Essays on Technology and Culture

Learning to Write Code All Over Again

When I went off to college for the first time, I was set on studying Computer Science. The plan was to learn how to program, and maybe get a job creating video games or even start my own video game studio—a dream shared by almost every geeky teenager in the early 2000s, I suspect. Three semesters later, I decided English was more to my liking, and that the higher math required in a CompSci program was beyond my grasp. My grades in CompSci weren’t great either. I passed my first course by the skin of my teeth, and begging my professor to regrade a misgraded assignment.

I got started with programming like many people my age, with QBASIC, though my first real exposure to programming as a concept came from Apple II LOGO in grade school. In QBASIC, the furthest I got was discovering how to write trippy graphical screen savers using random number generators and drawing primitives on screen. In 8th Grade, I got ahold of a copy of Microsoft Visual Studio 6 that, er, fell off the back of a truck. [1] In high school, I switched to Visual Basic, thinking it would be the best step up from QBASIC.

There were two pet projects I had in high school. One was a simple game: “Whac-A-Mac” where the player had to click to smash Macintosh computers that popped up on screen in the style of Whac-a-Mole. I completed this, but it was a bloated, ugly mess. The next project was “NerdQuest,” an RPG inspired heavily by System’s Twilight, a Mac-only puzzle game. This never got off the ground. My understanding of how to do graphics in Visual Basic was non-existent, as illustrated when a friend offered me the code to his isometric graphics engine that he wrote in Visual Basic. One look at the code made my head hurt.

I had exactly two successes as a teenage programmer: a Visual Basic database-based app on the various animal kingdoms I wrote (barely) for a High School biology class, and teaching myself TADS, the Text Adventure Development System. Ultimately, I focused on learning HTML and CSS, with a tiny bit of JavaScript, and enough PHP to design WordPress themes, and be dangerous. I did, with help from a book, write a very basic PHP and MySQL based blog and database for Booji Boy’s Basement, but after a previous webhost was hacked, I lost the source code.

Lately, however, two things have me thinking it might be a good idea to try and learn how do program again. The first is that I am now part of the technology startup economy, albeit in a non-programming role. [2] The other is listening to tech podcasts like the now defunct Build and Analyze, Back to Work, and Quit!. Regular topics of discussion on all of these shows has been learning to program, working for yourself, or changing your role in a job to a technical one—and doing so without expensive education.

The barrier to entry to a programming job has been lowered, significantly. If you have the chops, and have the code to back it up on GitHub, you can find work. Xcode, the tool used to create software for the Mac, and iOS, is free. To become an iOS developer costs $99. There are free and paid classes on how to program in the languages that make our modern tech go, including JavaScript, jQuery, Python, Ruby, and Objective-C. It couldn’t hurt me to learn. So, the other day, I downloaded Xcode, installed a Python development environment, and reinstalled MAMP, with the full intention of getting back into programming, at least as a hobby. We’ll see how it goes.

  1. There was a minor underground economy of software trading in my middle school, which was also a high school. This was back in the days when the fastest home internet connection was a 128kbps ISDN line, and BitTorrent didn’t exist. It was a miracle we even had these CDs of Photoshop 7, Bryce 3D, and Visual Studio floating around.  ↩

  2. Creating e-mail newsletters involves no programming. It’s simply HTML and CSS, albeit HTML and CSS done with standards circa 2002. Thankfully, I haven’t needed to use spacer GIFs. Yet.  ↩