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Whenever my grandparents visit, they take me to Barnes & Noble. My grandmother, Shasha, a strong believer in self-education through voracious reading, passed on that trait to me. On this particular trip, I spied the book “C++ for Dummies”. I grabbed it, wandered off to my favorite comfy chair, and dove in. Suddenly, Shasha interrupted me, “Time to go!” Immediately, I asked to buy the book. “Why?” Shasha asked with surprise.
Flashing back, I remembered when I got my first laptop at age nine. I used it every day at school. Very quickly, curiosity took hold, and I started thinking about its inner workings. How did it connect to the Internet? Where was data stored? Where were the programs? My half-brother Keith, a programmer at IBM, helped me start to understand. Suddenly, I had the answer for my grandmother. “Keith is programmer. He uses C++. I want to try it myself!” Shasha was skeptical. My grandfather, Papa, smiled, having worked at IBM for 30 years. That day was when I had my first inkling that computer programming was part of my DNA.
As soon as we got home, I went straight down to my basement lair to further immerse myself in the book. As I turned the crisp new pages, I felt the excitement build. The first chapter was titled “Hello World”. I collected all the focus my young brain could muster and settled in. My eyes drifted down the page and I was drawn to the C++ code. I didn’t want to waste time reading the explanation. I didn’t understand what the lines of code meant, but I grabbed my laptop and went with my gut, typing out a test program. I was ready. My body was filled with adrenaline. I pressed “compile and run”. In seconds, my screen responded with an error and with technical lingo well beyond my comprehension. I felt frustrated and confused. As much as I hated to admit it to myself, I needed to go back and re-read the instructions.
Lying on the cold hard floor, staring at the dots in the ceiling tiles, I thought of my dad’s mantra, which applied to most things I tried to tackle. “Don’t be careless. Be methodical.” Dad’s first job was to program algorithms used by nuclear submarines interpreting SONAR. While working at Merrill Lynch in the late 80’s, he met my mom. She was one of two female programmers in her department. Mom often tells the story of her first day on the job, when her boss dropped a 200+ page program on her desk with no more instruction than, “fix this”. (She did.) I’m the proud child of two computer geeks.
When people ask me what I want to do, I answer without hesitation, “I want to be a programmer”. I represent the third generation of technologists in my family, starting with Papa, who, as a Jewish nine year-old in World War II Europe, was whisked away from his family and hidden by courageous strangers. Papa immigrated to the U.S. in 1950. At twenty one, he entered a technical training program. Papa later joined IBM, where he became a legend in the mainframe division. Technology is in my blood.
I remember sitting up on the basement floor on the day I came home with “C++ for Dummies”. I was a boy of nine, who, unlike my Papa many years before, had the freedom to indulge his curiosity. I turned back to the book, reading more closely this time. I realized how easily things could go awry. A missed semicolon was all it took to completely derail my program. I returned to my code with a finer eye to detail and fixed my errors methodically. I pressed “compile and run” again, awaiting the moment of truth. I looked at my screen and the magical words appeared: “Hello World.” I thought, “Here I come!”