back to article 'Geek gene' denied: If you find computer science hard, it's your fault (or your teacher's)

Assume for the sake of argument that computer science grades are bimodal: there's a distinct group of students who excel at the subject, and then there's everyone else in another group. Computer science researchers at the University of Toronto – namely, Elizabeth Patitsas, Jesse Berlin, Michelle Craig, and Steve Easterbrook – …

  1. imanidiot Silver badge

    lack of genes or lack of trying?

    I doubt a clear bimodal peak would be seen even if there IS such a phenomenon. Since there are those students who have a hard time but manage to put their nose to the grindstone and learn anyway and there are those that can do it with 2 fingers up their nose but don't put in even a modicum of effort and fail anyway. I think this would smear the results enough to make any bimodal effect all but invisible.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      The amount of effort put into something is definitely what is most important. Those lucky ones who "get it" and surf on their ability would become outstanding if they put in the same effort as those desperately trying to get a passing grade.

      1. Tom7

        I suspect that having a liking for something is more important than having a "gift" for it. I remember hearing concert pianist interviewed some years ago. I don't recall the exact words, but the interview went something like this:

        Interviewer: "Do you feel privileged to be so gifted at something so unique?"

        Pianist: "I'm not gifted."

        I: "But look at what you've achieved. You're one of the best pianists ever. You must have a gift for it."

        P: "No. Anyone could do what I do. All you need is the willingness to practice the piano for ten hours of every day of your life."

        Not many people have the willingness to put that sort of time into *anything*, and so not many people are that good at anything. Some people start something and really, really like it, and that gives them the impetus to keep going and work at it.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Yes, you are right that some achieve great things through working at it and it is easier to do that if they enjoy it. But there are people who progress much more quickly with less work.

          Usually people who reach the top have the talent and aptitude "gift" and put in the hard work to get ahead of the other people with talent and aptitude. Those without the talent and aptitude won't get there, like a jockey is never going to be a prop forward in the six nations and a prop forward is never going to win the Derby.

          Do you remember kids at school that have beautiful handwriting? They didn't practice handwriting more than me with my scrawl. In fact I practised like crazy trying to improve it, but my fine motor control just wasn't going to do it. Our central nervous systems vary as much as our physiology.

          That pianist is just saying what they all say, it's good PR and they want recognition for their work.

          1. Peter2 Silver badge

            There are 9 (currently recognised) areas in the brain (namely motor control, object recognition, spacial processing, attention span, language, memory, executive function, emotion, and artistry) that will function at different levels in any person.

            People with better systematising and memory skills are more likely to be drawn to STEM as these fields reward people who can remember obscure but important facts and the ability to think logically.

            Secondly, this is checking people aspiring to have a MCP, PHD, CITP ETC. The discussion in the forum is about people in IT with a J.O.B. The two may or may not overlap. I recall working in a largish IT department where out of ~70 people surveyed as to qualifications we had one IT degree, one CCNA, one PRINCE2 and a lot of productive workers who were still working there (years or decades after) their probation periods because they got a lot of work done.

            I'd put a grizzled & greyhaired IT department up against a well qualified department anyday with an expectation that 20 years of experiance will trump 20 months of education in most cases.

        2. Mark Dempster

          That pianist also omitted to say that having long fingers is a clear advantage. Without them your ability to play some chords is quite restricted.

          1. Novex

            Wasn't it Rachmaninov who had particularly big hands and composed some of his piano pieces taking that into account, meaning even some very 'gifted' piano players just can't play those pieces because their hands just aren't big enough?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Wasn't it Rachmaninov who had particularly big hands and composed some of his piano pieces taking that into account, meaning even some very 'gifted' piano players just can't play those pieces because their hands just aren't big enough?

              And I seem to remember in the film Gattaca a piano piece requiring 12 fingers?

              That was a "gifted" pianist there.

            2. IanRS

              Rachmaninov 12th

              Yes. There is a chord known as the Rachmaninov 12th, which is (right hand version) thumb on tonic, forefinger on 5th, middle on octave, then next third and next fifth. e.g. C G C E G.

        3. Lars Silver badge


          Decent normal intelligent people don't tend to brag about their talent. For that you need something totally different, like a Trump,

          I do believe kids have a different set of talents from the beginning, music is one where I think we are indeed unequally talented. Still one of our big problems is that we are very talented at killing kids talents from very early on.

          And then there are teachers, good teachers (to be kind) and teachers with the ability to make it interesting.

          Like, suppose you have to teach a bunch of kids about Pi. So there you go, drawing a circle and its diameter. By then, when you babble about the ratio, some of the more advanced kids will think cunt and look smug, some if not asleep will fall asleep. But if you now ask them what they need to know in order to work out the speed of the Earth around the Sun you might have their attention, and you can throw in an AU and why not some planets and moons losing no time.

          I would suppose teaching kids a programming language has similar problems, spending too much time babbling about the syntax is not good, there has to be a task a problem to solve very early on or they end up knowing "all the best words" but with no knowledge of how to fit them together.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        The amount of effort put into something is definitely what is most important. Those lucky ones who "get it" and surf on their ability would become outstanding if they put in the same effort as those desperately trying to get a passing grade.

        The question is, and I ask myself every day,

        "Does my greediness exceed my laziness?"

        As the answer is always no, I remain not outstanding.

    2. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: lack of genes or lack of trying?

      Aptitude. Different people have aptitudes for different things. I had to work seriously hard and practise for hours on end over several years to learn the guitar, but I've seen people pick them up and become very competent in a few weeks. My son is doing further maths at A level after getting a GCSE A*, yet he never spends any time studying. It just all comes naturally to him.

      Same with developers. There are those that can hold a picture of pointers and multi-threads and in their head and some that just cant think beyond the loop that they are in. Some will get there through hard work, some will do it naturally.

      I don't know where the ability comes from, but our minds vary just as much as our physiology does.

      Personally, I've been in this business for decades, but I only fell into it because there was nothing else I could do. I don't even like it, but I make it work, much like a 7 stone hod-carrier would develop into the role. But a 15 stone of muscle hod carrier would adapt much quicker.

      1. PatientOne

        Re: lack of genes or lack of trying?

        I'd say you need a degree of aptitude simply to get started, but success is more dependent on interest.

        After all, if you're not interested you won't apply yourself to a subject even if you've got the aptitude.

        Where as if you're interested, you can't succeed, no matter how hard you try, if you've no aptitude (don't believe me: Listen to me try and play the Saxaphone. Or don't: It'll save your ears).

        So the limit is a combination: Interest, in order to want to pursue a subject, and aptitude, to see just how far you can get with it. Study can compensate for aptitude to a degree, but you'd still need the greater aptitude to progress far.

        As for where aptitude comes from: Well, part is nature, part is nurture. How our brains wire up gives us the base line tools we then need to learn how to use. It's quite a study, particularly if you're interested in cognitive psychology and Artificial Intelligence.

        1. Daniel von Asmuth

          There are 2 kinds of students

          - some students Excel at CS

          - other students barely understand a Word

          - disabled students fail trying to Access the class room

          - fuutre managers suck at maths, but show intuitive Visio

          - students from poor families lack Outlook on the job market.

          - some are Explorers who learn the subject by trial & error

          - native students have an Edge over immigrants

          - ambitious students work hard to score a PowerPoint

          - prettier students reach the Frontpage.

  2. Steve Button Silver badge


    Just because it's not bimodal, doesn't mean everyone can achieve it. Some people just get it, and find it really easy. Others just can't get it however hard they try. Most of us are somewhere in between. It's a spectrum.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nonsense.

      Exactly. If I had to work really hard at this stuff I'd find another career. I've been doing it for 30 years....

    2. K

      Re: Nonsense.

      Sounds like they were measuring some of the moron's I've worked with in the past, people who have been trained what buttons to click, but have no comprehension of the underlying principles or technologies.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        They're also analysing people who have chosen to take a computer science at graduate (or is post-grad?) level - and apparently completed the course without dropping out.

        ISTM that anyone who'd tried computing and completely failed to grasp the concepts would not have got this far.

        1. Dom 3

          Re: Self-selection

          "All the kids who did great in high school writing pong games in BASIC for their Apple II would get to college, take CompSci 101, a data structures course, and when they hit the pointers business their brains would just totally explode, and the next thing you knew, they were majoring in Political Science because law school seemed like a better idea" -

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Nonsense.

        "people who have been trained what buttons to click, but have no comprehension of the underlying principles or technologies."

        Those people exist in every arena.

        They're the ones who answer that XYZ is done that way because it's always been done that way.

        They're the ones who never thought to ask WHY things are done that way

        And they're the ones who will keep trying to do things that way when circumstances have changed and that way is no longer appropriate.

        Many of them gravitate to civil service, teaching or large multinationals because such organisations are tribal and punish the brilliant whilst encouraging mediocracy.

        They are the people who will eventually cause those organisations to fail unless they're periodically weeded out and the brilliant allowed to succeed.

    3. DropBear

      Re: Nonsense.

      Exactly. Can't qualify any of the mumbo-jumbo but there ABSOLUTELY IS aptitude involved - I have exactly zero interest in trying to look good (you really stop caring about that kind of thing past a certain age) but I'm keenly aware that the specific reason I got into digital electronics (but stayed far away from analog!) and later computers is that I always found it easy to think of logical relations very clearly - I could just hold and see it all at once in my head. I could simultaneously see every last one of the physically possible ways a bug could have been caused in a microchip, and finding the actual problem was a simple elimination of which ones weren't causing it - never really needed more than an LED or the occasional scope to debug something, never needed to inspect internal state. I know for a fact not everyone does this sort of thing - I do suck at most other things (and I have a strong suspicion the exact same wiring fault that makes me irredeemably socially awkward and blind to non-verbal cues is the one that makes me good at this), but this is just something I do. And I can assure you, no amount of studying can replace it...

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Nonsense.

        "I could just hold and see it all at once in my head."

        I find the same thing - the ability to more or less visualise things which are intrinsically invisible. I think it's a form of synesthesia. There were a number of instances where Feynman gave examples of what seems to have been synesthesia such as seeing equations in colour. I suspect talent in any direction is at least greatly aided by an individual ability to adapt mental functionality from one specific area to another.

        A further example might be the ability to memorise large numbers of facts. Those who can do it explain it in terms of imagining a story or a journey which prompts the facts. If I try to do that it simply becomes an extra layer of difficulty, not an aid.

    4. Kubla Cant

      Re: Nonsense.

      Exactly. The results of the study demonstrate the limited ability of the CS course and its final exams to discriminate on the basis of innate ability. Which is as it should be: the exam isn't designed to spot outliers.

    5. Marshalltown

      Re: Nonsense.

      ... It's a spectrum.

      I believe that was actually their conclusion. The distribution is a Normal one and all other things being equal, your position on that curve is proportional to the effort you put into it. There is no bimodal curve, all the really gifted and the sadly lacking do is create the tails on the bell's skirt.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nah, having none of it.

    Genetic memories are a "thing".

    My parents have had NO interest in technology of any kind since the year dot.

    However, he who provided one half of my genetic (i'm adopted!) mix was an electrician.

    As the ONLY family member with any interest in IT/Electronics etc and have had that "gift" since i was old enough to walk, where did the inclination come from???

    1. Lee D

      Re: Nah, having none of it.

      My dad's a car mechanic.

      I hate cars.

      I hate mechanics.

      I hate repairing mechanical things.

      I literally have no idea about whether my repair will hold or is strong or imagine the logistical problems of things moving around.

      I was 30 before I learned to drive, out of necessity only.

      My brother is 40 and still never bothered to learn to drive.

      My parents are not at all mathematically or academically inclined. They barely have a single City & Guilds between them. You can just about trust them to send a Facebook message so long as you talk them through it. My brother and I are both mathematics graduates and know IT inside out - he teaches it, I manage it.

      Nurture and random chance has infinitely more to do with what you're interested in, what clicks for you, what teachers you had, what your peers attitude was (e.g. for me, I was an outcast already so their opinion meant nothing to me anyway and they all "hated maths") than anything to do with your genes. Your genes might provide for a slight arrangement of the brain to make things easier, but it has nothing to do with your actual area of specialism, or even something as simple as "creativity/logic" splits.

      The brain's a blob until you pop into the world and then everyone's experience is unique.

      P.S. Living with a geneticist. Her mum's an artist, her sister is an expert on medieval history, her dad runs a museum and she's the only clinical scientist in the family. Genes have little part to play there.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Nah, having none of it.

        "Living with a geneticist. Her mum's an artist, her sister is an expert on medieval history, her dad runs a museum and she's the only clinical scientist in the family. Genes have little part to play there.


        Someone who works in a field where it is necessary to be good at collecting and marshalling data has a sister and father in fields needing similar skills - seems legit to me.

        In my family engineering skills skipped a complete generation, but my great-great- grandfather was a metalworker in brass, copper and silver; my great-grandfather was a blacksmith; my grandfather worked on signalling; another great-grandfather invented a piece of railway technology; another great-great-grandfather was involved in the design of steam locomotives. The WW2 generation did nothing technical at all, then suddenly we had a chemist, a rocket scientist and a computer engineer who accidentally got involved in some metallurgy and spent eight years sorting out metallurgical problems as a side job. It's anecdotal but I find it hard to believe that there isn't something there that shows itself if it gets triggered by early exposure.

        I do think though that some of the apparent bimodality is simply due to upbringing. House full of books and gadgets where parents take an interest versus house with no books and TV on all the time. Perhaps a lazy generalisation, but talent is notoriously mostly about hard work; it's just that if you have been brought up in a certain environment, you may think you have an easy time of it when actually you are working harder than most of the people around you. I grew up assuming you brought your work home and sometimes went in at weekends because that's what my father did.

  4. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Black differently abled gay height challenged single mothers in Computer Science!

    In light of this assertion, lack of diversity in technology recruitment becomes more difficult to excuse as a consequence of natural ability.

    I know where the author is going with this but lack of any significant pattern in the student population does not justify to force "diversity" on employers for the sake of it - because employers are not hiring in the same population, especially not if that population is reframed by adding more "diversified" people.

    1. DavCrav

      Re: Black differently abled gay height challenged single mothers in Computer Science!

      "In light of this assertion, lack of diversity in technology recruitment becomes more difficult to excuse as a consequence of natural ability.

      I know where the author is going with this but lack of any significant pattern in the student population does not justify to force "diversity" on employers for the sake of it - because employers are not hiring in the same population, especially not if that population is reframed by adding more "diversified" people."

      I'd go much further than all this. I'd say the author has taken a study that shows that coursemarks across a specific population is roughly normal, as with many things in life, and then extrapolated that to claim that this means that all substrata of the population are equally adept at things, which is a no-no.

      For a start, the dataset is hideously self selecting, almost the epitome of such: final-year computer science undergrads. Now come on; if there were a geek gene, you would rather hope that all of these people have it in the first place, so we are looking only at the 'cans'. This is specifically against the author of the article here, not the paper itself.

      For the authors of the original paper, I assume they looked at pre-moderated marks, and not those after they have been fit to a curve? I couldn't find any mention of this in their paper, but since this is trick-cycling and I actually have real maths to be getting on with, I didn't look too hard.

      Secondly, finally for the off-the-top-of-my-head-reasons-why-this-paper-is-rubbish, exams are designed to get a normal distribution. We write a few questions that everyone will get, then attempt to write a few questions that some will, some won't, and a few very hard questions, to get this nice distribution of people.

      To be fair to the authors of the study, they are trying to prove that computer science results at university level are normally distributed, just like every other subject. And they succeed at that, although my reasons above are a pretty good explanation for that even if the underlying population ability is bimodal. And then the trick-cycling comes in, and it's garbage from then on. They miss out one very good reason why lecturers think distributions are bimodal: because the people they see are bimodal. Interactions with students are mostly with the very weak and the very able, with those in between being largely invisible until exam time.

      Final grade for the paper: 55%. A solid upper second, but not enough critical analysis to get onto most graduate training programmes at major companies.

  5. David M


    There is a difference between ability and interest. There are lots of things I could do perfectly well, but I choose not to because I'm just not that interested, and I think that's what's happening here. Lots of people have the necessary skills for a career in computing, but just don't feel drawn in that direction. I suspect that this, rather than ability, is the primary reason for there being so few women in computing and engineering, and it's this that we should be trying to understand.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Interest

      @David M - agreed, but there's also the dead weight of the past to cope with too. Once an area of endeavour has acquired a certain reputation, it can be damnably hard to shake it ff, no matter whteher its reputation is deserved or not. In the case of computing, it's acquired a reputation for being both hard and geeky, and that's enough in itself to put some folk off, irrespective of what their skillset is and whether it could enable them to be good at IT.. It's also acquired a reputation as being rather a male preserve and for attracting social misfits. Given that and the fairly extensive evidence of anti-social trolling against women on t'internet, then it's hardly surprising that more women haven't felt inclined to get into IT. Add in the still prevalent for women to get paid less and promoted els frequently than male colleagues..

      That said - there seem to be way more women in IT these days than when I got started, so hopefully things are improving. I did find during a brief spell in which I was teaching IT to YTSers that if anything the girls tended on average to do better than the boys on average, but motivation seemed to play a large part there, and the boys expressed a lot more confidence (even if ill-founded) than the girls.

      As for myself - I'm rather fed up with it all, to be honest, and would far rather be spending more time on my leisure interests, but IT pays the bills, hey-ho.. :-}

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Interest

      "Lots of people have the necessary skills for a career in computing, but just don't feel drawn in that direction."

      If they're not draw to it they're not going to develop the skills. If you meant aptitude then much the same thing applies - if they're not drawn to it you're not going to discover whether they have the aptitude or not.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

        Re: Interest

        Interest (even enthusiasm), aptitude, and a lot of hard work all go into making a good student at anything, I would say (is there an Ig Nobel prize for stating the bleeding obvious?). Which of these factors is most important is almost impossible to determine because they are interlinked. Did I become good at maths because I worked hard? Perhaps, but it didn't feel like work at the time, I just enjoyed playing around with mathematics. On the other hand, maybe I enjoyed playing around with mathematics because I was getting good results. Being good at something can really stimulate you to do more of it, and doing more really makes you better.

    3. David Black

      Re: Interest

      Quite agree, why is there no panic about the fact that nursing is still >90% female? Is it because males are somehow lacking in apptitude or education? Balls.

      1. quxinot

        Re: Interest

        "Quite agree, why is there no panic about the fact that nursing is still >90% female? Is it because males are somehow lacking in apptitude or education? Balls."

        Had to laugh, after making my comment previously on this article. I'm a nurse, and male.

        There are several reasons why there aren't more men in nursing, but that's a giant rant for another day. And in nursing is where I learned what comically self-serving research looks like.

        As for the last word of your post: Yes, they're very rare in nursing. Seems odd to me though, I mean, I wake up, put on what look like pyjamas, and work with 98% women. If this is somehow not "manly", I'm not seeing it. :)

  6. Dan 55 Silver badge

    We need moar programmers, unleash the papers, Smithers

    Of course genetics is a thing. There are kids who can't see further than kicking a football round the playground, those who are good with languages, and there are those that are interested in how stuff works, and you can see it from a very early age.

    IT is something I fell into, but if they told me it was going to be like this I might have worked harder in Geography which I was also good at (according to grades).

  7. Novex

    Aspergers, etc

    It's possible that conditions such as Aspergers, which are fairly prevalent in the tech community as I understand it, could explain some of the 'geek' element. People with Autistic traits tend to find it easier to concentrate on highly focussed tasks at the expense of social distraction, meaning any subject which requires some degree of intense study to do well in (what subject doesn't?) may be easier for them to do. Socially adept people (that is, NTs) may find it harder to keep their focus on difficult subjects and hence find them less easy (but not impossible) to do well in.

    1. Cari

      Re: Aspergers, etc

      Yes but our betters don't ever like to acknowledge aspergers or people on the spectrum unless they can use them for their own ends. You will see it a lot in articles and discussions that are critical of geek cultures, the tech and science industry etc. These articles do everything they can to erase and put down any traits and behaviours that are remotely associated with ASD. I've noticed this and I'm not even on the spectrum, and the many AS folks I know have seen it too. Studies like this (or more likely, the articles based on them) are an excuse for those that have a bee in their bonnet to bash the peeps that have a mental condition that can actually help them excel in a desirable field, rather than hinder them. It's one of today's acceptable forms of prejudice from our "progressively enlightened" betters.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Aspergers, etc

        I was going for an Internal job, I have asperger's, but the manager overseeing the interview was refusing to give me the job, due to my 'problematic relations' with colleagues. The TL in the interview stood firm and I got the job. However, the job involved an additional role, which included developing a full company wide sharepoint publishing site.

        I, nor any of the other interviewees, had any JS, HTML, or Sharepoint experience, but because I got the job, I was able to sit and learn, and build something that exceeded requirements in 4 months.

        The other guys who also went for the job, when they saw what I was doing, were glad they never got the role, because they would have been incapable of doing what I did.

        So ironically, the condition that caused me to not be wanted for the role, is the same condition that meant I was the only person suitable for the role. That must be costing businesses millions around the world..

    2. the Jim bloke Silver badge

      Re: Aspergers, etc

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Self selecting

    They studied the papers of people who had opted to do CS.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Self selecting

      That's correct. And the result was that the people in this area of study were no different to any other area.

  9. davcefai

    I think the researchers were studying the wrong thing. To my mind, what matters is a particular, possibly disciplined, way of thinking.

    Yes/No and very few shades of grey. I once worked very closely with a man who went on to hold a *very* senior Civil Service post with great success. He bragged that he always explored all possible options, even the unlikely ones and was horrified when I said that once I saw a suitable option I followed it. Any time wasted was less that his exploration of "everything"

    However I had to explain, in "Peter and Jane" language, how and why we backed up our data. We turned out some superb work together but I think that this may indicate that what the researchers should have looked at was not a sample of computer students but a sample of people and studied how their methods of thinking affected their geekiness.

  10. Milton

    Goats n Sheep

    I'll make no argument for a gene or otherwise that separates sheep from goats. I don't know why it is, and furthermore I don't know either the methodology used by these latest researchers nor the curriculum and examinations used to determine success or failure.

    What i do know is it's possible to study Comp Sci, and actually come away with some practically useful knowledge of the topic (always a nice bonus where a degree course is concerned), without being, at the end of the day, much of a coder.

    And that IS the point about sheep and goats, as will be verified by pretty much anyone who has tried to get people of any age, intellectual ability and previous achievement to learn to code properly: some people take to it naturally, even eagerly, sometimes positively excited, and see into the topic and logic very quickly. Others, even when they can get a program working, just Do Not Get It. And the DNGIs are not necessarily dumb, or lazy, or poorly educated: even some really smart people just don't grok code.

    I suspect but obviously cannot prove that if the studies looked at coding ability in particular, perhaps specifically testing for innate comprehension of program logic, instead of just viewing Comp Sci grades, we'd have seen a different split.

    For my part, maybe I'm out on a limb here, but I suspect most good coders know this well: they picked it up quickly and sank into the subject like it was a warm bath; and every one of them knows smart people who DNGI, no matter what you or they try to do.

    I'm open to being wrong about this (in fact, it would be good to be wrong) but after 25 years in IT, I'm afraid I believe it: where coding is concerned, there are sheep; and there are goats.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Goats n Sheep

      I drifted into the IT industry in the 1960s. Programming at machine code level made no sense to me - until I delved deeper into understanding how the CPU actually worked. That was when my teenage obsession with radio and electronics came in useful.

      After a while I was exceptionally good at diagnosing system problems in the grey area of complex hardware/software/user interactions.

      Give me a new type of machine/OS/application and I hate it. Give me a problem involving it and my tenacity would drive me to finding the answer that had eluded the specialists. Not exactly a good life/work balance. It's my character traits plus possibly above average "intelligence" that produce the combination to achieve the successes.

      As one boss remarked "I ought to fire you because you are so slow. The problem is that when you have finished - it works as it should".

  11. Known Hero

    I call Bullshit

    There is a very good reason why I don't get a job as a programmer. I don't have the right mindset to write good code. I have no doubt I can be taught to write code better than what I cobble together now, But you cannot teach a natural affinity to writing code.

    So if we try hard enough we can be as ground breaking as Isaac Netwon ? well now I feel like crap I havn't solved the world's energy crises purely because I didnt "try hard enough".

    *please can we have middle finger icon.

  12. AndrewDu

    "nearly everyone is capable of succeeding in the computer science curriculum if they work at it."

    Nearly everyone is capable of succeeding in the computer science curriculum if they're interested and they work at it.


    This, I suspect, is what lies behind the much-vaunted gender mismatch in the IT business. Yeah, I'm pandering to stereotypes. So sue me.

    1. Lee D


      Nearly everyone is capable of succeeding at juggling if they work at it.

      It's easy to say that for ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING. And it very much depends on your definition of working.

      I cannot juggle. But if I spent every day for ten years practicing for eight hours a day, I'm certain I could be a competent, but probably not gifted, juggler. Does it mean that I should do that rather than, say, a bit of maths that comes really easy to me? No.

      Why we want to force computer science (as opposed to "computing" which EVERYONE should learn as a basic skill alongside reading and writing) on people, I can't fathom. People CANNOT all code to a decent standard. Not without decades of effort. And most people will NEVER need to. They'll need to send email, they won't need to be writing an SMTP server. It's entirely different.

      To use a car analogy, there are millions of drivers. But there are only thousands of mechanics. Though we can probably all repair our cars given enough time, tuition and money thrown at training us, it's not efficient to make EVERY driver a mechanic. But every driver SHOULD know how to do a hill-start, which is a basic skill.

      That's why we test you on hill-starts, but don't ask you to strip down your brake linings on the driving test.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "But every driver SHOULD know how to do a hill-start, which is a basic skill."

        The problem with that is that it isn't any such thing - it's an artefact of the bad design of cars until quite recently (so is the manual gearbox). My cars both deal with hill starts all by themselves, thank you, along with things irrelevant to actual driving like gear changes, operating the lights and the wipers. I hope by the time I reach 70 that cars will do a lot more than that. When I'm driving I can give my full attention to the behaviour of things around me. (I know someone, highly intelligent but a terrible driver, who keeps nearly having accidents at junctions because he still can't cope with gears and has to look down to change into 2nd, but won't buy an automatic because he considers that in some way this would be to admit defeat.)

        We teach basic arithmetic in school even though calculators are now cheaper in real terms than a set of Cambridge log tables were in the 1960s. Computer science is a general framework skill which applies to all sorts of things - if you know it, it is possible to use it to handle all kinds of day to day problems - in the abstract it doesn't require the use of an instrument called a computer, or of programming languages. Children should understand the idea of problem solving and task simplification through the basic programming constructs, at the very least. Coding is just the expression of the solution to a problem that can be handled by a computer.

        1. Lee D

          Your manual driving licence qualifies you to operate any manual car ever made.

          Just because YOUR car doesn't have it, doesn't mean you shouldn't be tested on it, especially if you are then considered "competent" in driving a 1960's manual-choke, manual-gearbox, no-assistive-tech car by doing so.

          That would be like a computer test only using a particular version of Windows, and being left in the lurch on any other version or operating system. I mean, who'd be stupid enough to pay for something like that?!

          And problem analysis is entirely different to coding, and entirely separate and part of other things that are not in the scope of computing or computer science at all . Teach that as a separate skill entirely (part of verbal and non-verbal reasoning in schools). We already do that. It's a "core" skill, not something computing-only. But coding is inherently computer science, not computing. Specialist, not mainstream. In the same way that we teach a LITTLE bit of component identification in computing, we teach a LITTLE bit of coding. It helps identify those good at it, and it provides a groundwork to understand what it is. But we shouldn't be forcing every man, woman and child to be knocking out apps and programs... it's too much of a time-suck and too specialist a skill for general use. And I'll tell you now that most of the teachers I see CANNOT do it (the exception is generally former mathematicians, believe it or not).

          P.S. I work IT in schools and I'm a mathematician by degree. And I entirely disagree with your premise here. Arithmetic is a basic skill that you learn to make your life simple because it can be learned by rote. Mathematics rarely involves a calculator at all. It's a complete misunderstanding to think that we use calculators in arithmetic because we're above that. When maths involves their use, it's because the actual result matters little compared to the derivation of the formula you came up with. It's literally the last step to plug in the data and get a number out and thus doesn't need the error of being done in the head. But basic skills arithmetic will aid everyone - calculator on their smartphone or not - and make even the most skilled mathematician able to skip calculator use for integer arithmetic, for example. But they will still reach for the calculator for anything else that needs it. It's a time-saving tool, not a removal of a necessity of skill. But the basics STILL NEED TO BE TAUGHT. Not just to degree-level maths-career students, but to everyone at a young age. However, we don't need to dig into calculus for every child struggling to add up. General vs specialist. Arithmetic is general. Mathematics is specialist.

          In the same way, typing an email is a basic, general computing skill. But if anyone ever NEEDS to write an email server, they will study documentation, learn a language and "cheat" using tools and resources in every way possible. And that's specialist - you will use computer science, not computing. Using Google to find an SMTP RFC is the same as using a calculator in maths. A time-saving use of a tool, not a integral part of being a programmer or mathematician - something you do because you're operating on an entirely different level and being bogged-down in details on trivia is time-wasting.

          We don't need to force every kid to code beyond what we did 25+ years ago. I did LOGO when I was in primary school. It can satisfy even the new ICT curriculum up to GCSE if you use it right.

          But we do need them all to have a tiny grounding in it to understand what it is. And pick out the specialists. And have the specialists go further in their chosen fields.

          Kids should all be taught what USED to be called "Control". That's things like Logo and Beebots and making things do what you tell them and breaking the problem down to simple instructions for them.

          But expecting everyone to be able to write apps "just because" is a waste of time and beyond the skill of most teaching practicioners in the industry.

          In 15 years of working in schools, I have seen precisely three teachers who can program (P.S. I'm a programmer too). Two former mathematicians (FORTRAN and COBOL in former lives). One guy who went into industrial control straight out of school and grew up using BASIC and assembler on a 1MHz thing back in the day. Only one of them actually taught IT. The IT teachers? They were baffled by my programs, whether written in Visual Basic, bash script, C99, Java, Javascript or even - in one case - Excel VBA. They literallly couldn't get close to understanding beyond the simple loop operations they knew.

          Coding is a specialist skill.

          Computing is a generalist subject.

          Mixing and matching them is as ill-advised as expecting top-track 100m sprinting performance from every child in school.

  13. JimC

    They're claiming a lot less than you guys seem to think...

    The proposition they were starting with, from the abstract, was

    Although it has never been rigourously[sic] demonstrated, there is a common belief that CS grades are bimodal

    That seems a pretty damn bizarre belief to me but it does no harm to definitely explode it. However its not a lot to do with all the stuff in your editorial about geek genes and the like.

    I do find it more than a bit disturbing that they're quoting wikipedia as a reference for statistical principles though.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      Re: They're claiming a lot less than you guys seem to think...

      Odd belief indeed. I have inspected the grades of several courses I teach (as part of the evaluation), and I rarely see any bimodality. In my computer vision course I sometimes do see bimodality, but this often relates to the students background (those with a BSc in CS vs others)

  14. David Roberts

    I drifted into computing

    Admittedly a long, long time ago.

    There was no work in my degree subject when I left University so I had a look at anything.

    They were advertising locally for computer salesmen (shudder) but part of the initial interview was a programming aptitude test. I aced this, to the considerable amazement of the guy interviewing me (apparently he had never seen such a high score before). I was obviously not a budding salesman, though.

    I was passed on to a software house and eventually scored a programming job elsewhere.

    Some people have an aptitude for logical thought and problem solving. Others have a knack for languages, or for art, or for music. Most people can succeed at non-instinctive tasks if they try long and hard but they can never really compete on even terms with the "naturals".

    As an aside, a proficiency at Cluedo may be an indication of programming/problem solving potential.

    So if I understand this report to say that there is no natural talent, just hard work, then I respectfully beg to differ.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: I drifted into computing

      "As an aside, a proficiency at Cluedo may be an indication of programming/problem solving potential."

      Boredom with it might be an even better indication.

  15. Cari


    Computer Science degrees are useless as a measure of geekery. The academic and theoretical nature of it eliminates a whole host of geeky types for one, and the grading will be skewed to average things out. They will adjust marking and grade boundaries so they don't get too many people with firsts (and we were told this throughout uni).

    I knew many on my course who had a natural affinity for programming and logic, or for cgi, or web development, but spent their time poking around in the things that interested them specifically, not every thing the course offered (which was limited to what interested our geeky lecturers). We did well in topics that piqued our geeky interest, topics we found naturally *easy*, but less well in topics that on the face of it were dry and boring even if they were trivial to excel in.

    Then there's all the geeks I know, have known - dated! - who had no interest in doing computer science whatsoever. If they were academically inclined, they did physics, electrical engineering, or courses specific to their interest like 3D modelling and animation. And there are many who won't go to uni at all, who gain their knowledge and expertise by getting absorbed and hooked on a particular subject, like computer security.

    "In light of this assertion, lack of diversity in technology recruitment becomes more difficult to excuse as a consequence of natural ability."

    Ah, and here it is, the agenda in play. So this is yet another in a series of attacks on geeky and nerdy people, trying to make out we're no different to the "normies", so the normies feel better about not being good at the things we're interested in? Talentless hipsters need to get back to their own subculture and stop trying to wipe out a culture of social nonconformists that are actually comfortable and happy in themselves.

  16. Matthew Taylor

    Interest plays a role

    If computer programming really grabs you (as it did to me as a teenager) you will spend hours a day learning whatever algorithm or language takes your fancy, off your own back and in your own time. This sort of effort produces a different order of ability than a student who is doing a course, and working diligently hoping to get a good grade.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There are two competences in any field: doing the job adequately - and being innovative. You can train most people to do most jobs. Innovation requires a mindset that comes from a combination of nature and nurture.

    Any educational course or employer is geared to people who are "adequate" for the role. If the requirements of the work are too tough then the available pool of talent is considerably reduced. In the IT industry this deliberate policy of organising "mediocre" roles is like Henry Ford's production line.

    Interestingly - the Peter Principle contends that generally only two types of people get fired. They are the super-incompetent - and the super-competent.

    A friend relates that for 11 years in the 1950/60s he was an electrical technician in the RAF. Apparently just about every job he did was botched. In all that time he never managed to "read" a schematic diagram. Eventually he transferred to playing a clarinet successfully in an RAF band for his next service renewal period. He had no particular experience - but showed some ability and interest. After varied civvy street jobs, including as a bus and Tube train driver, he now teaches people to play the saxophone.

    Another friend had definite talent as a keyboard player. His music degree was marked down because he found playing in public very daunting. He missed out on a plum media job because he couldn't sight-read new piano scores instantly. He is now a schools' piano teacher - with a sideline in composing music for adverts.

  18. 0laf

    People are good at what they're interested in. Either because they're instantly good at it or because they enjoy the work to get good at it.

    I'm the only scientist in my family. In fact I'm the only one to go to uni.

    I was good at computing at school but hated it and dropped it. Did hard science at unit but wasn't actually all that good at it. Now work in IT governance. Work that out.

  19. jebdra

    Why is only CS considered as geeky

    All STEM subjects see geeky. I did physics at uni, and only did a CS unit because I had to repeat a year (appendicitis at exam and in icu when resit time came round). This was in 1978 (first year computer science was offered) and I was the only female on the course. I loved it, and by the time finals came around I was pretty much full time contract programming. Very little to do with teaching and everything to do with love of the subject. When I first found assembler I didn't come up for air for at least a week. I put I ridiculous hours, but it wasn't work it was fun. Challenging fun. That's what this study misses. There may not be a gene for "geekiness", but basic ability and what you find interesting and fun are inbuilt and can't be taught.

  20. Wilseus

    The word "pedagogical" always makes me smile nowadays

  21. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    There would appear to be a severe selection bias here. The other mode comprises many of the students who didn't take CS and many of those who did but who dropped out.

    See also

  22. Joseph Eoff

    Back to the roots...

    They need to go back to the source of the idea of bimodality in CS ability (

    "The camel has two humps" was a paper which seemed to show a bimodal distribution of ABILITY in people BEGINNING a CS course. The grades weren't the criteria, rather a test of ability given to people who had not as yet attended a CS course.

  23. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    It's your fault (or your teacher's)

    I think this is another factor. Despite the old saw people who teach do, on the whole, are those who have aptitude for their subject. Unless they're also extremely talented as teachers they find it difficult if not impossible to see what those who don't have the same aptitude find difficult. Their teaching is geared to those who have an instinctive grasp of the subject and dismiss those who don't as lazy when a little well-directed explanation would go a long way to helping.

  24. Efros

    Wall theory

    Everyone has a wall, when you hit it is entirely based upon your ability to understand something at first sight. When you find that you are no longer able to do this you have hit your wall. When it happens can be a life changer, if it happens in school you have the time to learn how to learn, if it happens at Uni then you could be in trouble. If you manage to learn how to learn quickly then you can still succeed, however, for some the wall is hit too late and they struggle to learn how to learn or indeed they try continue what they were doing before hitting their wall.Isn't going to work. I've seen it happen, I've seen extremely talented kids going off to Uni knowing they haven't hit their wall and hoping they cope with it when they do. I hit mine in 2nd year at Uni, I started realizing that I was no longer instantly understanding stuff on first reading as I was used to and I had to actually work to get the material. Fortunately I was able to deal with it and continue on my merry way. Others are not so lucky.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wall theory

      For some "the wall" is age related,

      Never hit "the Wall" at uni or in work until I got middle aged and the instant understanding ability was lost (just like the luxuriant hair) as part of general age related decline and development work was no longer effortless and easy. Not good trying to develop coping strategies at that age

  25. You aint sin me, roit

    Nature vs Nurture vs Society

    It's all a bit more complicated...

    Certain people definitely have particular aptitudes - whether for kicking a ball, or playing a piano or for coding. Personal experience (we all know someone who "just can") gives good evidence that Nature has to be involved.

    Then there's the upbringing. Here we can't just say "My dad wasn't interested in IT, but I am", there's also considerations such as whether curiosity was encouraged, whether the family put an emphasis on education, if parents simply want their children to do better than them and so support their interests (even if they are completely different to their own).

    Access to good education, and enthusiastic teachers... how many children were turned off a subject by a bad teacher? How many people can remember that one really good teacher who got them interested and enthused?

    Then there's social considerations - in the UK "professions" are lawyer, teacher, doctor, bank manager... we don't place the same emphasis on people who actually do things (and, heaven forbid, might get their hands dirty in the process).

    Lastly, there's an anti-intellectuallity that has somehow been allowed to gain hold. For some reason it's OK to say "I'm not technically minded, I can just about use the TV remote" or "Hehe, I just don't get mathematics - who does?", in a way that is socially acceptable among people who would be aghast if you said "Oh I can't read and write".

    Indeed it goes further than that. Technical interest, curiosity, aptitude are all dismissed as being a nerd or a geek. It is "normal" to be bad at maths, "abnormal" to be good at it!

  26. quxinot

    Two things:

    Gosh, that's a result that puts the people doing the research in a remarkably good light. It's almost as if it's self-serving.

    And the idea that nature (genetics) gives you the cup. Nurture (experience) fills it. You can study hard and learn many things--in schools, from work, and from life in general-- or you can punch holes in the bottom and complain it's broken, whilst enjoying your career in marketing.

  27. heyrick Silver badge

    Geek gene?

    I could possibly qualify, but my parents would fail (epic). Thus, logical approach is to say it is not specifically genetic, but rather an enjoyment of taking stuff apart from an early age to see how it works and what makes it tick. I knew how to use a Phillips head before I knew how to use my own legs...

  28. Dr. Ellen

    "And you find it easy, it's through hard work ..."

    Bull. If it's hard work, it's not easy.

  29. Stevie


    I was just saying the same about world class painting and sculpting. Your fault if you can't do it.

  30. NanoMeter

    For some reason

    people seems to think geeks need to have dental braces. I can confirm that is not true, as a non dental brace geek myself.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What they are really debating is intelligence, not a "geek gene"

    In school, all of our teachers like to say, "anybody can do anything", and that is absolutely false. I can't hold a tune, and average people can't do CS. To insist that you can teach, and make proficient in, CS to your average English/Music/History/Womens and Gender Studies/Underwater Basket Weaving majors is simply not realistic. More intelligent people are going to have an easier time at STEM subjects.

    I can't think like Stephen Hawking. He is simply much more intelligent. I can gladly admit that. But the "average" among us can't admit that other "normal" people in their midst are simply smarter, so they make up the term "geek gene".

  32. gobaskof

    'Big cock gene' denied: If you find your penis is small, its your fault (you didn't wish enough!)

    Intelligent Richard from the Institute of Male Members has a keen interest in other men's trouser snakes. Clever Dick, as he is most commonly known, has devised a hypothesis to disprove that penis size is genetic. "If penis size is genetic then logically there is exactly one gene that switches, and thus penis sizes will fall into two distinct categories: tiny todgers and enormous erections. If penis sizes show a single Bell curve then genetic theories of penis sizes will be at an end." Reports Clever Dick, explaining to us his Bell-End hypothesis.

    The results are in with a clear Bell curve, thus disproving the genetic link to penis size. Clever Dick reports that the most likely explanation is that how much time children spend thinking about their penis size is far more relevant than genes. He goes on to explain that he hardly ever thought about his John Thomas as a child, a decision he severely regrets. He does, however, hope that online news will pick up on his dubious research and present it as fact with exaggerated headlines.

  33. CheesyTheClown

    Great idea but where's the actual research

    I know this is the reg, the headlines are always basically click bait. So far as I can tell there's nothing in the research which can in any way be considered conclusive regarding whether genetics can impact this. That would require identifying a specific sequence to be tested and even then the results would simply say "We can't clearly identify whether this genetic sequence does or does not impact aptitude."

    I'm quite sure there is a strong tie between genetics and aptitude. The gene involved is related to some form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Nearly all the "Nerds" (not geeks) I know and I know a lot are all people who :

    1) Possess the ability to grind obsessively until they understand something

    2) Possess incredible ability to recall information generally having cataloged it through associations

    3) Have a weaker sense of community than others. This means they are perfectly willing to forego interpersonal interaction in favor of grinding on a problem.

    4) A very high percentage show varying different levels of Asbergers. Ranging from appearing somewhat absent minded to having absolutely no interest in other people's perception of their behavior.

    A nerd is generally someone who shows great aptitude (meaning willingness to work his/her ass off to learn something) towards one or more topics and therefore establishing a strong "genius like" ability in the topic. A nerd is generally quite confident in themselves for having achieved mastery in a field as such, they eventually are known to pursue other "hobbies"... very commonly an art (like guitar) or a sport (maybe soccer/football). This is where they'll establish their community and often attempt to mate.

    A geek on the other hand generally has no particular aptitude for anything. They favor learning the "lingo" of something generally considered intellectual without actually achieving much more than a rudimentary knowledge of the topic. They present themselves as being nerds and even take pride in being permitted into social gatherings among nerds. The reason for this is to allow them to establish a sense of community. This happens from an early age. A person without the obsessive need to study and learn who doesn't have their own community as they are not athletic or maybe they don't see themselves as being pretty enough or important enough "to hang with the popular kids" and therefore latch onto the "brainy kids" who at that age are generally less interested in personal presentation than academia. They see the "brainy kids" as have some sort of adept talent for being brainy and believe that their skills are given to them by "being born smart" and as such see their gift as being similar to beauty or athletics. The geeks however establish an interest in what their friends are involved in and become something of an "accessory to the crime" for lack of a better phrase. The nerds being often quite happy to have a friend without the need to work hard to earn one or keep one then accepts the geek into their "circle".

    Generally when puberty occurs, nerds will for the purpose of "satisfying their needs" attempt to groom themselves better, show interests in other topics (surprisingly music and marijuana are incredibly popular as it doesn't generally require physical prowess) and start blending into other cultures. Geeks on the other hand are generally what's left behind as being what appears as the mentally intellectual to the masses. In reality, the geek is simply someone that by this time shows a real interest in a given topic and seeing that the nerds "dropped out of the game", take over. This could mean pushing the projector carts around the hallways or working in the library. Generally just things that allow them to look like how the nerds should look but in reality, being just an awkward person with a strong (though often misused) vocabulary learned via osmosis from being in proximity to the nerds for so long.

    A geek in modern times (not the old greek) was a person who joined the circus looking for safety in numbers during more dangerous times (like the old west) where a generally awkward person would be in danger from predators (like the more dominant males). Though these people weren't talented as they required hard work learned over time they would join as a "freak" where the other outcasts were. And while the person in question wasn't particularly freakish, they would perform freakish acts ...namely biting the heads off of live chickens. As such they established themselves within a community for safety.

    I'd like to believe I'm a nerd... though who knows... maybe I'm a geek.

  34. hayzoos

    flaw in the research

    There was no measurement of effort. I have excelled at things with little effort. Others have excelled at the same things which some, much or great effort. The scores the research looked at could not distinguish those who excelled through effort from the coasters who aced the exams. The one who excelled with little effort are obviously naturally talented in the field.

    This fact applies in fields well beyond CS. I would have to say there are gifted people in any field. The opposite also applies. There are those that despite their best and strenuous effort cannot do something.

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm suspicious of the data they used in their study. It's not unknown for universities to use "scaling" on results. Then you have the effect of aggregating marks from a range of modules into a single final mark.

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Having spent the better part of an hour yesterday patiently trying to explain what a daemon is and the difference between virtualisation and containerisation to a bewildered arts graduate who works for our "social media" team, I'm not sure I agree.

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