How I Started Coding When I Was 11 Years Old
I’m a Senior Staff Engineer at Google, and I’ve been writing code since I was 11 years old. The story of how I got my first computer is somewhat convoluted and unexpected. An odd chain of events got me hooked on something that would become a life-long love and career. And this happened when I was in 6th grade… against all odds, in 1987, in a dusty colonial town in rural Argentina.
Now, some background story (I told you the story is convoluted… bear with me). When I was a little, I was fascinated by a great-uncle of mine, Ricardo. He was an old gruff man that really didn’t seem to like anybody but for whatever reason he had a soft spot for me. He had been a curator of a museum in Santa Fe, Argentina, and had a vast personal collection of museum pieces in his house — things like old coins from the XVIII century, rare stamps, etc. I would stop by his house every afternoon after school, we would drink hot cocoa together and he would pull out his old loupe and together we would scrutinize every square inch of that French empire coin from early 1800s, or that unusual 1945 Ukrainian stamp with a nazi seal. He would painstakingly teach me the history of each piece. He instilled in me a deep love and appreciation of “old things.” I wanted to be an archaeologist, or a historian, or at least work in a museum, when I grew up.
One day when I was 11, my dad and I were walking around in a flea market and I saw an antique cash register for sale. It was probably about a hundred years old. I was in instant awe of it. Now, that is an extremely weird thing for an 11-yr old to like, but as you just learned, my uncle had instilled in me that love and appreciation of old artifacts, so I knew it was a special item. “Dad can you please buy me that???” I begged. My dad frowned, surprised. He did not understand what the heck an 11-yr old would do with such a useless, bulky, and expensive thing. The next week we walked by it again, and I got on my knees and begged. My dad, somewhat exasperated, exclaimed, “I bet if I buy you this you’ll use it for ten minutes then it’ll start gathering dust in your bedroom!!!” I insisted, stubbornly, that I would use it every single day of my life. Unsurprisingly, my dad did not bite. I was mad at him for a very long time after that. I felt I needed to prove that if he bought me something, I would use it every day.
I often ran errands for my parents — they would frequently send me to the small mom-and-pop convenience store called “La Salchicha Loca” (“The Crazy Hot Dog”) a couple of blocks away, to get milk, cheese, some cold meats, etc. One day the lady at the counter said, “Hey my nephew just won a computer in a contest, and he doesn’t want it so he’s selling it. Would you like a good deal on it? I heard computers are the future!” It was $100. I had never seen a computer in my life; I was in awe. I ran home and told my dad. My dad recognized computers were the future, but $100 US was such an exorbitant amount of money at the time in Argentina, and we were not particularly well-off. This was probably a month’s salary for him. “Is this a thing you’ll use for 10 minutes then it’ll start gathering dust in your bedroom?” my dad tried the technique that had previously worked on me. But this time I wouldn’t budge.
So he gave me a hundred bucks. Looking back I realize that was a significant sacrifice for my parents. I ran back to the store with my heart beating fast, and I proudly got my very first computer: a Czerweny CZ-1000 Plus. It was basically a South American clone of the Sinclair ZX-81 with 2 KB RAM and a 3.5 MHz processor. It had a “graphics mode” that gave you 64 x 44 squares to do whatever your heart desired, in 256 shades of gray. It was basically just a keyboard, with the CPU inside of it. You would connect it to the TV for output. It also came with a cassette tape that had 4 games. You connected it to your tape player, pressed play, and heard horrible screeches for five minutes, then “Chase the Snake” would be loaded! It was not particularly glamorous with 64 x 44 squares… the ‘snake’ was essentially 5 contiguous squares, and I was one square, and we were in a maze (which as you may have guessed, were also squares).
I have to admit that I did exactly what my dad predicted I would do. I used it for a couple of days, and after playing each of the games for a while I got bored. There really wasn’t much you could do with it. We’re talking 1987 here… ‘personal’ computers were, for the most part, pretty useless to the average person. The thing started gathering dust right next to the TV, to my dad’s frustration.
About a month later, I accompanied my dad to the flea market again, and oh my God, that darn cash register was there. It seemed extra shiny, like the rays came directly from heaven to shine upon the chosen one. “Daaaaaad…” I started. My dad looked at me, amused. “Nope!” he cut me off with a smile. “I bought you that computer and it’s gathering dust like I predicted!”
I was so mad. I came home determined to prove my dad wrong. I figured if I could show him that I used the computer every single day, he would budge and eventually buy me that darn cash register. Every single day, I waited until my dad came home from work, and I made it a point to very loudly announce I was about to use the computer, to make sure he noticed. I again got bored of that quickly, but I needed to save face. “What else can I do with this piece of crap?” I wondered, annoyed.
The computer also came with a manual that had a bunch of sample programs in Sinclair BASIC. The manual was in English so I really didn’t know what it said, but I had nothing better to do so I typed the first program, and executed it. It drew something on the screen. “This is kind of cool”, I thought, “what if I change this number in the code?” That turned out to be the width of the thing I was drawing! Theory: will this other thing be the height of it? It was! I kept changing things and seeing how that changed what I was drawing. And so, without understanding a single word in the manual, without help from anybody else, and simply by trial and error, I taught myself BASIC at the age of 11. I became hooked on programming. I was fascinated by the fact that I could tell the computer exactly what I wanted, and it would faithfully do it. The control, the discipline, for whatever reason it just clicked with me. At some point sitting in front of the computer stopped being a show to convince my dad things he bought me weren’t going to gather dust, and started being something I did for fun. I started creating more and more complex worlds. What if the snake that chased me had two tails?
My dad never did buy me that cash register. So in that aspect, I failed. One day, we walked by the shop in the flea market and it was gone. I felt a sharp pain in my heart. I had wanted this weird, useless object, for months. I had dreamed of it. I can close my eyes and still remember the silver coating on it, the finality and weight of each ‘thunk’ as I pressed the numbers. But, in a weird, twisted way, because of an old antique cash register, I ended up discovering my life passion and career at the age of 11. And, if I close my eyes, I can also still feel the rubbery feel of the CZ’s keyboard under my fingertips, and the plastic smell of that CZ when I first opened it. And so, my dreams of becoming a historian or an archaeologist faded away, and I embarked in a more pragmatic path towards becoming a software engineer.
I sometimes think about the weird chain of events that had to happen to put me in this route, including a hundred-year old cash register in a flea market, a mom-and-pop convenience store called “The Crazy Hot Dog,” and an Argentinian Sinclair knock-off.