personal brand logoMatt McCarley
  • Front-end developer
  • UX designer
  • Wannabe CS nerd

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April 13, 2019

How Skateboarding Made Me a Better Dev

From 2001 to 2005, I was absolutely obsessed with skateboarding. I rode my skateboard from the time school let out until my parents forced me inside. Now, 15 years later, I am realizing that skateboarding prepared me for success as a developer.

Start With the Basics / Learning to Ollie

When I was 12 and my brother was 15, we were riding in the back of my parents’ Dodge Caravan when we both saw a kid riding a skateboard. We had seen skateboards before (we had one), so it wasn’t the fact that he was riding a skateboard that impressed us. It was that SOMEHOW, seemingly through magic, he was able to jump up the curb while the board remained stuck to his feet.

This was the “pre-internet era” for the McCarley household, so we couldn’t just search “how to jump a skateboard” on AskJeeves or something. The one thing we had was a Playstation demo disc with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on it. We pulled up the game and analyzed what the character was doing when he jumped (ollied). We used our VCR, to record the gameplay so we could slow it down frame by frame to see what the hell was going on.

Soon enough, we figured out it wasn’t magic after all. Through coordinated timing, it appeared you had to use your back foot to stomp down the back of the board while lifting up the front foot allowing the front of the board to lift up. Then, by scraping your front foot forward while jumping off your back foot, it forced the back of the board up into the air to meet the height of the front of the board. Seemed simple enough.

At that point, all we had was an old-school board with rail guards and no concave. Despite the shoddy equipment, every day after school we would stand in the driveway holding the side of my Dad’s fishing boat for support while trying to make that skateboard stick to our feet when we jumped.

One day, I came home from school and my brother was waiting to show me. HE DID IT. It was possible. The next few hours he explained to me how he finally figured it out and pretty soon I was able to do it myself. From that moment on, we were both hooked on skateboarding.

Doing Something New is Impossibly Hard, Until It’s Suddenly Not

The thing about skateboarding in general, especially at the beginning, is that it seems impossibly hard. It just doesn’t seem humanly possible to make a wooden board with metal trucks and plastic wheels do the things you see in magazines and videos.

Most new tricks I learned required thousands of attempts before a single success. I vividly remember the day that I learned to do a 360 flip. It’s not a terribly difficult trick, but I was still relatively new at this point. I spent an ENTIRE Saturday learning this trick. Throughout the day, I was getting closer to landing it but daylight was running out and I still hadn’t pulled off a clean rollaway.

With no one watching and feeling absolutely exhausted from a full day in the Summer sun, I FINALLY landed my first 360 flip. I couldn’t believe it! I now knew that I could do it and something clicked. That’s the best part of learning something new. The first success may require thousands of failed attempts, but the second may only require hundreds, the third tens, and before long it’s something you can do successfully the majority of the time.

Learning to code is a lot like this. My first attempts at solving JavaScript algorithms were on I would read the instructions, I would get a handle on the requirements, yet it would often take me HOURS before I was able to pass the challenge. But, when it would finally pass and I had a working algorithm, I got the same elated high that I got when I landed a trick for the first time.

The Joy is Proportional to the Challenge

If I had to pick the one takeaway from thousands and thousands of hours on a skateboard, it would be this: the joy of solving a challenge is directly proportional to the difficulty of the challenge. That’s what made me fall in love with skateboarding and that’s what keeps me hooked on programming and web development. It seems like magic at first. It appears impossibly hard. Then, “suddenly” it’s not. Suddenly, I’m successfully doing what used to seem like magic.