Geeks can be fascinating people

The longer I am at this job the more I realize that computer programming can be a very exciting career choice. Yes, you heard me right.

Granted, it’s not the first job that pops to mind when one is asked to consider some of the world’s most intrepid endeavours. And yet, each day there are developers creating and modifying programs which affect virtually every conceivable industry – from marine biology to finance to engineering to gaming.

But I can still remember how someone who was “into computers” was likely to be treated back in the old days when I was still in high school. They were an isolated group: geeks – at a time when that word was still truly an insult.

Of course, computers were still fairly new to the curriculum then – they were different and strange for most of us. I myself actually took a semester or two of programming, which we did on a Commodore Pet, using Waterloo Structured Basic (I’m really dating myself here). I was completely lost for about the first five weeks, and then suddenly one day, I got it. I understood the logic – it was as if a light had gone on.

I can still recall the first program I wrote: a simple game sequence, that, when printed out (on a dot-matrix printer), stretched across the entire room. I also remember how it felt when that program I wrote actually ran, and worked the way it was supposed to. It was exhilarating – I felt a bit like a conjurer.

So, why then did I not pursue programming beyond a couple of semesters, when it was so obvious that I enjoyed it?

There are probably a few answers to that: the aforementioned geek image – not something a teenaged girl was looking for then (or even now), the fact that the equipment wasn’t very up-to-date – even for the ’80s, and the fact that I was never really encouraged to take it seriously. There seemed to be an understanding that programming was a subject you took in school – similar to Latin, or calculus, or chemistry – that you learned for interest’s sake: the assumption being that you would probably never use it for anything once you left school.

Back then, at least in my experience, no real-world examples were ever given as to how this knowledge could be applied. Programming seemed like a neat trick, but not much more. Only a few students seemed to see its potential – and like I said – they were the geeks.

Times have changed since then. The classic geek image is fading (see “Geek culture may be on the wane,” page 27, in this issue). Much of the image change has had to do with money – programming can be a lucrative career. Also, there is now an increased understanding of how fundamental these skills are when trying to do, well, almost anything.

I recently attended an event where university students competed in an international programming challenge that rivalled any sports event in the excitement it generated. It was good to see recognition for something so important, as well as the passion the students obviously felt for the task. It made me remember my first program – how it felt to write something that really worked.

So I’m glad the geek image is changing – it would be a shame if it stood in the way of something so important and potentially exciting as computer programming. And it kind of makes me wish now that I’d paid more attention in high school.