First, I think we have to distinguish between two ideas here:
* The first is the question of whether anyone can learn to program. I think that for the most part everybody can, just like for the most part everybody can learn high school calculus.
* The second is the question of whether programming ability is bimodal. This is not related to the first question, and confusing the two questions is a significant error. It is entirely possible that programming talent is strongly bimodal and that 99% of people can learn to program.
I've been programming since I was 11 and have interacted with other programmers all through high school, college, and now working life, and at every single point of my career -- both academic and professional -- I have seen that some people are drastically faster and better at programming than others (but the others are still capable of learning). In introductory programming courses at college, I've done labs with very smart people who took 10x longer to figure out the lab than some others. They figured it out, but they struggled a lot compared to others, despite being very distinguished undergraduates (Goldwater fellow, etc.).
At work, we've brought on people with 10 years of experience who were 10x slower than someone else with 2 years of experience.
At school, there were master's degree candidates who were significantly worse than many undergraduates despite working just as hard and longer.
I could go on and on and on with examples. From my own life the evidence is simply overwhelming that programming talent is bimodal.
Part of the thrust of Jacob's talk was that there is probably a whole class of developers out there who would be just as good as the rest of us but they can't get entry due to an assumption that Coding is an innate skill and not a learned one. He even gives examples like the lady who had written a working distributed GIS processing pipeline but didn't think she was a Coder.
I'm a little like Jacob in that people automatically assume I'm a 10x coder. I have a pedigree from Google. My github and bitbucket accounts are full of small libs and projects I've played around with. My code has been used by CouchDB and the list of languages I have at least surface knowledge about is huge. There is exactly one reason for all these qualifications though. I've been in the industry for more than 10 years and I was a hobbiest programmer for several decades before I was in industry. When I started learning I was doing gw Basic. My first "real" programming languages was VB6. I was a stereotypical below average programmer. I didn't know a linked list from a hashtable. All I needed to turn into the "ninja" people see when they look at me now was time.
I've met a lot of people who could absolutely reach this same level. And 90% of those people with potential resist trying because they think "I'm not really a coder". The myth really does need to die.
Furthermore, there is evidence that the ability to code is non-linearly dependent on some fairly uniformly distributed basic abilities. The bimodal mark distribution of first year software courses is evidence of this. It is trivial to reproduce it using the assumption that the underlying skill-set is uniformly distributed, but there is a threshold of ability below which coding becomes very hard: http://www.tjradcliffe.com/?p=1471
There is a very simple way to disprove this hypothesis: find a way to teach coding that will get rid of the bimodal distribution of marks, which has been vigorously attacked by educators for decades without progress. The things we have learned in that time are:
1) It doesn't matter how passionate the teacher is about believing that "everyone can learn to code"
2) It doesn't matter what language is used
3) It is very hard to predict who will be good and who will be bad.
Because of this, there are three reasons we know cannot be the source of the problem: the attitude of the teachers, the langauge used, or the number of years experience prior to university. If any of those were the cause the extensive research on this issue would have revealed them in the 80's.
I'm prefectly willing to believe that most people can be taught to code, and if I can be shown evidence of a teaching method that gets rid of the bimodal distribution I'll happily abandon the barrier-to-entry model I've proposed in the link above, but until then, it can't be called anything less than a plausible hypothesis. Certainly not a "myth".
> We have discovered a test which divides programming sheep from non-programming goats. This test predicts ability to program with very high accuracy before the subjects have ever seen a program or a programming language.
It's entertaining, but I think the double hump in first year comes more from Dunning Kruger and compulsory courses than anything else. I've heard of the same kind of distribution in first year biology classes. Even if "true", I don't think it gives us an excuse to anyone we think is insufficienty spectacular out of the industry.
I started on AmigaBASIC and later ARexx. QBasic on later 386/486 machines. Pascal, OOTuring (a Pascal-like educational language), and C in high school. Perl near the end of high school. Python in my early twenties. Common Lisp in my late twenties. Have tried a bit of Haskell and OCaml here and there. Though I'd say I've settled on Python, C, and Common Lisp... trying to make brain space for OCaml only because I find Mirage to be such a great idea.
I've given talks on BloomL implementations, constraint propagation solvers in game level design, and have written various bits of libraries and such over the years. Nothing terribly "ninja" like here. Depending on the audience I may sound like a wizard or a clueless hack. The reality is I'm probably somewhere in the middle in skill if programming were a quantifiable skill. The only reason I can cite these things is because I tried and learned some things not because I was born with some legendary ability to whisper to a computer what I want it to do. At the end of the day they are just machines and there's nothing super-human or special about learning how they work. It just takes time and effort like anything worth doing.
The theory, as I understand it, is that without sufficient evidence we must assume that programming ability follows the same bell-curve distribution as every other quantifiable skill we can measure.
The most productive programmers I've met almost always had enough experience in what not to use. They have a clear focus on the simplicity of their code and their ability to reason about it. They understand the problem and the hardware as well as the language in a very detailed manner. They are by nature extraordinarily curious people.
In comparison, the worst programmers I've met were the exact opposite, learning barely enough to get the job done and never digging into the details. Sometimes they don't even understand the hardware they're using. They pick the wrong data structures, think about code first and data is an afterthought.
Productive programmers don't really type faster or think faster. They just make far less mistakes to begin with and such mistakes always inflate the development time exponentially.
It makes me so happy to read this.
Data in the grand scheme of things is vastly more important than code. "picking" data structures is a luxury in many cases and thus data structure often dictates the structure and expectations of your code. Data usually outlives the code. Data is effectively the earth in your code farm. Take care of it, and form it as best you can given a set of restrictions so that your program runs smoothly.
"Show me your flowchart and conceal your tables, and I shall continue to be mystified. Show me your tables, and I won't usually need your flowchart; it'll be obvious."
Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month.
"Bad programmers worry about the code. Good programmers worry about data structures and their relationships."
As an example of code vs. data, and this is a general statement (so YMMV) I try to structure my code such that, if there is a choice between making the code more complex, vs making the data more complex, I generally choose to make the data more complex. The code is usually harder to reason about, so it's a win if I can use a simpler algorithm.
Just a quick example -- I need to get going -- Say I have a bunch of data in a database I need to do something to once or twice, like validating imported data. It's easier to use a complex select to get it in an easy to process form, then it is to use a simple select and have a complex algorithm to process the data. Generally, given the choice, it's easier to have complicated "static" data, since it's rather static and easier to reason about, rather than complicated "dynamic" code since algorithms are generally harder to reason about.
As I wrote elsewhere, it's not just speed. The more talented programmers I referred to write better, cleaner, more performant and more elegant code -- and they do it faster.
> Productive programmers don't really type faster or think faster. They just make far less mistakes to begin with and such mistakes always inflate the development time exponentially.
We can postulate all sorts of different explanations. I wasn't attempting to do that in my previous post. I was just relaying my own repeated observations that some programmers don't just write better code -- they manage to do it much faster too.
Do they think faster? I don't know. They just have a knack for programming. It's obvious to them which data structure to use, so they just use it.
Maybe it just comes down to this. If it's not obvious to someone which data structure to use and they have to spend a significant amount of time being confused about it, not only are they more likely to make the wrong choice, but they're likely to take longer too. Someone who, for whatever reason, has better intuition about how to structure a piece of code is going to be able to write it faster, not because they think or type faster, but because they just didn't even have to think as much in the first place. Consequently, I suppose that frees up mental space for thinking about the cleanliness of the code and other such factors.
My idea of a slow and not particularly thoughtful programmers are the ones that really do look like someone's programming in slow motion - as well as everything else (this is something beyond the professional work I've seen). They're slow to ssh to a remote server, they're still typing in passwords again and again every day, they're slow to type out even a simple git commit message, they're slow to write out an e-mail that has very low interesting content in it. In their off-time, they're going fishing, maybe playing board games, or just constantly trying to relax and avoid thinking about anything at all because they seem to instinctively avoid anything that would be serious or present any sort of stress. To me, they're the complete opposite of the "type A" personality that's always trying to stay occupied and hyperactive. I have no problem with this life approach on a personal level, but it's a liability in a business setting wherever you are in the world and whatever industry you're in because there is just no urgency to anything and the person is pretty much incapable of handling modern professional life perhaps in general.
This reminds me of studies of chess players. It turns out that grand masters and average club players think as far ahead and as fast. The master just think of better moves.
And yes he starts coding away while reading the specs. He gets something up and running quickly, but it is rarely close to the spec and expected solution.
First, practice, practice, practice. I spent waaaaay too much time in high school writing/designing/building projects. By the time I hit university, I could write a compiler or build a web application. Old hat. That's always going to be a hurdle folks who are serious about programming are going to have to get over, I just did it early on so when I started working with others I was ahead of the curve.
The big problem I've noticed among my friends at school that floundered vs the ones that succeeded, and that of the (great) professionals I've worked with is the ability to solve problems. Some folks look at a task like "build a web application" and seize up at enormity of the task. Others, start breaking down the problem into it's component parts. Pick the front-end, back-end tools, database, and drill each piece further down. I think this is just as important, if not more, than raw coding talent, especially since strong problem decomposition skills apply across the board.
I'm regularly amazed/annoyed when folks can't solve trivial computer problems not because they are hard, but because they are afraid to jump into the deep end and start making educated guesses, googling, just plain trying. I'm not a teacher, manager, or any kind of people herder so I'm not really sure how or why folks are like this, but if you just try to tackle the problem, you'll eventually get somewhere. Overtime you build up knowledge, experience, and mistakes and you become that 10x programmer, or that 10x chef, or that 10x <thing>.
This can be learned by anyone!! This is not a binary idea. The more "complete unknown" concepts in said task the more likely anyone is to seize up - good programmers (or basically any engineer) are just more practiced than most at overcoming a lack of knowledge.
Now you also need to recognize when you're in over your head (in terms of knowledge, in terms of capital, etc). I could attempt many car repairs myself, but the time and capital required is typically prohibitive. Of course one would have to first make an attempt on the problem to make the analysis.
On the other hand, some people never develop this in their whole lives.
We get so caught up in the question of "can everyone program" that we forget to ask if everyone should. There's a massive contingency of folks who couldn't care less about breaking down problems into their constituent parts and writing code to solve them.
I am a big believer that a person should try many things in varied fields -- math, art, science, music, athletics, and so forth -- and discover what they're 1) naturally gifted in and 2) what they're interested in. Then they should nurture those skills.
We would never dream of taking a person who was not gifted at basketball, and also hated it, and push them to try and be in the NBA. We don't encourage tone-deaf singers, who also don't get a kick out of performing, to become touring musicians.
In many other fields we acknowledge that a level of talent is necessary, and we also accept that not everyone is born with that talent. Further, we accept that not everyone even cares to HAVE that talent. Yet in programming we further this notion that if you aren't good at programming or don't want to learn, you're not trying hard enough, the fault lies with you - ur doin' it rong! It's the worst kind of narcissism to think that people who can't or won't do this thing we love are simply being defective people.
If you wanted to learn to play the guitar, learn to take good photos with a nice camera, learn how to decorate your house in a tasteful or fashionable, basically anything you don't have any experience or knowledge in, how do you do it? The people who haven't learned how to learn either simply DON'T do it or they use their social group to find someone to teach them or pay somebody.
You can get pretty far without being able to teach yourself things, but for some skills especially those you have no idea about you have to be able to research and learn yourself.
You think folks who can't solve "trivial" problems are afraid. I disagree. They just "don't see it" the way we do. It's the difference having talent gives you.
The reason I think it's fear, and maybe I'm just projecting, is that anytime I didn't do something it was out of fear. Hell, that still happens in life sometimes now. I won't touch that car repair because "What if", or I won't buy that girl a drink because I suck a conversing with normal people and "What if". To add to the anecdotes, my father is a blue-collar worker, smart, very capable man who dropped out in the 9th grade. He won't touch a computer to save his life, he's of the notion that he'll irreparably break something important. Maybe folks just don't care, or don't believe in themselves, but fear stops a lot of folks from trying a lot of things. Like anything in life, it's not going to be black -and-white.
I like the chef example. I know from past discussions here that there is a large contingent of HN posters who are terrified of their own kitchen, which is a shame.
My spouse got sick with a pretty nasty colon disease. She was not able to do much for a long time.
Cooking got fun. I still suck, but I suck a whole lot less now. But that's not important. What matters is cooking turned into fun. I play, explore, and enjoy learning new things, which come increasingly easy. And the more you play, the better the food. The better the food, the more you are surrounded by people who enjoy your food. We will cook together now. And it's a nice evening. Get some good, or new ingredients, and go.
Chefs are awesome.
And they share too. They know the strong relationship people have with food can bridge a lot of differences. And when people enjoy the work, there is a lot of simple gratification and bonding associated with all of that. I can totally see doing that for a career and being very happy. Strange, having it all be so foreign not so long ago...
The thing is, most of us can do this. Good, basic, well prepared food is within reach of most anyone. Worth it, IMHO.
I spent years in life drawing classes, about 6 hours a week. There was always a clear divide between those that were great, and everyone else. Those that were great, reached that level quickly, and everyone else improved, but remained slightly above average at best.
Or, take public speaking. We can agree Elon Musk is a talented man, and he has more practice when it comes to public speaking in real world scenarios than most people in this world. However, he's just an average public speaker. A decade from now, he'll likely improve a bit, but still remain average. Why is that? Why are there high school students that can take a public speaking course one semester, and give a better speech or presentation? I think they just possess a quality he's missing when it comes to speaking.
Fortunately, everything in life requires a different set of attributes. There are many people out there that can never be brilliant programmers, and likewise, many of us could never be notable in improv, or stand up comedy.
A whole lot of "that quality" comes down to a couple things. One is basic inhibition. Learning to shed this dramatically improves one's potential for performance activities of any kind, and speaking in public is a performance activity for sure.
The other is coming to understand people better. Empathy is a part of this, but so is just understanding how different people are and how they respond to things varies just as much. There are commonalities, of course, but there comes a basic security from being able to read the crowd and that feedback feeds into the lack of inhibition, allowing a person to shine much brighter than they would otherwise.
This from a geek who had a fair amount of music, theatre early on. I still remember the "unlock" where I came to understand the importance of conveying intent, being humble, and not having that basic fear that locks one up so much. Failure is OK. So are basic gaffes and mistakes. People are way more forgiving than we are to ourselves.
I think Elon could improve considerably. He doesn't need to, and he's got his time priorities right where he wants them. Maybe sometime in the future those could change. Should that happen, some time spent with the right kind of people could very well open him up to a degree we may find surprising. Elon has deep passion and resolve and drive. Those things, brought out in a bit less stiff fashion may have an impact he would value someday.
In a very real sense, those that pick it up quickly, care more too. I sometimes mentor engineering types who need these skills for things like pre-sales, or to begin consulting and selling in various ways. Reducing inhibition is important. For many, it's simply not knowing what will happen, so the default is to do the minimum to limit risks and unknowns. Caring is also important. For many, the speech or show more generally, isn't core. Does not matter as much as the tech, or whatever it is being spoken.
Cracking that tends to be linked to understanding the selling of ideas, movements of money, and a lot of other things get driven by those who can handle people, and there is a science, and I would argue, technical aspect to that just as there is any thing with sufficient dynamics as to not be obvious at first glance.
An interesting literary or fine arts comparison is the assumption that the quicker something is made, the better or more valuable it is. Obviously a xeroxed page from a Hello Kitty coloring book is inherently better than an original dutch masters painting.
Statements like "only bad engineers ..." needs proof or if kept as an anecdote I surely hope the sample size is bigger than a couple, plus I need some criteria by which those people were classified as bad engineers.
In my experience in our industry we tend to make outrageous claims without anything to back it up, which is preposterous given how much of our jobs relies on gathering and interpreting numbers. The TFA along with the myth being discussed are no exceptions.
Unfortunately for The Rest Of Us we're stuck with the occasional coworker who writes code like a misprinted example from Teach Yourself C# in 21 Days.
I also think you arbitrarily use the 10x thing a lot based on how you feel things are happening and not actual measurements. It is simply illogical to assume that all developer either fit into a category where they will complete a task in 1 day or 10 days...I'm using speed here because that is the metric you used in your post. I think what you will see more is a wide range of timeframes that developers will finish a task in. And with that some of them will have great interfaces, some will have terrible interfaces, some will have average interfaces. Furthermore, some will have excellent documentation, most will probably have no documentation. Some of the developers will be able to clearly articulate everything that is happening in the interface and in the code, some will not. Some will have created reusable frameworks, some will have hardcoded values. The quality of how they perform the task will be very granular based on a number of aspects, speed being only a small part.
The bimodal distribution your anecdotal evidence points to is very lacking in the full scope of what makes up "being good at programming."
If you don't want to be constantly learning then this is the wrong profession for you. You have to stay current, or else you will slide from good to mediocre to fired within the span of several years.
The plural of anecdote, however, is still not data.
I've never met a really good programmer who cared much about how quickly she finished a project. Only about doing it right.
On the other hand, I've met a lot of bad programmers who were really concerned with writing code quickly, or bragged about how fast they could code, who's output was terrible.
Now it may be that a skilled programmer comes to an answer more quickly than an unskilled one. But it's also true that a sloppy programmer comes to an answer more quickly than a careful one.
Perhaps it's multi-modal, with various discernible leaps in performance. (There's a big gap between "Green", "Good" and "Rock Star", so I think that there's at least 3)
I would love to see data on this. Who knows, I might be wrong. (Wouldn't be the first time - even today)
Faster is concrete enough to be useful though.
Are some developers faster than others when you include all these concerns? Certainly. But measuring it is so incredibly difficult and error-prone that we mostly just stick to some emotional impression of how fast someone is.
All the way to working a line in a factory, the speed of the line is constant but the accuracy on top of speed is what sets the best apart.
Anyone can go fast and make mistakes, those who have figured out a method that works for themselves and keeps up with the pace (or keeps ahead) and puts out a high quality product at minimal mistakes is what stands out.
Some teachers in the field think they see bimodality in their classes, though there is some evidence  that this is a result of teaching to those with prior experience. One might guess (but cannot assume) that this carries over to the workplace, but also that it could be mitigated by better teaching.
Anthony Robins. Learning edge momentum: A new account of outcomes. Computer Science Education, 20(1):37–71, 2010.
A good sixth of people are nearly functionally illiterate. I'd say well less than a third of people could ever write a real program.
99% of people can learn to write hypersimplistic programs, with an absolutely maddening amount of hand-holding. Those people will never be employable as software writers, because they cannot be independently productive.
My own father can program well enough to impress all of his friends with his old-man's technical savvy. But whenever he tries something even slightly difficult, he needs my help. He can do well enough to make websites that include a few simple interactive features, but he will literally beat his head against the wall for days trying to solve something that I can fix in 30 seconds.
I can't explain that disparity without employing the premise that some people are naturally better at coding than others.
The ultimate irony is that my mother is a retired lawyer who specialized in draft legislation. If she cared to, she could probably learn to program ten times as well as my father in one tenth the time. She does not care to; she prefers to play video games. (So do I, for that matter, but I need the money.)
Lawyers that work in contract law or draft legislation are essentially writing programs in (nearly) natural language that execute on a human-based operating system, with non-deterministic processors.
Like most things, programming is a mix of natural talent and practice. Some people have incredible natural talent and will succeed no mater when they started. Some people will achieve a very productive level of programming with less natural talent because they put in the work to achieve it. There are more than just two archetypes that make up the landscape of developers.
Fast-forward 3 years; both of us in college. He had to take a programming class again. I met him in the 'computer center' (they used to have special buildings for using computers). He asked for help again; he still didn't understand about statement ordering. I smiled and suggested a tutor. There was just nothing I could say that would get through to him.
So no, not everybody will learn to write computer code. Some people are tone-deaf too, and will never sing nor play an instrument.
That's quite a telling statement. Actually, there are very, very few people who are _truly_ tone deaf. Since intonation is used extensively in nearly all human languages, anyone who truly is 'tone deaf' will have quite an issue in communication. Nearly all the time (and tbh I think it probably is just all the time), they actually just have an 'untrained ear'. Like most people in that kind of position, part of the reason they are in it may well be because they were told when they were young that they weren't any good, and decided to put their efforts elsewhere. And like all people in that position, you can get better. Will they be the next Miles Davis? Probably not. Will they be able to play in a band with their mates? Yes.
A century or two ago, around the time literacy started to become a thing most people could attain, people must have had a similar attitude to yours with learning to read. Some people can read, others will just never learn. Their brains aren't designed for it.
This is how stigmas form. Coding is not that much different to other human endeavours.
All I'm saying is, if you plan on becoming a teacher ever (in the widest possible sense), you're really going to have to re-think your attitude there.
I think we may all want to rethink our attitudes.
Sure, some people might have "innate" talent in regards to music, but that just means they'll progress a little more quickly. But they still need to progress. And that takes work.
But it's possible to get better at something with practice and to think or say otherwise is toxic. If you think it's possible for someone to rethink their attitude then you already agree with me.
Talent scouts do a good job finding young people. They pick ball players, runners, divers, gymnasts early. Its not magic - they show early promise. And so many times they pan out. That probably means that talent is real and actionable.
So he had a talent for functional programming, then?
Not really. E.g. there's no ordering in function composition that isn't also in high school math. Also, you shouldn't depend on e.g. maps processing elements in a given order.
My impression is that statement ordering is easier for mediocre but competent programmers than it is for excellent programmers. The reason is that writing correct imperative code is non-trivial, but writing correct-y imperative code is pretty easy. So someone who's carefully thinking things through while learning will have a more difficult time with simple assignments, because -- at least while learning -- they're essentially trying to construct the correctness proof in their head. And that's pretty hard for imperative code.
in all languages? i don't think so.
def x = y where
y = a * b
a = 21
b = x
We eschew languages like BASIC these days, but I wonder how much BASIC, as available on Commodore machines, the Apple II, or even some graphing calculators, helped communicate this concept. I know I didn't have any problem understanding that when moving to languages that don't have line numbers (although, I did have trouble moving from the full-screen interactive editing on the Commodore to editing "files" as "the program" vs files being a "snapshot" of the program), and I've had the same experience with people who couldn't grok statement ordering. BASIC with its line numbers and simple loops with GOTO may continue to be good first programming languages because it helps with these concepts.
That's not an ability issue, just a knowledge issue. Coming from math, you'd assume there is no evaluation order.
I was not there and my opinion on this issue is complex, so I will just step out now.
That said, I was asked to give computer grinds to a friend and the guy could just not grok it. But then again he had zero motivation and interest. Lots of people who say that they are bad at math/programming have no interest in making the effort to becoming even a little bit proficient.
I really really would like to know if there are people out there who want or would like to code but for the life of them they cannot wrap their brains around it. I think this is a very important question because I can imagine future social arrangements and scenarios where not knowing how to code will be highly socially disadvantageous.
I graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering, and barely did programming until I began my first job out of college. In many people in the programming space, I see contempt that coding was something I didn't start until later in life. When I interviewed for Electrical Engineering positions, no one ever scoffed at me, "you haven't been computing the impulse response of a filter for 4 hours a day since you were 12? There's a massive difference between engineers who have done that and those that haven't."
People always talk about pursuing coding projects just for the fun of it outside of work, but that's a pretty unusual trait for other forms of engineering.
My father has a PhD in Chemical Engineering and has been doing crude assay work for the last twenty years. He obviously enjoys and gets fulfillment out of his job. But if you asked him to analyze crude oil samples on his free time? He'd say you're crazy.
I dunno, I've been in this field for five or so years coming out of other engineering disciplines, and it always surprises me how programmers view their trade as fundamentally different from other forms of engineering.
Read any interview with a novelist, screenwriter, short story writer, etc and most will say it's something they hated doing but were glad to get done.
Pushed further though, I've seen good advice in some of those interviews which is to try to learn to enjoy the process, as what happens with the finish product is usually out of their hands. I think that's pretty applicable to a lot of other fields as well.
Did you ever dream of debugging your children? That if you could only find the right breakpoint to set, you could adjust them and fix something? Then you are truly a programmer.
Or maybe it's a sign that you should take some time off coding and not take your work home and give the other half of your brain some room to wander and explore space and time.
Furthermore, being able to transfer concepts from one activity to another is a clear sign of intelligence: applying an idea to 1-dimensional text and then applying it to social relations isn't a passive activity either, it shows deep understanding of the idea.
Unfortunately you couldn't start "computing the impulse response of a filter" when you were 12 but if you could, and you continued to practice it daily, you would be very capable compared to people who just started in university.
Going further, I would argue that most people I know who've been programming since they were 12 weren't even writing very good code at 22 (or whenever they left college and entered the working world). It's vanishingly rare that people were writing flexible, maintainable code in their teens. It's much more common that they were coding to scratch an itch, and that their code only solves the pieces of the problem they cared about, and probably not very well.
Note: I've been programming since I was 12.
At that age, your code is going to be a mess no matter what tools you use, so you might as well have an excuse.
(Seriously: there's some brain development that doesn't happen until the close of puberty, and I believe that some of that is necessary for most people to plan and write maintainable code)
- Mathematics (at the extreme high levels)
- Musical composition
- Classical music performance
- Painting/Visual arts
- Speaking most languages
- Jedi Knight
On the web and in app development, there's a far greater variety of technical bases to begin building atop, and a lot of web fundamentals that have developed culturally (rather than out of scientific or mathematic bases, where it can be clear your tools are helping).
A sometimes seen result is that those communities of developers that are "well served" by platforms perhaps "shielding" them from the sticky intertwingulated overwhelmingness of choices and protocols and systems often can't relate, don't relate to the wider body of codecrafters.
Ability to harness the best or biggest slices of culture well is a huge part of programming, and that requires more than being really good or really smart: it requires a will and energy to chase, and to always be chasing, keeping yourself unrooted from what you merely know or how you've done it. That doesn't justify a bimodal view, because there are certainly all kinds of ways people come about to programming, but I think in programming it really is different- since everything is made up and abstract, we're still figuring out general shapes. It's all a social milieu, and it requires paying attention to establish and keep authentic roots and identity, roots you'll need to contextualize what it is you do and what's coming down the pipe. Calculating impulse response is a hard task, but it has a mathematical fixity with no compare to the computer arts we use.
It's also been an extremely exciting time watching programming's recent decades. So there is some elitism of simply- why haven't you been here, enjoying the hell out of this? I think it's ok to feel that inside in a general way, I don't think that can be stopped or avoided, but how we reconcile that with the world without falling into the abundant moral hazards, how we still be good- it's doubly hard to reconcile yourself when the feeds are rife with people berating and assaulting tech culture, when you can get lost in these other people fights.
As a programmer, keep an open mind and accept many types of people as peer. As a person in the world, keep an open mind and accept that programmers are still quite high on some cyberspace utopianism and a precambrian-esque explosion of capabilities, and that just as much as you feel alienated by them, they feel alienated that a wider world excuses itself from recursing the depth and breadth of what enraptures the techie. 'The weirdo is just as scared of the normal person as the normal person is scared of the weirdo'
In my experience it's not at all specific to programming. Other domains have their "rock-star" experts: The brain surgeons, the rocket scientists, the literal rock stars (or at least the true masters of one or more instruments, amazing songwriters, gifted vocalists), the Olympic athletes...the masters of their skill who are so good at what they do that they make it look easy. They've put in the metaphorical 10,000 hours of practice and self-improvement. They are awesome, and the rest of us mere mortals by comparison.
Programming is different from many disciplines, though:
* World-class skill in one domain or language translates to a very short learning curve in just about any other domain. I've hopped between native apps, games, high performance servers, networking, security, drivers, web apps, embedded, IoT and machine learning, for example, and have used just about every mainstream language (and some trendy ones).
* Programming as a discipline has a 10x-20x measured productivity between practitioners with similar experience -- and the real difference can be infinite (there are tasks that I have accomplished that I know would never have been completed by some people I've worked with in the past). Though some will claim it's unique in that respect, it's not: It shares that trait with (for example) the creation of art and music. I can spend 10 hours working on something artistic, and I know artists who can produce a better result in 30-60 minutes.
* Programming can be learned with a computer and 100% free tools. You can start when you're 12 and have access to a computer, and you are limited only by your skill and imagination in what you can create. So those who have an aptitude can spend thousands of hours in practice for only the cost of electricity (after they have a computer).
It may be that Electrical Engineering doesn't have the 10x-20x relative skill effect, or maybe it does. I don't feel qualified to argue one way or another. It does seem like practitioners will specialize in a particular area, though, and tend to stick with it; correct me if I'm wrong?
Also, it's rare for someone at 12 to feel the need to compute Ohm's Law (well, I used Ohm's Law as a 14-year-old, but I'm odd that way), much less the impulse response of a filter, so for most you're learning those equations at the same time, and the difference between the best and worst students isn't measured in thousands of hours of previous experience.
>"you haven't been computing the impulse response of a filter for 4 hours a day since you were 12? There's a massive difference between engineers who have done that and those that haven't."
For the record, if you're one of those people who did start coding at 12 or earlier, it's not hard to spot another "native programmer", any more than, as a native speaker of a language, it's easy to hear when someone has learned a language as an adult. Sometimes late-learners with particular aptitude for languages can speak without an accent, but most of the time it's easy to tell. There are documented brain organization differences (fMRI) between people who learn a language before they're 12 vs after they're 14, and I suspect the same may be (statistically!) true for people who learn programming early vs. late.
I'm teaching my 10-year-old now, just in case. ;)
He does not deny that there are people on the tail of the normal curve. But his point would be that there are more people that started at 12 and programmed a couple of hours on the weekend v. 4 hours a day. And there are still more than that that started at 15. This creates a normal curve, not a bimodal.
I was doing x86 assembly as a teenager and perform terribly compared to at least one person who started in college.
I have no doubt that there is an age, beyond which, your brain has degenerated too much to learn. But, I'm not convinced it's as early as 50's or 60's. Hopefully, with better awareness about nutrition, exercise, and stress, we can see people learning music instruments well into their 80's.
b) Instead of 10 years experience, maybe someone has 10x 1-year experience.
c) To learn theory, data structures, etc maybe university/company provides a better environment than your PSTN connection on the internet (at least that's what we had when I was 12).
d) When you get hired in a new environment, almost certainly you will face a codebase that you were not aware of. What mostly matters is your ability to generalize your experience.
Because of at least (a) - (d), the condition in the first part of your if statement, does not necessarily imply the second part.
I powered through that and ended up doing very well in my CS program at Northwestern, and now am a professional software developer that my peers consider to be a 'rockstar' programmer, although I still contend that I am mediocre and there is always SO much more to learn. At my job I frequently mentor our college interns, and many of them when they come into the job would be laughed out of the room by 'good' programmers, but after a little bit of mentoring and consistent daily practice on the job, in 2 months they emerge 'rockstar' programmers themselves, and in reality they are still probably about average.
Most of the 'bad' programmers many of us come into contact with are just farther behind on their journey to being great software developers, and may only be as bad as they are because of fear to ask questions and be judged by those who think there are only 2 types of programmers.
1. Draw two circles.
2. Draw the rest of the owl.
This is a common problem in art, music, sport and programming - you have an expert trying to teach newbies, and they say "just do this". The newbies have no idea how to begin to do it and the expert knows it so intuitively they cannot break it down further. Everyone ends up staring blankly at one another.
Getting people past that point seems to be a skill of its own. Certainly it's not been easily packaged for programming. Learning involves a lot of guided experimentation, and keeping the student's morale up is just as important as the material itself.
My father is a very talented pool player, but he was not the best teacher until my own skill became pretty considerable.
He's so far removed from the things that are important to beginners. He says "you have to hit that shot with a medium-power, really good draw stroke." They have no real idea what medium power is, and no idea what a stroke really is, and possibly can't draw the ball.
It's possible he's just a poor instructor--that's probably not very related to his own playing ability. Some people can convey complex ideas in a very simple manner, and I think they make the best teachers.
I remember very well the painful process of my dad trying to teach me to drive stick shift (on his new truck). He never mentioned that the clutch had a catch point (that wasn't all the way at the floor), but gave instructions that really hinged on that fact (give it gas, let it out slowly at first, etc). After an hour of us being very frusrated, I went out alone and taught myself.
I later taught two friends, explaining the clutch's catch point, and they were 'getting it' within a couple of minutes. A few accidental stalls, sure, but they understood why. 20 minutes or so and they were legitimately ready to drive on the road (both had been driving automatics for years).
My dad had already been driving for 40 years, he totally forgot the catch point even exists.
In my experience I'm not so sure about that. I've meet (and worked with!) bad programmers very much my senior. After working with them I know why they are bad - they don't learn. Even with asking tons of questions and having their work critiqued constructively. I don't know why this is but I've observed it a few times. It seems some small subset of people, no matter how much they do something just don't get better at it. They spend 20-30 years writing software like an amateur who just learning. Someone I know said about this - "experience isn't a measure of time spent doing something."
So, the only real weakness I've found is when someone considers themselves to be done learning. At that point, they are basically done being a "programmer".
Good programming is an art, and requires talent on the part of the programmer. There's nothing wrong in saying that. The issue is that there are thousands and thousands of potentially great programmers who simply never try programming, just as there are thousands and thousands of never-will-be concert pianists. But many children take piano lessons just in case. Why can't they also take coding lessons? Just to see?
I would certainly say "anyone can learn how to code" in the same way that I would say "anyone can learn how to write", or "anyone can learn to run", or "anyone can learn to play piano".
I wouldn't say "anyone can learn to become a concert pianist", in the same way that I wouldn't say "anyone can learn to become the technical lead of a software firm that revolutionizes the industry" or "anyone can learn to be an Olympic sprinter" or "anyone can learn to be professional novelist".
But programming is, IMO, a bit like writing (though certainly not as foundational) in that you don't have to be a professional programmer to get professional benefit from having some understanding of programming, just as one doesn't need to be a professional writer to get professional benefit from writing (even piano is a bit like this, though the domain in which it is beneficial is somewhat narrower and definitely centered in a different place than where programming is beneficial.)
With time you may grow very impressively, realize that stuff eluded your senses and mind, eureka, but time is an expensive resource.
So far music school way of teaching is by sitting you on exercises while someone verify the output. That is not teaching per se, it's a black box system that has seen somehow regular results. Kinda like making glass, there's a procedure for that, but what really happen at the molecular level is still blurry.
With time the student's body and mind change and he gets skilled at it. How does he explain it ? does he have words to communicate his feeling to a newbie ? Never seen so so far. Recently some violin teacher was praised because he discovered non-linearity (the fact that inertia in normal speed gestures is not the same, thus learning technique requires you to fake inertia by allowing acceleration at slow speed, which means exaggerated movements). Still a shallow discovery to be honest. It doesn't really describe how to create and sustain this kind of inertia between multilimb chains and how to attempt it pleasurably.
Back to code, similar issue is present when one of the most effective (and pleasurable) way to learn the art is by pair programming (with a mentor or even a same level pair). It shows that some notions are still not taught properly in schools. Maybe the system is already at peak and there's nothing to change that would lead to better progress.
Is there a belief that anyone can learn to play the piano? I can't. I struggled for many years trying to learn various instruments. I failed miserably no matter how hard I tried. I tried and I tried, I really wanted to be able to play an instrument, any instrument, but I was unable to. I'm not dumb, I am a programmer, but music was just something my brain couldn't comprehend.
Of course we also have to define what exactly is "able to play the piano" and what is "able to program"? If know how to write "hello world" does that mean I know how to program? If I play a couple cords does that mean I know how to play the piano?
What exactly do you mean by you were unable to? People have different ideas of what it means to be able to play the piano.
For classically pianists, it just means you can read notes and play the corresponding notes. I imagine anyone could memorize what notes correspond to what keys and, as long as they are physically capable, be able to press down on those keys. You might not be able to play any arbitrary piece, but I think most people agree that just because you can't play Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 3 doesn't mean you don't know how to play the piano.
>For classically pianists, it just means you can read notes and play the corresponding notes
Couldn't do that. Couldn't read notes, not even very simple pieces. Reading which note was what, them and then thinking about the corresponding fingering, doing it while following along with the beat... nope, never happened. It wasn't like I didn't practice either, I did. I was so so so determined to be able to make music, it was something I wanted bad, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't, my mind didn't work that way. I had the mental capacity to remember how to play only a couple of notes at one time. I then went to trying to play the drums since there was no remembering which fingers go where. That, while a little easier, didn't work either. I couldn't keep up with the proper timing of the notes.
You could just say I had terrible teachers (public school) but I don't believe that. I gave up after years of trying, it wasn't like I had a mental block to learning. I practiced on my own time too.
I also was unable to ever learn my multiplication tables.
I am not stupid though. I don't have a learning disability, I got great grades in school. I write software for a living. I have a lot of intellectual hobbies. I love talking about math and probability with friends. Nobody who knows me would tell you I am stupid.
I've also seen people struggle just as bad with stuff that comes naturally to me, so I understand some people's brains are just wired differently.
Maybe you don't have a learning disability, but you definitely seem like you have some sort of mental block that is preventing you from being able to learn certain things. Maybe things you consider boring, and you can't focus enough on them to get past them?
Ah HN. What's happening to you?
> I don't have a learning disability.
There's no reason you couldn't have a learning disability. I was one of the smartest in my class and turns out that I do indeed have ADHD. I've also never been able to learn a musical instrument, but I've only put one or two months of continuous practice into them before giving up for another year or two. Barely enough to get muscle memory working for me.
Edit: From Wikipedia: "Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often studied in connection with learning disabilities, but it is not actually included in the standard definitions of learning disabilities. An individual with ADHD may struggle with learning, but he or she can often learn adequately once successfully treated for the ADHD." Ok, so it isn't a learning disability technically, but it's been a barrier to _me_ in learning an instrument.
It seems like you felt overwhelmed by all the various parts of making music. But since you are just starting and having trouble, I wonder if it would make more sense to try to isolate the different things until they become easy enough that you can do them together.
Please forgive me if you already tried this, as you didn't mention whether you had a teacher and what music you were trying to play.
For example, if you had trouble with beats, you could try practicing the beats just by tapping your hand or singing or something else. I was ridiculously bad with rhythms (and still am?) so I have a lot of personal experience with this one.
Then, if you have trouble reading the notes, you can just write them down in a way that's easier for you to read. There's no shame in just writing down the note names! Alternatively, you could just try to memorize a single measure and practice that one measure. Again, I found myself doing this all the time, especially because on the piano you have two hands to read notes for. Of course, what might make even more sense is if you just picked easier music to play.
I think for fingering, the same advice kind of applies.. you can pick easier music, or just memorize small sections.
In a way I feel like you could use this same advice for programming as well. If you pick a super huge project and only gauge your progress for that whole project, you might get overwhelmed and feel like it's taking too long, which stresses you out. Alternatively, if you break the project down into manageable chunks, you feel good about your progress!
At least this seems to have worked for me! I don't know if this will help you at all and I apologize for being so stubborn but I really don't believe you are unable to learn an instrument unless you have some learning disability.
I usually write out songs in my head as changes in pitch, then work out notes and scales later in my DAW. I learned to keep time by drumming on the wheel with music when stopped in traffic. I can't remember scales for long, but I made a point of committing the notes of the keyboard keys to memory so I can quickly memorize a scale and experiment with melodies.
I've tried very hard at some things and failed miserably. I've tired hard at some things and had great results that surprised even me. Those are facts.
It is correct that I can't do things that I don't have the ability to do. There's plenty of things people can't do but that doesn't mean everything someone can't do can't be learned. I can't run a 10k but I'm sure I can if I wanted to, tried, and trained for one I could. There was a time I couldn't write a line of code but that didn't stop me from learning or trying.
I believe many people have something or another that is extremely difficult to impossible for them to learn no matter how hard they try and its different for everyone. Most people don't have an interest in trying things that don't come naturally to them so many times people don't experience that so they can't imagine someone else experiencing it.
On learning music, I'm wondering if you ever tried to learn to play by ear? If someone beats out a rhythm, can you repeat it?
One of the weird thing about most music education (at least in the US and Canada) is it focuses heavily on learning to read music. But if you poke around the corners of the music world, it turns out that loads of fantastic musicians have never learned to read or write music. One of the features of written music notation is it tries to reduce musical rhythm to math, so it might make sense if both things were weak spots for you.
(What do I mean by "tries to reduce"? Consider, for instance, swing. Lots of times the ratio of duration of the lengths of the two notes in a swung pair varies pretty continuously depending on how fast the music is going. There's really no good way of notating that concept in standard music notation, other than just punting and writing "Swung eighths".)
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_%28jazz_performance_style... starting at "In swing the division is inexact"
"Able to play the piano" means you can look at a lead sheet with chords on it and play basic accompaniment to a melody. That's not difficult at all once you've learned how to do it.
I would say "able to program" means you can take an arbitrary set of feature requirements and write a program that fulfills those requirements.
I still don't understand music, but I've been through long plateau followed by big insights. Same as in programming, some ideas were out of reach for a long time.
Doing things in time is already music. What most people want is a tiny bit of complexity, overlaying melodies and rhythmic patterns to tickle our senses. But to my deepest understanding, it is mostly the state of flow where you feel locked into the invisible energy of music. Maybe it's a high sensitivity between your interactions and the actual waves caused by your instrument, and an inner knowledge of how to keep that vibration moving without choking (think taking successive perfect curves with a car).
Most of what I make is mostly or completely electronic, and I can barely listen to classical. If you think "learning the piano" and "playing piano music" are synonymous, that might be the problem. You can make a lot of interesting sounds if you hook a MIDI keyboard up to a computer.
(aside, the best investment I made was Piano Companion Pro. The scale DB is full of interesting scales from all over the world)
Not only that but I would say technical lead of a software team that revolutionizes the industry requires many other skills besides writing the best code. In fact, people skills probably are far more important.
That, contrary to positions that portray programming as a skill only valuable to those who would be able to use it to become the equivalent of an exceptional artist, that the number of people who could derive benefits (professional/financial -- not to consider other personal benefits that might accrue) from learning programming is quite large.
> It's pretty hard to know ahead of time and talent is rarely worth more than sheer effort.
I'm not sure that there is a clear line between talent for a particular task and the ability to maintain concentrated effort directed at it, nor do I think that it is easy to pull apart the effects of each. But, sure, I'd agree that you can't know who can benefit the most from lots of things (programming included) ahead of them trying it.
Which is another strike, IMO, against those who would dismiss efforts at universalizing exposure.
The other point is that the "concert pianist" and "master painter" are damaging stereotypes for the development industry--almost no one is Mozart, and the persistent and toxic idea that every programmer needs to be Mozart prevents good people from feeling good about their work.
Additionally, he makes "good programming" a bit more nuanced. "Programming" isn't a monolith that you can either be good at or bad at--it's composed of many subcomponents that you can have various competencies in without suddenly passing a magical line from good to bad. I think the argument is quite a sane one--the stereotypes that people fall back on are just that: an attempt to reduce a complex set of conditions into a simple binary.
I like to think of ecosystems in discussions like this. Yes, the Google/Carnegie Hall ecosystem requires the talents of rockstars. But the places I work are a totally different ecosystem and require a different type of individual.
One other factor is that most systems and programs of a certain size are actually quite hard to work with - the "average" may not be enough, driving costs and unnecessary complexity until the system spirals into it's own collapse and eventual replacement.
One problem is that while anyone can tell if someone is any good at playing the piano, it will probably take 6 month or more to discover who is 30x more productive at developing and maintaining software, or who will in fact destroy more value than they contribute in the long run.
It's safe to say that developing software requires more than the average level of "talent" that is available in the population, and possibly also among the profession.
So learning to code is equivalent to being a master painter or concert pianist? Which both are amongst the top 1% of their field probably.
Anyone can learn how to paint or play a piano, the level they'll achieve won't be the same everyone, but anyone can do it, just like anyone can learn how to code.
Designing algorithms, debugging, interfacing with hardware, finding efficiency -- the myriad of things that go with programming, these things can be done by a layperson the same way a wealthy hobbyist pianist can plunk out "Music Box Dancer" on their $10,000 grand piano -- but will they be done well? Will the hobbyist pianist give a great performance? They might be happy with it, and that's fine. But will they get to Carnegie Hall? No?
I'm not saying the hobbyist pianist shouldn't try any more than I'd say anyone who wants to write a program shouldn't try -- but the article suggests there's no real benefit to "talent" and that's just silly. There _are_ rockstar programmers, and we should acknowledge them, just as there are great concert pianists. And everyone should be encouraged to try both piano and programming. But not everyone will be successful at either or both of them.
"Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere." -Anton Ego from "Ratatouille"
 full quote: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0382932/quotes?item=qt0465220
Success in any craft (and science) in 5% talent / luck and 90% hard work. But the love to the craft / science makes exerting this effort massively more rewarding. I don't think that training oneself to be a master is not attainable for someone who does not have a burning passion for this specific mastery. For instance, a mastery of programming might be a gateway to other things, for which the passion is burning.
The number of things for which ability to code is now a gateway is growing, be it financial modeling, computational chemistry, linguistics, etc.
Also, there's mastery and there is peak achievement. Everyone (except severely mentally disabled) can be taught writing skills and write nice, clean, well-organized texts. But probably not everyone can become Hemingway or Borges or Nabokov.
Equally, everyone can be taught to write nice, clean, well-organized code. But probably not everyone can be a superstar like Knuth or Norvig or Carmack.
So I'd reserve the word "talent" for the highest achievers. Talent is not required to be a decent programmer.
I don't think that you learn to code "just in case." I learned because it let me automate some things and later, let me make my own games. It turned out I've been good enough to get paid for my level of "talent," but I'd still be happy I learned, besides the joy of the mental excercises, I've also been able to automate alot of (ussually self imposed) challenges in my life.
I also learned to play the piano in my teens. I'm a sucky digital-artist as well. It was obvious I'd never be a concert pianist or master painter or even get paid for either. It baffles me that people can go through life without being able to play an instroment or paint, but I didn't learn "just in case"; I've been making use of both for my own enjoyment and unpaid sharing with others.
I think a great many of your students who lack talent will get great use out of the ability to automate processes on a computer and maybe gain life long enjoyment, even if they don't have the presupposed talent.
Most things are not like that. In fact very few programmers even pursue that. Most science is not even like that. If you are a zoologist studying marsupial reproduction, you are not in a winner take all contest, you are in a 'do thew job' situation. You don't have thousands of eager marsupial reproduction researchers biting at your heels. There are plenty of marsupials to go around.
Most things are like this. Even pianists once needed to attain an achievable level of mastery in order to be pianists professionally and entertain aristocrats before the invention of the Zune. The availability of aristocrats did fluctuate and so did (I imagine) their interest in music, but it's not the same as trying to be the best pianist on earth.
The realistic version of this is that output, especially creative output varies by person. Also throughout ones life, by context (is this fun for me today?) and lots of other ways.
Some kids hat math. Some of them wouldn't if the teacher or method was different. Most can do pretty well.
Exactly this (though OP's article touches on this too). All the BS about category theory, lambdas calculus, and "logic" aside, DHH was absolutely right when he said building large software systems is much closer to writing a novel than anything science or math. Because of this inherent creative art nature, programming often depends on divine inspiration (for lack of a better term) - sometimes you sit down, and immediately see how all the workflows and data-structures, sometimes you can beat you head against a screen for months and wind up refactoring half of it.
In my opinion, the best way to tell if you are cut out to be a great programmer or not is whether you can finish and publish a project or not. Sorting algos, typing speed, functional programming, monads, es7-await, and all that jazz that interviewers like to look for can all be learned (and, comparatively, they are easy to learn), and even if you learn them, it won't make you a good programmer if you can't build extremely complex and yet detailed systems in your head.
Also, I felt that the point of the article isn't that anyone can code, it's that we are discouraging people who COULD have coded.
There's a huge range of skill between "concert pianist" and "no good at piano." That's kind of the point of the speech, I think
There are hundreds of pianists with a very high degree of skill, but that are not concert pianists. Many are essentially freelancers and take gigs as they come-- choir accompanist, pit orchestra pianist, keyboardist in a band, resident organist in a church... etc.. Many of those pianists are quite skilled and talented, even if they are nowhere near skilled and talented enough to be a reknowned "concert pianist" like Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Alicia de Larrocha, Mituko Uchida, etc..
The excessive focus on the idea of a "concert pianist" talent leads to this situation where the day to day programmers aren't getting the credit they deserve. For more on the under-appreciated musician analogy: watch the movie Waiting for Guffman and pay attention to the musicians. The dialog in the movie basically never acknowledges them. They're completely taken for granted by the other characters, but they are impeccable-- easily the most professional performers in the production. There's one point where one is playing the trumpet and timpani at the same time. I think that's the idea-- solid, productive programmers not being recognized for their talent, because they're compared to some incredibly high ideal.
Though there's also this dunning-kruger thing where lots of mediocre programmers think they are way more skilled than they actually are either because they're the best programmer in their little bubble, because they're a devout adherent to some specific coding religion, but haven't ever really been measured against an objective standard. Specifically because there are so many words wasted on "rock stars" and "ninjas" as well as blubbers and someone's personal experience with some horrible developer whose incompetence caused so many problems, etc...
I disagree respectfully with that statement. First you devote a lot of your time to try to teach peeps about CS and I think that's great. But I'd argue that music and coding, to your comparison are essentially languages (former is a language of rhythm and melody and wielded by a physical/electronic instrument, latter is a language of algorithm and logic and dictated by a PC) and learning them is akin to language acquisition.
So IMHO, there is an illusion of talent when you have native speakers who can speak with perfect accent, grammar and fluidity; just like there are "native" musicians who have perfect pitch, can transcribe and improvise on the fly, play with speed/style. Because they have internalized the grammar, and that language's vocabulary and phrasing are by definition the native's first nature.
But non-native speakers can learn a foreign language albeit very painfully, perhaps with an accent and pauses that they'll never get rid of. But they can still express themselves successfully. Put it simply, I believe anyone can be taught the basic's of web development/CRUD, OOP, basic flow-control just most people can be taught how to play "Chopsticks" or conversational English. The programming equivalent of writing "The Great Gatsby" or composing a sonata, I'll concede that to the real talented.
Someone who can do web dev/CRUD is employable, someone who can only play chopsticks is not (in fact you wouldn't even listen to them for free).
Even if I agreed with everything else you wrote you brought no reason why people should be able to acquire more proficiency in programming than they can acquire in piano playing.
Also, I think learning how to program/paint/play is nothing like natural language acquisition, from an evolutionary point of view there is no reason why this should be.
Of course, that's using a completely vague and arbitrary assessment of successful coding. I teach an intro coding course for non-majors at the undergraduate level. So my numbers are based on the performance assessment we use.
you can say the same for coding.
it is 5% talent but the rest is coding coding coding coding...
If you have talent the start will be easier but at some point talent wont help anymore just studying and trying.
So, one of the best illustrations of how talent works is in football placekickers. To make it in the NFL, you have to be able to reliably kick a field goal at X yards. X goes up every so often. Some athletes can do it, some can't. I read a story once about a guy trying to level up his skills to NFL-level. He spent weeks out on the field practicing his kick. He could hit the goal, but not reliably. One yard closer, and every kick sailed right in.
One of his buddies, a minor league baseball pitcher, went out with him one day, asked to give it a shot. On his very first try, he kicked it right in. A pitcher.
To be great, it requires getting out on the frontier of human ability. That frontier often looks very, very weird. One seemingly small additional challenge turns you into a puddle of mush. Getting there requires hard hard work.
But excelling over everyone else who also put in that hard work requires talent, and it's generally a binary proposition. Until it isn't. Once Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, floods of athletes started doing it.
Then the frontier goes somewhere else, the talent required to get there is increased. But one can only put so many hours of their day into an activity. So when you're talking about greatness, talent ultimately matters more than hard work. One should ideally find out as quickly as possible whether one has the talent to make it out to the frontier of human ability. So they don't waste lots of time doing something they can never find greatness doing. The aforementioned aspiring placekicker? Gave it up. Now he's a successful author, real estate investor and football coach.
Programming is similar. If you were to boil programming down to simply "engineer a list of commands to make the computer do X" then sure, most people can do it, with practice and documentation. But to make the computer do X with efficiency, or to make the computer do X in a new and novel way -- or even discover that X is the wrong way to go and the computer really should be doing Y -- also requires creativity and instinct, just like giving a great performance at the piano.
"Greatness does not come from programming by rote."
In fact, I would argue that just "coding coding coding coding" won't get you all that far alone. There's plenty of "reading reading reading reading" so you can actually have the skills and knowledge to write what's intended, and then there's all that lesser visible knowledge out there that is just as crucial, but hidden in (relatively) obscure references or papers - unless you intend on reinventing lots of square wheels.
The reality is that most computer programs don't need to be good. In most cases they don't even need to be efficient. They just need to work. Even then, they usually just need to work for a short time because of the ephemeral world of software development we live in.
There are some really incredible engineers out there. When I look at their code I'm often in awe. "Why didn't I think about that," is what I think to myself. Or someone is using some bizarre function or mathematics that I don't understand to achieve something with an efficiency I couldn't ever come close to in my own code.
Most people who make a living writing code are just writing the same things over and over again for different employers. There's no elegance in what they do. There's no art. I make websites, apps, and simple programs for automation. Sometimes the end result looks pretty, but if I'm being honest with myself the code is very… meh. Anyone could do it.
Living in the Bay Area I can safely say it's mostly a dog and pony show. There are a few people doing something really interesting, actually pushing the limits of technology. Most of us are not those people. Most of us (myself included) are writing garbage for silly products that people use to distract themselves. It's fun, but not really challenging. Most of the people I work with have no idea what hard work actually is.
Working in the Bay Area is the easiest thing I've ever done. Honestly, I didn't realize life could be so easy. Learn how to sell yourself, make something appear on an iPad, and people want to pay you $100k/yr. Sometimes I feel like a thief, but everyone around me is doing the same thing.
If the approach to encouragement is to require artisinal comparisons for success, then you're alienating many right out of the gate.
Most kids loathe piano lessons. But they can still be 10-100X better at it than anyone here and not need to stroke their egos by calling themselves artists.
We're a little like medical doctors in that respect. A lot of people would like to have an MD's paycheck but very few would actually enjoy doing what an MD does for a living. Another analogy, and one of my favorites, is to watchmaking. Watchmakers take great pride in the incredibly close work they do, and again while it may be work many could learn to do, it is work that few would want to do. I think this is very true of programming. Most people find it horribly tedious and boring, and don't see the creative aspects of it at all.
The last thing I'd note is that the focused act of programming is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the gig. To be a full-stack developer these days requires so much more than the ability to create a working program. The big picture is very big, it takes many years to get a really sound grasp of it, and you have to be motivated in the first place. Passion, again.
This is a major point that tends to be overlooked by a lot of people.
There's a big difference between just "coding" something to make a little feature work, and actually building an architecture that can support many kinds of behaviors now and in the future.
Many people can't seem to make the jump to the "bigger picture" version of programming
TBH I am not sure there is even a viable "smaller picture" version of programming. Sure you can write some simple scripts and compile some C++ or Java or run some python. But I have to think 99.99% of what you could actually make a living doing would require knowing a stack at least from the database up to the browser or desktop.
Unfortunately it took over 5 years as an engineer to learn that being able to communicate effectively is the single most important task of any job. If you've ever struggled to explain yourself to people then take some writing or speaking classes from a local college, sign up for a Dale Carnegie course, join Toastmasters for a couple years. Your career will thank you for it.
Would it make us all feel better if programming skill weren't bimodal? Sure. But a roomful of people clapping at that proposition doesn't make it true.
(1) Not even try, because it's "too confusing." (c. 90% of the population).
(2) Be able to finish only with significant assistance from others.
(3) Be able to finish on their own through trial and error.
(4) Finish quickly, and wonder why they were asked to solve such a boring problem.
Note that programming ability is a function of interest in the subject as well as intelligence. I'd say that most people who go into programming are somewhere between groups 2 and 3, while most who end up being successful at it in the long term are somewhere between groups 3 and 4.
I can think of at least 2 people in my 30-person cohort in college who did not know how to code, and would fall in the first hump of a bi-modal competency graph, despite having passed 2 years of programming courses.
So my theory is that the second hump is a normal bell curve, and the first hump is people who won't try.
coding is always trail and error because you cant think of all the possibilities and through error you learn and become better so yeah give me more of 3 then of 4
I am not entirely convinced this is not partially a resume screening and talent pipeline problem. Has anyone ever given Fizzbuzz problems to everyone who applied to a position? If you haven't, have you ever considered that your screening process may be broken in the sense that you are passing too many liars who then bomb the Fizzbuzz portion, but who bump competent people off the stack entirely so you never test them?
Presumably, when you do a resume sift, you look for people with either a qualification or work experience. Either they somehow faked it through those, or your test is bad. Fizzbuzz actually tests if you know what % does. Is that critical knowledge for a webdev?
I don't know about "lots", but there are definitely people out there who claim to be programmers but lack the basic competencies they claim. I've encountered several.
A couple of years ago, I was part of a battery of interviews for a candidate who claimed a Master's in CS. Their resume said they had done advanced work in parallelization of video compression. I asked them about it - I wanted to know how they had handled synchronization and locking.
The candidate looked at me blankly for a couple of seconds. Then they began, haltingly, to talk about web sessions and logging.
We didn't hire the person, but there was definitely some bullshit along the way...
As for how they get through the screen, I think they just blatantly lie on their resume hoping to get a company that doesn't do its due diligence in determining if the stated experience is real.
As to your last question, a "webdev" who doesn't understand integer modulus is a fake programmer. Is it critical? I suppose it's not if your grid is never wider than one column and you never want to alternatively style rows in a list or table.
The point about fizzbuzz is that some people fail it even when you give them a list of functions and how to use them.
Finding out whether this is relevant to how they do when actually working rather than in a high pressure interview situation is an open question.
Because of this I'm convinced that aptitude and passion are significantly important to the ability to program. Just grinding your way through CS classes will not a programmer make.
I should add we let the candidates use google, so even if they don't know modulus or whatever, they still can prove their ability to look up things.
You mean that you continue the interview process for a coding position with someone who failed FizzBuzz algorithmically/structurally (not for a trivial syntax error)?
At a prior game company we gave what I felt was a FizzBuzz-level task on paper: in C, given a string of characters representing a hex number, return the long it represents. (basically, write strtol(input, NULL, 16); without using strtol)
I was appalled at the number of people who couldn't come close (not subtle bugs or mis-handling case issues, but rather: show someone else their code and have that person guess what function the person was trying to write).
When the Fizzbuzz blog post(s) came out, representing a much simpler problem, I couldn't believe that someone would bother to shower and leave the house to interview for a programming position and be unable to do Fizzbuzz. So I gave Fizzbuzz to a few candidates, often in a joking sort of way (so as to not offend any qualified candidates). Results were predictably shocking and dismaying. It's a problem simple enough that you either can do it or not; there's precious little middle ground. (As other posters mention, these are the people that interview over and over, so hopefully the actual employed population of programmers is overwhelmingly able to do it.)
Although there are some rare people that are both great programmers and great artists at the same time, usually the person is a programmer, or an artist, they might know skills of the other side (example: I am a programmer, but I have a design bachelor's degree, and know how to use lots of artists tools and correct art made by others, but I would never call myself a good artist) but they are clearly one thing, not two.
This usually is also reflected in their behaviour, for example programmers frequently act in more logical or common sense manners (or sometimes in a extreme logical manner that go against common sense, but still logical), and can be viewer in some ways as "boring", and tend to prefer things rooted in reality.
The artists are not uncommon to do things that are unexpected, or to like outlandish stuff, for example when playing an RPG with extensive character customization you will usually see the programmers min/maxing the stats or trying to go for realistic stats, and outfit the character in realistic clothes, or the best equipment in terms of stats. Now when you look at an artist character they frequently are different, for example you might see a orc magician, or a space marine with low accuracy stats, high charisma and that paints his armour pink with yellow dots.
Then when we get to real work, the need for talent is obvious: Innate programmers frequently make boring art, IF they can make good art at all. Innate artists sometimes can make some code, but usually it is badly engineered code (prone to bugs and breaking), and that is, sometimes, most artists can't code at all, you can try to teach them all you want, and they just don't understand, even those that might grasp the syntax still end never getting past basic logic.
Of course, sometimes you find some people that are exceptions, for example the Falanghe brothers:
Felipe Falanghe is the creator of KSP, he, and his twin brother, studied with me at university, they are clearly artists, during university their highest grades were always in pure art related classes, they could make amazing drawings, and they had a band and were both fairly good singers and guitar players, yet both of them decided to learn Flash and Unity coding, and although their code was frequently broken, hard to read, confusing and had huge amount of memory leaks, clearly it was possible to do something with it, since KSP is a success, and Felipe Falanghe started coding it by himself in Unity.
I certainly agree that there is likely a gulf between good and great. Probably another above it. I'm curious to know what actual evidence there is.
The second point, though, is more whether or not it actually is bimodal, or it is just taught into a bimodal distribution? That is, is it intrinsically this way, or is that a biproduct of how society values and teaches it?
More, I think something like this can not really be attacked at the point where we are looking at people being hired for a job. The causes for a bimodal distribution in ability will likely stem much farther back than that and will have to be addressed as such.
Consider the mythical patient that says it hurts to bend their knee. First, yeah, stop bending your knee in a way that hurts it. Second, lets find out why you can't bend your knee that way.
I don't agree that eliminating a bimodal model is desirable though. We don't really need more people in the middle of the talent trough because they don't actually add much value and can often detract value (in my experience). Successful programming is the grappling with immense complexity. You really only want the best and brightest doing it. As long as the people with the desire and capability are being given the opportunity to enter the field, I think we've succeeded. Trying to lower the bar or get people who wouldn't excel into development would be a mistake though.
Consider, do you really care about having the best and brightest doing something. Or just getting the best results. Odds are high that those align at least somewhat with each other. I don't know if it is a foregone conclusion, though. Study will show.
If you have experience that a normal distribution brings down the top end, I'd be interested in seeing it. If it is just a gut feeling, it is something that can be tested. If it can't be tested...
What I do applaud, is research to into the problem. Which begins, largely, but asking the question.
The fact that programming interviewers give this kind of test and it's widely failed shows what a bad state objective evaluation of programmers is in.
Indeed, what is programming talent? What is a 'good' programmer? What is a 10x rock star? These notions are similarly ill defined. I can think of at least 3 formulations of 'talent':
1. A developer who can craft an exquisite solution to a problem using the patterns of the domain and/or the idioms of the language.
2. A developer who puts in Heroic efforts to produce a lot of code in a short amount of timing, to meet business objectives.
3. A developer who is 'smart and gets things done'.
One can poke holes into any of these formulations; is the exquisite solution delivered in a reasonable amount of time? Is the quickly delivered code maintainable and extensible or a maintenance nightmare? Does the smart and get things done guy leave a spaghetti trail in his wake?
In the end, I think we've all noticed that some people tend to simply accomplish more, with less issues and drama than others. Is this real? Or simply navel gazing? I tend to think it's real.
I think StackExchange's "reputation" system is probably the most accurate discrete measure available.
(I should know, I'm one of the 50 people on electronics.stackexchange with more than 10k rep, and no formal qualifications in electronics)
Don't want to attack the contributors, but honestly, the higher levels of reputation just either show me that he either has too much free time outside of work (valid, but doubtful) or they spend work time answering questions, which for me goes against the 10x productivity programmer mantra.
I would be very hesitant to rely on any metrics coming out of SE. Consider their great programming survey this year, they say the average age of a programmer is 29. The US Department of Labor says it's 49.
There are a vast number of people out there, well over 90% of the programming industry I'll wager, who come into work at 9am, do good, solid work all day, on applications that run the real world, then go home at 5pm and get on with their lives, who never interact with SE et al at all.
That doesn't mean they're both wrong. The two are just comparing different things. The SE programming survey included 157 countries, not just the US. It also doesn't only include full-time professional developers. 13.6% of respondents classified themselves as "Student". Only 66.3% of respondents listed themselves as "Employed full-time"
Aside from the significant asymmetry of the distribution (of course) there's the spikes where people push themselves to hit a mark (i.e. 3:59 vs 4:00).
Programming is full of weird incentives that will distort themselves in any measure -- e.g. if A gets his/her work done in 0:20 and B in 7:30 and A then goofs off or helps other coders, the measured productivity difference might not be huge. Since most people who code are having their behavior distorted by measurement that's a big issue.
From experience -- the incentives against outperforming expectations are huge -- demonstrate you're 3x as productive as the guy next to you and from now on you have 3x the workload for 1.1x the pay. In practice what happens inisthe better coders pad their estimates and get trusted with tough problems rather than time-consuming problems.
Uh, hu, I wish these statistics would be backed up in a more through manner. Like maybe forcing companies to disclose how many applicants they get for a position and why they were rejected.
I say this because, I recently interviewed for a position doing some pretty low level work, where apparently there were a 100+ applicants (or so the hiring manager said). But it was believable because the job was posted on linked-in, and linked in reported that 34 people applied for the job.
So, a lot of people applied for the job, were they qualified? Well, considering I know two people with skillsets that are compatible with the position, and both are unemployed and live within 5 miles of the position, I would really like to see this kind of data industry wide.
AKA, assign each candidate a number (only disclosed to the candidate), and then publicly post the number, and the reason for disqualification. Maybe if someone can figure out how, disclose the skills the candidate says they posses without directly correlating them to the candidates public profiles.
That would give us an idea of where the skills gaps are, or even if they are real. Rejecting a bunch of candidates because "they don't fit the culture", or they don't have 5 years experience with CMVC, or perforce or some other tool not directly related to the specific job requirements needs to be public information. Or for that matter, that someone thinks they will ask for more money than the position pays, without making them the offer.
Since scaling a team increases friction and overhead, a small number of highly skilled engineers can be absurdly more effective than a set of teams, which also makes them more valuable, but not necessarily as extreme as in sports. Add preferential attachment to the equation (good engineers try to work with other good engineers / hire only top talent), and the U-curve starts to make sense IMHO.
The talent myth as Adrian describes it is one of stereotyping: there's no data to accurately measure skill in programming so we simplify things in our heads and believe you're either talented or not. This myth appears to directly support your claim: untalented individuals are a cost burden on the enterprise. If this were true there would be far fewer enterprises to match the number of actually talented programmers: that is to say you and I are not likely one of them.
The reality I've experienced suggests that deliberate process correlates strongly to quality. In the absence of true talent we can still write great software by leveraging processes and tools to wrangle complexity and manage defects. We see this in plenty of engineering disciplines. Why is software so special?
Because of the entry level.
Think of this joke: What do you call the guy who graduates from medical school as the bottom of his class? Doctor.
The point is that even though there is a worst, they still have to have gotten so far. Even the worst engineer had to do good enough to become an engineer, which is a far greater test of skill than what I've seen in some interviews, especially when those hiring are not technically experienced.
I think many who call this a myth happen to have rarely come across these people in technical roles. At worst they may have interviewed a few, but they were quickly cast aside. They've never met a person who managed to get into a senior position as a cargo cult programmer who can't explain even the basics of the frameworks they are using.
If we assume that the bell-curve is likely to exist then it's probable that only a handful of people exist in this current generation who are at the far-end of the curve. If the success or failure of an organization involved in developing software is dependent on the talent of its people alone then I'd rather speculate on futures.
If there is such a thing as the Mozart-of-programming you can't expect to hire a whole team of Mozarts. Any policy to only hire the best available programmers is upholding a culture of egotism and hubris. It's just not probable.
I've only seen this belief propagated by people who are more concerned with being better than everyone else. It's convenient that their finger only seems to point outwards. I don't like working with people whose sole talent is the ability to recognize the lack thereof in everyone else but themselves.
In reality there's no shortage, and isn't going to be one, outside a couple industries in NYC and SV.
That means we need to be doing something to get more people into our industry.
The EU has published similar numbers, 1.2 million in 2018—three years
The lack of (talented) programmers is going to put young CS/CE grads in an advantageous position both in term of salary and job opportunities. I am happy employers are having a hard time finding people to fill those jobs. That makes life easier and safer for me.
The people screaming for more programmers here in Denmark are people in the government and Dansk Industri (lobby group representing bigger Danish corporations). The government cares about something they call "Denmark's global competitiveness" and the lobbyists in Dansk Industri want to flood the market so they can lower programmers' salaries. I don't care about the former line of buzzwords and the later is a hostile action taken against me as a programmer.
Don't get me wrong. I care about our industry. I will contribute to open source in the summer leave and I am involved in organizing some monthly meetups. But in the end of the day I also want a job.
You can't really have too many programmers. Every field needs some degree of computer automation. As more gets automated innovations are made that will show us how to automate something that hasn't been automated in other fields. Until everything in every field is automated more programmers create more opportunity for even more programmers.
I also think it is messed up to be selfish enough to hope your whole country suffers until you can secure a job.
In my experience people really are either amazing or terrible and those that are amazing are super passionate about programming, think about it and study it all the time...
I don't really understand the argument as to why this isn't desirable. Just like any difficult task, performing well is going to take a lot of practice and dedication to keep your skills fresh.
No one is writing high performance code without deep knowledge of what they're doing.
I wonder what "rock stars" are going to do when they discover other uses for their time, hobbies, families, sports, travel and so on. Resign?
1. People that are dedicated to their craft, write A LOT of code and self-study in their free time.
2. Red bull drinking Valley stereotypes.
People from camp 1 don't live up to the stereotype of the "rock star" but definitely work way more than 9-5. Where work is defined as studying languages, domain specific knowledge, low-level code...
Those are all high performance areas of coding that would require great skill to execute correctly. Aside from medical devices, they all require a lot of concurrency and real-time processing in the case of air traffic control and phone switches. They are practically the definition of high performance programming.
I don't believe that, you have some evidence for this claim?
As an aside, I would like to note the difference as I see it between passion and work ethic. There were people who put long hours in, but they did so because there was work that needed doing. In fact, the people who put in the longest hours generally had the least proportion of technical work. They weren't there because they "loved programming"; they were there because they felt they needed to be to help the program and company go forward.
I don't think anecdotal experience from 2 jobs is a sufficient sample size to make such strong broad statements about a slew of industries.
I enjoy programming but I don't spend every waking second thinking about it. If that makes me a terrible programmer then thats fine with me. I'd rather be happy than be killing myself working 16 hours a day like some people like to glorify.