That was my answer as a kid, whenever someone used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I didn’t know what it meant. To this day I don’t. I just knew that physics as a subject fascinated me, and I just wanted to have some career path in physics, because I would get to do it all day. But I had no idea what it meant to have a career in physics. Maybe a researcher? But I was more interested in applications than research. Maybe an astronaut? It was as mythical as it sounded.
I didn’t know anyone who I could talk to and find out more.
It was also the peak dot-com time. People were still trying to understand programming as a career, but everybody knew that the money you would make as a programmer would be better than what you would in most other professions. There seemed to be only one path that everybody would recommend - learn programming, go to the Silicon Valley, and earn lots of money!
I was in 7th grade, and my dad had enrolled me in programming classes. Our family knew someone who had just started those classes in our town. I started learning BASIC. Though I really liked the problem solving part of it, the application of it was very boring - you would create a program for saving employee records, or calculate the total price of an order, or write a program to create personalized letters based on a list of people records in a file.
My fascination for physics continued. My teacher had recommended that I buy the “Resnick and Halliday” book to explore my interest beyond the regular coursework. In a tier 2 town, in a pre-internet world, I had no idea how to get it. I tried all the book stores in town, but almost all of them had never heard of that book. One day, when my dad and I were visiting an old book store I found that they had it among a pile of other damaged books. I still can’t thank my stars enough to this day. A quarter of the book was immersed in water and dried up, and in spite of that, it was super expensive, as it was an “imported” book. My dad asked me if I still really wanted it, and when I said yes, he bought it for me without second thoughts. 22+ years later, it still continues to be my prized possession.
I wanted to take Physics as my major in college, as I knew that was probably the last irreversible decision towards a preferred career path. But it was a sacrilege in the eyes of everyone around me, because I had the opportunity and privilege to pursue Computer Science, the most desirable field, and something that every other person would choose in a heart beat. So I finally chose Computer Science as the major, but couldn’t escape the feeling of “I wish someone paid as much to be a physicist as they do to be a programmer”.
While I would probably never escape that feeling, there was one incident that happened a few months into college, that would single handedly changed my perspective towards programming. That is when I saw “The Matrix”. I found my love for programming because of this movie. And it is fair to say that I wouldn’t have been happy and satisfied in my career choice, if not for The Matrix.
Culturally movies play a very important role in shaping the thinking of people. What is right, what is wrong, what is moral, what is acceptable, what is questionable - movies both show what are the cultural norms, and simultaneously have the ability to challenge the status quo.
Matrix is the first movie to my knowledge (or at least the one I saw) where a programmer was the protagonist. In a world where movies were normally made on superheroes, secret agents, sports persons, epics, ships, romance, horror etc. suddenly there was a movie where everything was about programming. Characters were programs, the world is a program, the world needs to be saved from a program. And it was a programmer doing it, not a superhero or a secret agent. And it was so motivating.
Neo works for a software company. The job let’s him pay his bills, but he is totally disinterested in his work. That is when Morpheus shows him what a program could be capable of, and what Neo himself could be capable of. He tells him a program is a blank slate. You could create anything. You could do anything. You are only bounded by your imagination. Whatever you can think of, you can write code and bring it to life.
This was eye opening for me! Nobody had told me that before. I thought you would just write some code to get some job done, but suddenly, being able to bring any idea to life using code seemed like a superpower. All those scenes - starting from Neo taking the red pill, to Morpheus explaining what The Matrix is, to Morpheus training Neo, to Neo starting to believe in himself, and finally Neo saying that he’s ready - were just so mind blowing to me. Until then, you, as a viewer, are as clueless as Neo as to what The Matrix is. When Morpheus is explaining things to Neo, he is explaining it to you. When Neo starts to understand, you start to understand. When Morpheus is trying to free Neo’s mind, he’s trying to free your mind as well. At the end of the movie, there is this all-consuming feeling of “I want to write some code, and kick some ass! Anything is possible, and it’s all in the mind!”.
(There’s one other movie that gives me this feeling of wanting to write some code every time I watch it - The Social Network. While it is not even in the same league as The Matrix, it was one movie that accelerated my journey towards starting something up.)
I was also very fascinated by the opening scene in The Matrix, where a sequence of numbers keep flowing on the screen vertically. When they started teaching us assembly programming, the first thing I wanted to do was to recreate something similar. I didn’t know how easy or difficult it was going to be, but I wanted to try. With a few hours of experimentation, I was able to get to a working version. Luckily, I still have that code :)
It was magical. Going from an idea to actually seeing what you wanted to see was possible because of code. Programming need not be about getting some boring jobs done, but it was about making whatever you are thinking a possibility. It was like being a painter or a musician who could bring ideas to life without anybody else’s help. The ability to create something out of thin air. The ability to make things, where what you can make is only bounded by your imagination.
And suddenly this is all I wanted to do!
A couple of days ago, the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections was released. I hadn’t even seen The Matrix Revolutions until a few months ago, as I didn’t want to ruin the experience of being a Matrix fan, which had peaked post The Matrix Reloaded. I will probably watch Resurrections anyways, and it will be just another movie. But the trailer sent me down a huge rabbit hole of nostalgia.
Here’s to The Matrix for being an influential movie of the generation, and for making the world of programs a very motivating, happy and a content career choice for me.