How I learnt to program and dropped out of high-school

Like many kids, my first interest in computers came through games. My parents had been persuaded to purchase me a laptop when I was fourteen (relenting, I suspect, because my handwriting was terrible), and I quickly got to setting up massive Call Of Duty LAN parties between the boarding houses at our school.

I was at a relatively unacademic private school in the south-west of England. This school was not my first choice, as I had been bullied out of a more prestigious school, but the silver lining turned out to be that I was left mainly to my own devices.

In England, we don’t have mandatory conscription, but some of the private schools do have army training (in case we ever need to quell some sort of class revolution I suppose). As a bit of a nerd that preferred warm places and sedentary activities, marching up and down outside was my last idea of fun.

So I came up with a plan: I would offer to help make the high school website instead of dressing up in khaki. Fortunately the school was so eager to save money on their website that they forgot to ask me if I actually knew anything about building sites (I didn’t), and they agreed to hand the reins over.

I then started reading. I bought bulky books on Dreamweaver, PHP, Ruby, and taught myself how to code. I discovered I absolutely loved it, that talking to computers made a lot more sense than talking to humans, and that this was to be my life’s passion.

I started working on open-source libraries and publishing them on a blog. This quickly gained a bit of a following resulting in offers of paid consultancy. They say that on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. Well, in this case, nobody knew I was a 15-year-old schoolboy working on consulting gigs between French classes.

We had a career counselor whom I approached for advice. He was not only a life-long teacher at the school but had also been a pupil there too. Quite why the school thought he was qualified to give out career advice is beyond me, but he flatly told me that “computers were a lot more than just playing games,” and that I should drop the whole thing. I happily ignored him and kept coding.

At this point, juggling my programming activities and school work started to take its toll. My grades were getting lower and lower, and I realized there was no way I was going get into a computer science course with my poor math scores. When I discovered I was making more than my teachers’ salaries, I came to a sudden realization: why do I need to go to college? I could just drop out!

I broached the idea with my parents. They seemed surprisingly supportive; I think they realized I was a bit of an oddball who was going to follow his own path. So I found a job at an internship in London and notified my high-school of my plan to drop out.

All hell broke loose. I don’t think anybody had ever left the school early before, and the teachers found the idea to be somewhere between baffling and downright dangerous. I was told I was making the biggest mistake of my life, and that I would regret it forever. You get the gist. But those who know me know that I am nothing if not stubborn, so, at the age of 17, I said goodbye, packed my bags, and headed for London.

Over the next year, I had a crash course in programming, working with one of the first Ruby teams in London. I learned a considerable amount from my ever-patient colleagues and leveled up as a programmer. I ultimately immigrated to the US and started a company, but that’s another story.

With hindsight, would I drop out all over again? Absolutely. Was it hard jumping straight into work? For sure! But it was definitely the right choice for me.

 
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