This is the first column I’ve written as the father of a teenager. Those of you who’ve been here know what it’s like. For those who haven’t yet, perhaps you can recall being on the other end of it.
When my daughter was born 13 years ago, I could never imagine this day. I was the World’s Best Daddy when she was 5 and her sister was 3. But like all days, it rolled steadily nearer, one day at a time, and the next thing I knew, bang! My beautiful, scary-smart, happy toddler (“Daddy, look, an anthropomorphic snowman”) is a beautiful, scary-smart, eye-rolling, grumpy teenager (“Daddy, you suck. And here’s my cell phone bill”).
I might take singer Don White’s advice, and begin every sentence with the words, “I’m not trying to oppress you …” (check him out on YouTube at bit.ly/18xLpQ7 and bit.ly/1c0gL49). As White quips of the phrase, “It’s replaced ‘Good morning’ in my house.”
“Like father, like daughter,” says my mother. But she’s wrong. I never had a cell phone.
It’s as if when they hit 13, kids develop an inverter circuit that automatically negates whatever you tell them. I swear that if I said, “Annabelle, under no circumstances are you to stuff 47 tennis balls down the toilet,” I’d get an eye roll, a roar I can’t transliterate, and the automatic response, “That’s not fair! All the other girls have 48. You’re so mean. Please tell me I’m adopted.” No such luck. Acorns and trees, kid.
But just when I’d about given up, she turned around and said, “Daddy, you teach all those other guys to program, can you teach me?”
I’d never really thought of that. Until last year, she attended a technology-averse Waldorf school, as do the kids of eBay’s CTO (see nyti.ms/nupJkY). She learned to read and write with paper books (what a concept, see msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/jj863140), and to knit, which doesn’t necessarily take you as far as reading and writing. I see it as an inoculation against the myopic attitude that technology is everything—unlike the nearby Clark School, which trumpets the fact that their students learn PowerPoint in fourth grade. (God protect me from the PowerPoint presentations of fourth graders. Although they’re probably better than some allegedly professional presenters I’ve endured, see msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/gg650665.)
Programming runs in my family. My mother programmed on a mainframe years ago, for her research in psychology at the time. I vaguely recall driving around Philadelphia, taking drawers of punch cards to the computer center to have them run, wondering what would happen if I switched just one or two. Nowadays, when my mother gets a condescending tech support person on the phone, she cuts him down to size by saying, “Look, I was programming mainframes before you were born. Now can the attitude and tell me how this thing works.” I can envision Annabelle carrying on that tradition.
How should I teach her? What should I teach her? Managed or native? Objects or functions? Or maybe Visual Basic 6, so she can have a very long career (see msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/jj133828). Or perhaps a game—that’s what first grabbed me years ago (text-based Star Trek, if you really want to know). I’d be curious to hear your ideas, dear readers.
I feel like Archie Manning, a stellar college quarterback who never had a winning season in the NFL. But he managed to pass his craft on to his sons Eli and Peyton, who have won three Super Bowls between them. I wouldn’t mind seeing Annabelle surpass me.
More than anything else, I’d tell her that the best developers are not the ones with the whizzingest-bangingest code, but rather the ones who can step outside the code and say, “Hey, what problem are we really trying to solve here?”
Every generation, at the height of its powers, needs to step aside for the next one. I hope that experience, wisdom and the occasional spot of treachery will keep me pouring oil on troubled fires for years yet. But I can see that day coming, one day at a time whether I’m looking or not, just as her 13th birthday did. I have the chance to shape it by shaping her. Now if I can just find the plumber’s snake to unclog my toilet …
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.