I've been programming since I was 7

When I was in grade 6, I handed out a couple of 3 1/2” floppy disks to a couple of friends in my class whose parents had recently purchased PCs. On each disk was a game I created. You’d fly a ship horizontally through outer space. It had two controls, up and down, to avoid asteroids. The longer you survived the more points you got.

The next day one of my friends said “My dad said you didn’t make that game!”

I was upset. By grade 6, I’d been programming for 4 years. Of course I was capable of such a simple program. I explained to them how I made the stars move. It was basic math: you’d just plot a white dot at an (X,Y) coordinate, and increment its position on the next tick. Tell your dad, I said, then he’d believe me!

A week or so later, I went to his house to play on his computer. I met his dad, who called me a “child prodigy.”

I’ve told stories like the above to many of my programming colleagues. Often they trigger similar yarns, involving equally or even more antiquated technology. Us programmers love bragging the development tales of our youth!

We love being called child prodigies. I mean, realistically, who wouldn’t? I had a knack for computers, I put in my hard work and time. Go ahead and tattoo “PRODIGY” across my back! That’ll show the popular kids in my class who’s boss!

In reality though, we’re not as talented as we think. When we tell a story like that, what we’re actually indicating is we were incredibly privileged.

Here are some reasons why (There are many, many, more):

Almost none of my friends had PCs when I started: My father worked for IBM, and when the original IBM PC became available, he struggled to purchase one. I believe it cost him $3,000, which is considerably more today with inflation. How many families had such hardware just sitting around, waiting to be played with? I had no responsibilities: I lived in an upper middle class neighborhood. I barely had (or did!) any chores. I had all the time in the world to sit at that computer and poke around. I often did it just because I was bored of everything else! I had access to beginner material: My dad was interested in programming. So we had a bunch of “Learn to program in BASIC” books that were geared at beginners. They were just sitting around! This was before the Internet - if you wanted those books, you had to buy them. If you were really lucky your local library might have some. I met an amazing role model: One day my brother was out playing and met an older boy from down the street who was interested in computers too. Like us, his family had an IBM PC. Even though he was 6 years older than me, for some reason he put up with my incessant phone calls about acquiring games, how to program in BASIC and the many other annoyances I bothered him with.

Now ask yourself this - how many people do you know who had such a perfect computing storm when they were my age?

My friend’s dad called me a prodigy. I don’t blame him. From his point of view, an 11-year-old who could program was rare. He probably didn’t know any programmers, let alone one who was the same age as his son.

He mistook my head start for innate talent. I don’t think he understood just how much time I’d spent playing with that computer over the last 4 years. They’d just purchased one! He probably assumed that I somehow pumped out the game without knowing anything about how it worked.

One criticism I often hear when trying to convince people of the above is that it denies my own hard work and intelligence. Some say that hard work is, in fact, everything, and that I deserved the praise because I actually sat down for all those years in front of the CGA screen while other kids occupied themselves with other things.

It is indeed true that I would not be the programmer I am today without hard work. That is a given. Working hard in important ingredient for success in any career or field.

It is easy to forget that many people work hard. I knew a girl in high school who had to put in time every night at the local super market to help her mom with the mortgage. She worked much harder than I ever did, and had no time to spend playing on a computer all night.

So sure, pat yourself on the back if you are a successful developer who works hard. That’s more than many people do. But be mindful of your past and the many privileges you almost certainly had.

Imported from: http://eviltrout.com/2012/12/30/programming-since-i-was-seven.html

I enjoyed this, I too began developing at an early age (I'm suppose i'm still at an early stage as a high school student) and I find also find that people would call me a 'prodigy'. When in reality i'm simply programming because it's fun; it never felt like something that was that hard to do.

Great post.

> be mindful of your past and the many privileges you almost certainly had

Always a good thing to be mindful of!

Many people have computers now, and the Internet means that beginner materials are widely available. Are young programmers proportionally more common now?

1 Like

I started developing/programming when I was 8... I am 34 now and a self-employed computer contractor, and I can tell you for a fact that it was all about the 'privileges' that I had 26 years ago. Good article, and quite true.

Sometimes I poop on myself, because it's warm.

Do you have any siblings? I'm in the same boat as you, started at age 6, but I also have 3 sisters and a brother, none of whom took to the ample electronics and learning materials we had around the house.

Studies have shown that adopted children have more in common with their biological parents at age 18 than with their adoptive parents. For sure, your environment helps you get a head start... but generally, it turns out that kids find ways to explore their interests, regardless of whether their parents buy them a computer, a guitar, a gym mat, etc.

I started programming when I was 10. It was much the same thing for me. I've now been programming for over 30 years. The most important thing it allows me is to pursue a hobby in artificial intelligence. It's not genius... it's just a mechanical skill that I have that most people don't. Like fixing a car.

My grandfather worked for IBM back in the day I learn BASIC and dos at an early age I still have both my IBM 5155 and my Tandy 1000 both cherished items. He never taught me how to use them and allowed me to play, explore, and learn. Whenever I needed help he would direct me to a friend or a book. It helped me learn that all knowledge we want is available if we need to just look.

They probably are - though, some would argue computers now are much more complicated and it's hard for a kid to understand and explore them top to bottom the same way they could an 8-bit machine.

But, there are still lots of kids who don't have stable homes, or good role models, or encouragement to build things.

For all that the internet makes resources more accessible, it provides even more distractions.

Also, not having a girlfriend until 26. Privilege thoroughly checked.

He mentions that he has a brother in the article itself. Reading comprehension is a skill that takes time to develop. I suppose I am a prodigy.

I pretty much agree. I had an early start since my father was into computing in the late 70's.. so by the time I came around in the mid 80's my household already had a PC. At 12 I was taking computer/networking classes at a local community college and in the newspapers as a 'prodigy'. I'm a run-of-the-mill developer these days, nothing special, never finished college... definitely was never a prodigy.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jeremy.

I learned programming purely out of personal interest. I have absolutely no formal education in programming. None of my friends nor my family were interested in it, so I spent most of my time creating scripts by myself. Fast forward a few years, I'm creating my own personal social networking platform in PHP. I really want to do this as a living, but I skipped out on all the major classes I should have taken during my years in college ( graduated with a non-science degree). These classes include the basic mathematical and logic that comes with programming, data structures and algorithms, etc.

agreed. 100%. programming is not hard. in fact, it's just like learning any language. (they are not called "programming languages" for nothing.) kids are usually able to effectively communicate in their native language by age 4 or 5. all it takes is practice. (in the case of computer languages, it takes ACCESS to a computer... and then practice.) as you say, most families simply didn't have USD10,000 to spend on an IBM PC AT (about USD20,000 in today's money). i was just lucky. straight up. give the same access to any kid in Africa, and the results would be the same -- a "prodigy". cheers.

Apologies, I missed that part and focused on the non-sibling role model that was the point of the paragraph. But, you clearly have all the humility of a prodigy.

They may be more widely available, but we still tend to avoid telling kids it's something they can do.

I come from a fairly rural part of California. My hometown exists because of oil - if you've seen or read October Sky, just substitute oil for coal and you've got a fairly accurate picture of where I grew up.

We always joke about the town being a black hole - lots of high schoolers have dreams of getting out and doing /something/ with their lives, but they always end up sucked back in. Your entire extended family lives in the town (and a fair portion probably in your house). You grow up seeing only a few options for careers - oil worker, teacher, hair dresser, secretary, grocery store clerk. How do you blame kids for not thinking of programming, when they don't ever think of programming as existing?

Fortunately for me, my parents did *not* come from the area, and, while neither worked in technology, they instilled in me a love of reading, a thrill in learning, and a deep-seated desire to leave town as soon as I graduated. I came to university having only dabbled with programming, and was working as a programmer by the next summer (God bless my first technical employer and his patience). I'm not a great programmer by any means, but I persisted through the initial scare of students who had been programming since they were seven, and now I see that many of them dropped out to do fairly trivial jobs while I have surpassed them in both knowledge and pay. Funny how that works.

Anyways, my mom (who does some substitute teaching at our high school) frequently talks to the students she encounters and tries to open their eyes to the opportunities that exist in the world. She's done a little bit of Codecademy, and now I claim (to her great amusement) that she is the best programmer in the town. The internet has opened up many doors for kids who are searching, but many of them don't know what to search for. And that is the thing that burdens my heart - not that there are so many aimless teens who have no desire to learn, but that there are many who just don't have any guiding hands pointing them to greatness.

I also wrote a space shooter game when I was very young. You had to prevent falling ellipses from reaching the base and could shoot it with 3 lasers. Nobody called me a prodigy but I won several local youth computer awards at the time and it made me feel awesome. Programming is just 99% awesome hard work. Also being an introvert helps...

Whenever I read stories of people who blossomed as programmers early on, I always wonder "Where did they get these computers?" My father was a grocery clerk and my mother a homemaker until I was around six. No $3,000 computers for me! Still, my elementary school had Apple IIs and coincidentally my mother became a teacher, which means I had lots of free time after school since my mother would grade papers in her classroom and, well, she was my ride home. My first program ever was written in BASIC. I found books in the library that had simple tutorials. Resources were very scarce though, and I was limited to what hardware I could get my hands on for free (public places), what was available at the library and almost no mentors.

I consider overcoming the adversity of growing up in a poor family with no easy opportunities to be one of my greatest accomplishments. In the past I assumed everyone had the same difficulties to overcome as I did. In high school I began to learn that not everyone had as many road blocks thrown in their way as me, and in college my mind was blown by how coddled some people were even at that age. Those of us who came from poor families with more difficult upbringing should be as proud of overcoming that challenge as we are of any secondary education and/or career successes we have achieved. The former endows us with a unique skill set that those who were where handed many opportunities are never able to obtain.