The self taught programmer’s journey

I remember my first programming gig. Being a self-taught programmer I figured it would be minutes before I would be exposed for the fraud that I was.

I pictured one of the other engineers take a glance at my code, frown their eyebrows, look at me and say: “wow, that is the worst piece of code I have ever seen in my life. Did you even pass your CS 101?”. About that time, someone from HR would then storm into the office with my resume and ask “where did you go to school? I can’t find it on your resume?!” And then I would wake up in a pool of my own sweat. Well, not really. But that’s how I would do it if I was in a movie.

If you’re a self taught programmer there’s no question that you had your fair share of self-conscious moments. Someone at work would start reminiscing about their college years and another would join and before you know it there’s a whole discussion going on while you’re trying to blend into the back wall before someone notices you and asks where you went to school. I know. Been there.

So I did a little bit of research and you’d be happy to hear that we’re not in a totally terrible company. Self taught programmers, scientists, artists and even philosophers have existed since time immemorial. Here’s an extremely incomplete list of some of them:

  • George Boole – The man who developed Boolean Algebra and without whom computers as we know them today could not have existed was a largely self-taught English mathematician, philosopher and logician, most of whose short career was spent as the first professor of mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork in Ireland.
  • Ada Lovelace – was the world’s first programmer. She is best known for creating the first program, designed to run on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine.
  • Jimmy Hendrix – considered by some to be the greatest electric guitarist in music history. In 1957, while helping his father with a side-job, Hendrix found a ukulele amongst the garbage that they were removing from an older woman’s home. She told him that he could keep the instrument, which had only one string. Learning by ear, he played single notes, following along to Elvis Presley songs, particularly Presley’s cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”.
  • Ernest Hemingway – considered as one of the greatest English-language writers. the American novelist and short story writer, was primarily self-educated after high school.
  • Herbert Spencer – the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century was educated in empirical science by his father.

To be clear, this is not a rant against universities or against education. Quite the opposite. I’m a huge proponent of education. But I also happen to believe that there is more than one way to enlightenment and mastery. Some find formal education to be the preferred method of learning. Others, like myself, prefer to design their own curriculum and follow it at their own pace.

Whatever your approach is, make sure that you never stop learning. One of my favorites is the story attributed to Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. According to the legend, on his death bed, Kano summoned his students and asked them to bury him in his white belt. As the most senior Judo practitioner of his time, he wanted to be remembered as a life-long learner rather than a master.

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