Janet Riley

Janet Riley is a software engineer in Boston. In a prior life she was a production editor at an academic publisher. She joined the tech industry during the heady dot-com days of the 90s.

She co-organizes RailsBridge workshops which teach programming with Ruby and Rails. RailsBridge Boston has introduced hundreds of newcomers to programming.

Janet blogs about tech and travel at JanetRiley.net.

Published Thoughts

Coders and the Myth of Destiny

There’s a popular narrative in software that all real programmers have been coding since childhood. For my generation, the story involves teenage marvels with an Apple II or TRS-80. Recently I’ve seen bios claiming first programs at age three and four. In another generation, perhaps toddlers will compile in their cribs, portents of a lifetime of superhuman accomplishments.

It reads like Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. We pulled the sword from the microchip in the dim light of our parent’s basement. From there, it was destiny. How could we not become programmers, after such precocious feats?

Like any archetype or cliché, we can find those who fit the tale. But it’s bad storytelling, lazy and simplistic.

The destiny myth overlooks work and persistence. It takes a long time to become a capable programmer. Who wouldn’t want a head start? That said, this isn’t training for the Olympics or ballet. There’s no critical window to enter training.

Programming is not mystical. The plot arc is laid out in every computer science curriculum. We start with “Once upon a time” and “Hello, world!”, and travel on through syntax, data structures, first projects, first jobs. There’s a huge body of minutia to learn, as convoluted as any soap opera. It can be done with time and patience.

The hero story turns people away from trying. I volunteer with an outreach group that teaches beginners to program. Participants are surprised to find they enjoy it. Over and over again, they say they never saw themselves as programmers. A large factor is connecting with the teaching assistants. Most of us don’t fit the stereotypes – or if we do, we’re many other things as well. Showing different possibilities opens a door.

Who’s missing from the scene? How many interesting and talented potential colleagues went into other fields? How many interview candidates are turned down because they don’t seem like the right type? How many startups go unfunded because venture capitalists believe successful founders are “invariably… hacking on computers at age 13”?

Let’s start telling different stories.

How about a plot twist? A mathematician joins the armed forces and is assigned to a top secret computing project. She goes on to create one of the foundational programming languages.

A strange discovery: A student satisfies a math requirement with a Scheme course. She loves it – an uncanny omen by any measure. She blows the class out of the water and changes majors.

A second chapter: a law graduate discovers he doesn’t enjoy practicing law. His analytic skills are perfect for writing code.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and more interesting. We’re richer for listening to all the stories around us.