Putting the “pro” in programmer

Senior Wesley Smith builds online worlds with computer programming


Charlie Sagner

Senior Wesley Smith programming at his computer, his work space.

By Taylor Haber

On early Sunday mornings senior Wesley Smith rolls out of bed, walks all of five steps to his desk, and after slipping on a pair of headphones, dives right into his first programming “bug” — an error in computer code that can interfere with the program. He has a reverence for these first hours after sunrise, he says, when he’s the only person awake in his house aside from his family’s skulking housecat.

There’s already plenty to do from running diagnostic checks and monitoring servers to perhaps watching a quick YouTube video during a break. For now, Wesley will spend his first bout — typically around four to five hours — writing, reviewing and most importantly, revising lines of code for Craftimize, the tech startup company that he has worked for as a remote coder for the past three years.

Craftimize conducts all of its operations online and works primarily in web and software design. The company has eight full-time employees, all of whom are either in high school or college. They work together online but live in different areas across the country. Due to Craftimize’s more relaxed working environment, Wesley can set his own hours and work from home as long as he gets his projects done before their deadlines.

“I enjoy the availability because I get to wake up whenever I want, I do my work at like two in the morning,” Wesley said. “It doesn’t really matter what time I get to work, and the flexibility is helpful.”

Currently, Wesley is creating a website for people who run “boosting” services, where players pay veteran gamers to “boost” or add experience to their in-game avatars while they spend time offline. 

When he’s coding, Wesley’s monitors relay an incomprehensible flow of code that, to the untrained eye, might look like someone fell asleep on the keyboard. But in his past six years of coding, he has grown into a skilled programmer with an eye for details. And when it comes to bugs, Wesley knows exactly what to look for and how to translate these multicolored strings of backslashes and hyphens into commands, as if he were reading a novel. Bugs are one of Wesley’s simple reminders about the imperfections in code.

“It’s panic in my mind,” Wesley said. “If it’s something ‘mission critical,’ which means it’s already deployed to production and I see that something’s happening that’s breaking the usability of the product, I panic.”

Wesley spends around 45 minutes of his four to five hours of coding time behind a screen tweaking bugs. They’re such a commonplace issue for coders that in Wesley’s computer setup, one of his three monitors displays a live “debugger” which highlights the defects of his programs.

Video games have heavily influenced Wesley’s programming journey. Working for Craftimize allows him to program for games he once played in middle school, a concept that instills hope in Wesley that he has inspired the next generation of coders, he said. In seventh grade, Wesley became so fascinated with Minecraft’s pixelated landscapes that he decided to create his own modifications to the game by teaching himself to write the code through online tutorials. 

“My early days were definitely full of a lot of struggle,” Wesley said. “It was consistent criticism from people. Obviously, people online love to criticize. I would spend hours, days, over 24 hours collectively, and people would say ‘your stuff is horrible.’” 

Over time, Wesley honed his craft, posting his eagerness to provide assistance on internet message boards. Although there weren’t many programmers willing to let a 12-year-old work on their gaming servers, Wesley found opportunities by offering his skills for low costs, sometimes even for free. Each time he worked on a gaming server, he would come away with experiences that helped build his growing skillset.

“At times it feels hopeless, like ‘I don’t know if I’m actually going to get any better,’ but I think I realized how everything I did, I learned from,” Wesley said. “I just step back and say, ‘that was experience I just gained.’”

At the end of his freshman year, Wesley created a business profile and began sending out a summary of his qualifications through various websites. He posted his resume on the video game-oriented chat room Discord in hopes of finding some freelance work, but his soon-to-be boss Mason Mater gave him a better offer.

“I said ‘I’m looking to be hired, here’s some of my freelance experience, I’m looking for $12 an hour,’” Wesley said. “Mason needed a programmer at the time. He just DM’d me, asked me about my experience and said there might be a job for me. I wasn’t even looking for a job.”

Throughout his three years at Craftimize, Wesley has risen through its ranks. He’s gone from being the youngest, most inexperienced hire at the company — a feat, given that the typical employee is around 19 years old — to taking on leadership positions on collaborative projects and managing the progress of college students. Professionally, Wesley has gone from working on servers for two dozen users to creating content for thousands.

“Before, I was writing my own game modifications that really only I used, but now I’m producing content that’s serving upwards of 200,000 unique users,” Wesley said. “It’s why I started programming in the first place: to impact other people.”

As he has grown more experienced in programming, Wesley’s work has changed the way he thinks, he said. When he was younger, he lost confidence in his academics after struggling in his math classes, which ironically are the courses that lay the foundation for coding.

After immersing himself in coding, Wesley started to recognize the very same principles in his math classes that he had been teaching himself through programming. Math concepts all started to make sense during one fateful Algebra 1 class, he said. While the rest of the class was wrestling with some new concept, Wesley miraculously understood the information straightaway. 

The overlap between math and programming comes through writing lines of code. After years of studying several programming languages — types of standardized coding syntax which have different uses — Wesley, who compares proficient code to a well-written English paper, has trained his eyes to recognize when a line is adequate and when it needs revision. 

In addition to being an outlet to learn about video games, coding has always been a  means of dealing with the more emotional strains on his life, Wesley said.

“When I was twelve, my father passed away,” he said. “We used to spend every weekend together, so when he was gone, I kind of had this void in my life. I really wanted to do something, and I wound up playing Minecraft for quite a while.”

Wesley’s family members have consistently been some of his biggest supporters, watching his interest in programming sprout from a hobby into a passion that has defined his teenage years, he said. 

“I thought that it was a place for him to experiment and feel comfortable: a space to solve something where he wouldn’t have a shoulder looking over him or someone asking how long he was working on it,” his mother Michelle Smith said. “It was a way for him to find some independence.”

Even with a trained eye and a debugger continuously running, Wesley said he still makes small errors, but he’s realized that as long as his projects function properly, he doesn’t need to hold each individual line of code to his personal standards.

“I used to be a lot more of a perfectionist than I am now,” Wesley said. “I realized at some point that it was an unhealthy habit. I was spending more time caring about something being perfect than actually just writing a good product.” 

As he’s gained proficiency, Wesley has been able to transfer his skills behind the screen and implement them more regularly to his life, especially in school. His junior year, Wesley worked on designing a website for his biotechnology class. Although it was never fully completed, AP Environmental Science teacher Mira Chung saw his underlying skills in the field, she said.

“I would say his brain is trained for a logical approach,” Chung said. “Wesley has never necessarily been a complainer in terms of faulting people. He typically takes it upon himself to compartmentalize his work.”

In Programming 3, an independent study course for the few students who have completed the rest of the classes in Whitman’s computer science curriculum, Wesley and his project partner, senior Olaf Hichwa, have been designing a flight controller for a drone, the brain of the machine. While Hichwa has brought his expertise on drone technology to their partnership, Wesley has contributed his programming knowledge, which Hichwa called “essential” to their success in class. 

Looking forward, Wesley hopes to pursue some of the more complex parts of coding, hopefully learning about artificial intelligence  — the kind of topic that would make more sense coming from a professor than YouTube videos and Minecraft freelance work — in college, he said. He also hopes to pursue a career in programming at a tech giant like Google or Facebook. 

Regardless of where Wesley’s programming prowess takes him, his six years of typing and staring at screens have taught him about adapting his mindset both on and off the computer, he said.

“It’s not like when I used to walk into a math test that I used to consistently fail, where I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this,’’’ Wesley said. “Programming has taught me to always start off with the mentality of ‘let’s try it.’”