A personal history of interest in programming

Apparently some guy steeped in silicon valley startup culture has made some ignorant comment about how everyone who is good at programming started from a young age. This is my surprised face.

If you don’t know who I’m talking about, don’t worry about it. He’s not important. This is a pretty common narrative though, and I thought it might be worth holding up my personal journey to being interested in programming as a piece of anecdata against it.

I’m basically the kind of obsessive programmer this criteria is supposed to select for. I’ve spent my Christmas holidays working on persistent functional data-structures in C, I spend a huge amount of time and thought on the practice and theory. Also I’ve got all the privilege such criteria implicitly select for – I’m white, cis male, and painfully middle class.

You don’t need any of these things to be a good programmer. I mean, you sure as hell don’t need the pile o’ privilege I’ve got, but you also don’t need the obsession. It can be helpful, but it can also be harmful – you put a group of obsessive people together and often what you end up with is hilarious tunnel vision which loses sight of the real problem. I mention these things not because I think they’re important, but to demonstrate that even if you buy into the dominant narrative I am a counter-example. I look and act like a “real” programmer.

Want to know when I got started programming? Well, that’s hard to say exactly. I did little bits and pieces of it as a kid (more on that later), but I wasn’t really very interested in it. More on this later.

Want to know when I got interested in programming? That’s much easier. 2007. I was 23, about 10 years older than I’m “supposed” to have been interested in programming in order to be good at it.

How did this happen?

Well I’ve always liked computers. My family have had computers since quite a young age (see “privilege” for details) – I remember having a windows 3.1 computer before I moved to the UK, so looking at the release date I must have had one almost as soon as it came out. Before that we had a DOS computer.

I really enjoyed these, but not really for programming. I played games and used the word processor. We had some games written in qbasic and I vaguely poked at the code to see if I could make changes but I didn’t really know what I was doing and it was pretty much just editing at random and seeing what happened. I got bored quickly and didn’t pursue it further.

Years later at school we did some logo. It sure was fun drawing pretty pictures on the screen, and the little turtle was adorable.

Later yet we got the internet. This was pretty amazing! You could talk to people! Who were far away! And write stuff and people would read it! Also there were multi-player games, those were pretty cool. I spent a lot of time on various MUDs. I thought about learning to program so I could make a MUD or to build add-ons to one. I think I briefly even started contributing to a friend’s nascent MUD, but it all seemed like hard work and again I got bored pretty quickly.

Eventually it came time to choose my A-levels. I thought about doing a computing A-level, but my chemistry teacher persuaded me that I could learn to computer at any time (he was right) and that I should do chemistry instead (oh ye gods was he wrong). So I managed to go another couple years without ever learning to program.

At some point during this time I created a website. That isn’t to say I learned HTML and CSS mind you. I used some sort of WYSIWYG website creation tool from Mozilla and uploaded it to my btinternet account. I can’t really remember what I put there – I know I published some really terrible transhumanist fiction on it, but there were a bunch of other things too. I do remember the look though: White text on some sort of horrendous patterned background. Classy web design it was not.

At some point our btinternet account got cancelled and I lost the website (no backups of course). When I looked a few years ago bits of it were still available through the internet archive, but I honestly don’t remember the URL at this point.

I got to university and somehow found myself in a maths degree (which is another story). I now had my own computer which my parents had bought me (*cough* privilege *cough*)!

It had windows ME on it. :-(

After much frustration with ME, my friend Tariq Khokhar persuaded me to give this Linux thing a try in preference to, erm, “acquiring” a copy of windows 2000 and using that instead.

This worked out pretty well. I’m not going to say it was a flawless experience, but as a cocky teenager I was totally up for doing low-effort things that made me feel much cleverer than I actually was, and running this frustrating OS on the desktop certainly achieved that. This was back in 2001. 12 years later, I’m still being frustrated by this decision but find all the other options equally frustrating.

Then, finally, I was forced to actually learn to program.

Cambridge has (had?) as part of its maths degree a thing called “CATAM”. What this was was basically they gave you  your choice of three problems to do and you had to go learn to computer and then do them.  I don’t actually remember what my CATAM projects were – I know the first one was something to do with matrix maths, but I’m not really sure what.

You could do them in whatever computer you liked – they vaguely encouraged C (sadists), but they didn’t really mind if you did it in something else – I know at least one person did it in Excel.

I briefly looked into programming in C, but Tariq persuaded me that I would much rather do it in ML, which is what the computer scientists were learning for their intro to CS course. I went along to a few of their lectures, skimmed some of the notes, and bought a copy of ML for the working programmer and learned enough from it to solve the CATAM problems.

To be clear: At this point programming to me meant that I wrote up some code in a text editor (gedit I think. I don’t remember when I started using vim) and then cut and pasted it into the REPL (I think I was using Moscow ML because it was the one the course recommended), at which point I would copy the answer out of the repl and put it in my coursework.

That CATAM project finished, I did fine, and I immediately stopped programming again. I mean why would I keep it up? As far as I was concerned this was just a thing I learned to do to solve some maths problems. None of the maths problems I had to solve needed programming, so I wasn’t going to be programming.

I picked it up again for my second CATAM project the next year, but I didn’t really learn anything new about programming, I just did the same thing I did last time: Write in a text editor, copy and paste into the REPL. I might have switched to vim by then, but probably not.

At some point during this period I made a second website. My friend Michael, who I knew from IRC, persuaded me to do it “properly” this time. I learned what HTML was, copied some CSS from someone’s free designs elsewhere on the internet, and wrote about 5 lines of PHP (which I probably copied from somewhere) to build a hilarious navigation by get variables so I didn’t have to write the same header and footer everywhere and could use includes. I was supposed to use mod rewrite or something to get proper URLs but I never really bothered. Given my experiences with mod rewrite since, it’s possible I tried to make it work and couldn’t. I uploaded this to my account on the student computing society computers. At this point I’d learned enough about the command line from my forced immersion in it that I was able to figure out SSH and stuff, but I don’t think I did much more with it than moving some files around on the server.

Then I got to the end of my degree and suddenly didn’t know what to do with my life.

Everyone tells you that a maths degree is super desirable and is great for getting jobs. This is a lie. If you have other useful skills then people get very excited about the fact that you’re also a mathematician. If you don’t, no-one really cares.

Except banks. Finance was very keen to hire mathematicians. I, on the other hand, was very keen not to work in finance (because dad was a banker and it didn’t look like much fun. My political objections came later).

I shopped around Cambridge for a job for about 6 months (moving back in with my parents about halfway through that) but found that for some reason Cambridge had quite a surplus of overqualified people with no useful skills and I was one of them. Finding a job didn’t go so well.

At some point a friend mentioned that his company were hiring for developers and didn’t care if you actually knew what you were doing because they were pretty sure they could teach you. They were London based, and I wasn’t very keen on London, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a developer, but I’d been job hunting for 6 months and it’d got pretty depressing so I figured it couldn’t hurt to talk to them. They were going to be at a careers fair in the computer science department, so I went along to that with a copy of my hilariously empty CV to talk to them.

Nothing came out of talking to that company, but while I was there I figured I might as well talk to a bunch of the other people there. I ended up talking to two other companies, both London based and hiring for developers but happy to teach people, so I interviewed with them.

Apparently I interviewed pretty well – the ML I’d learned and my maths degree were enough that although I didn’t really know what a binary search was I was able to figure it out with a little prompting, and I somehow managed to muddle my way through the other problems. One of them mostly tested problem solving, which I was good at, and the other had some toy programming problems, which I managed to do OK on.

One of them offered me a job off the back of this. The other one was a little more hesitant about hiring someone who basically couldn’t program, so asked me to write them a program to prove that I could. I went with the company that didn’t require me to demonstrate that I knew what I was doing, mostly because I didn’t.

So, well, at that point I was moving to London to become a software developer. Woo? I wasn’t really that interested in programming, and I rather hated London, but hey it was a job.

I wasn’t very good at it at first, unsurprisingly.

I started doing some basic front-end stuff. I was thoroughly overconfident in my abilities with HTML and CSS off the back of the small amount I’d learned already. I also got tasked with setting up a server, because I knew Linux so I must know what I was doing, right? I had no idea what I was doing and wasn’t very good at asking for help and after about 4 days of butchering it we got a server that… probably did the right thing? While this was going on I was learning to write Java (which the project I was working on was written in). It seemed pretty easy – the syntax was weirdly cumbersome, and it seemed a bit limited in comparison to ML, but it wasn’t hard to get things done in it. I doubt I really knew what I was doing, but this didn’t seem to matter terribly. (Fragment of conversation I remember from this time period: “Hey, can I use recursion in Java?” “Yes, but you probably shouldn’t”).

But I stumbled my way through into competence, and then necessity forced me into actually figuring out what was going on and starting to think about how to do things better. At some point my friend Dave joined the company I was working at and we bonded over talking about work and computer science while waiting for our 10 minute builds to run so we could observe the tiny change to the HTML we’d just made (sadly I’m not exaggerating that).

At some point the persistent nagging feeling that things could be done better than this mixed with talking about CS with Dave and I grudgingly started to realise that this programming thing was actually quite interesting.

Concurrently with this, some friends on IRC had persuaded me to learn Haskell. I forget what their reasoning was, but I mostly went along with it. I already knew ML, which is basically a simpler and less puritanical version of Haskell (the module system is better, but remember that my experience of ML was from copying and pasting stuff into the REPL. I didn’t even know what a module was), so learning Haskell was pretty straightforward.

At this point I had basically two bodies of knowledge that were failing to connect – I had these cool languages I did maths programming in and this Java thing which I used to get stuff done. I started hunting around in my spare time for a middle-ground, and after a false start with Nice ended up in Scala.

But work was at this point pretty frustrating. For a variety of reasons I wasn’t really enjoying it much, so I decided to look for a new job. I ended up at a company called Trampoline Systems, where I got to work with good people on interesting problems. The company eventually went a bit wrong and most of us left (it’s still around, albeit in a very different form, but only one person from when I was there is still around), but by then it was enough: I’d become quite interested in the practice of programming, and I’d discovered I could find interesting jobs doing it.

The rest is, as they say, history. Despite my long history of not getting around to learning to program, I’d become a software developer anyway. I discovered I was quite good at it and it was quite interesting, so I’ve stuck around since.

Would things have worked out better if I’d learned earlier? I don’t know. I feel like the practice of solo programming is very different from the practice of programming in a team. What helped me was that I’d already developed a lot of habits of thought and problem solving before I ever really brought them to bear on the practice of software development. I’m sure if I’d learned to program earlier it wouldn’t have hurt, but I think I’d probably have a very different perspective on things today, and it’s unclear if it would be a better one.

I think the thing to bear in mind is that software development isn’t really about programming. It’s about solving problems with computers. Programming is generally the tool you use to achieve that goal, and for some tasks you need to be better at it than others, but ultimately what you need is to be good at problem solving (not silly abstract logic problems, but actual problems that people have that computers can help solve). This is a skill you can develop doing almost anything, and if you’re already good at it then you can probably become a good software developer remarkably quickly even if you’re as disinterested in programming as I used to be.

This entry was posted in How do I computer?, life on by .