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.