Programming: Nature or Nurture, Part II

My most recent post to the PPIG mailing list…

On Jul 4, 2007, at 10:55 AM, Frank Wales wrote:

Charles Knutson wrote:
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.

As a matter of interest, do you have a sense of how the general population
is distributed across these suggested types?

Rather than just categories or types, I’d actually propose a spectrum
of capabilities, with people who just ‘get’ computer technology at one
end, people who would sooner eat lint that use it to check their C
programs at the other, and the substantial mass of people bulging
somewhere along the middle. (Of the spectrum.)

I’d speculate, completely without anything beyond years of experience
and arrogant presumption, that the “just get computer technology” end
of the spectrum glows with about 5% of the population, the “couldn’t
write ‘hello, world!’ despite years of practice” end is dimmed by maybe
15% of the population, while the remaining 80% of the population huddles
around various quantumly-distributed embers in between.

I think the end groups are inherent, while the huddles are plastic.

Of course I have no objective evidence for what the actual distribution might be. If anyone has seen any empirical take on this distribution, it would be very interesting. I could easily buy the idea that the top is 5% and the bottom 15%. I also concur completely with the idea of a spectrum. My taxonomy was more of a highly granular way of describing such a spectrum. My apologies to anyone who was expecting a fist fight πŸ˜‰

Two last thoughts on inherent aptitude:

1) I’ve recently run into students who took the first semester programming class at BYU, did well, got their ‘A’, and then washed their hands of the field and went off to study business or something else. Clearly they are capable of programming, at least at the entry level, but the biggest dissuading factor to them was the inherent motivation (or lack thereof). One of them told me that after spending 15 hours on a programming project, and finally getting it working and passed off, they felt like they had been robbed of 15 hours of their life that they would never get back! That was such a news flash to me! In *my* experience, every program or project I ever finished has carried with it some sense of euphoria and satisfaction that seemed to make all the pain worthwhile. And much of my programming time has been somewhat rhapsodic, like a runner’s high. So while I don’t consider myself to be the most gifted programmer (or even necessarily a member of the first group) I have always been quite satisfied and happy with the process of constructing software.

2) I just started reading Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Interesting to find this quote on page 4 (substitute “computer programmers” for “writers”):

“This is not an autobiography. It is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae — my attempt to show how one writer was formed. Not how one writer was *made*; I don’t believe writers *can* be made, either by circumstances or self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.”

Just a bit more grist for the mill.

One thought on “Programming: Nature or Nurture, Part II

  1. Just wanted to share something…

    I graduated in 2005 in CS. All of these four years, i have tried to escape from programming, i got 2.89 out of 4. When i came out, i didnt knew where to go, where to start , plus i dont have the courage to the world that i cannt program, During the last days of graduation, we used to think that it is the attitude that is developed by the atmosphere created in the CS class. When people around you, says, that what a waste of time, and tell you that a programmer life is like 2 or 3 year in the career. Plus another factor in Pakistan was the society nonacceptance to the new ‘Career’ as Computer scientist, The vision was low.

    At my first interview , i was silly and smiling and told him that i know things but i have not done anything. He bullshit me like any thing, he gave me a project to do. It took me three months, later i knew that on max it was of a week.

    But the accomplishment have given me such a confidence that my friend who are doing MS in cs, or job about maintenance don’t have.
    I missed development now.

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