Professional software developers: Nature or nurture?

The following is an email I just posted to the PPIG mailing list, in response to the following comment:

For the record, I believe anyone can learn to program at a professional level. The question is, are they willing to put in the time to acquire all the chunks needed to be an expert? Unfortunately, we can’t force our students to put in the time.

I’m not convinced that absolutely *anyone* can learn to be a professional X (whatever X is). I think there are some who are really just wired to do other things. But I am confident that there are varying degrees to which inherent aptitude plays a role, and similarly varying degrees to which effective learning experiences contribute to facilitate those individuals who can, in fact, be successful at profession X.

As evidence, I offer the following non-empirical anecdote. I started programming in 1973, when I was 13 years old. Our high school had a timesharing account on a mainframe at the University of Northern Iowa, and a DecWriter with a suction cup modem and a rotary phone with a dedicated line to the university. About a half dozen of us math geeks gathered daily in a room to play with the computer (which largely consisted of playing Dungeons and Dragons and Star Trek, with intermittent fits of attempted software design and code construction). Several of my friends just seemed to have the knack right out of the chute. We’d dumpster dive at the university for discarded manuals, and that was all Brian and Doug needed to build software. I tried desperately but couldn’t get it beyond a fundamental level. The other guys were more or less like me, in love with the technology, but not fluent with the incantations.

Years later, in my second semester at the University of Iowa, I had a really well constructed and well presented Computer Science class that focused primarily on design. During that semester, the light came on, and I got it! From that semester it was simply a matter of learning new skills and piling them onto the foundation I had now acquired. I had a very successful professional career building software (HP, Novell, various small companies and consulting gigs), picked a few graduate degrees along the way, and then retired to the university to stop producing and begin pontificating. πŸ™‚

As an epilogue, of the group of math geeks that gathered together daily in high school to play with the DecWriter, all but one of us acquired degrees in Computer Science, with the other one (Brian) doing Electrical Engineering.

My personal experience is that I was always fascinated, I was obviously capable, but I needed someone to throw the switch for me to understand how to become self-sustaining after that.

I believe there is a taxonomy of four types of people, relative to professional software construction: 1) Those born to code, who need almost no coaching; 2) Those born capable but in need of training in order to be successful; 3) Those not really born to it, but who can be trained sufficiently to make a living; 4) Those whose brains are really not wired to build software at all.

Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary.

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