Don Knuth and the age of programming

05-Feb-2011

This week I attended the BCS/IET Annual Turing Lecture at Cardiff University, given by Computer Science legend Donald Knuth. Knuth literally wrote the book on computer programming, and, well, Wikipedia and his own website can tell you the rest. The man truly is a living legend.

I attended the lecture for a variety of reasons. Mainly for inspiration. I enjoy what I do for a living, but you can't rely solely on your day job for influences and motivation. Also because speakers of this authority rarely make it this side of the Severn Bridge (or indeed the Atlantic), so it seemed criminal not to attend! And did I mention it was free?

Anyhow, I felt compelled to write a little note about the experience. Not because of the content (which took the form of a bland, but genial, Q&A session), and not out of any sense of hero worship - I haven't even read TAOCP, and Knuth's heyday was a little before my time. No, the main thing I took away from the event was something that wasn't even discussed (directly). What I wondered was: "What does it mean to be old in this industry?"

Don Knuth is old. Proper old. 73 to be precise. And a fair few of the audience were closer to his age than mine. But he inhabits the academic world, where being old is tolerated (often celebrated) rather than seen as a crime. Is this true in the private sector?

I've been a professional software developer for just over a decade now, so assuming I work until I'm 65, this puts me about a quarter of the way through my career. What will the next three quarters hold? Will I be able to continue doing this work, which I love, or will I be forced to make way for a younger breed? Will I still be writing code (professionally) when I'm 60, or will I be forced into management, or another career altogether? How many 60 year old programmers do you know? Do carpenters and plumbers fear the same things? Surely not in their thirties/forties?

Perhaps the youthful nature of this industry is simply a product of the fact that it's still in its relative infancy - maybe by the time I'm 60 it'll be common to work with programmers who travel to work on their bus pass.

At the moment I have a pretty good balance of youth, skills and experience, but it'll be interesting to see what the future holds. I can't predict next year, let alone a decade from now, so it's not worth losing any sleep over; this is just a bit of contemplative noodling. But it would be lovely to think I'm still writing code when I'm 73, and enjoying it as much as Don Knuth :o)