The Accidental Programmer

So far this is the best new name I have for my blog. I’m still brainstorming, but this is a story I want to tell and now is as good a time as any.

I wrote, a while ago, about how I don’t have Imposter Syndrome any more. Perhaps it would have been better to say, I mostly don’t have impostor syndrome. Sometimes I don’t feel geeky enough. I don’t subscribe to xkcd (although I do appreciate the ones that I see), and I’ve never watched Star Wars or Star Trek, don’t understand the distinction, and I’m not particularly interested to either. I don’t drink Red Bull and stay up all night coding.

The nerdiest thing I ever did was get fed up with Windows when I was 16 and wiped it off my hard-drive, replacing it with RedHat. Only I was at boarding school, with no internet connection, and couldn’t download all the necessary drivers. So my dad took it in to PC World, they fixed it, and I put up with Windows until I eventually got my first Mac nearly 3 years later.

I learned HTML at 13 or 14, but didn’t learn to code until I was 16 (when I learned C in school). Then I went to University to study Chemistry, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do but I liked making stuff go fizz and occasionally burst into flames. My DOS (director of studies) put me in Computer Science as an elective, and I took the mandatory math course.

Part way through my first semester, I went to him and said “I hate Computer Science”. I was frustrated by being taught programming through slides, not doing (I still don’t think this works well, especially not for beginners), and weirded out by all the boys who didn’t seem to wash regularly. I was also completely mystified by “Object Orientated Programming”, having learned procedurally. I could explain it beautifully, but the concept just made no sense to me. I remember a professor commenting in my third year that Computer Science had changed because you couldn’t expect everyone coming in to have taught themselves a good chunk of what they needed to know anymore – because there were non-geeks. Non-geeks like me.

My DOS bribed me to stay in CS for another semester, promising he’d get me into Economics the following year. Anyway, it turned out Chemistry didn’t have enough explosions for me and I ended up still in CS, and Economic History rather than Economics (another story altogether, and not such a happy one… Economic History is all the boring bits of History and all the non-math-sy bits of Economics. It’s very dull). I guess at some point I started to like it, and then to love it. I wrapped my head around OO, discovered Recursion and Functional Programming (which I really liked) and met people who, if rather more nerdy than me, were at least clean. I interned at a wonderful company which gave me so much more confidence in terms of my ability, and I graduated with a good 2:1.

I wanted to be a programmer, but I wasn’t sure where, or what kind, and I wasn’t yet ready to settle down, wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to grad school or not, so I took off. I worked in the US, trained in martial arts in China, hung out in Europe for a while, qualified as a ski instructor in Canada, worked for a bit in the UK and then went back to the US to work, ended up here in Canada at uOttawa. I’d realized I wanted to know more stuff and as only banks seemed to be hiring (oh, the irony!) it was a good time to go back to school.

In the US I worked as a programming instructor, and after the second summer they recruited me to develop the programming curriculum. It also lead to the opportunity to work in China, last summer. In the UK, I worked to transform the zillions of spreadsheets a department was using to organize themselves into a database, that was easier to update and maintain and easier to extract information out of.

The job in the UK really hit it home to me how we as programmers often don’t really understand how “normal people” use computers, which ultimately means that we don’t always know who our users are. People who don’t realize what a little know-how can do, and how if you represent your data the right way it can be a goldmine of information, with little effort. It’s now something that I try to consider, and it influences my research and general attitude to users.

I read this article the other day – don’t let your strengths become weaknesses. It’s fascinating, because it explores this idea of how your weaknesses have corresponding strengths. So if my weaknesses that I’ve been talking about here are:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Not feeling enough of a geek

My corresponding strength are:

  • Lack of confidence -> Patience as an instructor: I remember what it’s like to be confused so it’s easier for me to be patient when my students get confused. When they make an endless loop, I find it funny rather than frustrating.
  • Not feeling enough of a geek -> empathy with end users, and a better understanding of people for whom computers are a facilitator, not the be-all-and-end-all, or even the most important thing. An interest in how computers can be useful to regular users, rather than just technologically or programmatically more advanced.

So an accident? Yes! A happy one? Yes! And if I don’t always quite feel like I belong, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it can lead to other opportunities.

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