How to Learn to Write Code in 37 Short Years, Part 1: Hello World!

Recently, I passed a personal milestone. It is an arbitrary milestone, one for which I am the sole judge, but it is one that has been 37 years in the making. I have been a professional developer (coder) for about 27 years now. In that time, I’ve generally had no problem considering myself a professional. No impostor syndrome there. But there is one thing from which I have refrained referring to myself: an expert.

Until now, that is. Now, after 37 years of learning how to write code, I think I do it at a level which could be considered expert. Perhaps even by someone other than myself.

“Developer” sounds a little phony to me. I’ve read about people who are developers (land developers) and I’ve never really been clear on what that entails. I prefer referring to myself as a (professional–now expert) “coder.” It’s less formal, but despite its reputation, I’ve always felt there is something informal about coding. I’ve been wary of the term “expert.” It seems to me that it is overused to such an extent as to water down the meaning. I’ve seen all kinds of books about becoming an “expert” this or that in 30 days. Maybe I’m just bitter at being a slow-learner but it took me 37 years before I finally considered myself an “expert.”

One thing I don’t consider myself is a software engineer. An engineer has a specific meaning in my mind, and entails a certain kind of formal education in software development that I lack. I am not an engineer. I am immediately suspect when I see “software engineer” on a resume when I don’t see an engineering degree along with it. I’m much less suspect if I see “coder.”

I tend to be a slow-learner, perhaps because I dive in head-first and try everything at once. I’ve written about how it took me 14 years of writing and submitting stories, collecting more than a hundred rejection slips before selling my first story. It took me 11 years of teaching myself to write code, before I landed my first (and so far, only) professional gig. In that regard, it only took another quarter century or so before I felt I could call myself an expert.

So how does one learn to write code in 37 short years? For me, it began with hangman, and WarGames.

The first computer I ever saw was a Commodore VIC-20. I saw it in my 5th grade math class sometime in the late winter or early spring of 1983. There are exactly 3 things that I remember from that math class. First, our teacher was missing part of a finger. Second, one of our lessons was learning to read the stock pages in The Providence Journal. Third, was the Commodore VIC-20.

There was no math associated with our introduction to that computer. I remember it was wheeled into the classroom, connected to a television set. We spent the class using the VIC-20 to play Hangman. I didn’t see a line of code during that introduction, but I was intrigued by what I saw.

The summer of 1983 was my last on the east coast before I moved with my family to Los Angeles. It was the summer that WarGames with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy made its debut. I saw the movie in New York with my cousins. I don’t recall the movie making much of an impression one way or another at the time. What I remember most about that day was going back to my cousin’s house after the movie, and being introduced to his Timex Sinclair 1000. It was the first computer I ever laid my own hands on.

My cousin turned on the computer and showed my how to write a simple program in BASIC. The program was:

10 PRINT "HELLO"
20 GOTO 10

The program doesn’t do much, but something in my brain clicked. It was like I understood the concept of programming in that instant. With a finite (even small) set of instructions, and some basic logic, you could make the computer do all kinds of things.

That evening, we made the computer break into a top secret installation. We didn’t have a modem or any kind of connection to the outside world. But using our memories of WarGames, and my quick absorption of BASIC, we wrote a program that made it seem like we were hacking into some secret computer system. I can’t remember what I program looked like, but it was probably something like this:

10 PRINT "WELCOME TO TOP SECRET INSTALLATION"
20 PRINT "Enter your password:"
30 INPUT x
40 IF x = "password" THEN GOTO 50 ELSE GOTO 60
50 PRINT "Welcome to Global Thermonuclear War"
60 PRINT "Wrong password"

Yeah, we didn’t have the logic quite right, but the idea that through some simple instructions you could make the computer to all kinds of things was a revelation for me.

At the end of that summer, we said goodbye to the east coast, and hello to Los Angeles. Any move is tough on an 11-year old, but moving across the country, away from all of your friends is particularly tough. But I had something cooking in my mind that I was looking forward to. I was going to figure out a way to get my own computer. I didn’t particularly like the keyboad on the Timex computer. What I had in mind was the VIC-20 I’d seen in my 5th grade math class. I thought about it so often that I’d dream about it. I remember a couple of occasions that I dreamed I’d gotten a VIC-20. I was so excited! Then I’d wake up, uncertain at first if it had been a dream, and then, crestfallen, that it had.

Until one day, I had one! My very own Commodore VIC-20. And it came with a tape drive! My real coding experience was about to begin…

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

3 thoughts on “How to Learn to Write Code in 37 Short Years, Part 1: Hello World!

  1. As I recall, the first computer I worked on was a Commodore PET in my elementary school. The school knew that computers were going to be important, so they got one, but had no idea what to do with it. When I saw it and expressed interest, they gave me a free period every week or so to “learn” on it. I got a book of BASIC games from TAB Books and programmed and played.

  2. The VIC20 – it was also my first computer and I still remember to this day hoping that tape in the drive didn’t corrupt all that work I did the day before.

  3. Brings back memories. Vic 20 with that tape drive was my gateway drug too. Bought it in a Wegman’s grocery store at the holidays. Then off to the library to copy code from the back pages of Byte. Eventually a Franklin Ace 1000 compatible because I couldn’t swing the money for a real Apple, and a clattering daisywheel printer with 10 and 12 pitch type. The quest for affordable upgrades and supplies got me my first computer-adjacent job and started a career in tech that’s continued almost 40 years. Sometimes I wonder where I’d have ended up without the little Commodore to kick it all off. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

Comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.