School Advice

What We Can Learn From Russian Computer Programmers

Guy at Desk with Computer

Around the time that the high frequency trading boom came into play (2007–2009), there was a curious pattern associated with a seemingly odd number of employees in the game. Many of the best programmers, hired to make millions of dollars a day writing algorithms for giant banks like Goldman Sachs, were from Russia. Most of them grew up under the rule of the Soviet Union.

The reason this was so often the case, it was found, was that they had so little access to computer time. In America, we had the luxury of sitting at a computer while we program. We can write a program 10 or 20 times, on our computer, before we decide we want to finish. Under the Soviet Union, the computer time they had was usually measured in minutes.

If you didn’t know exactly what program you wanted to write, you weren’t going to get it done. It was as simple as that. As a result, their code was more efficient and clean—it had to be. They would spend hours thinking about exactly how their code had to run once they had their 15 minutes of computer time for the week.

There are two major things that jump out to me:

  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder. They started to love the 15 minutes they had on the computer, because they were apart from it and fantasizing about it in their head.
  • Being meticulous makes you understand things better. They would question every detail of their code, because once they had computer time there was no opportunity to try different things. They would effectively “test their software” in their heads before running it on the computer.

So, if you want to be motivated to study, think about #1, and make yourself fantasize about the studying experience you’re going to have. If you want to have better study habits, think about #2, and be meticulous with your studying habits. Try to understand details, because you’ll have to see the big picture to do that effectively.