the laughing cloud

Hell Yeah! Hacking at 50.

James Hague had an interesting blog post – “Do you still want to be doing this when you’re 50?”

Essentially saying that “Large scale, high stress coding is a young man’s game”.  Maybe if you’re a “recovered programmer” like James, though…

Last March I turned 50.  It’s a completely surreal number.  I’m getting OLD. I started programming at 13, on a Radio Shack TRS-80 4K level one… got to UNIX in 1983 ’cause I was lucky enough to drop out of McGill and into the real world… I had a UNIX guru, since that sacred information was passed from Person to Person… I was there when the internet was born (bitches!) – my first email address was uunet!sobeco!paxmtl!sean – you needed to know the path the mail took to get from one machine to the other.  I’ve used a punch card machine (once, because I knew it was going to be obsolete and wanted to try it out, it was cool).

I did international development – shipping code using Telebit Trailblazer modems running at an insane 19,2Kbps, running at 4 am when the long distance rates were cheaper..

I hacked.  When hacking wasn’t dominated by script-kiddies and real malevolence.  I spent all-nighters buried in obscure code; when every UNIX console was different, and you had to write code for specific machines/OS combinations.  This domain,, was the 65th domain registered in Canada – when you had to call up the Registrar at the University of British Columbia and have a chat to get your domain… which was free…

And I walked 10 miles to school in Canadian blizzards, uphill, both ways.

And it was fun.  It was a blast.

I’m 50.  Guess what?  It still is.  Except today it’s EASIER.  Much easier.

I don’t need to remember anything anymore.  I can just Google.  No manuals, techniques, code bits… we have the Internet, Open Source, Linux, truly reusable components, and each other.  But I do maintain a massive cache of exceptions to all the rules and all the really wierd shit I’ve run into in the 37-odd years of coding.  Plus all the patterns…

Plus I’ve gotten nicer.  No more “Bastard Operator from Hell”. (While doing support, after yelling at, and hanging up on a customer, my boss suggested that next time I just “get off the phone and call them back later”.)

If you’re a Real Hacker, you just become a wizard.  Ever see a young wizard (aside from that newcomer prick Harry Potter?


And probably more than anything else I’m worried about age bias.  I got laid off in the spring (happy 50th!) and that was my first concern.  So I went out and replace the wireframe glasses with Warby Parkers, and everything is cool now.  I’m more expensive than someone younger… and now in a world where 5 years experience = “senior”, things are a bit weird.  So I consult :)

Fortunately I live in Key West, Florida – and not California (where I suspect age-bias truly rules supreme, especially in LA where you’re done at 30.  SF buys you an extra 10 years or you can shave your head and put on some Warby Parkers too…)

The last few months have been a string of all-nighters – I’ve never worked harder in my life; on a new project… a security thingy for the cloud, which I’ll submit to Y-combinator… as a single founder.  That should be an interesting experience.

Genetics plays a part.  My great grandfather was an amazing inventor, Thomas E Murray, who invented practically everything between the powerplant and the light socket.  With 462 patents, we had him inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame last year.


Here I am in a fuzzy picture with Robert Khan who was being inducted for inventing TCP/IP…


And with Martin Hellman – who said: “I was willing to risk appearing foolish and was lucky enough to end up being one of the inventors of public-key cryptography,”

Curiously, the bulk of Murray’s patents happened starting in his late 40’s, through to when he died.  That made me feel better.

So don’t freak out – at 50, you’ll still be you, and if you’re a hacker now, you’re likely to be a hacker then.  You’ll just be better at it.

Shit.  It’s past my nap time.

Hey – if you’re in Key West tomorrow, Friday 5 October, come down to the Hogs Breath Saloon and see me do Standup Comedy…


1 comment for “Hell Yeah! Hacking at 50.

  1. Anonymous
    October 6, 2012 at 1:46 am

    With no shoes yet – the kids these days, don’t know how good they’ve got it!I am an existence proof of your proposition – wrote my first program (ALGOL 60, Elliott 803, Sieve of Eratosthenes) when I was 15 in 1963, first job was making hand built production computers work (Elliott Bros 4120/30) at 19, design eng at 20 in Nuclear Measurements. The 4130 I consider my first personal computer, in that I had control over the power switch and master console, and taught myself assembler programming on it. First modem there too – experimental error correcting beast, 150 Bd data/ 75 Bd error back channel, 64 byte 100 thou core memory for error correcting buffer memory, full height 6′ rack of gear to do that too. There followed a decade of hardware design, then data comms and protocol design (very pre-internet), then FPGA and Firewire, then 4G graphical programming language design, other stuff, and currently Audio DSP and SDK for a well known soon-to-br-released games console design group.Never looked back, now at 65 still hacking, still on the edge, no plans to retire – this keeps my brain alive which keeps the rest of me alive. I can still walk to school uphill both ways wih the best of them – and do, daily. Biggest surprise, continuous since Elliott’s hored me – and they want to _pay_ me to do this? Hell yeah!

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