of IT workers Facebook: 28
  • Average of IT workers LinkedIn: 29
  • Average of IT workers Google: 30
  • Average of all American workers: 42

Strategies to Stay Relevant

  • If best, have no opportunity to learn. Ok to work to be medium so learn from teammates.
  • If the best, find people elsewhere to collaborate/practice/learn
  • “Cubical dancing” – learn from everyone you work with. Ask different people for help. Learn from people who want to share.
  • Cross boundaries – Every time you fail, your brain gets stronger. You might not learn, but still stronger.
  • Challenge yourself – try something new; learn on own. Don’t want to be bored. Look at what is new on the horizon that need to jump into.

What to do if you are the best in your shop

  • Read code – compare to code of others
  • Join open source
  • Write blog posts – learn from writing
  • Speak at user groups and conferences
  • Discover technologies that other team members know more about
  • Mentor – learn from mentee’s ideas

Learning regularly

  • “10 years experience or 1 year 10 times” – can continue to learn in same job. But not everyone does.
  • “After doing 1 year 10 times, folks often lose the ability to learn”
  • Brain starts to lose ability after 30. Need to exercise it
  • Can be too late if stop learning
  • “Once you stop learning, you start dying” -Einstein
  • I plan on being in IT more than 10 years, need to beocme a lifelon learner
  • Perspective (for technologies): You are only as good as your last two years of accomplishment. After two years of pair programming, developers are roughly equal. Need to acquire new knowledge regularly.
    [this is a good resume point for people like me who have worked at one company a long time; highlight what recent]

    Learning types

    • Know your learnng style – books, videos, coursera
    • Remember that will learn most at beginning/end of learning session. Short bursts of learning help. Find short things to learn like Ruby Tapas
    • Go over material in muliple passes. Ex: multiple books on same subject
    • Mental pump – do something each day. Learn a lot when you graduate college and start working. Continue that.
    • Surge – blast of energy like pre-conference, pre-project launch, between projects, when job hunting. Take advantage of time and energy
    • Stockpile resources – keep track of books/bog/courses/videos people like. Keep conference/seminar videos. Keep newsletters. Then look at when ready/have time.

    Finding time

    • Use your commute time
    • Use your exercise time
    • Listen to podcasts or audio books

    On Getting Hired

    • Be up front about your age. Don’t color hair or hide experience made joke in application about knowing old tech and get guess age
    • Look and stay fit
    • Be interesting have hobbies
    • Take a cut in salary for new opportunities
    • Post code on github

    why i usually like books over video

    A teammate was discussing the “wonders of learning from video” yesterday.  Which got me thinking.  I generally like learning from books/articles best.  This would be text with illustrations/diagrams, not raw text.  I like reading better because:

    1. It is easier to go at my own pace.  (While you can speed up video, it takes more energy to listen to fast.  And I don’t want it uniformly fast. I want to be able to stop and re-read.  Which is a pain on video.)
    2. I find it easier to find information in text.
    3. I can later search text if electronic.  Or have “physical presence” cues if hard copy.

    That said, I’m enjoying some of the MOCC courses online.  Some being the operative word.  A video has to be done right to be good.  (As does a book; it’s just that books tend to go through more editing.)  I’ve noticed that the videos I like tend to be less than 5 -10 minutes in length.  With quizzes or exercises in between or in the middle.  I think the interaction helps.  It is easy to see if I understand what is going on so far.  And to revisit select parts.

    Live/in person video doesn’t have the negative side effects that recorded videos do for me.  I think that is because the presenter can adjust real time.  Either by seeing reactions or looking at visual cues or answering questions.  It still feels interactive even if a high percentage is lecture.

    When creating documentation

    When looking for general information, there are many forms and it is relatively easy to pick the format one desires.  (Although books are more common than videos on specialized topics.)  In a company, the cost to produce internal documentation often precludes doing both.  It’s also harder on the creators to do video because:

    1. Content needs to be searchable (I suppose a video transcription could allow this.)  This is the same reason text in an image should be available in pure text as well.
    2. Producing content for video consumption is very different than merely recording an in person training session.  The focus is different.  The “real time clutter” needs to be removed.  The screen needs to be shown with a different emphasis.  It’s not something to just do on a whim.
    3. Video can’t be watched while on hold, on a conference call, etc.  Granted these aren’t the ideal times to be learning, but it does happen.  Again subtitles could help with this.

    What do you think?  How do you balance text vs video for technical content?

    coursera saas-class and mitx circuits class feedback

    After AI-Class, I blogged with some feedback.  Over the past month or two, I took saas-class and MITx 6.0002x.

    How I found out

    I found about saas-class from comments at aiqus – the AI-class forum.  I found out about the MITx course via an e-mail from a friend.

    Why I took it

    Software as a Service is a hot topic and I was curious what they would teach about designing for scalability.  Even before the class started, it was apparent the class was really about software engineering practices using Ruby.  It seemed like a cool way to learn a little Ruby and tools like Cucumber.  It turned out I had a real world friend along with two fellow coderanch moderators in this class.

    The MITx circuits class was less work related.  I took a hands on circuits class and was disappointed on the lack of coverage of concepts/how things work.


    For SAAS, the main pre-req was knowledge of at least one object oriented programming language.  Check.  I’m a Java developer.  This pre-req was important in the course as it moved too fast for someone who has never programmed before.

    For MITx the pre-reqs were calculus, linear algebra and first year college physics.  I did take all these classes.  However, I haven’t used much of them since college so I didn’t really have the pre-reqs in my mind.

    How it worked

    Area Coursera – SAAS MITx – 6.002 Circuits
    What I liked What could be better next time What I liked What could be better next time
    Lectures 5-15 minute course snippets.  The videos were a bit jumpy but still possible to follow. I felt like there was too much overlap between the lectures and the book.  I read the book and this caused me to gloss over some of the later videos. Tended to be longer, but still a reasonable range.  Good snippets as well and broken up as needed.  I liked the switch between lecture (powerpoint), human face and demo. Bookmark your place more clearly.  Your position in the lecture sequences was marked but it was hard to see and you had to know what to look for.
    In lecture quizzes Quizzes were short multiple choices to make sure you understood the lecture. The AI-class and MITx quizzes tested deeper knowledge.  As did the saas-class exam type quizzes.  Bringing some of that rigor to the lectures would have made it more interesting. These were well thought out exercises.  You could submit as many times as you wanted or see the answers and backfigure from there.  There were excellent forum discussions on the exercises as students posted worked answers. Provide a built in walkthru for the early ones?
    Homework I think the homeworks were by far the best part of course.  They were well crafted to reinforce/try/play with the material.  They gave you a sandbox that was big enough to play in but not so big as to flounder around in.  The auto grader which allowed multiple attempts help avoid any perceived ambiguity. The only thing I would change is that the auto-grader was up late for the last assignment. The format was similar to the quizzes in that there were unlimited retries.  The big difference is that the answer wasn’t available until afterwards. The content was more challenging and checked your understanding.  There were also virtual labs where you could build circuits which was really cool.  The homeworks/labs also generated different sets of numbers making it harder for people to cheat. There was some reports that the virtual labs were too sensitive.  I didn’t run into this problem personally though.
    Exams The exams were timed multiple choice quizzes.  They were a good way of seeing how much you retained in a quick manner. On the last quiz, I got a longer quiz and then when I submitted “it was gone.”  Going back I was presented with a shorter quiz as if I had never been there.  I would have liked the answers to the first one. While the exams haven’t actually occurred yet, the announcements say they will be like the homeworks except you can only submit three wrong answers (as opposed to trial an error around) and you only have 24 hours from when you start to complete it.  I like this idea.  It’s a natural progression. n/a
    Book Choice of e-book or printed book.  On a very beta book.  The book was good though so I don’t mind. The book was only available in certain countries. The book went well with the course and let you go into more detail on concepts/understanding. Aside from being expensive, this book was difficult to find.  I ordered it several weeks before the course and barely got it in time.
    Forums The forum was built into coursera.  It was a bare bones forum and organized by “general”, “assignments”, etc.  The forum moderators did create a new forum for study groups when it became apparent that was causing clutter. I didn’t like the forum.  Part of it was the large number of stickied threads for long periods of time.  Part of it was the lack of contrast between read and unread posts.  And I suspect part of it is was the subconscious missing of features I reply on in other forums. I really like the forum.  It is powered by askbot and has a lot of the features I like in stackoverflow – tags, showing tags, hiding tags and voting.  It also has badges, karma and an easy way to see your topics/posts. At the beginning of the course, hardly anyone had enough karma to delete posts including those that contained answers to the homeworks.
    Progress Bar If you click on assignments or quizzes, you can see your scores. There was a lot of “click to expand” needed to see all the information at once. A page clearly showed how “done” you were.  It gave a percentage for homeworks, labs, exams and non-credit quizzes in the lectures. Minor, but it would be nice if the homework/lab scores linked to the homework/lab.
    Announcements The home page had announcements.  Kind of.  Most things were “announced” in the forums or by editing a paragraphs long text area.  Only a few announcements had a date. The announcements had a feel of the plans were “on display” in the basement of the planning office, where both the lights and stairs had been removed, in an old filing cabinet locked in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”Yes.  They were there.  But it took a lot of looking and re-looking to ascertain what was new.Source: Hitchhiker Guide Useful, timely and ordered by date. n/a

    My measure of success

    For SAAS, I know more than I did when I started the class.  I got to do some hands on development with Ruby and Ruby testing tools.  I got to participate in an online forum with fellow learner.

    For MITx, I did learn two and a half weeks of material.  And it was great to see how they did it.  Between being shakey on the pre-reqs and not being at home at all for three of the first five weekends, I had to declare defeat.  This is not the course’s fault and I imagined it would happen.  I wanted to try it out anyway.

    How I did

    I’d like to repeat the part about learning being the important part here.  When one says that someone often chimes in “oh, that’s just because you didn’t do well.”  So I’ll share.  For SAAS,  I don’t know my exact score because I didn’t calculate it.  (I’m not clear on exactly how they count the quizzes.)  It think it is somewhere between 85 and 90 though. For MITx, my score is 7%.   Seven percent is two weeks of 100%, one week of partially done and then all zeros.

    What’s next?

    SAAS will be running a part 2 later in the year.  And a lot more courses are being offered.  See the full list at class central.  I still want to take Human Computer Interaction.  Which conveniently didn’t conflict with SAAS!  I’m also thinking about Udacity 253 – how to build a blog with the creator of reddit.  It seems to cover some of the scalability concerns I was hoping for in SAAS.  That will also let me take a look at Udacity – the third major provider.