Why did I become a software developer?
I love tinkering
Ever since I was a child, I have loved tinkering on things. I remember hammering my thumb and losing a fingernail while trying to nail two blocks of wood together. After all I’d seen how the carpenters working on a shelf at home did it, why couldn’t I? I must have been about 5 at the time. That curiosity led me to try to learn everything I could about anything remotely “science”. I wanted to become a Scientist. However science costs money, and fingernails, and I had a negligible amount of both. Crushing random leaves together to make “medicine” and trying (and thankfully failing) to trick my cousin into drinking it, or watching geckos drop their tails when grabbed only took me so far. I wanted to learn and do more.
I wanted my own lab
I took out bulbs inside old flashlights (or scattered in desk drawers), used AA batteries, and anything that would conduct electricity - wires, bobby pins, foil inside discarded cigarette packs - to make my own, less useful, flashlights. That tiny filament glow that could only be seen inside cupped hands somehow always made me feel like a mad scientist discovering something new. I was a big fan of Dexter’s Laboratory, and wanted a lab for myself. There was a small “cupboard under the stairs” in the house I grew up in, which was full of spare wires, lightbulbs, plumbing, paint, tools, etc. loosely thrown in as there was no shelving inside this space. But to my eyes, this was the perfect laboratory. People who know me now might find it hard to imagine but I was a scrawny child capable of fitting into this tiny space and still having room enough to move about.
I plundered the storage, and found a loose roll of electric cable, a few lightbulbs in their crimped paper packaging, and a lightbulb holder. I knew how to screw in wires into screw terminals, so I decided to wire the lightbulb holder out of intuition (two wires in the electric cable, two screw terminals in the bulb holder). Of course some trial and error was involved. I have spent a small fortune on tools now, but back then I wanted those wires cut and managed to only find (and dull) my mother’s sewing scissors, and the wire stripping were done by teeth. The lightbulb was plugged in on one end, and the other end was cut and stripped and ready to plug in. Since there were no spare plugs in the storage, and since I’d seen all manners of handymen directly plug in loose wires into the sockets, I didn’t think too much of it. I snaked the wire behind another cupboard and got to a wall socket and plunged the wires in.
It was at this exact time that I learnt a few things - the purpose of twisting the ends of stranded wires to make them stay together, the purpose of insulation on the wires in the first place, that bulbs also act as conductors, and that electricity is serious business. I felt a strong jolt that threw me off the socket and scared the hell out of me. Getting zapped by 220V is no funny business and while it scared me, it didn’t deter me enough. Neither did seeing sparks as I plugged the wires in. I realized that it was better to turn on the switch after pushing the wires in (Indian sockets have switches), and that I should only hold the wires by their insulation. I got zapped a few more times over the next few weeks as the contraption was fiddly, the wires didn’t want to stay in the socket, and I’d accidentally kick the wire and pull it out of the socket every so often. I learnt that I was also getting zapped by loose strands and so managed to twist and ball them at the end of the wire so it stayed completely inside the socket.
But going back inside “lab” and seeing it glowing from the lightbulb that I had just wired was priceless. I felt like Dexter, and this felt like a grand new discovery. I am lucky to be alive. Oh, I also learnt quickly that incandescent bulbs get hot quickly and I can burn my hands (and the crimped paper packaging it came in) quite easily on them. I even invited friends to check out my lab and touch the hot bulb, and they all agreed that it was awesome, so you can’t teach me otherwise.
I wanted to keep learning
The biggest appeal to tinkering is that at the end of the day, you learn something new. Even opening a faulty remote control that has no chance of being fixed at home can teach you how screw fasteners inside electronics work. I wanted to keep learning and expanding my knowledge, and I just couldn’t find enough outlets.
Around 1999 we moved from the house I grew up in to a rental. My father had decided to run his side job, an accounting / DTP business, from home, presumably to cut down on rent. With the business came his office computer, a rare treat. Up until then, whenever my dad would take me to his office, one of the operators would let “the boss’ kid” play 15 minutes of Skyroads or Prince of Persia. Now here it was - potentially unlimited access to the computer every day!
My mother enrolled me into a Computer Education Summer Camp, which taught me a bit about different computer components, some Batch scripting, and some HTML, and introduced me to the Internet. I had used computers at my previous school, and was aware of Logo and MS Paint, but this took my learning to the next level. I learnt that with Batch scripting, I could make my own computer games and instead of just consuming interactive media, I could create it. That opened up so many possibilities. Here I was, moved away from my childhood home where I had exposure to a garden, nature and what now seems like endless summer vacations, to a city life in a concrete jungle and yet able to learn and experiment in a new way. I took to it instantly, and loved every minute of it.
The best part of it for me was that I no longer needed any external tools, I had pretty much everything I needed to take an idea and make it real right at my fingertips. I can honestly say that even though I might have spent way too much time playing video games on that computer, I’d spent even more time making games and utilities for others.
I am going back to tinkering
While my software development career has helped me create so many things, my curiosity and drive to build has not been sated. While it took some twists and turns, I am back to building things in the “real” world again. I purchased a 3D printer in 2019, little over 20 years after my computer camp to learn something new. I dove into CAD, microcontrollers, sensors, 3D printing, and everything in between and for the past three years I’ve been making physical things. All the things I couldn’t afford back in 1999, I hope I can buy and learn now. I wonder how differently things would have turned out if I had some other outlet other than computers, but I am also excited about what things are going to look like going ahead!
It’s not always great to go back to the physical world though. The handyman in me decided to fix some floor board trims because I had a feeling of “I can do anything!” I managed to hammer my index finger almost immediately and lost a nail. This time I remember the process a lot more clearly.