To be a programmer in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and most of the noughties was to be a nerd, a dweeb, a geek.
Programmers registered high on screentime, and very, very low on social skills – or so the public thought.
But in the last ten years, the general understanding of what it is to be a coder has shifted, helped in part by a new breed of programmer-turned-Silicon-Valley-star. Thanks to them, programmers now win plaudits as the creators of stunning digital products, as the creative talents behind global companies – real-life wizards who are changing the world in ways no one could have imagined.
Here are the digital visionaries behind Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and how they coded their businesses, and reputations, from the ground up.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook Founder and CEO
As a precocious student, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm room in 2004. Today, he’s a celebrated philanthropist who runs a company that counts over a quarter of the world’s population (1.8 billion people) as monthly users, as well as being the fifth richest person in the world. He’s barely into his thirties.
Mark was in 6th grade when he started to code from the beginning it was clear he was talented. Mark’s father hired a software developer called David Newman to tutor him privately. ‘It was tough to stay ahead of him,’ Newman told the New Yorker, describing Mark as a ‘prodigy.’
Mark even built a software program he called ‘ZuckNet’, that allowed all the computers between the house and his father’s dental office to communicate with each other. Some have described it as a primitive version of AOL’s Instant Messenger, which came out the following year.
He took his skillset to college and, the story goes, built the first iteration of Facebook in week. The rest is history. Mark on learning to code:
‘Learning how to program didn’t start off as wanting to learn all of computer science or trying to master this discipline or anything like that, it just started off because I wanted to do this one simple thing – I wanted to make something that was fun for myself and my sisters. And I wrote this little program and added a little bit to it. And then when I wanted to learn something new I looked it up in a book or on the internet and added a little bit to it.’
Bill Gates, Microsoft Co-Founder
Before Mark there was Bill.
The parallels between the two are uncanny. Bill Gates also dropped out of Harvard, is also championed as a committed philanthropist, and was a terrific programmer too.
Early on his school allowed him to miss maths classes to build his first program: a game of tic-tac-toe that let users play games against the computer. Hooked, he was later banned from the school computer after he, along with four fellow students, was caught exploiting bugs in the operating system to obtain free computer time. Gates would go on to found Microsoft with Paul Allen, one those four students.
Allen was such an accomplished programmer that it’s claimed he wrote the foundational piece of code for the first Microsoft computer while flying to Albuquerque. An astonishing feat that gets better. Because this was in 1975 and there weren’t yet laptops that you could take on a plane, Allen wrote the machine code on a piece of paper with a pencil.
Steve Wozniak, Apple Co-Founder
As the co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, for a time Steve Wozniak unfairly acquired the moniker of ‘The other Steve.’ We say unfairly because today Woz is widely credited as the designer of the modern home computer, the man who wrote Apple BASIC (the foundational piece of Apple code) from scratch. Like Gates and Zuckerberg, he too started coding at school.
Computer high-jinks also landed the gregarious Woz in trouble: in 1969 he was expelled from the University of Colorado Boulder in his first year for hacking into the college’s fledgling computer system and sending prank messages.
Woz on programming and revolutions:
‘Our idea was that these computers were going to free us and allow us to organise. They were going to empower us. We could sit down and write programs that did more than our company’s programs on their big million-dollar computers did. And little fifth-graders would go into companies and write a better program than the top gurus being paid the top salary, and it was going to turn the tables over. We were excited by this revolutionary talk.’
Jack Dorsey, Twitter and Square Founder and CEO
When he was younger, Jack Dorsey dreamed about visiting New York. His parents, however, wouldn’t let him. As a result, says the co-founder of both Twitter and mobile payments company Square, he became obsessed by maps. ‘What I loved about maps,’ he told a Colombia University audience, ‘is that I could view them and I could wonder street by street or point by point what was happening in this particular intersection.’ While other kids covered their walls in popstars and sports heroes, Jack papered his room with maps. They were even, he has admitted somewhat embarrassingly, his favourite thing to read.
Then, in 1984 when he was eight years old, his parents bought their first Apple Macintosh. Like so many others who fell in love with programming, Jack was blown away by the control it gave him to change things. So he resolved to create his obsessions on his computer, and began building maps. And that was his entry point into the world of computer science.
Jack on programming as an art:
‘I think that great programming is not all that dissimilar to great art. Once you start thinking in concepts of programming it makes you a better person… as does learning a foreign language, as does learning math, as does learning how to read.’