Knoxville, TN

How did I get started in software development?

July 13, 2008

OK, Mike just tagged me with this meme, so here we go:

How old were you when you started programming?

I was in 5th grade. (I don’t remember my age at the time, but if someone’s really interested, I can do the math.) I started out by typing in programs from 3-2-1 Contact magazine’s “BASIC Training” column into QBasic. QBasic has a pretty good help feature, so I just moved on from there. Oddly enough, my main drive was to learn how to program video games, which (obviously) never really happened.

What was your first language?

QBasic. I later ended up picking up another BASIC variation called ASIC (because you could compile it), and then Visual Basic 4 from there.

After several failed attempts to pick up other languages (Java, and basically whatever free compilers I could get my hands on), I got into web programming with Perl. From there I went to PHP, then Python (after I took a job with Mediapulse), and finally C#.

What was the first real program you wrote?

I can’t remember. I had a couple of little DOS games that I did in QBasic and ASIC that were pretty polished (relatively speaking).

In 8th grade, a friend and I created a customizable quiz program for a school project and we tried to sell that. It was in ASIC 1.0, which kind of sucked compared to QBasic. Didn’t sell a single copy, but I eventually wrote a more polished version with mouse support and color after ASIC 5.0 released.

If you knew then what you know now, would you have started programming?

Definitely. And I would have had a better idea of what the next step was after BASIC. (Hint: it wasn’t picking up a “Java by Example” book and trying to write graphical browser-based applets.)

Whether I would have made it my career, that’s a different story. Likely so, but I might not have felt as sure that it was what I needed to do. (More on that in the next item.)

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

Software development is a business, just like any other. New developers tend to think they can solve all the world’s problems–simplifying and automating business processes, creating applications to manage data that’s currently sprawled across several Excel spreadsheets, and things like that. I know; I’ve been there. The reality is, things are like they are not because no one’s ever offered to box them up in a pretty little application. The problem is they’re either very complex problems, or they’re simple, but people don’t take the time and effort to streamline and fix them. And if you want to fix the problem, you’ll have to understand why it’s like that in the first place, or you’ll just be adding to it.

You will have to learn a little bit of business analysis. You will have to deal with people climbing the corporate ladder. It sucks, but just because you’re an IT geek doesn’t mean you get to live in a world full of nothing but code and idealism. You’ll be able to accomplish a lot more good if you prepare for this–just don’t get sucked into it.

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

When I was at Mediapulse, they pulled me off of contract work to work on a product called DealStream. Basically, it was a web application that would let funds handle applications for funding. They pulled me in after doing all the high-level planning, so I got to refine the application process and figure out how it translated to a web application. Then I got to code it, and had a lot more leeway to do it right (since it was a product we’d be maintaining and reselling) and make it really customizable. I built the database, then created a Python module to handle the data and process (using a ORM library I’d written), tested the crap out of it (not actual unit tests, but I did step through every possible path in the process), and then built the web application. The great thing was, we’d been working with MySQL, Python, and Apache so long that we really knew our stuff, and so I streamlined deployment and configuration quite a bit.

I worked with our first client to refine it into something that met their needs. Once the first site launched, I took versioning very seriously, since every client had to have their own copy of the software deployed to our web server, and I wanted to avoid branching as much as possible for maintenance reasons. (It’s not a product if every instance of the software is a customized version.) I even started writing a full documentation of the object model.

It was one of those projects that I put a lot of effort into, and just turned out great. (Well, from my perspective; I’m not sure how well it actually sold after I left.) Every time I write JavaScript, I wish I had a copy of the code. I had some really sweet text validation and formatting functions in there.

Who am I calling out?

Since I’m not sure who reads my blog regularly, and Mike has called out most of the usual suspects, let’s go with…