The Prodigal Programmer

I fucked up my life. Since I was young, my parents and teachers told me I was smart. In high school, I was a straight A student and graduated sixth in my class of eight hundred. I was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin as an honors biomedical engineering student with a full scholarship. My first semester GPA was a 4.0.

Then everything went to hell. I failed classes and lost my scholarship. Engineering turned into philosophy, bringing constant questions of, “Philosophy? What on earth are you going to do with that?” After five unsuccessful years, I dropped out. (Technically, I failed out, but breaking up with someone sounds better than being broken up with.) I moved back to Houston to live with my parents and became a cashier at the same grocery store I worked at in high school.

Why did I screw up so much? Mostly, it was due to laziness. I had never been challenged academically before. When people say you are smart, you have two options to continue getting that positive feedback: 1. Do smart things. 2. Do mediocre things with little effort. You can either get an A on the test, or you can get a B without studying. You tell yourself, “I would have gotten an A if I had tried.” Unfortunately, that second option eventually catches up with you. Your work begins to lag behind where it should be, and the last person to notice is yourself because you see the work as it could be. The will to learn is more important than perceived intelligence, and I was completely lacking that former attribute. While I may have had good grades for part of my life, I was never a good student.

However, another reason for my failure was that I was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. In seventh grade, we were made to take a career aptitude test. Personally, I was excited for someone else to tell me what to do since I had no idea.  After taking the test which revealed I had analytical tendencies and talking to my mom, I decided to become a veterinarian. The only problem with this was that I was terrible with animals. All my pets had befallen terrible fates. In first grade, my crab died after a week. In second grade, our science experiment involved taking care of worms. My worm ate my friend’s and then proceeded to die. Our cat ran away after a few months. We got a puppy from the shelter that died within a week. Thinking we could fix the problem with money, my family got a puppy from a breeder. She lasted for less than 3 months before also dying from parvo. By the time I was in high school, I realized veterinary medicine might not be a good fit for someone with an animal death touch. I decided instead to become an engineer.

The one area of study I knew I wanted to avoid was computer science. My dad works in IT building enterprise software. He had enough terrible stories to convince me computers were a difficult and dying industry. Clearly, this internet revolution was just a passing fad.

Engineering should have been a successful field for me. I had always loved math and science. As a biomedical engineering major, viewing the human body as a collection of physical systems was fascinating, but my interest in the subject was not strong enough to get me through the rigors of UT’s engineering program.

The laziness and lack of passion were what ultimately brought me back to working at that grocery store as a cashier. I had always hated working there. Scanning groceries was incredibly tedious, and I hated having to fake happiness around customers and coworkers. Yet with no other options, I decided to move up to being an assistant front end manager. For years, I worked that job unhappily. I would come home at night, crawl into bed, listen to some sad music from Radiohead or the Smiths, and think about all the opportunities I squandered. Those negative feelings would grow strongest when I had a few days off work, and I would just sit around the house with my thoughts. At least when I had work, the job and forced socialization would help keep the darkness at bay.

Eventually, I realized work was benefitting my mental health. When I first started working at that supermarket at 16, I was arrogant, introverted, apathetic, socially awkward, and self-loathing. Every day I would come in to work and have to put on a fake smile to appease my customers and coworkers. But the funny things is that fake smile became a little more genuine each day. You put on a mask, but the act becomes a part of you. Over the years due to work, I have become more humble, extroverted, empathetic, charismatic, and, most importantly, happy. My job makes me a better person and helps fix my weaknesses. For that reason, I committed to work and moved up into a management position.

For the past year, I have been a department manager, and it made me content. However recently, doubt has started to creep back in. Fundamentally, I am not a people person. Instead, I have a technical mind. My current job has helped repair my flaws, but it does not play to my strengths. One day I was walking my department and thought to myself, “This is not what you were meant to do.”

All along my passion has been for computers. I remember the night my dad brought home our family’s first system. I sat behind in the room watching him unpack those huge boxes. When he finally turned it on, the Windows 95 bootup screen appeared. I spent the night playing around on the computer. It was like discovering an uncharted world where anything was possible.

In elementary school, I bought a book on HTML. I felt like an elite hacker except when I had to go to my dad for help debugging when I could not get an image to appear. (I had not wrapped the src attribute value in quotes.) Creating a crappy, personal website out of nothing but code filled me with pride. It was better than LEGO because it was not constrained by the physical.

Eventually, that first family computer was replaced by a better one, and the old machine was moved into my room. As a huge video gamer, I decided to learn C++ in order to program my own games. With no internet connection on my desktop, I installed the Dev-C++ IDE via floppy disk and printed out tutorials from cprogramming.com. I was terrible at it and never really learnt about pointers.

In college, my favorite class was Intro to Computing. It was my first taste of pure computer science. Learning binary and assembly seemed almost like studying metaphysics. My roommate also had to take a programming class in MATLAB. Since I had some programming experience, he asked me to help teach him. Even though I had never used MATLAB before, I was still able to assist because the fundamental programming ideas remained the same, and the universality of those concepts blew me away. He eventually grew to love programming as well, and one of my favorite memories of college is doing a Ludum Dare game jam together. I feel like my entire college experience would have been completely different if I had followed my passion and majored in CS.

I would do anything to go back and study computer science. But time machines do not exist, and I cannot afford to go back to school nor can I find the time. Professionally, I feel trapped in my current job. Part of me is jealous of my sister who did choose to major in CS. She is graduating soon, has worked some amazing internships, and will undoubtedly have a great programming career. And I am stuck working at a grocery store.

But I am not giving up so easily. My job has taught me to work hard and helped defeat my laziness. Fortunately, programming is one of the few fields where you can find some success with being self-taught, so I have spent every night for the past few months studying programming. After learning React and Node.js, I am hoping to become a full-stack web developer. Without a degree, the chances for success are slim, but the opportunity is still there. This time I am not going to screw it up.

Regret is something I do not want to live with anymore. I squandered all the opportunities given to me when I was young. But if those opportunities can be lost, then they can be found again with a little effort. I am the Could Have Been King. But I’m gonna bury that crown.

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