Vivek Haldar

Why you would want to program at fifty (or any other age)

The meme is strong in this one. It keeps popping up again and again, and seems to have struck a chord in the hacker community.

Whether you want to do something at an arbitrary time in the future is a superficial, if interesting, question. The deeper question is what motivates you do it now, and how you think that motivation might shift (or maybe altogether disappear?) in the future.

So, no, I honestly don’t know what activities will motivate and excite me when I am fifty, just as I didn’t know at fifteen what would make me get out of bed this morning.

I have seen, and personally felt, a range of motivations for programming. Some of the more common ones are:

  • Money. It’s a well-paid job. It pays the bills, and leaves over fun money. You don’t mind it.
  • Purpose. Your programs help a lot people do their jobs, live and enjoy their lives.
  • Creator’s machismo. Your programs handle a gazillion queries per second and run on a trillion machines and make a jintillion dollars every minute. Take that!
  • Beauty. You find programming artifacts to be beautiful objects in their own right. You use it as a channel for self-expression, just like sculptors and painters. You enjoy the feel and flow of your tools and environment, just like some enjoy brushes and palettes and chisels.
  • Intellectual exercise. You find programming to be a grand intellectual adventure. Not only is it fun and challenging, but gives wings to your thoughts by making them executable. You use computation to explore the boundaries of the possible. It staves away boredom.
  • You fell into it by accident or circumstance, and one or more of the above compelled you to stay, at least for a while.

Of course, most programmers will cite more than one of the above as their motivations, and smear it with their own weights. What are your picks, and the weights associated with them? How do you think they will be different a few years down the line?

How much can one factor swing negatively while still making the overall proposition desirable? Would you still enjoy it if your programs had no intellectual heft but did an important and necessary job? What would you look for if you had saved or made a stash of money and didn’t have to worry about that?

This is ultimately a question which can only be answered by looking inwards. It is a test of self-knowledge. You don’t match your age to your job. You match your motivations to your job.