Monday, July 11, 2011

Why We Need IT Grandparents

I just finished reading The Evolution of Grandparents by Rachel Caspari in the August 2011 issue of Scientific American, and it really touched upon one of my IT hot buttons - the rampant age discrimination to be found within IT. I will be turning 60 years old in October, and last January 23, 2011 I actually did become a grandparent for the very first time. So having started programming computers back in 1972, that indeed makes me an IT grandpa! Age discrimination begins at about age 30 in IT and starts to become a serious problem at age 40, so being nearly 60 years old and still doing IT on a daily basis is a rarity. However, thanks to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century and the benefits of the medical science that came with it, I still feel like I am about 20 years old, so I would like to work to about age 70, and I think that there is no physical reason why I should not be able to do so. Although I may still feel young at heart, I do feel a little bit wiser from an IT perspective, and I now can easily get by on only four hours of sleep per night for extended periods of time – a handy thing in IT that I certainly could not have done when I was much younger. I am also an empty-nester, with none of the pressures of raising young children, so from a purely biological perspective, I would contend that I am now in an even better position to do IT work in my 60s, than I was in my 20s! However, that is not how things work in IT. I am quite aware that if I were to lose my current IT position, there is no way I could possibly find another at age 60+. This is quite a sad situation. If you look at the other sciences and the engineering fields, you will find substantial numbers of practitioners in their 50s and 60s, but not so in computer science or IT. In IT you are supposed to be in your 20s, and then quietly disappear when you hit 30. The problem with this is that IT gains no wisdom over time; and we keep making the same mistakes over and over.

The key point of The Evolution of Grandparents, is that up until about 30,000 years ago, humans did not live long enough to become grandparents. The article explains that, like today, humans and their evolutionary predecessors became fertile at about age 15, and then had their first child at that age. But prior to 30,000 years ago, like the IT workers of today, very few individuals lived past age 30, so very few individuals ever became grandparents. Then suddenly, about 30,000 years ago that all changed. Suddenly humans began to live much longer, and at the same time, a dramatic cultural change occurred as well. The primitive low-tech culture of the Middle Paleolithic, with its simple stone scrapers and flint points, was replaced with the high-tech culture of the Upper Paleolithic that was characterized by complex tools and works of art not to be found in the Middle Paleolithic. The author of the article contends that this was no accident. She concludes that a complex feedback loop took place between the longevity of humans and the culture that they were able to pass along. With a sudden and dramatic increase in lifespan, older and wiser humans were suddenly able to pass along their accumulated wisdom, and this in turn lengthened the lifespan of the average human even more, to pass along even more wisdom to the next generation.

Again, this is evidence of the complex parasitic/symbiotic relationship that was forged between the genes and the memes about 200,000 years ago when Homo sapiens first appeared. As I outlined in Self-Replicating Information, the arrival of a species on the scene with a very complex neural network allowed the memes to domesticate the minds of Homo sapiens in order to churn out ever increasing levels of memes, of ever increasing complexity, and in return, the genes benefited from the technological breakthroughs brought on by the memes of the emerging technological meme-complex that today keeps us all alive. In a similar manner, software entered into a complex parasitic/symbiotic relationship with both the genes and the memes. Ever since Konrad Zuse cranked up his Z3 computer in May of 1941, software has domesticated our minds into churning out ever increasing levels of software, of ever increasing complexity, in order to promote the survival of software, and in return, software has provided the genes of Homo sapiens with the means to support a population of 7 billion DNA survival machines that are all infected with the meme-complexes of the world’s cultures. Again, as I pointed out in What’s It All About? and Genes, Memes and Software, it’s really all about self-replicating information in the form of genes, memes, and software all trying to survive in a nonlinear universe that is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, with software rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet.

In 1979, I made a career change into IT, after being an exploration geophysicist with Shell and Amoco. Exploration teams are multidisciplinary teams consisting of geologists, geophysicists, petrophysicists, geochemists, and paleontologists all working together towards a common purpose. You see, oil companies try to throw all the science they can muster at trying to figure out what is going on in a prospective basin before they start spending lots of money drilling holes. Now when I moved into Amoco’s IT department, I came into contact with many talented and intelligent IT people, but I was dismayed to discover that, unlike my old exploration teams, there was very little sharing of ideas in computer science with the other sciences. It seemed as though computer science was totally isolated from the other sciences. At the time, I realized that computer science was still a very young science, and that it was more of a technological craft than a science, but that was over 30 years ago! Worse yet, as I began to age within the IT community, I began to realize that IT could not even learn from its own past because of the rampant age discrimination within IT. The trouble with the IT meme-complex is that because it is relatively young and immature, it has not had enough time to discover the benefits of paying heed to the accumulated knowledge of its own past, and is quick to discard it instead. But the problems that I pointed out in The Fundamental Problem of Software, have not changed over time and never will, so tragically, we seem destined to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. When I first transitioned from geophysics into IT in 1979, there were no Change Management groups, no DBAs, no UAT testers, no IT Security, no IT Project Management departments, no Source Code Management groups, no Interactive Development Environments, and we didn’t even have IT! I was in the ISD (Information Services Department), and I was a programmer working with punched cards, not a developer with a whole support structure in place, and we ruled the day because we did it all ourselves. But since then we have learned a great number of things the hard way, and it is really a shame to lose all that knowledge because of age discrimination in IT. As I outlined in How to Think Like a Softwarephysicist, it is important to keep an open mind to new ideas, but this applies to old ideas as well!

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

No comments: