Being An Old Dog Learning New Tricks

I’ve been in my present programming job since 1987.  I’m a database programmer, but I’m not part of IT, but was hired by a college within the university where I work.  I was employed way back then to set up a Novell network and develop a multi-user dBase III system to shadow the university’s canned student information system.  In the mid-nineties, I rewrote everything in HTML and classic ASP for IIS and Microsoft SQL Server, and switched our network to Windows and TCP/IP.  I have cranked out hundreds of thousands of lines of custom code since.  Now our university IT department wants all us non-IT programmers to rewrite our code to meet IT standards that runs on their servers.  I’m totally behind that, because I know when I retire someone will have to maintain my code.

The trouble is, I’m 58 and this means I’ll have to learn a whole slew of new languages – XHTML 1.0  Strict, CSS 2.0, PHP, and JavaScript, new frameworks JQuery and CodeIgniter, switch from Textpad, a programming editor to Eclipse, an IDE, and they want me to learn generic SQL that works with an abstraction layer in case we switch backend databases.  Plus I’m switching web servers from ISS to Apache.  This is a lot of new stuff for an old dog to take in.  My very comfortable environment that I’ve lived and worked in for 15 years is now totally Alice in Wonderland.  It’s like moving to Paris and having to learn French.

I do believe this is good for me, especially for exercising my aging mental stamina, but I can feel that it’s pushing the limits of what my mind can handle.  I’m sure in several months I’ll be comfortable in the new paradigm, but for now I feel like I’m a couch potato going on the Biggest Loser.  I wonder if all this mental weight lifting and running, all this programming huffing and puffing, is going to kill me.

Now that I’m getting old, I know why old dogs don’t want to learn new tricks.  It’s so much easier to stay in the comfort zone of doing my old tricks.  What’s weird is I’m learning all this new technical stuff at the same time I’m becoming so forgetful in everyday life.  More than anything, I’m in a USE IT OR LOSE IT phase of life.  It feels like I’m surfing and the only thing I can remember is the wave I’m riding right now.

The famous urban legend is we only use 10% of our brains.  I’ve read about scientific experiments that disprove that.  One set of experiments had test subjects learn something new and test their retention ability, then after awhile, switched them to studying something different.  As they learned new stuff they forgot old stuff.  Other experiments mapped the brain with various scans.  There aren’t any unused portions.  What they learned is we all use our brains fully, but fully varies from person to person, and I’m guessing also varies at different times in our lives.  It’s like that circus act where a guy keeps 30 spinning plates all twirling at once.  When we’re young we can keep 25 things going at once, but as we get older, that number decreases.

Learning my new programming paradigm is like trying to be young again.  It’s fun and exciting, but this time around I realize I’m pushing my limits.  I can feel my limits in a way that I never imagined when I was young.  I wonder how far and how hard I can push those limitations, and for how long.

JWH – 1/20/10     

3 thoughts on “Being An Old Dog Learning New Tricks”

  1. I had to go the opposite direction in my last job. I was used to the whole php and Apache way and my job used classic asp and IIS. I eventually bailed and changed jobs. Part of it was that I just couldn’t stomach doing things that way and part of it was that I just didn’t enjoy programming.

    It was a struggle for me to learn new tricks in my early forties, so I can only imagine how hard it would be at any age over that. Luckily I don’t need to learn so much at my current job. But I still can’t coast. Being in technology is like being in school the rest of your life.

    1. Ain’t that the truth, “Being in technology is like being in school for the rest of your life.”

      I figure until I retire I’ve got to keep up with what’s coming out. It’s the transition that hurts. I figure once I get on the other side of things I’ll be okay.

  2. I was looking for a new way of stating “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” (I don’t really want to refer to myself as a “dog”) and came across your post James. I had to make a decision with my career in real estate on whether to coast or embrace the new generations’ way of doing business and have decided to embrace it, hopefully without embarassing my kids!

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