This post is about the strange idea in the programming/computer science community to brag about have taught yourself programming at a young age. It is a long post! The tl;dr is the title 🙂
The craziness of the self taught 10 year old
Before I will explain why this strange myth can be harmful and often only half true, let’s first have a look at it in more detail. For example, imagine other professions with it:
- Lizzy wanted to be a brain surgeon so bad that she taught herself lobotomy on the family’s pet hamsters
- Gary wanted to be an accountant so bad that he learned double entry bookkeeping at age 12 and did his high schools books until senior year
- Chermaine wanted to be a lawyer so bad that she studied four different judicial systems before age 16
Kinda funny huh? Somehow, for brain surgeons, accountants and lawyers, this sounds a bit absurd. If I read this, I get that sense of: let kids be kids! They can study a topic when they are old enough to know what they want to be. Imagine something along those lines in a *job ad* “You are so drawn to surgery you taught it to yourself at a young age”. Creeepy! Yet, I regularly see this in programming ads.
Why do we love this story so much?
Although they are clearly related, there are two parts to this. Firstly the young age. Somehow, doing something at a early age is a worthwhile thing, it shows we ‘naturally’ love a topic, and it places us right there with glamorous soccer players, brilliant ballerinas and extraordinary musicians. Those often start at an early age. But there is an interesting difference. Soccer players, ballerinas, musicians, they are hardly ever self taught. They have a talent sure, but that is nurtured somehow, and their parents let them join a sports, dance or music club. There they meet a teacher or mentor, and a group of like minded people, who they learn from, and with. See how these related myths only cover half of ours?
So I kind of see the young aspect of it, but why do we think the self taught is so cool?
I have no clue either. But, it does seem to fit into the narrative of the lone programmer in the basement that, you know, is legendary for hating light and talking to humans. By propagating stories of how we are self taught, I think we continue a storyline that is harmful and not realistic!
Why is it harmful?
Well, for starters, realize not everyone has a freaking computer, a library near or an internet connection. If you are interested, here is some data for the US. In 2013, 83% of the population had a computer, but only 56% for families where the householder had no high school degree, and 62% for low income families. The respective numbers for internet are 74% in total, but 44% and 44% for low education and low income households. This surprised me! Wow, less than half of low “opportunity” households has internet in the US!!
So, some people just don’t have the opportunity to learn, even today, and these are of course often, surprise, underprivileged kids. Secondly, some kids with means have the interest but are put down at an early age. Remember the Israeli study on girls and math degrees? Maybe a school starts a special match and science class for kids with high grades in math and these (equally good!) kids don’t qualify. Maybe a teacher or a parent does not offer a programming book to a girl, or a kid with a reading disability or a whatever difference from the ‘nerd norm’ a kid might have, and we lose them.
Then, due to them being ‘naturally drawn’ to the field or other reasons, they end up doing a major in cs, and we put the burden on *them* for not doing it in their teens or preteens. Hello, it is not just them, it is also society!
We need better narratives
Even the greatest individual ‘chosen ones’ of our modern beloved fantasies with all their talents did not do it by themselves. Imagine Harry without Dumbledore, Hogwarts and Ron and Hermione. Luke without the teachings of Obi-Wan and Yoda, and the comradery of Leia and Han. Neo without Morpheus.
Imagine Harry Potter saying ‘I taught myself magic at age 10’. Hell no! He would credit his teachers and friends. You know who would take all the credit? Malfoy! I want to be Harry Potter and not a mean bully. So, here goes:
I did not teach myself programming when I was 10
As of today, I am going to rewrite my own history and today I make a vow not to ever again propagate my own myth. If you catch me do it, seriously, feel free to correct me. For reference, below are my original and rewritten history into computer science. Yes, I surely did program at a young age, but there were people and opportunity all the way down. Let’s celebrate the people that helped me get into computing and put the focus on them and not me me me. People I owe the biggest of thanks to are listed at the end of this post in somewhat chronological order.
Felienne’s former love story of programming
Let me tell you how I got into programming. When I was about 6 we got a computer at home, and I was immediately drawn to it. I remember experimenting with WordPerfect and Paint, and the idea that you could write and paint with a computer amazed me. I then got a book with BASIC listings for games that I manually copied (yes, I am 100 years old), and I changed the code until I understood what it all meant. In high school I started learning Pascal and Delphi, designed a program to play Yathzee (including a simple AI to play against) on my TI-83, and my high school end project (profielwerkstuk) was a program that did machine learning (then still called regression analysis :)) on data and plotted a graph of the data and the extracted regressions, including 3D graphs in Delphi. Being naturally drawn to computing, I studied computer science, went on to get a MSc in computer science followed by a PhD in software engineering and I am faculty now.
That is a great story, yes! I love it and I told it many times. Especially the part where I manually copied Basic listing and manipulated them to learn. So oldschool! But, here’s what really happened.
Felienne’s alternative love story of programming
When I was 6 my parents had enough money to buy a computer, and enough trust in me to let me play with it. Observing my passion, my uncle so he got me some old ‘introduction into computing’ books from the school where he taught. I borrowed the BASIC books from a local library (until I ultimately bought them later in a library sale). My high school had a computer club, which I joined, and I hung out with other kids there, and we gave each other crazy challenges like rendering 3d animations on the TI-83 and the Yathzee game. I had the same math teacher in high school for six years, that often let me skip real homework, as he recognized they were sometimes too easy for me, and let me do programming instead. He actively encouraged me to do the end project in his topic. In my senior year, I still had not decided what I wanted to study. I was good at, and liked all the things and I considered Latin, philosophy and even theatre school. No one, not my parents, teachers or other friends told me computing was not for me, and despite me being only girl in all my science classes and in the computer club, I felt part of the nerd group in my school, and ultimately decided I would enjoy studying math and CS most. When in university several professors encouraged me, told me I had a knack for programming and research and motivated me to consider a PhD.
See, it was not just me!
Now. Look at all the people involved! Mid class parents with money to spend, very encouraging high school teacher and a few great university professors, plus opportunity like library, a school with a computer club and a feeling of belonging. In only now know how lucky I was. In every step of the way I could have been discouraged and dropped out, but there was social support all around. I see now that not everyone has that.
Thanks in chronological order:
My late dad for his life motto “dat maken we zelf wel uit” meaning as much as “we can decide that ourselves” He refused to let other people tell him what you should do and how you should behave so hard that he had a motto for it which he frequented all the time.
My mom for being a ‘beta’ that ended up in teachers academy, because no one could help her pick a good major. She was smart, but her parents were a carpenter and a housewife, and it was the early 70s. No one thought to send a girl to a technical major, even though she had the papers for it. Because of her experience, she always stressed that my choice was mine to make and that there was not such a thing as ‘for me’ or ‘the better
The late Peter Nabbe, my high school math teacher that spoiled me to no end with ‘get out of jail free cards’ and programming materials.
My nerd friends in school. The ones most notably for doing computer stuff with me were Pepijn Vloemans in elementary school, and in high school Ivo Delahaije, Jan Machielsen and Arno Pluk
On a topic level my university professors Tom Verhoeff, Hans Zantema and Rob Hoogerwoord, who recognized and nurtured my love for programming, puzzles and theory.
On a more personal note, finally, I cannot thank Alexander Serebrenik enough. At the end of my BSc studies, when I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do (I still liked many things) and at a stage in my life that I felt different from the other students in my class (in our end project, I actually liked talking to our customer and understanding what it was they really needed and not just the programming) he repeated that I was good at cs, and that the other students should be so lucky to have me in their team. I might be in a very different career right now if it wasn’t for him. I have told him this, but it really cannot be said often enough.