Valjean Clark

You don't have to be a prodigy

This post will probably not resonate with everyone, but for those it does, I hope it helps you.

There are a lot of popularized stories of famous figures in Silicon Valley. They all sound something like: “I learned to program when I was 5”, or “I had access to an early computer at my school”, or “I started making websites for people when I was a teenager”. Many are just really cool stories, and it’s amazing to think about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many others achieving so much with computers when they were teenagers.

They are great stories, but they also come with a dark side - some of us compare ourselves to these stories. I had access to computers from a young age, but I didn’t write any code until college. Of course I didn’t know what it meant “to write code” when I was a kid, but I also didn’t try to find out how the software and games I love was built. So I’ve always felt inferior to people who had these amazing childhood programming stories.

I also went to a state college, largely because I was fearful of taking on debt. So I also grew to feel inferior to those who went to MIT, Stanford, and the like, and then went on to work at Google and other companies I felt I had no business applying to.

Even after I got into my career and seemed to be a pretty effective contributor, there was always something I didn’t feel good enough at. I performed poorly in the high pressure algorithms interviews. I wasn’t as good on the command line as other engineers I knew. I hadn’t created any open source libraries.

After 10+ years of my career, these feelings of inferiority have subsided. I have been able to get my head around any problem I have encountered in my career so far, despite the “gaps” I felt I had in my background. Some of the best programmers I have worked with didn’t study computer science at all, and some didn’t start programming until much after college. I’ve worked with people who have been programming since they were children, who went to Stanford and MIT, who worked at Google. Many are indeed impressive programmers, but I’m also pretty darn good at programming and building software. Instead of thinking “oh I don’t know if that company would ever hire me” when interviewing, I now find myself thinking “do I even want to work for that company in the first place?“.

So to anyone else who felt inferior when hearing these legendary stories of successful people in Silicon Valley or anywhere else, I have good news for you. You don’t have to be a child programmer, or a command line wizard, or an open source maintainer. You don’t have to know the perfect algorithm for every situation. There’s something you do, or can do, that is a good fit for you. And it is enough.

Think less about the things you aren’t and more about the things you like and are good at, and see where that takes you. If you have an interest and desire to learn, you can build some really cool software than you will be proud of.