I was surrounded by geeks from my teenage years when this industry was in its infancy. I am still surprised by the fact that I had chosen algorithms and programming as the primary focus during my high school studies. I realized very soon how big of a mistake it was 🙂 I simply didn’t have the proper skills. Nonetheless, I happened to marry one of those Geeks and I was witness to numerous discussions about software development between my husband and his friends. Most of the time I didn’t understand a word. I got used to his way of seeing things and became a fan of The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd. In this and the following interview, you can discover the world of software developers with my husband, Martin Vysny. And don’t be afraid, it’s not too technical. In this first part, we mostly spoke about Martin’s personal story that had led him towards coding 🙂
Martin had started to be interested in computers as a child. For our generation, computers were not seen as a casual thing, on the contrary: they were not available in shops at all. It was a big deal when Martin’s father came back from a long business trip to West Germany with Commodore 64: The most popular computer in the late 80-ies.
“When my father came back to Slovakia, he brought things that were simply not available in our stores, like HiFi stereo (which I remember the most) or Lego. I remember I was looking forward to Lego, but my brother wanted a computer. At that time games were recorded on tapes and my father had brought like 5 tapes that we could insert into the computer. We started to play with it, we were learning how to launch the game, how to control it and load it to the memory…“
Martin used to play games a lot, but he started to dig into the Commodore 64 manual after a while, which was in the German language. Most probably somebody helped him with translations and he bumped into the first programming language called Basic. And this caught his attention.
“It was possible to write small programs, like give me a number and the program will write you this number times 2. And I was immediately amazed and I tried to write still more and more difficult programs. When I was about 11 years old, the top of my programming skills was to create the Space Invaders game (laughing). It is a game in which invaders are falling from the top of your screen and you have to shoot them. But of course, at that time I didn’t know how to animate multiple objects at once, so there was only one invader coming. And when the player shot with the projectile, the whole game stopped while the projectile was moving.” (laughing)
While some kids had the opportunity to play games on computers, some others started to develop ones. But still, it had to be a true miracle if from the kid’s hobby, somebody went to actually study the topic at the university and it has become his/her lifetime interest and paid occupation.
“I was completely overwhelmed by it. While other kids and teenegers were doing, well, whatever teenagers are doing at that age, I was totally hooked up by the computers. I was fascinated by the fact that I can control that box, that the box does what I tell it to do. I was never truly interested if this might become something important or well paid. My motivation was run by curiosity. What is it? What can it be used for? What can be done with it? It never occurred to me that a world would be once run on computers. Simply pure curiosity and I didn’t know nor cared where it might lead…”
During the late 80-ties and the beginning of 90-ties, peer support was essential for young programmers. There was no internet nor books, or just expensive ones.
“When I was 14-15 years old, I was absolutely into computers. I found friends with the same interest and we started to exchange some tips and tricks. One of them, Ondrej, was really good at finding awesome manuals. Books were either very basic or very expensive. I recall Ondrej found a book on how to control the keyboard, mouse, all computer’s components… And this was a huge thing! At that time it felt like a “secret of Microsoft” (the creator of the MS-DOS operating system). Maybe they were selling these manuals, but they were not available in Slovakia. And this manual we found, was written by some Czech guy, based on reverse-engineering he had made. I think I still have the manual… It was like a Holy Bible for us! It was amazing! We have started to do more and more complicated programs. But we had never gone through any formal education. It was only peer support. In the beginning, there were no hobby groups, no subjects at schools, no internet… You only had what you could find yourself. The group was the most important thing. There was no chance you could find all the information yourself. We were 4 boys in our group and it was easier to search for sources. If one of us had found something, we run immediately to copy it.” (laughing)
I personally know all other 3 members of Martin’s peer group of programming enthusiasts. All of them, great coders, who have dedicated their lives to computers. Jan has his own very successful company, Peter and Martin work as consultants and Ondrej was a perfect data analyst. It’s unbelievable how they transform their first childish fooling into something productive.
“It was a natural learning process, from easy games, to more complicated ones, e.g. we made some game and we wanted to have music there, too. But we didn’t find any music editor, so I made one. It was so interesting. We found some manual how to program Ad-lib, it was a sound card, so I created a music editor for it… Later on, the XMs became really popular – it was something like another demo/music scene, in that time particularly popular in Finland.”
Time was passing and Martin started his high school’s studies during which he made the first program officially used by his high school for many years during the entering exams. Back in 1994 all the exams were done in old school style – pen and papers. Everything had to be manually checked, scored, somebody had to make a chart with all the points and rankings. Lots of numbers and naturally mistakes might have occurred. And there you have a talented teenager, who sat down for a few days and came back with the perfectly working solution – a program that would do all the calculations automatically to avoid errors. In 2005 Martin’s program was still in use at his high school. How cool is that?
“At the high school, I was in the class with the focus on mathematics. One of our teachers was Mr. Repasky; I still remember him because he was also deeply into programming. When he saw that there were a bunch of teenegers willing to learn how to code, he established an after school club for us. We didn’t follow any book, he prepared everything by himself. It was very interesting, because he came with some sort of problem that we had to solve. Later on our school also organized competitions in programming, or even some week-long camps for coders somewhere out of the town, on the cottage. During such events, we worked on more difficult tasks, e.g. we were supposed to code an algorithm that controls 2 shooting cannons. As they were shooting on enemies, they were learning and became more accurate and did more damage. After some time, the trained cannon could destroy the enemy with one shot only. And it was interesting, because everyone developed the algorithm a bit differently and our programs were competing between each other.”
Martin mentioned how we wrote a very basic algorithm, where the program should find the first enemy and start to shoot. But soon he realised that good tactic is also about retreat, not only about attack.
“Me and Jan, we were so interested in this tank game, that we spent the whole week improving our ideas. I made a mistake once and my tanks started to attack each other. But it turned out to be a positive thing, because they became more trained and accurate, so even if I only had 1 cannon and the enemy had 2, I could still win the game. But I thought this is not allowed and I didn’t use this approach. Well, Jan did, and he won the whole competition. I ended up being second.” (laughing)
Nowadays there is a big bloom of different shorter termed courses, that promise to teach you how to code. Listening to my husband’s stories, I have my doubts whether they can really deliver you what they promise. Those people are mostly run by the motivation to find a better job and not by curiosity. Of course I asked Martin what he thinks about such trainings:
“It depends what you expect from such a course. It is the same as when you visit 2 days long lectures on cooking and you expect to work afterwards in 5 stars Michellin’s restaurants. This is not working. To reach such a goal you have to dedicate your whole life to it. But of course, after 2 days training you are capable of cooking something. You can learn some basics and if you repeat them your whole life, you can survive with it…. But this whole computer world is crazy and I am not sure, if you can work in a way of repeating only what you had learnt on the course…. Basically every 5 years there is a huge change, so you cannot stay in one place, you have to constantly learn new things, if you want to keep on working.”
My personal experience has taught me that not everyone is capable of learning how to code. Or in different words, exactly like Martin pointed out, I was capable of learning how to code, but I didn’t like it and wasn’t curious enough to try harder. So, I would say, one has to have some special mindset or skills to become a coder.
“I would say, it is about intelligence and also you have to have luck to meet somebody who can lead you. These are the most important things. To have certain intelligence and to have effort to code in a simple way. There must also be something that keeps your motors running, a passion. You have to be focused on the problem, because the solution might not be easy. And maybe this is not what everyone can do, because they have other interests and it is absolutely OK.”
I was also curious if Martin sees any obstacles for women to enter the IT sector and to code. I asked him if he sees some sort of glass ceiling for women.
“Yes and no. In my opinion the only 2 things you really need are intelligence and the knack for simplicity. And these are independent from sex or gender. But what you are asking about is more sociological, about how we function as a society. What kinds of expectations we have from men and women and most probably men may have more time to pay more attention to things they are interested in. On the other hand women have most likely more predefined life, like e.g. they have to learn how to cook or some other traditional tasks. But I am not an expert in this… Technically there is no problem. You need intelligence and a desire for simplicity. But whether the society lets you code or not, that’s something completely different.”
I personally cannot imagine having such a job, because I would feel really tired if I have to sit in front of the computer for whole days. Especially nowadays, when everything has moved to an online environment, I can really feel how important it is for me to have diverse working methods. But Martin sees it differently:
“If you come to a certain level of knowledge and when you really know a lot, you don’t necessarily have to sit behind the computer. On the contrary, it is even better to go for a walk for a few hours, during which you just let your brain wander and you think about how to put things you are working on together. Of course, you still have to educate yourself, read a lot and this is happening by sitting in front of the computer. But the more you know, the less you really sit behind the computer, because you don’t have to try and test so much anymore. Much of the work seems to take place only on your brain, and that can happen anywhere. The computer and to write the program down, it is just the end of the whole process. But afterwards, you certainly need to spend a lot of time in front of the computer, writing the program down. And often the job is just to program a mundane form or such, then there’s no other way but to sit in front of the computer for 8 hours straight. So I’d say it depends on the job and on the task at hand.”
We had spoken with Martin together for about 2 hours, which is quite surprising, as our kids were at home, too 🙂 But they let us speak and I realized how fascinating it is listening to stories from people who are really interested in some particular topic. Doesn’t matter if it is coding, taxi driving or taking care of children. Simply, people with the right passion are great role models. And if you want to know, how our interview went further, follow My Salmiakki Life. The story continues…
Who is Martin Vysny?