The Gift of Coding

I first learnt to code around 1997, right after secondary school. It was also around the time that I first used a computer, owned by a friend. That computer had a Windows 3.1 operating system, and we used it mostly to play Prince of Persia, Mario Bros, and to do some mild word processing. A few years later, Windows 95 was announced, and it has been an upward evolution since then. But somewhere in that time, we got bored enough to think of other ways to use a computer that curiously seemed capable of making everything happen. I learnt to code.

Well, I wouldn’t call it “coding” now when I compare what we did to what younger people than me are capable of doing with far more advanced computers. But it kept us (my friends and I) from trouble, gave us something challenging to work on, and gave us hope of a future where computers can be used to achieve great ends. Our coding was via BASIC programming, a tool which, simply put, merely tricked the machine, through dozens of lines of text, to execute certain commands that fooled users as to one’s smartness. We created calculators, games, small tricks, galaxies, and other fun gimmicks.

I don’t remember any more of BASIC today because I gave up on it when Windows was updated and the computer got more exciting and more capable of different things that one didn’t have to manually create. At some later point, I learnt HTML because it allowed me to create websites, which, by 2000, had become the new fanciful things. And then later, websites were created to make site creation easier than having to manually create it with code, and I all but gave up on that as well. But the knowledge gained from each experience gave me the capability to envision how to use technology to solve certain pressing problems.

I don’t code anymore, or — better still — I haven’t in a while. I do not create websites anymore either, perhaps because Wikipedia and blogs (and Medium) have made websites redundant, but mostly because I’m content to pay people with better skills than me while I use my time on other interests. What I’ve lost in the process however is the joy I remember from creating things that moved and did stuff from just lines and lines of codes (rules). It was beautiful. It was a kind of poetry, but with practical implication. It required diligence to complete full “verse” (lines), restraint to wait until it’s fully “edited” (debugged) before “publishing” (activating) it, and patience to write as much as possible before they can have any meaningful effect on the public.

When I watch others do it now, I’m saddled with a kind of longing. But more than that, an appreciation for the work that they do. Like the other writing profession in which I find myself, software engineering requires knowledge of more than one “style” or “genre”. There are so many coding languages out there that a person like me hoping to return to pick up from where I stopped in the last century could get flustered. My work at Yorùbá is sustained by the volunteer efforts of a couple of software developers who work, in their free time, to bring the vision of the project to life, without pay. That — knowing how much work it takes — often gives me pause and gratefulness. Thank you, Dadépọ̀, Esther, Tọ́lá, Yẹmí, and other volunteer developers.

I once asked on twitter which coding skill I should learn, hoping for an easy answer. All the responses told me that it would depend on what purpose I was learning it for. Was I interested in databases (SQL) or websites (html, CSS, etc), or gaming, etc. How about: “to be able to return to a forgotten delight of learning to use another language to communicate with a machine and create a myriad of tools?” That will take a lot of explaining. It turns out that even for most professional developers, just like it is for writers, there is always need for constant re-learning.

I have started re-learning HTML. I hope to take on CSS next, and then Java, and C++, and then Python, and as many as I can find and in whatever order my self-help websites tell me. I tell myself that I need the skills to be able to better understand the languages I hear from the young programmers and developers around me, reunite with Syntax, and to become more competent myself in solving small software issues. My wife thinks that it doesn’t matter what reason I give, as long as my learning gives me more qualification to earn some of the lucrative profits in the technology industry. My last role at Google, as a linguist, required experience in Shell scripting and working in Linux environments, and I somewhat survived it, which must mean that I’m not as rustic as I thought. But what I’ve noticed checking out recent job openings even in my field shows that having a programming ability is going to be a must for all future job seekers. And if the news of software engineers in Lagos turning down jobs because of high demand is anything to go by, my wife might have a point.

But I like my reasons too.