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Weekly Column

Changing the Guard: Retiring Baby Boomers Are Going to Invigorate Open Source

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

I've been learning a lot from NerdTV. Sure, there is the very personal lesson that subtitles can be dangerous to one's health, but many of the other lessons spring from the experience and hard-earned wisdom of the very senior people we've interviewed so far. In many cases, these folks are years past the peaks of their careers as we know them, but if anything that makes their stories more, not less, valuable. Of course, wisdom comes in many types of packages, and from time to time in subsequent weeks, we'll stretch a bit to include nerds you OUGHT to know, not just ones you've been reading about all your lives. And if some of those nerds are younger than our median age to date (next week's nerd is 23 and a GIRL), please trust me and hear them out.

Not that being on NerdTV is a career kiss of death. Andy Hertzfeld, hero of NTV001, has a new job at Google and what he does for the search behemoth (I have no clue) should be very interesting. Whatever it is, this is a job that lured away from his Bob Dylan collection a guy who didn't have to work again EVER if he didn't want to. Andy belies Dave Winer's (NTV006) rule that second-time entrepreneurs always fail, though I suppose taking a job at a company that has already gone public can't truly be called "entrepreneurial."

For the record, Brewster Kahle (NTV005) breaks Winer's second time failure rule, too, having sold subsequent companies to AOL and Amazon -- companies built entirely without venture funding and therefore generating serious bucks for their founder when sold.

Dave Winer even breaks his own rule with the sale of his business to Verisign only a day or two before our interview. Maybe that explains why he seemed so happy, since the deal had not yet been announced.

Age and inevitable transition are the themes of this particular column, and they don't always go quite the way one might assume. Every industry has its moments of transition, its highs and lows, and they can be frequently linked to aging products and aging producers of those products. Non-commodity products have lifecycles in the way that wheat, for example, does not. While it's nice if wheat somehow gets better in new versions, we'll probably consume just as much of it even if it doesn't. That isn't the case with products like electronics and computers. Try to sell a black-and-white television today and you'll see. Or try to sell a computer with too puny a processor or with last year's graphics card. People won't buy.

So while you can probably make higher profit margins from products based on older technology, that trend continues only for a certain time before you fall off a marketing cliff and suddenly nobody is buying your stuff. That's why companies spend the money to bring out new product lines because failing to do so kills companies.

Sometimes the transition has to do with people, not products. It seems to matter to investors, for example, just who is running certain companies. When a popular CEO retires the stock price often dips as a result. But investors have no way of knowing when the best producer in a technology department retires, nor do they typically have an idea how dependent companies can be on those super geeks. The fact is that in nearly all software companies and even in many hardware companies, there are two to three people whose departure could literally kill the company. Now what happens if a whole generation of top producers heads for the door? Well, we're about to find out.

The companies I typically write about are all aging. The median ages at places like Microsoft and Apple were always numbers in the late 20s. In the early days that's because the founders were that age, themselves, and generally hired their friends. In the post-IPO hyper-growth stages of those companies the median age stayed down because the companies were rapidly expanding, and nearly all those new workers were straight from school. But it doesn't work that way anymore. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are 50 now and so are the people they've hobnobbed with for their entire careers. This gives these older companies a kind of gravitas that can add to their mystique for while unless some obvious calcification starts to become evident. That in part explains why Steve Jobs appears these days to be on top of his game. Steve's smart and even a narcissist can learn from his mistakes.

But what happens when the founders are all gone, followed by their entire generation of co-workers? That's always a crisis, but the more interesting question for this column is what that departure means for US as consumers and followers of technology. As the baby boomers retire, will it help or hurt high tech?

I think it can only help.

In the U.S. the Baby Boom generation includes anyone born from 1946-64, which means everyone 41-59 years old. Those ages generally cover the top technical management positions in most companies and universities and they are starting to retire. But as anyone who reads magazines knows, this generation of upcoming retirees acts younger and healthier than the generations that preceded it and they plan to have very active older years. At the urging of reader Joel Franusic, I've been thinking of what implications this has for Open Source software.

The implications are huge. Imagine 100,000 engineers and programmers leaving the U.S. work force every year for the next 18 years, because that's what is going to happen. Some of those people will find other careers, but most of them will be motivated less by money than they were earlier in their lives. Most of them will want to remain active. And once a nerd always a nerd, so I think many of them will gravitate to Open Source.

We've had such generational changes before in software, but the last time it happened the people retiring were nearly all COBOL programmers. I don't see many COBOL projects on SourceForge. Those were people programming mainframes without a thought to user interfaces or even to users. Their skill sets did not translate well to smaller computers so when they retired they RETIRED.

But this new generation of retirees started with Pascal, quickly transferred to C, and has been doing object-oriented programming or program management for at least the last decade. Even the retiring Visual Basic programmers, of which there are literally millions, have skill sets that easily transfer into the projects being developed today.

So we're likely to have an influx of talent into Open Source projects, supplanting the mid-20s geeks that have been pushing that business. Yes, they are retired and therefore not inclined to stay up all night, but maybe they don't need to stay up all night, either. There's something to be said for wisdom.

In the late 1980s, there was a company called NetFrame started by Carl Amdahl, the equally-smart son of mainframe pioneer Gene Amdahl. NetFrame built servers based on Intel 386 processors and sold the boxes for up to $25,000. The machines were beautiful and elegant, and offered levels of performance and ease-of-use unseen before then. Today we'd just fill a rack with blades and forget about it, but NetFrame was a sensation in its time. And the performance they got from that pitiful 386 was nearly all based on I/O lessons the old gray company founders had learned designing mainframe computers. So there is a place for wisdom and for the reapplication of hard-learned lessons.

What killed NetFrame was its desire to apply mainframe pricing to PC hardware. But if we are talking about the application of the same sort of technical lessons to Open Source software, well, pricing is no longer an issue, is it?

I envision this influx of new-old talent, which will have serious impact on how these projects are managed, most of that positive. I can imagine that these somewhat grayer projects will have more involvement in published standards, and we'll see more activity at places like the IETF, which is all good. And the result is likely to be more competition for shrink-wrapped software. This trend will make life harder, not easier, for Microsoft.

Sounds good.

Back to NerdTV, we've had quite a bit of flux in the schedule. TCP/IP inventor Bob Kahn, for example, pushed his interview back to November 29th. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak first jumped forward to do the show ahead of scheduled surgery, then pushed it back again when his surgery was delayed. Please don't get so hung-up on the published schedule because it is, at best, a guess. That's because these interviews, too, are voluntary, and many of the people being interviewed have other things to do. I'll get to all of them eventually. What you CAN count on is that the people on NerdTV will be interesting and have something to say. Except for me, of course.

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