Max Levchin: I learned to code in the Soviet Union by writing clones of Tetris and Snake.... on paper

By James Robinson , written on March 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Max Levchin learned to code in the 80s, while growing up in Soviet-controlled Ukraine. He left the country by train after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster into now occupied Crimea in 1986, before his family finally fled to Chicago under political asylum in 1991.

At tonight's Pando Monthly event in San Francisco, he talked about his journey -- both literally and metaphorically.

Growing up in Kiev, Levchin’s mother worked in the radiology lab for the Institute of Food Science, testing pollution levels in foodstuffs. A formative moment in Levchin’s life was when the Soviets flew a primitive EP11 computer in for his mother to use so she didn’t have to write things down. It was this device, and a primitive scientific calculator on which Levchin first came to understand the power of programming. Speaking about the calculator (his favorite device because "I could take it home with me") he said...

“There was keycode 'K' [on the calculator], the first letter of the Russian word for indirect. You use the key to say, 'take whatever is in that register and do whatever it is you want to do with that,' so you can refer to things that you don’t know about yet. The machine could be instructed to do things in the future.”

Levchin was inspired. He didn’t want to be a teacher anymore: he wanted to be a computer programmer.

It would be years before Levchin would have access to a computer again. “The vast majority of programming I did, I was... working on [paper] notepads. I would write programs that would span [multiple] notepads. I wrote a clone of Tetris, a clone of snake,” Levchin said.

“I have no idea if they were good because I was not able to actually run them.”

All of his early programming efforts used machine code, not BASIC or anything similar. “There was no easy way. No shortcuts. There was not an option to write a go to statement. It was very, very explicit. Very procedural programming. It probably made me slightly elitist. It certainly made me tenacious as I never really had another option,” he said.

Levchin laughed when asked about whether his background had made more insufferable as a CTO.