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Breaking the stereotype of the socially awkward programmer

Nick Liow is a nineteen-year-old who is working to challenge copyright laws and build ways for creators to give to the public domain while also getting paid for their work. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Nick skipped high school and began attending the University of British Columbia at fourteen to study computer science. He has previously built a handful of computer games and has interned for Electronic Arts (the makers of some of the world’s most popular video games). He was awarded a Thiel Fellowship in 2013. He recently raised more than $40,000 through crowdsourcing for his new game, Nothing to Hide, which is an anti-stealth game that has been featured in Forbes, Popular Science, and among other media outlets. His essay, “The Stereotype of a Socially Awkward Programmer,” is featured in the new book 2 BILLION UNDER 20: How Millennials Are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World by Stacey Ferreira and Jared Kleinert, available from St. Martin’s Press.

“So, um … here’s the game I made … on my own.”

That’s great, Nick, would you like to talk more about it?”

“If … if you don’t mind.”

There’s some truth in the stereotype of the “socially awkward programmer.”

Two years ago, I took a year off from school to fly down from Canada to the Bay Area for an internship at Electronic Arts (the makers of popular video games like The Sims and Madden NFL). On my first day, I introduced myself to our studio with zero confidence, as I was afraid of myself. But every Friday, I was asked to show my week’s work to the team. And with each passing Friday, I improved in presenting my work and myself.

By the end of my internship, I became confident in both my technical abilities and people skills. Or rather, just confident enough to be dangerous.

During the summer, I made a game-creation tool using my newfound programming prowess. My project garnered interest on a game developer forum, and it opened me up to constructive criticism. It stung for a bit, but it was much needed. With the forum’s help, I made the tool bigger and better.

Confident up until that point, I took the project further. I launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, thinking to myself the five fateful words: “How hard could this be?”

For every day of my Kickstarter campaign, I pestered my friends, cold-called dozens of blogs, and spammed my favorite forums and communities. I mentally strained myself for thirty days straight, soured some friendships, and was blocked or banned by people I admired. The Kickstarter barely succeeded, but at what cost?

The experience left me drained. I was convinced I would never be cut out for entrepreneurship. By the time school started up again, I was left with few friends; all my friends in school had moved on to the next year while I took my year off, and all my colleagues from Electronic Arts were in a different country.

I was alone with the one person I was afraid of … myself.

A few months later, I visited that same game developer forum where it all began.

I helped others with technical problems, gave them constructive feedback, and shared my ups-and-downs with them. A forum regular recognized me from all those months back, and asked why my project had halted? It turns out he once had a project similar to mine and was an alumnus of WebFWD, Mozilla’s startup accelerator program. He liked what I was doing, and wanted to connect me with the director of WebFWD.

My old self would have sheepishly said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But this time, something sparked in me. Maybe it was ambition for where I wanted to be, or anger at where I currently was. Whatever it was, I dropped all my courses the next day, and met with the director and asked to join the WebFWD cohort.

He said yes.

Social skills aren’t like technical skills. You can’t just memorize a bunch of tips and tricks. It’s about fundamentally changing who you are. In true techie fashion, I shall summarize my findings in list format.

  • Always get outside feedback. Not only can feedback help you test and refine your work, it can help you come up with new ideas. If you avoid or ignore constructive feedback, that’s not “sticking to your vision,” that’s vanity.
  • Help others because you want to. Not just because you shouldn’t expect anything in return, but also because you literally can’t. There’s no way of knowing who your best connections will be. I’ve contacted dozens of journalists to no avail, but it was one guy on a forum who got me into WebFWD.
  • Connect with others, for your own safety. Startups are stressful, and as young as we are, we have to be careful. We need to support each other, and be there for each other when it all becomes too much to handle alone (and it will).


A few weeks ago, I flew down to the Bay Area for my WebFWD inauguration. I met up with my former mentor from Electronic Arts, to catch up with each other, for old times’ sake.

Hey, Nick! How’s that game-creation project you’re working on?

“It’s going great! Would you like me to talk more about it?”

If you don’t mind.

From 2 BILLION UNDER 20: How Millennials Are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World. Copyright © 2015 by Stacey Ferreira and Jared Kleinert and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.