Slava Akhmechet

I am a cofounder of RethinkDB — an open-source distributed database designed to help developers and operations teams work with unstructured data to build real-time applications.



Learn to code like it’s 1996

09 Dec 2013

I’ve been meaning to write up my take on the learn to code movement for quite some time now, but for one reason or another haven’t managed to get around to it. Now that the president is endorsing Computer Science and telling Americans to learn to code, this post has jumped to the top of my priority list.

After all, I have a unique perspective on this movement that most commentators are missing. I was a Russian immigrant in NYC in 1996.

For the first two weeks after moving from Ukraine to New York, my family of five (my mom, dad, my mom’s parents, and myself) lived in a tiny two bedroom apartment on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn with my aunt’s family of five (my aunt, uncle, their teenage son, and their twenty-two year old daughter with her husband). It was a pretty good neighborhood, but very loud. We arrived just on the eve of the fourth of July and I distinctly remember being unable to sleep because of loud bangs of fireworks immediately followed by the pernicious whine of car alarms going off every few minutes.

For my thirteen year old self it was an adventure. For my parents, who were in their mid-forties and have never left the familiar confines of the Soviet Union before, it was a hell of a culture shock. Like most immigrants, “what have we gotten ourselves into” must have been all they were thinking those first few weeks.

My uncle, who was a math teacher back home, worked his ass off to support his family. He’d be out of the apartment by seven in the morning, working until 6pm in a furniture factory, building and delivering cheap convertible sofa beds for other Russian immigrant families. When he was done with his day job, he’d come home, take a quick shower, and be off to night school. He was, you guessed it, learning to code, in a class of thirty other middle aged Russian immigrants. He was learning to program the IBM AS/400.

1996 was smack in the middle of an enormous wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. By some accounts millions of people left to seek a better life all over the world, and a lion’s share of these people ended up in New York City. The infrastructure supporting these families was staggering — thousands of businesses ran and operated by Russian immigrants in Brooklyn alone, dozens of non-profit organizations helping with necessities and teaching the basics of the new American life (I still remember the four hour long waiting lines in NYANA — the New York Association for New Americans), special programs in high schools to help integrate Russian students via a smooth transition (it didn’t feel all that smooth, but it was better than nothing), and multiple Russian-American TV channels which provided some relief from the immense culture shock and offered a window into the soul of the Russian-American community.

At the time, becoming a limo driver was the bread and butter job for relatively healthy Russian males. You didn’t have to speak any English, the salaries were pretty good relative to other available opportunities, you could pick your hours to work around your trade school schedule, and the Wall Street firms were more than willing to subsidize the demand for a much needed supply. Every twenty minutes the Russian-American TV channels ran advertisements by various limo companies recruiting new drivers and promising the American dream (all the ads had a stereotypical-looking middle aged Russian immigrant sipping margaritas by a pool of his new house, surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis, all because he became a limo driver).

But the limo companies had competition for recruits. Various city, state, and federal government agencies offered grants to subsidize trade schools in order to help integrate the enormous wave of immigrants. The U.S. was in the middle of the dot-com boom, and the Russian immigrant community in New York felt it. Dozens of trade schools offered computer programming courses for the new immigrants in anything from AS/400 to Fortran to Visual Basic, all paid for by government agencies. The biggest schools advertised on the Russian-American TV channels competing with the limo companies for recruits directly. Why drive a limo all day, if you could learn to program computers? They showed overworked limo drivers shedding their Lincoln Towncars and buying expensive suits with briefcases, arriving to their newly minted high profile jobs in downtown Manhattan. In just a few short months, they said, you could have a much bigger salary doing an easier job. No cheesy houses with pools and bikini girls. The stereotypical-looking middle aged Russian immigrant in these ads was far more serious, a professional, living the real American dream.

The late nineties, Russian immigrant version of the learn to code movement really took off. Every once in a while you’d hear about someone who never finished high school back home going through one of these trade schools and getting a programming job, which made more people sign up. You couldn’t buy a loaf of Russian bread or take the Q train from Brooklyn to Manhattan without overhearing a conversation about someone going to one of these schools, or planning to start, or finally getting a job in a “real” company programming computers (as opposed to a job in one of the many stingy Russian businesses).

By 2000 the whole thing went bust. Most people taking these courses never managed to get a job, and everyone found out soon enough. Most of the few people that did manage to get jobs lost them after the dot-com crash. Everyone found out about that too. Trade school TV advertisements stopped entirely, replaced by advertisements of medical and dental offices. By 2005 everyone forgot about the whole thing.

I don’t know what it means for today’s learn to code movement, or whether there are any useful parallels to be drawn from its 1996 counterpart. In many ways today’s movement feels similar, but there are many crucial ways in which it’s different. All I know is that my uncle is one of the very few people who are to this day making a living programming the IBM AS/400.