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How I Hacked My Husband's Programming Addiction

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There are worse things he could be addicted to. It could have been drugs, sex, porn, or the Candy Crush Saga. With my husband, who is a straight up sort of guy, it was computer science.

Computer engineers go by a number of different stage names: they are software developers, programmers, coders, hackers. For my husband, Marc, and many other hackers out there, programming isn't just a hobby or a career -- it is a way of life.

I often see the effects of coding manifest in his daily habits and tasks: the way he meticulously organizes his sock drawer and how he does the dishes using the least amount of water and soap yet somehow achieves the highest level of cleanliness.

Other times, I have been rather irked by the way coding has shaped his thought processes. When we disagree on something, for example, he always presents the most goddamned rational arguments laying them out in an obnoxiously coherent and systematic way.

"It's only logical," Marc the Vulcan would say.

"Damn it! I'm a human, not a boolean condition!" I'd declare, clearly emotionally compromised.

Marc's mind was a symphony of brackets, tags, semi-colons and logic operators. To me, it was just noise.

Even when he wasn't in front of his computer, he was constantly going over the grammar and syntax of lines he had programmed earlier in the day. And recently, when I was scheduled for a series of evening and weekend shifts in the newsroom, my husband reacted a little too enthusiastically -- because it meant he could continue hacking while I was at work.

"I'm jealous," I said. "Sometimes I think you enjoy programming more than you do spending time with me."

Marc's mind was a symphony of brackets, tags, semi-colons and logic operators. To me, it was just noise.

I commiserated with other women -- girlfriends and wives of computer programmers who told me how their partners often forgot to eat, drink or go to the bathroom.

Everyone had different tactics they used to try and get their significant other to stop programming:

One woman hid her husband's computer from him. She then exercised her absolute power by commanding him to clean the house.

Another young woman used a different kind of persuasion, walking around the apartment naked to get her boyfriend's attention. But even that failed.

I was dying to know: What motivated Marc to tinker with code every opportunity he had? What made programming so addictive?

To truly understand my husband's obsession I signed up to participate in Canada's largest "learn-to-code" event, in the hopes that I could enter his digital world and emerge transformed -- no longer a hacker's wife but a lady learning to code.

Coding 101

Organizers called the event the HTML500: a clever name considering 500 people were enrolled in the free workshop. But for me, I wondered if it was an omen that much could go wrong.

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The task was to build a website in six hours. We were guided through the basic concepts of HTML and CSS during two morning lectures led by teachers from Vancouver's Lighthouse Labs, then we were let loose to start creating our own projects. I chose to build an online resume. I had a couple of cheat sheets and a team of tutors at my disposal as I began writing my first few lines of code.

I made a headline. Typed in my name and my professional title. Added in my email address. Made my address a hyperlink. Went back and changed the color and stylization of the headline. I increased the font size. Then I uploaded a photo of myself. With every Command R, the live preview function allowed me to enjoy the fruits of my labor instantly. Though my code was simple and only a few lines long, I could see my website quickly becoming a reality.

Deep into it now, our free pizza lunch -- a hacker's favourite meal -- arrived. I found myself holding a slice of pepperoni in one hand, while my other hand moved furiously on my keyboard. I had picked up a programmer's worst habit. But there was no time to worry about clogged arteries. I had to keep building.

A red underscore appeared under one line of code, indicating a problem. I scrolled up in search of what was causing the error. Writers call this editing; developers call it "debugging." The lines I wrote came together to tell a story. There were ways to make the code neater and tighter -- just like writing.

For me, it wasn't the numbers and logic that made coding addictive. It was the very act of creating something that didn't exist before. When I asked the tutors what drew them to code, they talked about an adrenaline rush, the excitement of solving a seemingly unsurmountable puzzle, and then, having poured your time and energy into something for hours, to watch that something come to life. "It's like eating the delicious pork roast that has been stewing for hours," one lady learning to code told me.

Organizers told me 60 per cent of the participants at the HTML500 were women. Everyone had different reasons for choosing to spend their Saturday learning computer science:

"It's the easiest way to get a work permit."

"We could have gone to IKEA, but this was a unique date idea."

"Free lunch."

And then some more inspiring reasons:

"I like breaking something open, seeing what's inside and how it works."

"Because President Obama said, 'Don't just play on your phone. Program it.'"

And something very similar to what Marc once told me: "Programming is a continuous learning process. I love that I get to learn something new every day."

For me, it wasn't the numbers and logic that made coding addictive. It was the very act of creating something that didn't exist before.

For years now, I have always perceived my husband and me as opposites. I was the writer; he was the software developer. I wrote in English; he programmed in Common Lisp and Ruby. All along, the two disciplines demanded the very same aptitudes: persistence, creativity and problem solving.

A lot of people are learning to code these days, and it's not just those who are good at math. They are artists, musicians, journalists, even children who are expanding their horizons, believing that programming might be the literacy of the future.

There are so many good reasons to try it -- even if it is simply to better understand your partner. You never know how much you might like it yourself.

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