Amber Case (Photo by Kris Krug)
Amber Case (Photo by Kris Krug)

Every programmer likely remembers how they learned to code. For guys like Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the magic began on the Teletype Model 33. For others, it may have been a few days at a coding workshop like the one I attended for journalists just a few weeks ago.

Learning where, how and in what ways your developer days began can be both beneficial and inspirational for others. That’s why Amber Case, co-founder of Portland-based Geoloqi, wants to gather as many of those stories as possible for a compilation that can help people understand what it takes to learn how to code.

“If you’ve read books like Programmers At Work you might know about how valuable it is to have a personal story,” Case writes in this guest post on Silicon Florist.

Case, who gets asked a few times per week about how people can learn to program, spent six months coming up with questions for this survey. If you have a few minutes, head on over and contribute your story — it just might help inspire the next great coder.

Previously on GeekWire: High school hackathon: 500 budding teen geeks learn how to code … Life in Code: Why this entrepreneur is telling the stories of women in tech

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  • Dillie-O

    I started out with TI-Basic on my TI-99/4A. Mainly pouring through a book that came with the computer. I took a summer school course to help solidify that, but later on in Junior High a fellow BBS member gave me a copy of their C compiler and some references to download. My parents weren’t too happy at the amount of dot matrix ink I was using for those tutorials. 8^D

    Oddly enough, with all of my formal education (my degree is in CECS) it seems like I learned more by just getting on the computer, creating (or finding) a problem and solving it through code. This led me to forums, books, and other means to give me a lot of core concepts to programming. Most of the simple assignments in class didn’t prepare you for that.

    Good times… even today 8^D

  • Sir Michael Rocks

    Writing a Star Trek game on my VIC-20. Back in those pre-internet days good technical books and magazines were worth their weight in gold.

  • Joseph Remy

    I manually copied programs from “Co-Co” magazine onto my TRS-80 Color Computer (Model 1), every month. Then saved them to audio cassette.

  • Peter H

    Does anyone else remember typing a long string of numbers from the back of BYTE magazine into your Commodore 64, just to play some simple game? Those were the days. Kids today will never understand.

  • cartel

    Apple-II BASIC in 3rd grade gifted, then QBasic on the home DOS machine. Later on at a nerdy camp in high school, I learned C++, and then I learned Java in college and PHP at my first job. But I didn’t really know how to develop until I worked on some bigger long-running projects with multiple team members out in the real world.

  • Jerry Anderson

    Apple IIe/Basic – high school – self-taught. Our school only had the computers for one semester and they had no teacher or lesson plan. I created many of the sample programs that would be used for the follow-on students and classes. Eight years later my brother took the same class and my programs were still being used. Stopped programming when I joined the Marines.
    6 years later I took a few community college courses, Basic and C, to “brush” up on my skills and from that point on I was almost exclusively self-taught. I occasionally attended “2-4 courses” at industry seminars but I stopped doing that years ago. Since then I learn as I go. After a while it all looks the same. :-)
    Participated heavily in CompuServe forums in the early/mid 90’s.

  • Ant

    When I was a callow ant, I was into Apple BASIC and LOGO, and HTML. I
    was into simple stuff and modifying. I got older to take computer
    science courses, but I didn’t like coding anymore. I did like breaking
    stuff for SQA!

  • Fattyman

    BASIC on an east german computer called KC85 (In the middle of the eighties)

    Assembler (Arm!!!) on a british home computer Acorn Archimedes 3000 (at the beginning of the nineties)
    JAVA for my diploma work in the middle of the nineties.
    … and a whole bunch of other language like Fortan, C, C++, Javascript, Cobol…

  • Niall Beag

    I got into programming through BBC BASIC on my Acorn Electron. I then went to university and studied Computer Science, ending up in corporate IT, miles away from coding. A guy a couple of years below me in school never wanted to be a programmer, and went to university to study Astrophysics. He is currently programming the landing routines for the ESA asteroid mission.
    I took the wrong path….

  • Tim Acheson

    My first experience of coding closely followed my first experience of computers, on early BBC Micro (Model A and B) computers which had just been introduced into schools in the UK in the 1980s. My own small junior school didn’t have one, but my dad was a teacher at a larger school and he brought home two or three of them every school holiday so we could play games with our friends. I was never particularly good at gaming, but I soon worked out how to get into the code of the games, which were just files loaded from a 5 inch floppy disc, and also the code for the disc’s main menu. I would trawl through the code and find lines responsible for certain aspects of the game, in order to change things like colours and sounds and make myself invincible. This gave me an insight into programming and thinking in different ways which has stayed with me. The language was BASIC.

    A few years later the first ever consumer home computer was launched, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (48k), and my father bought one home. Reflecting on my childhood, I realise that it was really my dad’s infectious interest in computing that created the environment I needed and sparked my own life-long addiction. These amazing Spectrum computers became hugely popular, and that is how the gaming/computing industries and communities as we now know them were born. New shops opened in towns selling games on cassette tapes and gaming magazines. Some of the magazines gave away free games — either on a tape, or in the form of the source code which you then had to write yourself. Debugging was not easy without the tools and methodologies we take for granted today. The language on these machines was BASIC, too.

    At high school, while the other kids were outside playing football, I joined the computer club. We were lucky enough to have several computers (BBC Micro again) and a minor mainframe. In those days there was no such thing as an IT department. and It was all run by a maths teacher who did this as a sideline. I would play games, and was sometimes reprimanded for hacking into the mainframe, other computers, and for changing the games to play tricks on friends. For example, we’d fabricate problems so the teacher would come over and log in so we could see her type “* I AM SYS” (the administrator account) followed by her password. She put me forward for an IT course run by the local authority which involved a lot of programming and structured exercises. Thanks to this course, which I did in my lunch breaks, I learned to focus my coding skills and interests to solve simple real-world problems and deliver use cases to spec.

    Eventually my high school got its first PCs, a couple of RM Nimbus machines, running Windows 3.1 if I recall. This was state-of-the art. I took Graphic Design as one of my GCSEs, and in that class I learned how to use MS Paint, Corel Draw and similar simple graphics applications. We also had an early form of a digital camera (in those days referred to as a “digitiser”). I was allowed to use the PC a lot in English classes, partly because my handwriting was so bad. I took to MS Word like a natural. The real power of Word was the ability to easily edit and craft my written work to perfection. Bear in mind that we still had typing classes in those days, and a classroom full of typewriters and aspiring secretaries, but no IT lessons. It also helped me improve my spelling and grammar. Without this technology, I could not have achieved my GCSE A grade for both English Language and English Literature. I got into trouble sometimes for playing computer pranks, writing malicious code etc. In my final year the school put a PC in our 6th form common room, and I a group of teachers took me aside and warned me with genuine anger on their faces that if anything went wrong with the computers, regardless of the circumstances, the school would assume it was me responsible. That was a wise move, I must admit.

    At university my use of computers expanded dramatically, with Excel, Powerpoint, statistics packages, molecular modelling, and other more advanced software applications. I mastered advanced Word and Excel and every aspect of MS Office, right down to programming level. The programming environment in MS Office was then and still is Visual Basic (VBA) with strong similarities to early BASIC implementations albeit much nicer and with much better tooling. It’s powerful stuff.

    My computing became even more advanced in my first proper job after graduating. I played with Oracle databases and PL/SQL, Java, MS Access, VB6, and authored much more advanced Macros and formulae in MS Office. The company sent me out briefly to their offices in Silicon Valley do bring a database project in-house. I loved California. I loved Palo Alto. My kind of place. Seeing all the big tech companies lining the road inspired me. I began to get a sense of the scale and momentum tech revolution that was just starting to unfold. This was before Google, etc. When I started uni, it was all about books. By the time I finished, the Internet was playing a more important part. Websites were still very simple. CSS 1, CSS2 2, HTML 3, HTML 4. There also weren’t that many websites, and even fewer really good ones. Finding stuff on the web was not easy, there were many search engines but they were very poor — typically listing sites based on meta tags and their ability to pay a fee rather than the relevance of the content.

    I built my first website soon after graduating. I learned HTML, CSS and JavaScript at home by looking at other websites, which were generally very poor examples. I used Outlook Express as my WYSIWYG editor, saving the email as HTML, before moving onto FrontPage, DreamWeaver, Visual Interdev, Visual Studio, etc. In subsequent jobs I got even deeper into development, mainly for the web. After my experiences of early coding environments, I really appreciated a good tool set, and Microsoft has always been on top of this aspect of coding. My websites got more advanced as I mastered server-side code, Perl/CGI, PHP, ColdFusion, ASP, etc.

    I still love the Microsoft dev stack. It’s my environment of choice. These days it’s all about ASP.NET MVC and the C# programming language, SQL Server databses and T-SQL. I’m interested in architecture and infrastructure as well as coding and development. Processes and practices have changed. Agile, XP, TDD, etc. It’s an exciting field.

    You couldn’t ask for a more satisfying career in a more important industry. The tech revolution is much bigger and much faster than the industrial revolution. It’s a pivotal moment in human history; one that humanity will look back on forever. I feel privileged to be part of it. I have my dad to thank, really.

  • Fattyman

    Beeing 12 in 1983 I was a small boy with only interests in mathematics. But one of our teachers – in eastern germany – showed us a nice device, called “Kleincomputer 85” (or in english small computer 85). For an hour I was in another magic world outside the pure mathematics. Fascination came over me and an hour of wonders later my first BASIC program was written – a simple for-next-loop printing out the numbers from 1 to 10.

  • Peter van der Does

    I begged my parents for an Atari XL800 and my Dad wouldn’t buy it for me. Instead he bought me TI-99/4A and it has been one of the best thing that happened in my life.

    I bought magazines and typed the programs that were published in them. Of course it never was without typos, resulting in having to debug the code to find my typo. I didn’t even know it was called debugging, but finding that typo, or two, three, four and finally seeing the program run was the best feeling. It’s the pouring through the code finding the typos that really was the base for my programming.

    At one point I wrote this poker card game in TI-Basic and had it actually published in a Dutch magazine. If you won the game it would play the Dutch, or Belgium, national anthem and I remember going to the library to find sheet music for both anthems so I could program the notes. I moved from the TI-99/4A to Sinclair ZX-Spectrum, to C64 to IBM over time, learning a whole set of different languages.

    I always say you learn a programming language, but you can’t learn how to write a good program. As a comparison, everybody learns a to speak/write a language, English, Dutch, German, Spanish whatever, but only a few people know how to write a book.

  • Frank

    While watching porn,

  • lucas kraus

    by breaking things

  • olimay

    Radio Shack TRS-80 Color BASIC.

  • Scott Baker

    When you’re 5 years old and you’re presented with a Heath-kit Zenith computer that has no permanent storage medium and boots into Basic – you learn to code pretty quick – if you want to see it do anything.

    After that coding kinda comes naturally for computers – I worry sometimes our current “simplify everything for complete idiots” root-plan is actually making it much harder for anyone new to really get into a real computer programmer mindset vs the user mindset.

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