These 24 open source technologists share their programming origin stories.
We asked our contributors What was your first programming language? but the question goes much deeper than that. There are stories to tell about who suggested it or what prompted you to learn it. If you were paid to do so, and what happened next. Then there’s a lot it says about your age and what was going on in the world.
Let’s hear a little bit about these 24 technologists’ stories.
What was your first programming language? BASIC
Were you paid to learn it? Nope.
Did you choose it? Not really.
Why? It was Christmas of 1979, my parents (a school maintenance worker and a public health nurse) scrimped and saved the staggering US$1000 to buy a Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80. It came with a ring binder that covered the complete BASIC programming language, and my Dad figured getting me to learn to write computer software would be a good way to keep me out of trouble.
What happened next? Mom and Dad would buy me and my younger brother books or subscriptions to popular magazines about “home computing,” which included printed source code for a variety of games. We spent hours every weekend painstakingly typing and then debugging line by line with the accompanying checksums to find our typos. When the games got boring, we’d modify them… trivially at first just tweaking strings here and there to turn, say, a roman battle strategy game into a space battle strategy game; but later increasing the complexity of our changes and eventually starting to write terrible games of our own. Soon after that, we were sharing disks by mail and then over BBSes at 110bps.
Four decades later, I can collaborate on creations with the entire world and home connectivity has increased 7+ orders of magnitude, but part of me still misses those Saturday afternoons hunched over the keyboard, getting thoroughly trounced by my little brother at something truly terrible we created together. —Jeremy Stanley
What was your first programming language? My first language was BASIC, which I learned in 7th grade.
Were you paid to learn it? Not unless you count being allowed to play Wolfenstein 3D, Minecraft, and Sim City in the computer lab at lunch as a perk for being interested enough in computer science to learn BASIC for fun.
Did you choose it? I don’t think I was aware enough at the time to realize there might have been alternatives. This was what was available in the computer lab, and some older students knew enough about it to get me into it. I don’t remember it even being part of the computer science class curriculum.
Why? At the time, it was just for fun. I used it exclusively to create text-based “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style games. Something about creating something artistic and fun from code and having the computer run it appealed to me. I’d used computers before, but this was the first time I made it do something for me.
What happened next? Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, I’ve used “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style games to teach myself every one of the programming languages I’ve learned the rest of my life.
This experience and the first exploration of computer games (both commercial and self-written) started me down a path toward getting involved in computers more deeply, always at school until my family bought our first computer when I was in 11th grade. Three years later, I translated this exploration into my first computer job as an intern for a research company that eventually hired me for my first “real” job out of college—working in their IT Support group.
I credit BASIC (and Sim City) with starting me down the path toward where I am now as an SRE, writing code and running clusters daily, some 30 years later. —Chris Collins
What was your first programming language? I played with BASIC, but my first formal introduction was PL/I—learned it in my first programming course in college. —Heidi Ellis
What was your first programming language? My first programming language was BASIC. This was in 1981. I learned it because I bought a home computer that booted into a BASIC editor, a TRS-80 Color Computer. It had a whopping 4K of RAM (not a typo) and could store programs on a cassette tape. I wanted to make the computer do things, so I learned how to instruct it using language it understood. Once you tap, for the first time, into that feeling of joy when your program runs successfully, the elation takes over, and you find yourself wanting to experience it again. Next thing you know, 40 years have passed. —Matthew Helmke
What was your first programming language? My first programming language was BASIC. It was part of a computer science class I took in my first semester of college in 1977, so I was not paid to learn it nor did I choose it. But I always thought it was a great first step since it taught me how to think like a computer (and I had a good teacher). It didn’t lead to anything right away as I went to graduate school in Economics, but years later I was an IT Project Manager. So I never was a coder, but I managed a few. —Kevin O’Brien
What was your first programming language? BASIC
Were you paid to learn it? No.
Did you choose it? It was built into the Apple ][ computer my Mom brought home for the summer, and my choices were limited.
Why? It was either BASIC or 6502 Assembly, and BASIC seemed more attainable to sixth-grade-me.
What happened next? I went to the public library and found all the back issues of “Byte” magazine with source listings for Apple ][ programs. I spent a lot of time typing in programs that I could barely follow and learning the joys of debugging someone else’s code (ok, I’m pretty sure I introduced most of the bugs). I was hooked. Several years later, senior-in-high-school me was very surprised and excited to learn that you could major in something called “computer science.” The rest was history. —Erik O’Shaughnessy
What was your first programming language? Fortran IV—tells you something about how long ago this was.
Were you paid to learn it? No, this was part of my first computer science course in college, so I guess that means I paid to learn it. This was on a mainframe, so after writing your program on paper, you bought your blank IBM punchcards, sat down at a keypunch to punch them out, then had to submit your collection of punchcards as a “job.” Then the next day, you got your cards back with a printout from a line printer. If your program didn’t run, you got nothing, or you might get pages and pages if you managed to create some sort of never-ending loop.
What happened next? At the tail end of college, they began using Watfor, a Fortran implementation from the University of Waterloo in Canada. Its advantage was that you could use it on a terminal, saving your programs on the central system, rather than the punchcards we loved so well. So you could run your program yourself and create your never-ending loops right away. Whoopee!
After Fortran, the next language that caught my eye was BASIC, which was a lot like Fortran, but handled strings much better. Fortran was awful with strings. This was mostly on an Amiga.
After switching to Linux, my next language was Perl, which oddly enough seemed like a fairly easy transition from BASIC. After Perl, came Python, a language less stiff with syntax. —Gregory Pittman
What was your first programming language? Waterloo Fortran IV in 1974-5, my first computer science course—taken in the second year—back when I was sorta sure I wanted to major in computer science. We also learned a bit about IBM 360/370 assembler later in the year. Back in those days, the lower-year courses at UBC used keypunches, and there was a “student terminal” where you would cue up with your deck of cards and exchange a “blue ticket” for a run of your deck, then walk around behind the IBM line printer to pick up your output. If you were careless or distracted you might put your deck on top of the printer—even though there was a sign saying “don’t put your card deck on top of the printer, in case it opens”—and of course if you did, the printer would that very moment run out of paper or have a jam and obligingly raise its lid, which caused your card deck to spill to the floor and become an unorganized mess.
In my third year, still in computer science, I took a bunch of courses—the mainstream third-year course featuring PL/I, a one-semester 360/370 Assembler course, the two honors courses on computational theory, a numerical analysis course, “the twelve languages of MTS,” and a bunch of math courses.
In my fourth year, I was hired by the applied math institute as a research assistant. At that point, I was getting paid for writing Fortran programs for a small group of mathematicians mostly interested in solving differential equations. Also, by then, I realized that computer science wasn’t for me, and I had switched to math. I did continue to take some computer science courses—optimization, more numerical analysis. Looking back, those were my first steps down the data science pathway.
My first post-university job was programming, mostly in Fortran and in PL/I and SPSS, a statistics language. As well, I learned how to use MPSX, an IBM linear programming utility. —Chris Hermansen
What was your first programming language? In high school, a teacher who had zero experience with computers was asked to teach computer programming as part of an experiment: My school had not tried this before. Xerox Corp. provided the school with a Model-33 teletype and a 110-baud acoustic coupled modem, which gave us access to their XDS Sigma 7 mainframe running the CP-5 time-sharing system. BASIC was the order of the day.
Were you paid to learn it? Do grades count?
What happened next? A few of us started “poking a stick” at the machine to see what would happen if we didn’t type “BASIC” at the prompt… which lead us to discover that there were other languages! And other stuff too! If I recall, there were (at least) three separate Fortran compilers—Fortran, FLAG (Fortran Load And Go—which compiled lightning-quick, or what passed for “quick” in the day), and at the opposite end EFFORT—or possibly EFORT, but pronounced “effort.” S-L-O-W to compile, but it did what appeared to be, to our young eyes, amazing optimization of the code. Also, a brief foray with a “weird” keyboard with all sorts of symbols, and APL, where backspace was not used to erase anything but to overstrike operators to make other operators. —Kevin Cole
What was your first programming language? Atari PILOT and Atari BASIC. My family bought an Atari 1200XL when I was a kid, and while I started out just using it for games and some art programs, there were two cartridges that my Dad said were “for adults” and “I wouldn’t like them because they’re not for kids.” So obviously, I was incredibly curious. One day I decided to check them out. I was totally confused at first but then found the book that he had about them, and I typed in the sample code and thought it was really cool that I could make things happen. I never was able to write anything entirely on my own, but I took the sample code and just changed parts until I either got it to do something else or broke it and had to undo those changes. I’ve been meaning to try it out again and see how much I remember, but I just haven’t had the time. —JT Pennington
What was your first programming language? ELAN. It was a superb language for the time. It is important to note it was tightly coupled with the OS EUMEL so we could do parallel computing.
Were you paid to learn it? It was an after-school activity.
Did you choose it? No.
Why? I wanted to learn piano, and my parents said I would get one if I take a typewriter course. Next door was the after-school computer club. I thought that was more interesting. Unfortunately, I still don’t know how to play the piano as computers kept me busy till today.
What happened next? When I started at the university, they still had punch cards and Fortran. I was lucky as the high school teacher allowed me to use the parallel computer at the high school for programming. In between, I also tried BASIC, but that was just inferior and boring. I then looked at Pascal, which was not any better than ELAN. After C, Modula-2, and Ada, I finally found Occam and did lots of stuff in Occam on transputers. That was exciting as we could do more parallel computing. Having access to 64 of them was pretty cool. Also, plugging in various network configurations was exciting. This was decades ago. I see a difference between yesteryear’s high school students and today’s. While we initially had few resources (I could not afford a computer till I was in my fourth year at university), today’s computers are commodities. Furthermore, the combination of computers and robotics such as FLL (FIRST Lego League) makes it possible to lower the entry barrier. However, today also students are distracted by accessibility to video games and access to very cool graphics. Ready-made products (videogames, cell phones, tablets) may limit the available “time” today’s students have to learn computer science in their free time. I have to admit that if I would have been offered today’s video games when I grew up, I may have had a very different outlook on computer science and may not have been labeled by my high schoolmates “nerd,” but the video gamer.
Unfortunately, I have no time to do video games as my RTX3090 plays AI algorithms … The toy I really want for me is an A100 and a DGX which I use now remotely. I would argue that due to Google colab and accessibility via Jupyter, access to AI can be lowered to the high school level. However, this all depends on the high school teacher that introduces you to it. If you just have one that teaches you block-programming instead of, for example, Python on the lego robots or one that uses scratch instead of Google colab, then we do not leverage the potential that these students have in their early years and can leverage this superb infrastructure. —Gregor von Laszewski
What was your first programming language? I got into Logo on an Apple, a computer language developed at MIT by Seymour Papert and others in 1967. It was a language designed for education. It’s a subset of Lisp.
I learned it as part of a graduate education program I was involved with at the time. As part of that program, I taught geometry to a fifth-grade student using the Logo programming language. While teaching this student the computer language and the curriculum, I discovered that my own trouble and learned helplessness with mathematics came from an inability to visualize the material. After completing the graduate course, I used the Logo language to teach other students geometry and mathematics using the same curriculum and programming language. The students and I learned math and developed some beautiful graphics in the process, and we actually programmed a ‘turtle’ robot that drew our images on large pieces of paper on the classroom floor. My experience with programming led me to look for other ways to bring mathematics to life for students, which led me to Python and the “turtle’ module. Lately, I’ve been teaching students how to write Python programs that feature an ‘on-screen’ turtle robot that can create beautiful graphics while at the same time introducing those students to the Python language and logical thinking skills. —Donald Watkins
What was your first programming language? ZX81 BASIC.
I was still at school, probably aged 10 or 11, when a friend got a ZX81—so I taught myself BASIC and wrote a couple of simple programs I could try out on his machine. Christmas 1982, I got my own ZX81 and pretty soon outgrew the hardware and moved onto a ZX Spectrum in late 1993, by which time I was also programming a little in Z80 assembly.
A couple of years later, I also picked up an early CASIO handheld that ran BASIC. It was one of the PB series, possibly the PB-200, but I can’t remember the exact model version. I managed to convince my teachers to let me use it for my O-Level math exam at the age of 16 in the UK. I did take a look at some other languages but didn’t really learn any until I started on Ada at university. —Steven Ellis
What was your first programming language? My first ever programming language was BASIC in the early eighties.
One of my relatives bought a C64 for their kids to get started with learning computers. They only used it for gaming, and I was also invited. But they also had a book about BASIC, and I was curious and gave it a try. I wrote some shortcode, I did not even know how to save it, but it was exciting to see that the computer does what I say to it. This means that I was not paid to learn it, and it was not my choice. It was the language available to me. Obviously, when I got my first computer a few years later, an XT compatible box, I first wrote some code in GW-BASIC, the dialect of BASIC available with DOS.
What happened next? The first time I really choose a programming language was Pascal. I asked around, checked some books, and it seemed to be a good compromise between features and difficulty. First, it was Turbo Pascal, and I coded all kinds of simple games and graphics in it. I loved Pascal, so in my university years, I even used it (well, FreePascal and Lazarus) for measurement automation and modeling how pollution spreads in groundwater. —Peter Czanik
What was your first programming language? The language of the Casio fx-7200G (a variant of). I don’t think it has its own name.
Were you paid to learn it? No.
Did you choose it? No.
Why? I got this programmable calculator (the box said “computer”…) for my 13th birthday.
What happened next? A year later, first high-school year, I studied their Pascal, even though we didn’t have books for it—the main Pascal book our teacher recommended was university-level, considered by him to be a bit too hard for us—and the main text we used for theory and exercises was actually using BASIC, so I also learned some BASIC (unintentionally, at least from the teacher’s POV).
I considered myself a latecomer—some kids in my class had computers with BASIC (commodore 64, Spectrum Sinclair, Amstrad) at home, and I already knew a bit of BASIC before high school, and along the first years, there was a semi-tension between us—me, and those who knew BASIC and didn’t appreciate the advantages of Pascal.
Later on, I went to university (math and computer science), where students could use DOS PCs or a few Macintoshes, or terminals (text ones, X Terminals if you were lucky and one was available), mainly to connect to shared SunOS 4 machines. In my second year (in 1993), someone told me about Linux, which I could run at home. I already bought myself a newer PC (an AMD 386SX-compatible. Only after I “decommissioned” it, ~ 8 years later, I realized it was AMD and not an Intel 386, which is what I thought I was buying) before knowing about Linux, learning my 8088 PC isn’t suitable for running more modern OSes, and so I tried Linux, which it took me several months to get installed with only 2MB RAM—soon after that, I upgraded to 4MB and then seldom rebooted to DOS (which I kept as a dual-boot option for several years). I still remember my astonishment and excitement at being able to run a UNIX-like OS, even with X windows (after upgrading to 4MB RAM), all at home.
In terms of languages, in the university, we studied/used Pascal (first intro course), C (intro to systems programming course), and then some course-specific ones—Eiffel (in the OOP course), MatLab (for a workshop), etc.
My first real job was in a project written on Unix (we used mainly DECstation machines with Ultrix), mainly in Lisp (Lucid Common Lisp) and C, where I studied Lisp, and from which I still have very good memories, even though I never used it later. I managed to make the project semi-work on a PC with Linux, as a personal side project, using a copy of LCL for SCO Unix, which I managed to make work on Linux with the
ibcs2 module and recompiling GNU
libc with a cross-compiler toolchain (
GCC/as/ld on Linux to generate COFF binaries for SCO). I was quite proud to demonstrate the application to my manager—something which normally needed a workstation costing ~ $30K, running on a $5K PC. But this never went to production. —Yedidyah Bar David
What was your first programming language? TI-BASIC
Were you paid to learn it? No, but then, I was 10.
Did you choose it? No.
Why? It was the only language available on the TI-99/4A! Well, there was the “Extended Basic,” too, but that was just an extended instruction set. You could actually write decent games in 16Kb of RAM.
What happened next? The next step was to type in programs that were shipped in print magazines and record them on audio cassette tapes. But with my brother, we took that one step further—we went live on radio to broadcast the resulting sound for others to record! With a clear recording and enough error correction, you could distribute and download programs wirelessly back in 1985. —Thierry Carrez
What was your first programming language? GW-BASIC
Did you choose it? No.
Why? It was standard education for beginners.
What happened next? I started in a company for computer hardware specialist. —Hüseyin GÜÇ
What was your first programming language? BASIC, on the VIC-20.
Were you paid to learn it? Nope.
Did you choose it? Only insofar as I chose the computer.
Why? I figured that the VIC would be at least mostly compatible with the PET I had seen in school. Also, it had a decent keyboard.
What happened next? Those were the days of programming because there was no other way to do anything with it—learned a lot. —Bob Murphy
What was your first programming language? It was the year 2004-05 if I recall. I was in school, maybe a fifth-grader, I was introduced to BASIC. Before that, I had learned a little bit of something called “Window Logo.”
Were you paid to learn it? My parents paid for my school.
Did you choose it? Not at all.
Why? Part of the curriculum my school decided on.
What happened next? It definitely piqued my interest in programming, and I went on to learn C/C++ through extra-curricular courses outside of my school. My parents encouraged it and managed to pay extra fees somehow. I often ended up as the only “kid” in the entire computer institute. I was the only one learning a programming language while others mostly learned MS Office or PhotoShop etc. LOL. Well, the rest is history. —Kedar Vijay Kulkarni
What was your first programming language? Fortran, because I’m old.
Were you paid to learn it? No, I paid to learn it by taking a computer science class.
Did you choose it? No, it was the only choice. I was lucky that we had terminals to work on instead of the punchcards that my poor husband used when he learned how to program in Fortran.
Why? I was a humanities major (English and Anthropology double major), and I was getting close to graduation and actually having to find a JOB. I figured a computer class might make that possible. As it has turned out, that particular programming class was one of the more valuable ones that I took in terms of marketable skills. It provided a good foundation for learning Python, understanding Git, and editing and writing documentation for Red Hat.
What happened next? I went home and taught myself BASIC on the TI-99 that my parents had bought (I’m not sure why they bought it, though—maybe for my little brother?). That early foundation in Fortran (of all things) made it easier to use the early PCs before Windows existed because I could figure out DOS. A humble beginning for sure. —Ingrid Towey
What was your first programming language? In 2001, I learned Java SE 1.2 by reading the book Goto Java from Addison-Wesley.
Were you paid to learn it? No, I was still in school.
Did you choose it? Yes.
Why? I wanted to create interactive websites with Java Applets.
What happened next? I went to college and got in touch with FOSS and learned ANSI C. —Joël Krähemann
What was your first programming language?
I was going to write an article for this, but I already wrote that one: You don’t need a computer science degree to work with open source software (6 Aug 2020).
Highlights from that article:
Our parents bought an Apple II+ clone called the Franklin ACE 1000. My brother and I taught ourselves how to program in AppleSoft BASIC. Our parents bought us books, and we devoured them. I learned every corner of BASIC by reading about something in the book, then writing a practice program. My favorite pastime was writing simulations and games.
I stayed with BASIC for a long time. But I began to learn other programming languages when I entered university. I was a physics student, and as part of our numerical analysis prerequisite, we had to learn Fortran. Having already learned BASIC, I thought Fortran was pretty easy to pick up. Fortran and BASIC were very similar, although Fortran was more limited in my experience.
My brother was a computer science major at a different university, and he introduced me to the C programming language. I immediately loved working in C! It was a straightforward programming language that gave me a ton of flexibility for writing useful programs. But I didn’t have room in my degree program to take a class that didn’t apply to my physics major. So, instead, I taught myself C by reading books and combing through the library reference guide. Each time I wanted to learn a new topic, I looked it up in the reference guide and wrote a practice program to exercise my new knowledge.
Over time, I leveraged what I’d learned to pick up other programming languages. I wrote a ton of Unix Korn shell scripts, Linux Bash scripts, and AWK scripts. I wrote small utilities in Perl, and later wrote Perl CGI and PHP pages for websites. I learned enough LISP to tweak my copy of GNU Emacs, and enough Scheme to work on a project that used GNU Guile. —Jim Hall
What was your first programming language? My first programming language was BASIC, Atari BASIC to be exact.
My family had an Atari 400 home computer in the early 1980s. I played games on it, but it also came with a cartridge for the BASIC language. It included a cassette recorder (Atari 1010). In those days, programs could be stored on standard audio cassette tapes. The Atari 400 didn’t have internal storage, so I learned how to save my programs to cassette and later reload them. In addition to the usual “Hello World” programs, I wrote some that allowed for controlling sound and graphics using a joystick. I still remember the PEEK and POKE commands needed for setting and retrieving certain settings, such as a color or a sound setting.
Were you paid to learn it? No.
Did you choose it? Yes, it was the one language included with the Atari, so I decided to give it a try—and I did enjoy programming it.
What happened next? After a while, I guess I lost interest in Atari and computer gaming altogether. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that I became interested in computers and programming again when I attended computer science classes to earn a minor in CS. Those courses taught me languages such as C and Assembly and many general computer and networking skills. I later learned Java as part of my Master’s degree. I have only done a small amount of formal coding during my career, mostly a little Java in a ColdFusion environment in the mid-2000s. In terms of coding, shell scripting has been my mainstay, mostly BASH and Windows, but I have coded for specific purposes whenever needed. I’ve used Job Control Language (JCL) for automating file transfers between mainframe systems. I’ve also used Python to feed REST API query results back to an enterprise monitoring dashboard. I still think that early experience with BASIC was valuable because I gained a respect for software and programming. —Alan Formy-Duval
This article is republished in opensource.com