Tech Role Models: The story of Ahti Heinla

25 September 2016


If you are versed with the IT world of Estonia, you've probably heard the name of Ahti Heinla: Co-founder and Chief Technical Architect of Skype and KaZaA, he has also worked at another number of other startups. Today he is the CEO and CTO of Starship.

What you probably haven't heard how did Ahti get started into programming, most importantly, who inspired him to do so. Ahti has shared this precious story with us and you won't be surprise to know why we were so happy to read it and why we are now sharing it with you. Wait no more and read it in his own words:
I grew up in Mustamäe and Õismäe area of Tallinn, in the 1970s and 1980s. My parents were both computer programmers. At various times, they were working on creating a compiler for the Ada programming language, or a warehouse management system for a factory in Voronezh, Russia. As a young child, I was playing with punched cards or tapes. A special occasion was when my mother brought home a bucket full of punched tape "holes" - small round pieces of paper that was the waste product of punching holes into the tapes. My mother sometimes took me with her to work when she had booked computer time in the evening, so I knew what a computer was - it was a room full of boxes and cabinets with lots of electronics and cables inside. I was often running around and inside computers to kill time, while my mother typed in a program she had written at home on paper sheets.

Parents usually teach children various stuff. When I was in 2nd grade, my father taught me 3rd grade maths. One evening, when I was 10, my mother came home from work, and told me she wanted to teach something new to me. She opened a book that had PASCAL written on it. She explained that we could together program a computer to solve a puzzle. If you had 50 roubles, and went to a bookstore to spend it all, and there were three kinds of books available, with prices 2, 3, and 5 roubles, then how many of each kind would you need to buy, to spend exactly all of the money? She explained what IF and FOR statements were. And how we should lay out the program to solve the puzzle. It took three evenings. On the third evening, she let me write the most complicated part by myself. When I did it right, she said I had understood the essence of programming.

I went on learning more on my own. I worked part-time as a junior (really junior) developer at the same institute my parents worked at. When I later decided to pursue computer programming as a profession, my mother was not happy though. She said I better learn a proper masculine profession, like electronics perhaps; programming is a woman's job (naistetöö). Indeed, at the institute, all the electronics engineers were men. Programmers were a mixed crowd. This was 1991. By now, my profession has not changed that much, but the gender balance has. So I still ended up having a proper masculine job.

But I am not happy about it. In the software industry, we are using just a bit over half of the brainpower we could be using. At Starship, where I am working now, I am happy that it is not an all-male crowd. We still do not have any female software developers, but it would be great to change that soon!
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