He Started Programming When He Was 6!

We’ve all seen it: “So-and-so started programming when he was only 6!” Or 12, or 15, or whatever. You see it in the media, but it’s often individuals talking about themselves.

The age you started programming doesn’t matter.

How silly would it be if we bragged this way about other things? “I’ve been talking since I was 2!” Most of us have been speaking for the majority of our lives, yet some people are much better speakers than others. The amount of time that has passed from the moment we started doing something until now is meaningless. Who knows what we did in the meantime?

Even the total amount of time spent doing something is a dubious measure of skill. A 20-year-old might be a far more captivating speaker than a 40-year-old despite having much less experience. Granted, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule for the mastery of skills rings true in some cases, maybe even for programming. So say that. “I spent 10,000 hours programming by the time I was 12!”

You might believe programming is more like composing music than it is like talking. “Mozart started composing music when he was only 5!” Mozart was a prodigy whose father was already a successful teacher, musician and composer. Mozart’s biology and upbringing were stacked. Are yours?

Were you programming non-trivial apps soon after you wrote your first line of code? Did you immediately proceed to program lots of apps, even complex ones, all by yourself, and collect payment for your work? Early in your career, did you meet and work with some of the world’s greatest programmers of your time? Mozart did all these things (with his music).

Maybe you did too. Or maybe music isn’t a great comparison after all. In any case, note that Mozart’s brilliance lies not in the age at which he started, but in the quality and quantity of his output. Show us what you’ve done.

My concern isn’t so much about the hollow bragging, though. I feel that programming should be started at an early age, much like the fundamentals of talking and reading and writing. And in that sense, the age we start programming does matter. My concern with celebrating the young age at which some people started programming is that it sends the wrong message. It says: “Programming is so hard that in order to be good at it, you should’ve started when you were young.”

And that’s false. If you’re not a programmer, but you’re curious what it’s like, try Codecademy. They’re a fellow Y Combinator startup whose site makes it easy and fun to learn the basics of programming, regardless of age and experience. If you can read and type and think, then you can program.

Update: this post generated some good discussion on Hacker News.

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