David Chelimsky

random thoughtlessness

How I got started programming

Tagged by Bryan Helmkamp.

How old were you when you started programming?

Mid 20’s for a minute. Then mid 30’s for real.

How did you get started programming?

There were two starts. First, a tiny bit of background.

My father was a programmer for a minute (great stories about tripping on the way to deliver his final project in school, punch cards flying through the air in every-which direction), and my step father worked for Chemical Bank’s Data Processing department during my childhood. So I had some exposure to the results of programming as a kid, but had never really looked at any code. I was too busy shuffling cards and making coins disappear (my middle name, dare I admit it, is Arthur).

At 23, I was getting started as a musician (my 2nd career) and sought a non-music gig to get me through. A friend hooked me up as the copy-room attendent at an engineering firm. Apparently, this job had been occupied by people even less responsible that I was (a tough thing to be next to me at that age) because everyone was shocked when a couple of weeks in I was done each day by early afternoon and offering to help in other areas the rest of the day.

That’s when the guy who ran IT gave me the keys to the castle: a user account on their DIGITAL network and access to the giant BASIC manuals. I read through them in my spare time and wrote my first program: a musical scale generator. It went something like this:

$ What root?
$ What quality?
$ D E F G A Bb C D
$ What root?

Dig the simple UI! I got it to handle major, natural, harmonic and melodic minor scales and all the modes of each. I was quite proud.

Eventually I made the ill-fated, romantic decision to earn all of my pennies from musical endeavors, so I quit at the engineering firm, turning in my keys to the castle, and started teaching guitar to fill that hole in my pocket.

Skip ahead 10 or 15 years. By then (1998) had a degree in music and was earning a living playing, teaching and arranging music. You’ve heard this story before. All the money came from gigs that involved tuxedos or commercials, and I got through those gigs to sponsor my habit of playing jazz and rock in clubs for beer money.

During this time, I had acquired an Apple Performa (remember?), had figured out how to make simple html websites and was helping some musician friends with theirs. I really, really enjoyed this, and my girlfriend noticed that I smiled when I made a website or played Windows (unfortunately titled, but beautiful tune by Chick Corea) but I frowned when I played Celebration. She suggested that I should consider taking a programming course and trying to get a part time job somewhere, thus sponsoring the smiley parts of my music habit with something that also made me smile.

This was the late 90’s, smack in the middle of the bubble, and it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea. Little did I know that 10 years later I’d have hung my guitars in the closet to work on OSS. They’re still hanging there. This makes me sad. But I haven’t sold them yet, so there is still hope.

Anyhow, I took a couple of classes at a local community college, got a job working in the school’s IT department, and here we are 10 years later.

What was your first language?


What was the first real program you wrote?

Depends on your definition of real. I wrote an applet when I was in school that let you try to solve a brain teaser. The first thing I got paid money to write that actually got used by people to make other money was an online training course for hospital administrators to learn how to fill out government forms properly.

What languages have you used since you started programming?

In no particular order: Ruby, Javascript, Python, Java, C#, PHP, Cold Fusion (OK, that is in a particular order).

What was your first professional programming gig?

The aforementioned hospital admin training course.

If there is one thing you learned along the way that you would tell new developers, what would it be?

Best practices are the serpent. They have the potential to be useful, but they are only useful in a very limited set of contexts, and they are applied just as often (if not more often) in the wrong ones as the right ones. Take the blinders off.

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had programming?

Working on an accounting-support system for a non-profit. This was about a year long project. We were doing (mostly) XP, pairing, and working closely with the people who actually used the software. The team included Micah Martin, Paul Pagel and Craig Demyanovich, all three of whom contributed to pairing sessions filled with a great balance of joy and head-butting. I learned a ton and had a great time doing it.

Aside from the fun we had programming, there were a lot of fun non-programming moments as well. I think my favorite on that gig was one morning when we were all arriving at the office. We had started greeting each other in different languages, Micah in French, me in Portuguese, and Christine (a woman who was not on the team, but worked close by) in Italian. Craig had joined us for the first time since we had been doing this, and he caught on rather quickly:

Me: bom dia, gente!

Micah: bon jour!

Christine: buongiorno!

Craig: puts “hello”

Another great moment on that project was sitting down with a user and watching her do her data entry job. She was really, really, really fast. But there was this one part in the process where she would pause for each entry. She wasn’t even aware of it, but recognized the problem when I brought it to her attention. So we made a small change to the UI and got rid of this small, but meaningful impediment and her life got just a little better. Very satisfying.

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