My mom was an elementary school teacher. Every day after school she’d tutor her students, and I’d have to wait around for her for two hours, playing with my school’s one computer (this was 1993) before she’d drive me home. My favorite game was Nibbles, a “snake” game written in QBasic — as you eat more, you get longer, and have to avoid hitting yourself or the walls around you.
The problem was, I got so good at Nibbles that I could beat it every time. So I opened up the source code to try to make the game harder, to make Nibbles even faster. That’s the first time I programmed.
A year and a half later the World Wide Web came out. I signed onto the Internet for the first time and I truly thought to myself: “This is going to change the world and this is what I want to do with my life. I want to build this Internet thing.”
So I started teaching myself HTML and CSS around fifth grade in 1995. By ’98, I made a website for my community center, the Riverdale Y. Throughout high school, I was always coding, doing anything I could to explore this field, schoolwork be damned.
Around 2000, my parents wanted to send me to SAT camp for the summer… which, to me, felt like a distraction for this aspiring programmer. So I made a deal with them: if I could get a summer job programming, I wouldn’t have to go to SAT camp. They accepted because, of course, they thought, “Who hires a 16-year-old kid for that kind of job?”
Right away, I started applying for jobs in the New York Times classified ads — anything that mentioned computers. At most of my interviews, the interviewers laughed at me. They thought it was cute but basically said, “I’m sorry, but this is a real job. We can’t hire you.” But I eventually found a little startup where the interviewers also laughed at me but asked, “Can you actually program?” I said, “Yeah” — and passed the programming test they gave me. They said they’d pay me $10 an hour to code over the summer.
My parents didn’t believe me when I told them I got the job. I said I was serious — and that I had to go to work tomorrow. They came with me the next day to this startup, met the CEO, and said, “So this is the real thing — you actually hired my son for the summer?”
The same thing happened in my sophomore year of college. I was recruited by a hedge fund that told me to drop out of school so I could work there as a programmer. My parents said they wouldn’t approve it until they actually saw the office. And — I swear — when they visited, they thought I’d set up this whole office. They were opening drawers, knocking on walls to make sure I didn’t create some ruse just to convince them to let me drop out of college.
You have to keep in mind that this idea of being a programmer was new — that wasn’t really a job that you could just get. You didn’t have the Mark Zuckerburgs of the world back then — world-famous people that could make people understand that you can fall in love with code, teach yourself how to program, and be employable.
But that’s changing. Thanks to the internet, there are more viable and accessible paths into programming than ever before. And with software becoming more ingrained in every industry, there are so many career paths for new programmers to explore. I’m lucky that I get to play a small part in that at Flatiron School, where I get to help other people fall in love with coding, taking them from programming games (though we start out with Tic Tac Toe instead of Nibbles) all the way to actually getting real jobs as software engineers — no fake offices necessary. :)