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In Defense of Old Grumpy Guy: Get Off My Lawn!

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I was watching a former famous TV anchor being interviewed this past weekend and in response to one of the questions he said something like "I know this is going to make me sound like an old grumpy guy"

I immediately sat up. Him too? How many old grumpy guys can there be out there?

It's common for older guys (I'm 45 currently) to note that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. In reply, it's common for anybody not-so-old to note that old bastards have been saying things like that for years.

How can the world keep constantly going to hell in a handbasket? Think about it: some of the oldest Greek texts we have complain about how the younger generation isn't worth a damn.

This attitude must be just a symptom of age, right? Or, as one VC put it, once you get old you no longer see possibilities, instead you see obstacles. That is, you see only the negatives.

I think to answer that question, we should look at the last two thousand years. See if there are any long-term patterns. If so, then perhaps some of this old grumpy guy routine has merit. If not, then sue us.

Over the past couple of millennia, the amount of work required simply to live has decreased dramatically, at least in the western world. It used to be almost your entire life was taken up simply in an effort to survive; now most of us work 40 hours per week and it takes care of all of our needs.

Over the past five hundred years, man's relationship to society has changed. It used to be you were born into Christianity and serfdom and you lived your entire life in that milieu. Many generations of craftsmen lived and died building some religious monument. That was just the way things were. After The Reformation, The Enlightenment, and finally the great social movements of the 1800s and 1900s, people do not associate with groups that tell them what to do as much. Instead, they look to outside groups with an eye for "what are you going to do for me?"

At the same time, the average individual's ability to commit to something of any duration has decreased dramatically[1][2][3][4]. It wasn't unusual for an affluent (home-schooled) pre-teen in the 1700s to know Greek and Latin. Now the average High School graduate can't even read and write in his native tongue. it used to be that reading a 1400-page book was an enjoyable thing to do over a summer vacation. Now, for many, anything that takes more than 5 minutes is skipped over. Not trying to sound militaristic, but it used to be when a national emergency beckoned, you'd have to beat people off to keep them from volunteering. Now the volunteer is an unusual animal. (One Gulf War veteran told me: I get so tired of people coming up to me and saying, "It's so wonderful what you've done. I wish I could do that" I want to just shake them and say, "Why don't you! What's stopping you?")

These trends have accelerated. Over the past 50 years or so, at least in the West, people have taken to the streets protesting over just about any affront. Technology has rendered activity so unnecessary that the average WoW player spends over 35 hours per week playing. That's sitting on a couch and twitching his hands in various configurations. Cuts in budgets of less than 10% are met with violent street protests. Atheism is making one of it's cyclical comebacks to popularity (Not necessarily a bad thing, but an example of local homogeneous groups giving way to other paradigms.)

So when old grumpy guys say things like "all kids do any more is sit on their ass!" it's true, and it's always been true. But it's never been as true as much as it is today. Today we are facing unknown future generations where the amount of normal physical activity is going to be at a level so low that we've never done this before.

When old grumpy guys say things like "The world is changing in ways that are going to be extremely painful unless something changes" they are probably speaking the truth. Point one: mankind keeps creating more and more complicated systems of governance. Complicated governance systems almost inexorably evolve into despotism, or leadership of just a few. Note the common use of "tsar" for a person tasked to coordinate many branches of government. If the trend continues, more and more we will begin trusting in a particular person and less and less in the rule of law (mainly because the law becomes incomprehensible to the average citizen. Can't have consent of the governed if the governed don't understand what they are consenting to). Point two: as people want more and more from external groups, are willing to put in less themselves, and associate with random groups on the internet more than their neighbors, large parts of the structure of society are going to break down. We're already seeing the emergence of cross-national political parties and internet echo chambers. Mark my words: the ditching of traditional geographic groups and the mechanics of trade-offs for groups spread around the world and with no account of how actual things work will lead to violent conflict.

So yes, old guys look grumpy, and sometimes for the silliest of reasons. And sometimes not. But no, it's not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very good thing depending on how you choose to deal with it.

Many times we just lump everything into one big bucket labeled "He doesn't like change and wants everything to remain the same"

This is a very, very, very bad idea.

One time I worked with a team of young guys creating an internal messaging and modeling system for a large insurer. Their program would instantly create an insurance model for a person seeking coverage, balancing hundreds of variables in a complex non-linear relationship, accessing every other important system, and servicing potentially tens of thousands of requests simultaneously.

Igor was the oldest guy on the team, Igor was around from the days of the old system, and he knew the ropes. But I noticed something interesting: whenever Igor said anything, I could watch the other guys groan. Igor wanted to know where the load-balancing information was, where the performance model was, where the prototype was to show the underlying tech was good.

It wasn't long before the PM took me aside.

"Everybody is doing well, except maybe for Igor"


"Yeah. He just seems to be very negative. Always bringing up things he thinks are important but are just a waste of time. We're always having to deal with his questions and worries."


"Yeah. So we've decided to find another team for him"

When I took Igor aside, the story was very different.

"We have a chance to remake a critical core system," he said, "It's important we make sure we do it right so that the project will succeed"

What Igor was saying -- be careful in these places because I know there are going to be problems -- was not what the team was hearing. They heard "It was fine the old way, and there's no reason to change anything. Change is dangerous!"

It would be easy to argue here that Igor was just "old experienced guy without diplomacy skills", but the problem is that, no matter how Igor couched his advice, it didn't fit into the mental model of how things worked for the other members of the team. (In fact, that was the whole reason Igor spoke up.) It wasn't that he somehow could have said it in a certain way or with a certain style, it was that the listeners were not going to change. They dug their heels in. So Igor dug his heels in.

The team (and eventually Igor) was unable to process a sense of gray -- here are some things to worry about that we need to allocate a bit of effort to. They were hooked on all the cool new tech they were using and to them Igor was just a party-pooper. Oddly enough, this attitude made Igor even more insistent, which made the team even more sure Igor had a bad attitude, which made Igor more pointed with his comments, and so on. It created a feedback loop.

I checked back with this team many months later. The new tech they had wasn't panning out, the load spikes couldn't be absorbed, and they had to stop what they were doing and do some more exploratory programming to find the many problems that had killed their project. Management was thinking seriously about canning the whole effort.

Nobody said anything about Igor. They didn't have to.

In my late 20s I worked for another insurer in California. One of our team members, Ron, was a brilliant guy, just everything I said he found fault with. Whenever a problem would come up, I'd toss out a possible answer. Ron would shoot it down.

I sat next to Ron -- we went out to lunch together sometimes and I had been over to his house. I knew that he liked me. It wasn't something personal. Yet everytime we started to get some momentum and started doing some brainstorming, Ron was like a wet blanket. It was bad, bad, bad. All the time.

Instead of putting Ron in a box of "old grumpy guy" and then looking for ways to sideline him, I viewed Ron as a most precious asset. After all, there are a zillion guys who will never try to make waves, who will sit and smile and nod their head -- all the time while the project goes off the rails. How many people would honestly try their damnedest to shoot down great ideas before we started -- all without meaning any harm by his words?

Corporations pay big money for "tiger teams", folks who come in and look at their security from a completely new perspective. Surely our team could use some critical thinking skills.

Old grumpy guy is a real phenomenon, but I decided back then that if you have to pick, you're better keeping old grumpy guy around and listening to him (at times, but certainly not always, and certainly not if it destroys morale), than simply saying "He's just like that. Let's ignore him" Because as much as we can stereotype old grumpy guy, sometimes there are real patterns and real dangers that we just don't see because we don't have enough experience to know any better. Anybody can be agreeable, get excited, and get along -- after all, it's in their best interests. Telling you that you're smoking crack when nobody else will? That has real practical value.

After all, what's easier to do, thinking about a risk you haven't thought of before and coming up with a response? Or running into a problem nobody saw coming and then going kersplat?

It's gotten so one of the key things I tell teams is that each person's number one job on a team is to raise their hand and point out why something won't work, before we start working on it Your job, the reason you are on a team, is to take your unique background and skills and identify risks and issues so we can solve them early and not be blindsided. Old grumpy guys are really good at this.

So I'm a proud member of the old grumpy guy club. I'm still very optimistic about the future, and I believe great things lie ahead. But hell if I'm going to give up all that knowledge I've accumulated about the ways things can go wrong simply to get along with folks. Get off my lawn, dang kids! :)

1 Comment

As a fellow old grumpy guy, I can commiserate... It's interesting how many times folks will jump from one technology to another thinking that the "new" thing will solve their problems without knowing what the root cause of their original problems actually were. Often they just trade one set of problems for another set and waste a bunch of time/money for nothing.

It reminds me of an answer I heard to the following question:

What is the best javascript framework?
The answer?
The one you're already using.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on March 29, 2011 6:55 AM.

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