The Spark: What Makes Coders Great

I first started programming back in 2002. In fact, I stumbled into it unintentionally. My high school, Parkville High School, required all students in their Magnet Program for Mathematics, Science, and Computer Science to have a TI-83 Plus graphing calculator. As an incoming freshman, a graphing calculator was a big luxury for me – I spent my entire 8th grade Algebra I class without one, completing all problems by hand. Embarrassingly, it took me ten minutes to figure out how to turn it off the first time! I presumed that my new calculator would be used exclusively for math classes, but in the first few weeks of my computer class, we started programming the calculator. I’m sure we wrote some sort of basic “Hello World” print program, but we quickly moved onto programming math formulas.

It blew my mind.

At the time, I didn’t know what “computer programming” was. In fact, I didn’t even like computers very much. And yet there I was, thirteen years old, telling a calculator how to automatically solve my math problems for me. It was one of the greatest thrills I had ever experienced. I could command a machine to do cool things and make my life easier. I quickly started writing programs outside of class for every math formula I could find: areas, volumes, circumferences, the Quadratic Formula, the Pythagorean Theorem; and I shared my formulas with my classmates. Then, I moved onto calculator games. At the end of the year, our class started programming simple graphics and animations in C++, for which I made a fireworks show.

Something just clicked for me and coding. It all made sense. I could solve any problem. I could make any feature. I could teach myself how to do anything. And doing it brought on this wonderful euphoria – the “coder’s high” – even stronger than the feelings of Christmas morning or playing video games. For me, coding was practically addictive.

When my mom told me that there were well-paying careers in software, I never looked back. I took my first Java programming course as a sophomore (which I still consider my “mother language”) and then AP Computer Science AB as a junior (which was the first year it was offered in Java; I scored a 5/5). I went to RIT for college, where I graduated with a combined BS/MS in Computer Science in 2010. The rest is my professional history.

There were many times along the way that I doubted my path. There were times in high school that my code simply wouldn’t compile or run and I had no idea why (in the dark days before Stack Overflow). There were times at RIT when I felt like the most computer-illiterate student in my sink-or-swim program, and I even considered switching to a math major. There were times when the corporate grind was so tough I considered dropping back into academia. But, every time I doubted myself, I remembered what inspired me to pursue software at the beginning – the spark. The click. The it factor. The undeniable tenacity in my soul to solve real-world problems with elegance and efficiency through the sheer power of logical processes. I’m convinced that one of God’s greatest gifts to me has been the software spark. Though tempted, I have never wavered in my vocational clarity.

I’m not the only one who’s experienced the “spark,” either. In fact, it has consistently been my litmus test for identifying truly great coders. Many people have recounted nearly identical stories to me of how they first got into software – they were hooked at “Hello World.” I’ve heard people say things like, “I didn’t want to do it at first, but I discovered it was the coolest thing ever!” or, “What I love is that you can do anything!” or, “It seemed so basic and almost stupid, but it was so awesome!” Inversely, I’ve seen those who lack the spark struggle tremendously with computing and software. And it’s not a matter of grit or intelligence – these often are smart, hard-working people who just lack that X-factor.

Now, please do not misunderstand me by thinking that it’s impossible for those without the spark to be successful in software. I’m not trying to be elitist or condescending. Rather, based on my experience, I’ve seen the spark to be the single greatest determining factor in what makes someone naturally talented at programming. Furthermore, having the spark doesn’t make the journey easy. A career in software still requires grit and elbow grease. The challenges are tough. Having the spark simply makes it worthwhile.

If you have the spark, you’ll be able to overcome any software obstacle. I encourage you to go do awesome things. And never, ever give up!

 

This post is dedicated to my parents, who always supported my software aspirations from the very beginning.

 

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