I was invited by a friend to talk with a group of teenagers about what it's like to be a computer programmer and why they might want to do the same. There were over 50 kids present, ranging in age from 12 to 18. They were great fun: enthusiastic, curious and engaged.
I decided to go light on the actual programming aspect (what code looks like, how you write it) and instead take a fairly big step back/up and talk about some big picture challenges. And to avoid boring these over-entertained kids out of their skulls, we played games - Mastermind and Set. They really enjoyed that.
Afterwards, I sent a note to the principal of the school, with my thanks and a summary of my main points, to send out to the kids. I thought I'd also offer it here:
Make Your Brains Strong
I talked about the importance of logic and rational thought (you can't have iPhones or laptops or buildings or cards without it), and also that the brain is a powerful pattern analysis engine. It accepts data (sights, smells, sounds, touch, tastes), identifies patterns, and then we use those patterns to help predict the future, to make plans, to build and - unfortunately - to destroy.
So, first of all, make your brain as strong (good at rational thinking and pattern analysis) as possible. That way it will be harder for others to take advantage of you, and more likely that you will be successful. This doesn't have to mean you need to do boring things. That's why I showed everyone Mastermind and Set (www.setgame.com). Mastermind is a game of deductive logic; if you can't play Mastermind well, I told them, then you can't quickly and easily think your way from problem to solution. Which means that, among other things, it will be easier for people to take advantage of you. Set is a subtle, stimulating game of pattern analysis, which is a fundamental activity of sentience. The better you are at detecting and resolving patterns, the more likely it is you will thrive in this world.
Second, remember the saying "garbage in, garbage out". If you spend too much of your time watching videos, playing video games, watching ads on TV, then your brain will inevitably start to absorb those patterns (Buy! Buy! Buy!) and that will be reflected in your behavior.
Third (I didn't really get into this in the class), minimize distractions - strengthen your ability to concentrate, focus and then create. If you are constantly being distracted by texts and Facebook updates and emails and phone calls and cat videos, you will find less time for your own thoughts. Which means that you will increasingly be just following the thoughts and ideas of others. Instead, take some time out each idea to disconnect from the electronics and get out into your beautiful world. Walk on the beach or a forest, away from machines and concrete. Let your mind wander and sort things out, all by itself. You will be amazed at what your brain is capable of, if you free it from "attack" from the outside.
I stressed the importance of reading books, how that will help strengthen your ability to think, to write, to speak, to be creative.
I will be happy to recommend books to any student who will send me an email (my address is email@example.com) with a list of the things in which they are interested in (example: "I like science and I like mysteries" or "I am really interested in birds.").
Computer Programming is Easy
Well, easy compared to lots of other things you have done and will do in your life. For example, it is much harder to learn a second human language than it is to learn a computer language (all these students were fluent in both Spanish and English). Remember: computers think fast, but they are dumb. They can only do what you tell them and they are easily confused. So computer programming languages are relatively simple, inflexible languages. Easy for you to learn. And if you have a solid foundation in thinking logically, you can thrive as a programmer.
But keep in mind that what you will be doing as a programmer is learning to think like a computer - a fairly rigid, deterministic way of thinking. And that may then affect how you view the rest of the world.
This is an exciting, but also tough time to be growing up. So many possibilities have been opened up the global communications and economic systems, but this also means that you are competing with people around the world. The best way to ensure your success is to "go deep" - find an area of interest and become an expert in it.
There's More to Life Than Entertainment
I didn't talk about this in my time with all of you, but I think it's important, so I will add it now: I don't watch a lot of television, but when I do - and I am stuck watching ads - I am amazed at how much in this country we equate success with being a famous entertainer - singer, actor, artist, etc. I like to be entertained as much as the next person, but surely we can agree that there is more to life than that.
You should be able to turn on the television or visit the Internet and watch celebrations (walking down that red carpet, hundreds of cameras flashing) of the scientists and doctors and nurses and, yes, teachers who make our civilization as wonderful as it is today.
So don't be fooled by the models of success presented to you, at you, by the media. They like to show you these because, well, frankly they can make more money from you if you get all excited about actors than if you get excited about scientists.
That's their agenda - what's yours?