How I Became a Programmer

NYU's asbestos-filled math and CS building where I spent my undergrad

I started programming when I was 20. My original college plan was to major in mathematics and become a saxophonist (I didn’t feel like starving while I tried to make it as a musician).

Luckily, I had a crush on a computer science major so I tagged along with him to a programming team meeting. Progteam blew my mind: programming was like math, only fun! Majoring in math made me feel smart and dignified, but it was never like “Wow, this it fun.” It was more like “Ow, my brain hurts, but I guess it’s building brain muscles…”

It turned out I was good at computer science, so I decided (somewhat randomly) that I was getting into MIT for grad school, dammit. I knew they’d want to see research, so I asked a professor to mentor an independent research project. Over the next year, I did researched a classic optimization algorithm and wrote a paper on an algorithm I came up with to improve its performance for certain cases.

The problem was that, when the time came to apply to grad school, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to at all anymore. I had liked learning about optimization and coming up with a new algorithm, but I had hated research, in and of itself. I asked my parents for advice.

“Just apply,” they said. “Keep your options open.”

The computer science building at MIT

Grad school had been my goal for a while, so I applied to a couple of PhD programs. I half hoped that they would all reject me and make the choice easier. Of course, they all accepted me, even MIT (poor me</sarcasm>). I thought about it some more and told my parents that I still didn’t think I wanted to go.

“Just try a semester,” they said. “You can always leave if you don’t like it.”

I ended up accepting Columbia, not MIT. I had really liked every professor I met at Columbia, which I figured would give me more advisor options. Unfortunately, I continued to hate research and I was thoroughly sick of school. The next three months the most miserable of my life.

“Just stick it out,” said my parents. “Until you get a master’s degree, at least.”

I finally put my foot down. Usually they have good advice but I realized that this was their thing, not mine. I dropped out of grad school and got a job I loved. My parents were happy that I was happy and got over the disappointment that I would never be Dr. Chodorow. I’m still at the same job and couldn’t be happier.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m really thankful that I lucked into discovering computer science. Math kind of sucks.

kristina chodorow's blog