Building, Not Destroying

The Building Blocks of Life
Credit: flickr / Diamondduste

When I was 5 or 6, the school thought I had learning difficulties because I couldn’t read. It transpired that it wasn’t so much couldn’t – as wouldn’t. I refused to read the nonsense little books about Little Jonny Red Hat. Clearly my aversion to things that I find pointless started at a young age. Once I discovered there was a world of interesting books, I was hooked.

So hooked that my mom worried I had social difficulties because I read so much.

I loved reading, but never wanted to be a writer. My friend in primary school though, she was going to be the writer. I was going to do something math-based instead. The degree of pigeon-holing is quite amusing now, I remember her winning a writing prize two consecutive years… for the same story.

High school, 11 or 12, I read much faster than my peers. We were to study Jane Eyre, and had to read it mostly in class. I loved this book, and devoured it 3 times whilst the rest of the class slowly ingested it. It was my new favourite.

Then we came to analyse it. It felt like we deconstructed every sentence, every motivation. All this hidden meaning was extracted from it. I thought then – and still do – that Charlotte Bronte was probably just trying to write a good story.

The book was destroyed for me, and I never read it again. About a year ago (so over 10 years later) I watched the BBC TV adaptation. It is, a great story.

I still read a lot, but mostly online and non-fiction. Business books, programming books, professional development books. I don’t take them to bits and analyse them. I read a lot of academic papers. My goal is always the same – what can I learn, how can I apply it?

I read code. Sometimes to understand it, sometimes to mark it, or improve it. How can this be written better, or more clearly? One of my favourite things to do as an instructor is to highlight some X lines of code and say, “you can do this in 4 lines instead”. I don’t discuss their motivation in naming their variables (names should be meaningful, that is all), or what the ordering of their methods within the class means in terms of their psyche.

It’s all about building. How do we build this, period? What is the best way to build it? What are our options, and the trade-off’s associated with them?

I used to think that I wanted to be an accountant, probably because that was the math-based career I knew about. But I can’t imagine being as happy with a profession where I didn’t get to build things. Where I solved problems I had fabricated rather than genuine ones.

I hated English because I had to deconstruct something I loved into a bunch of pieces that no longer made sense to me. I would hate to do that all day. I can’t find these deeper motivations. Trying to write a good story, find a beautiful turn of phrase, that’s all the motivation I see. People deconstruct politics, and sometimes I wonder if some decisions are made because someone didn’t have their coffee yet and was too proud to back down. Years later it’s analysed as part of a deeper geopolitical picture, and they become a hero – or a villan.  Working in environment, or charities, it seems like the problems are just too big to make a dent it.

So let me build you something. I can solve that problem, and make your day a little brighter. Just – don’t deconstruct my motivation. I just want to build things – that are useful, or beautiful, but sometimes, that holy grail… both.


Cate Huston is an alumna of IBM’s Extreme Blue program and will finish her Masters in Computer Science at the University of Ottawa researching influence and media contagion on Twitter by the end of 2010. She has a BSc (hons) in Computer Science from the University of Edinburgh. Cate has trained in martial arts in China and is a CSIA Level 2 certified ski instructor. She has taught programming in the UK, US, China and Canada and has developed programming curricula that was taught across the US. You can find her latest CC-licensed curriculum, developed for uOttawa here. Cate is the former president of Women in Science and Engineering at uOttawa and is currently Instigator of Awesome at Awesome Ottawa and an Editor of CompSci Woman. She blogs about technology, programming, effectiveness and life at Accidentally in Code and twitters as @catehstn.

2 thoughts on “Building, Not Destroying

  1. I used to get upset with my teachers for asking questions where they already knew the answer – even in primary school I didn’t see the point of doing research that had been done before. Not sure I’ve ever grown out of that, either…. :)

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