Saturday, 13 December 2008

Do all great programmers start young?

I was recently hearing one of the Stackoverflow podcasts, where Jeff and Joel were interviewing Steve Yegge from Google. Jeff mentioned how he started programming at the age of around 13, and how the developers he has the most affinity with are also those who started at around 13, and were largely self-taught. Steve agreed with him (being one of those who started young), and insisted that the best developers are those who start young and are self-taught. And I have to agree! Well I would, since I started at 13 too.

I remember my parents bought us a Texas Instruments TI 99/4A, when we couldn’t find any Sinclair Spectrums (I think they were called Timex in the US) in stock anywhere. It was Christmas 1981, and I was 12 going on 13. The first thing I did when we got the computer home, was to type out one of those game listings you’d find in video game magazines. I’d actually bought the magazine before the computer. After spending a few hours typing it in (my typing skills were non existent then!), I typed in run, and waited. It kind of worked, but the score at the top right hand corner of the screen was not working. Disaster! I must have typed something in wrong. So I roped in my little brother to read me line by line, while I checked for any typos. After another few hours, we finally concluded, that we had typed it in correctly. I don’t know what drove me, but I had to fix it. It was a graphical score, with each digit independent of the others. So with every increase in score, you’d increment the units column, until it were at 9, in which case, you’d set it back to 0, and increment the tens column, and so on and so forth. Seems trivial now, but it took me a few days to figure out TI-BASIC, and fix it. But boy what elation when I ran it, and it finally worked. The subsequent month’s magazine printed the bug-fix, but I had fixed it on my own. I was officially a programmer. Luckily due to a hardware quirk, while my friends played fast machine code games on their Commodore 64s and Spectrums, the TI99/4A had some drab Basic and Extended Basic games available or wildly expensive (well to a 12 year old they were)cartridges. So if you had a TI99/4A, you either learnt to program, or you made friends with the neighbours and their Commodore! I started writing games, and even advertised and sold a few tapes. (storage was on plain old audio tapes) …and so began the love affair with computers.

So when did you start programming?


Unknown said...

I started a little earlier, at 10! and also had to type the programs from magazines...every time I wanted to use them, because my ZX81 (it was a Sinclair 1000 in fact) with 2Kb of RAM had a problem with the tape recorder and couldn't save/load anything. It was in 1985, now I know my father was fooled by the store owner who sold that computer (there was plenty of Commodore 64's and Spectrums), but thanks to that I learned and now I can make a living by programming.

ajasja said...

Also at about 13 or 14 years of age. My first computer was an old Olivetti (M-24 I think). And my first program was an algorithm for finding prime numbers ( written in turbo pascal 7.

Ahh, good times :)

Anonymous said...


I started to program at university (it was before home computers of any kind were available) using punched cards on an ICL mainframe with the massive storage of 4K.

I was given the code to use all the networked memory of a load of other university machines at one time up to 16K. You guessed it, I managed to get a loop in the program which utilised all their memory for 30 mins before someone thought to switch it off. Happy days.


Unknown said...

I'm started at 11

Anonymous said...

I too started at university at the age of 18 writing some program in BASIC using some kind of a teletype system (ribbons with holes). I progressed from there to Nord (mini-computers from Norway!!) and IBM (you can never appreciate Turbo Pascal enough if you haven't worked with IBM Fortram using JCL), DEC and VAX mini-computers (very nice) and finally to the first IBM PC with on 160kB floppy drive. And at home the Commodore 64 which was a beauty and is where I really taught myself to program.

Nowadays I work with Delphi and Visual Studio but the way I program is still governed by what I did back in the 80-ties.

Anonymous said...

I started programming around the age of 13 as well. My first computer, Sinclair 1000, which I still have.

Anonymous said...

I started at 9 10 years old in 1981 on a Radio Shack Tandy CoCo II 16K, but at that time I wanted a Commodore 64, also a friend had a ZX81.
I started programming with a paper and pencil using Basic books before get the actusl machine


Unknown said...

These stories sound so familiar. I was always too lazy to type in programs from magazines (had a brother for that), but i started writing my own games around 14 on a ZX Spectrum.

thomas pfister said...

funny... I started with a (used) TI/99-4A in 1982/83 (meaning with 12/13 years), too. I realized the same like you with the games on the C64/C16 and other computers in the neighborhood.
I had the big ($)luck that there was the p-code-card on the p-box and I have beside (extended)basic and assembly (with the minimemory-cartridge) the UCSD-pascal available.
And since this time I work with Pascal (over Turbo to ObjectPascal).
In summer vacation this year I connected the TI to a TV and my kids saw the old games on the TI (with 16 colors and so on). And I won many games against my kids (on PS-2 or Nitendo from the kids I'm without any chance, hehe).
I think the age isn't the important thing for a good programmer, more the effective time of learning and less play or other activities (like internt, chat and so on).

Anonymous said...

I started with 11.

Anonymous said...

I started on the Tandy Coco and Timex Sinclair and the age of 10-11. All great programmers I have ever met always started young. Their understanding of all topics related to programming and how things work are far better than apprentice programmers.

Sean said...

I started at school at about 13 on a TRS80, and then managed to get a Spectrum for home. My brother was too lazy to type anything in, so I had to do it all. The $600 or so that the Speccy cost was well worth it, 2 of us are now working in development.

Anonymous said...

I also learned by debugging errors in sample code of a Sinclair Spectrum teach-yourself-assembler book.

But when I was 13 I built games using CMOS logic gates. First computer I programmed was HP's 2100 64k core memory using the buttons on the front panel. Later moved on to Motorola's Exorciser(sp?), Intel's D5 kit, Apple ][e, bought myself the Spectrum, then, by taking a loan out with my company, I bought myself an IBM AT clone.

Then we got Turbo Pascal 3.01 for a project and my eyes were opened!

Anonymous said...

Well, im 16 now and I started when i was about 14 but havent got deeply into programming yet because im still
trying to figure out what profession I want to do in Programming.