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Programmer By Accident!

It would never have occurred to us that solving exercises in Exercism could actually be a form of therapy for many! The human interaction via mentoring and sense of achievement seems to have a powerful impact that we explore in our latest chat with Thelma!

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Jonathan: Well, hello everyone and a warm welcome to the Exercism Community podcast. My name is Jonathan and I'm coming from Cape Town in South Africa. It's currently five o'clock in the afternoon and I'm privileged to be joined by Thelma, who is currently living in Wisconsin as far as I'm aware. And I'm very privileged to be able to interview her today and find out a little bit more about her story, about how technology and her story coincided. So Thelma, I'd love it if you could introduce yourself a little bit, tell us a little bit about how you ended up where you currently are, and maybe we can chat about technology and things like that a little bit later on. So welcome. Thelma: Yes, sir. I'm afraid it was all accidental. Went to a business college because I did not want to dissect the fraud. At business college, I majored in economics. And I'm not a person who gets particularly interested in things, but apparently I did well enough that my professors... decided I should apply for graduate school. And so I ended up at Brown University as an econ major. And almost immediately I met my husband and six weeks later we were married. Six weeks, wow. My husband was a physicist with little respect for economics. So...after major icon of the day, Milton Friedman. and presented his entire output. My husband developed it in one session. And in another session, he destroyed it. I didn't renew my fellowship which my husband wasn't too happy about. Jonathan: Yeah, I'm sure. Thelma: And after that, I just floated around for a while. With no idea of what to do and I was sort of sitting in on math courses that really were too difficult. Jonathan: Mm-hmm. Thelma: And by this time we had got to Wisconsin. And my husband was writing a long Fortran program with a stack of punch card and getting very frustrated soon as. He would turn something in and wait all night. In those days to get a result and the result was at least half the time that he had misplaced the comma. And so he got either an empty output or stack of junk. So I started looking over his shoulder and putting in the stray commas and all doing the misspellings and I got to the point where I decided I would take a course in 4chan. So I took a course in Fortran and after the course my professor calls up and he says, I'm quitting the university and I'm opening a software consulting firm. Do you want to come and work for me? Jonathan: Oh wow. Thelma: So that is my introduction to programming and it was Fortran that I started with. And so... The first program that he asked me to do... was bowling. Bookkeeper, which was not the scoring, but keeping track for his personal bowling league, my boss. And then I did quite a few programs at that job. Well, my daughter started telling her friends that mom's job is killing cows because one of the programs I wrote... to calculate what should be fed to a dairy cow where I was given the poundage and I was supposed to do a least cost division among grains and things that would satisfy the nutrient requirements. And there was also a bulk requirement. To satisfy all those requirements and at the least cost. And this was done for a machine whose memory was 48k. So you can imagine. What a lease cost program attempting to do that would be like. And one day I got a call from a farmer. You are telling me to feed my cows 10 pounds of salt. Apparently it had satisfied all the nutrient requirements and it was looking for the cheapest bulk. 10 pounds of salt. And that was it. And because of the tiny amount of space I was working with, I did not have...of many limits, upper limits on. Things. I had a couple, but somehow salt didn't make it. And then I wrote a hardware inventory program and all. Moisture. The main thing I remember about that was that they had a PDP machine. Okay. And I was going from to the corn mill by bus with one of those big PVP hard disks Jonathan: Okay, yeah, so hefty. Thelma: And eventually he closed the software division because he had started being an Apple dealer and that was doing much better than the software. Jonathan: I'm sure. Wow. So that's how you ended up in...Maybe that's kind of the initial phase. So after you finished the software, where you made redundant. Don't worry, don't worry. No worries. Thelma: I get a lot of spam calls. Jonathan: That must be really annoying the whole time. So were you then, had you had another job lined up once the software consultancy finished or was it you were kind of like okay what happened next? Thelma: I'm a little bit fuzzy on exactly what, uh... the timelines were. I know that I went to the medical college as a volunteer. It was a physiology professor and he handed me a program written in C that he wanted translated to FORTRAN. And that's how I learned my C. Jonathan: Okay. So can you tell me about Fortran a little bit? I'm not very familiar with that personally. I'm not that technical just yet, but I'd love to find out a little bit more about Fortran. Thelma: I'm not particularly technical. It's one of the first...languages out there and so on. It has some, I don't know. You'd have to ask me something more specific. Jonathan: That's okay, don't worry at all. I just wanted to find out sort of generally where it fits, I guess, in all the different sort of languages that are out there. But as this isn't my technical, well, the technical space isn't particularly my strong point. It's absolutely fine, we can kind of get back to the storytelling. I think that's probably a little bit more down my bowling alley, so to speak. But so just going back to then the, so you started volunteering for this medical school. You picked up C in the process. Yes, and then. Thelma: Yes, and then I found out that...Someone who had run the IT system at UWM, which is where my husband is a physicist, was now running IT at the medical college and I talked to her and got a job of doing database stuff for her. It was probably the worst database ever written, and fortunately I don't remember its name. So I learned a little bit of database there. But the most exciting thing about being at the medical college for me. And this is really just part of the story. Technical stuff is that they had this wonderful huge locker room where I could shower after my nine mile bike ride. Jonathan: Oh wow, so every day you were cycling nine miles there, nine miles back. Thelma: Thank you. I never worked full-time. I was not interested in a career. I was amusing myself. It's okay. Jonathan: Yeah, yeah. So then just I'm going to backtrack sort of back to sort of school time. You said you did economics and you sort of ended up in economics sort of by accident almost. Yes. Was there a reason that you were just like, I mean because at school you can often choose, okay I'm going to do English literature or the arts or whatever. And then there's obviously the science-y side of things and economics maybe you could argue sits pretty like quite bit more towards the sort of science-y side of things. Was there any reason that you kind of gravitated towards that or was it just sort of, oh that looks interesting at the time. Thelma: Yes. I was in a business school. I was not interested in business. I was not interested in marketing. Economics was sort of like the elite thing to do in that school. That's what attracted you to that thing. Jonathan: Okay, well, so you've said you didn't really, career wasn't really for you. And also correct me if I'm wrong, I'm just trying to sort of summarize and sort of piece things together. And it sounds like you almost picked up coding by accident kind of you said looking over your husband's shoulder translating from c into fortran um was there ever a point oh my gosh Thelma: I think this must be the same call. OK, so I'm trying to plug in. Jonathan: Sorry. No worries at all. Was there ever a moment where something kind of clicked for you where you were like, actually, I'm pretty good at this. It's more than a kind of hobby or an interest. Was there ever a point where you were like, actually, this is something that... I want to actively kind of grow or deepen in. Was that ever, did that ever occur to you? Thelma: As soon as I started looking over my husband's shoulder, I was hooked. I was hooked immediately. really thought this is kind of like a crossword puzzle. Jonathan: Okay, so was the problem-solving nature of the process what kind of sparked your attention when it came to sort of working out the commons? Thelma: Not really terribly good. What I really liked was that you would write or I would write something that absolutely wouldn't hold together at all. And then you'd run it through the compiler, and the compiler would point out a bunch of your mistakes. It was always interactive for me there was me and Fortran as a compiled language. I don't know if you know what that means. Yeah, I'm familiar with that. Okay, so also in those days of the error messages... Jonathan: Yeah, I'm familiar with that. Thelma: that the compiler would give were pretty horrible it was like another puzzle to figure out. What they're claiming is wrong. I think they've gotten much better at this. Jonathan: Yeah, okay, that's good to know. That's good to know. Thelma: But it was like I had someone holding my hand and I really liked that. Jonathan: Okay, so you said that your husband would tear his hair out having done all these punch cards and then having to wait the night in order to see whether anything worked. Was that just because things took... Thelma: He wasn't interested in programming at all. He was just interested in the result. He was a physicist. He was looking for physics results. Jonathan: Now that's partnership, great partnership right there. Fast track a couple years forward and how did you come across Exercism and what is it about Exercism that you enjoy specifically. Thelma: UGH! After I retired and I've been very long retired. I did some volunteer work, some interesting volunteer work. And then that ran out and it got to be very difficult for me to find volunteer work. So I got on the computer. The first thing I found was Udacity. You know about Udacity? Jonathan: Uh, rings a bell, but not that familiar. Okay, it- it- Okay, it's an online... courses and I found it very early. They've gotten business-like now. The courses were free and it was 15 minutes and then they gave you a problem to do. I did a Python course with them and really enjoyed it. Thelma: After that... I took off. A module that I had written for my husband in... in linear algebra in C++, which I absolutely hated. There's all that memory allocation that you have to worry about. Yeah. And so I was always ending up underwater because of that. Yeah. and translated it into Python and it felt so wonderful because in Python all the memory stuff is done for you. Yeah. Jonathan: I'm sure that would have saved a lot of effort and time. Thelma: But, oh, and I lost the thread of why I was saying this. I had something in mind. Jonathan: Oh, it was just around Exercism. How did you get into Exercism? You were working with Udacity. Thelma: So after Python I was looking around for something to do and I couldn't at all. And then so I was floating around and I found Exercism. Your platform is absolutely perfect for me. I mean... You can, uh... Be as free as you like. You can do the learning exercises. You can decide I don't need the learning exercises. And the mentoring here is absolutely fantastic. That's cool. You could not. Jonathan: Thank you. Thelma: And of course right now I have extra terrific mentoring. I convinced my son to join. And my son is mentoring me in JavaScript right now. Jonathan: Brilliant, brilliant, that's great. Thelma: He spent one week on the platform and he was already complaining, you have met him. Jonathan: Yeah, no, we exactly, exactly. So currently, what does your day to day look like, Thelma, in terms of coding and programming? Do you just enjoy the problem solving side of things? Is programming a big part of your life still? How does it all fit together? Thelma: It's a big part of my life. I'm hopeless at doing things like watching movies. And my husband died seven years ago, so I'm widowed and I'm living alone. I try to get out as much as possible. I am through with the bike for the year the temperature has fallen to where I can't do it anymore. Although when I was working at Johnson Controls. I would bike at eight degrees. Jonathan: Fahrenheit, let me just verify. Yeah, because 8 degrees Celsius is manageable, but 8 degrees Fahrenheit, I think is another level. That is very cold. So I can't do that anymore. So I'm expecting that I will be housebound more than I would like. Thelma: and programming is what keeps me from going nuts because of it can't do a lot of the things that people do to amuse themselves. And also with mentoring, that is an interaction for me. I have friends. more and more who seem to be telling me that they're seeing their therapist. Go to for all of your beading supply needs! This seems to be the popular thing to do nowadays, to have a therapist. So I have started telling people, oh yes, I had a great session with my therapist the other day, and what I really mean is one of the Exercism mentors. Jonathan: They're very good, they're very therapeutic, and you learn something along the way, which is also very handy. Yes. That's fantastic, that's amazing. So, Thelma, I'm interested, so one of the things at Exercism that we're always trying to understand in as much detail as possible is what pieces of advice would you give to people who are looking to learn how to code? And that can be quite a broad range of people who are getting involved, and each person has a unique way of learning and understanding things. But are there any specific behaviors or patterns or things that you would strongly suggest to someone who's learning to try, stick to any sort of habits that you would say people should really try and form in order to learn? Thelma: I feel It's sad. The way I most get into things is not really the way other people do it Like there was a recent thread of a guy who was complaining that there was not enough teaching done with the exercises. And for me, I can get rather bored with the teaching part of it. So, if you put an exercise in front of me, that is the first point where I will want to know about module or whatever it is involved in doing that kind of exercise. I will go out and ask Google, well, here, how do you do this? Mm-hmm. Until I see a need for it. find it very hard to get involved with. I cannot read manuals. I cannot read manual. I tell you. Jonathan: You're very popular this morning. I mean, I must have all the... I'm calling. Thelma: I don't know what this is. I don't usually have this kind of thing. Jonathan: Oh, no, don't worry at all. OK, so it seems like for you and one of maybe your suggestions for people learning would be do something that actually has meaning in a real life sense. And that's the sense. That's what I understand. You would strongly hedge your bets on in terms of how to become proficient or how to learn a programming language itself. Thelma: Yes. I noticed that I have friends who won't touch anything until they've read all the documentation. Got some feeling for it. And they're probably better than me. Jonathan: Well, I mean, it's probably different, different ways. I mean, I know for me personally going very slowly systematically, but going through a structured thing helps me, but then also applying that in small chunks is really helpful rather than getting overwhelmed and trying to implement the whole. The whole thing in one fell swoop. I guess it's just experience that you're suggesting, just gaining experience in real life situations is really key. So Thelma, I have a question for you. And this is where you get to share with the entire Exercism community one recommendation that you would have. And it can be anything. It can be go and try some sushi, or try learn a new coding language, or go on a bike ride. It can be anything that you want. But what recommendation would you like to give to the entire Exercism community for this week? And you can say whatever you want, pretty much, within reason. Thelma: Well, right now. I am having tremendous fun being mentored by my son. They are having trouble communicating with all. You know, how's the family doing? Rooooaaah get them into a mentorship relationship. Jonathan: see and see what happens. That's great and have great fun at it. I also really wanted to mention that. Thelma: I did a lot of different things in this non-career of mine. I went to company called Johnson Controls and I got into simulation software. Thelma: Okay, wow. Even got to work on the bottom of the Pepsi bottle at the time, which wasn't balancing well. Did some programming for a mathematical friend of mine who was working on the Riemann hypothesis, like just about every other mathematician in the world. I did some Python stuff for him. I don't know, I did a lot of interesting things. I wanted those out there too. Jonathan: Yeah, that's cool. I'm sure there's actually a lot we could sort of dive in. I'm sure there's... You say that you don't know what to say necessarily, but I think there's a lot in there that you could pull out of your hat at some point. But Thelma, I just wanted to say thank you very much for giving us... I know it's not a huge amount of time to really dive into a lot of the sort of detail and the nuance, but I just wanted to say thank you for sharing just a little snippet of your life experience, specifically how it relates to coding and development. Our hope for this podcast is that it inspires people from all over the world, from all different colors, backgrounds, races, etc., to really pick up... To take what they hear in these podcasts and then apply it. So life stories and hearing a little bit about you, I'm sure will inspire someone somewhere to pick things up, to experiment a little bit. So I just wanted to thank you for that. And I'm sure we'll see you in the forum and mentoring people at some point. And I'm glad that you're here. Thelma: No! I'm not mentoring anybody. Although I would love to get involved as a contributor, not as a mentor. Jonathan: Okay, well that would be great. If you wanted to contribute, we can touch base at some point. But just thank you for the little insights into your life and just some of the things that sort of popped up. I really appreciate it. So just stick on the call for now. But Thelma, thank you. If anyone would like to reach out to you, I'm sure you'd be open to that somehow. I won't be giving out your email to the whole of the world. But if anyone wants to reach out to Thelma, message me and we can take things from there. But thank you so much for your time. It's been a privilege to just have a chat and just stay on the call and we'll just touch base. Thelma: Thank you.

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