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What went wrong when I started learning to program at 12?

Last year I attended a stress management course arranged by my employer. Out of the many advice I received, the one that really resonated with me was trying to imagine what your life would be 5 years from now. It is a visualization technique that helps in minimizing the stress experienced in the present by zooming out and looking at it from a distance. For eg, if I am really stressed out about a deadline, I would try and visualize what the effect of missing that deadline would have after 5 years. Would it cause me long-lasting damage to my career, or is it just part of my usual run of the mill responsibilities?

I tried to apply this principle by retroactively looking at some of the stressful episodes of my past. There were failures in the university, missed opportunities from entrance exams, rejections in job interviews etc. To be honest, a lot of them were decently significant. Had I cracked the IIT JEE (Engineering Entrance Test in India), maybe I would’ve gotten a better job, or had I paid better attention in some of the classes I would’ve taken a more serious approach to my academics. But the most interesting episodes of anxiety I’ve had were from my teenage years. A period of my life that I wouldn’t have labelled as stressful. But when I look back they were full of unnecessarily anxious moments. Things that shouldn’t and wouldn’t matter ever in the consequent years of my life.

Memory Trip.

It was the summer of 2003, my brother was looking to get enrolled in an engineering college. We had bought our first computer just the last year. The place was Hyderabad, south India. A upcoming software hub in India. I remember Java and Cobol were buzzwords often used by people around me. My parents rightfully decided to en-roll my brother into a C programming class for the summer. And as I was sitting idle in the house, they enrolled me as well. I think it was a pretty clever move from my parents. Programming at a young age is the common characteristic of many successful computer engineers and entrepreneurs. The only problem was I had no clue what I was learning.

I was decently computer savvy for a 13-year-old. I made a PPT on the solar system for my science project, which was the bleeding edge of project presentations back then. But understanding something like what compiling the code or what was a header file was beyond my capabilities. The course teachers probably didn’t bother either. I was surrounded by people who were trying to get a job in the IT industry, and here I was a school student. It was just supposed to be a summer class, but it ended up getting dragged until September.

The real anxiety did not start until my school got reopened in June. I had my school from around 8 am to 230 pm. I would attend the computer class from around 330 pm to 530 pm, then I had a tuition class for Math and Science for another couple of hours. It was probably not as much jam-packed as I am making out to be now. There were days I skipped either my tuition or the computer class. But more or less this was my schedule.

As the course progressed it got more and more difficult to understand the concepts. I had a bare-bones understanding of what an if condition might be doing or how an iterator gets incremented. But other than that I couldn’t even solve the trivial compilation errors. Although this was pre-StackOverflow (StackOverflow is the goto Q&A website for programming.), but that wouldn’t have mattered much.

One day my course instructor decides he has had enough of our incompetence and assigns us a task to program a Library Inventory Management System. It should have the ability to add a book, assign a book to a person, track when the book is due etc. We were supposed to finish this task on the very day. The longer we take, the longer we would stay at the training center. I think we tried our best with whatever little understanding of programming we’ve had but it was not enough. At around 845 PM, my father drives to the training center wondering where we’ve been all this time, and we are allowed to go back home. I felt utter helplessness in the way we’ve had to toil throughout the evening. Was I supposed to have known better, to solve the task? What was I even doing here on a school day, trying to understand how to use pointers in a computer lab? What was the point of this if I couldn’t even grasp the basics of computer science? Should I be wasting my time on this? I had a range of mixed emotions, most of which I was unable to express to anyone. Soon after that day, we stopped attending the course.

Looking Back.

As I look back at this stressful episode and try to contextualize them within the bigger picture of my life I cannot help but laugh at the silliness of all of it. Just the absurdity of building a library inventory system at the age of 12 in a span of hours, something most professionals wouldn’t be able to build it with perfection even after spending weeks on it.

My traditional way of looking at past mistakes would mean that I would’ve put in more hours at the lab and pay more attention to the classes while learning to program. But if I really have to do it again, I would rather focus on trying to feel less guilty about being dumb at programming and maybe more open in expressing my doubts over attending the C language class. I don’t like the idea of being incompetent, but in this instance, it caused a disproportionately large amount of stress and that shouldn’t have been the case.

Its really unfair to blame the teachers too. Clearly they were pretty unprepared to teach couple of teenagers as opposed to the usual crowd of 20 something college graduates.

Ultimately it took me a while to realise the Joy of Programming. But I don't regret the delay. I am just grateful that eventually I did.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions.


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