RWDevCon Inspiration Talk – Math Isn’t Scary by Matthijs Hollemans

Many of us have a bad experience with math from our schools – learn why math isn’t scary, and why we should all learn it as software developers! By Matthijs Hollemans.

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How To Learn?

Let’s say I’ve convinced you to give math a second chance; how would you go about it?

Well, the book I mentioned, How to do Math Despite Years of Lessons, it does exist, sort of. This book’s called Math Overboard.


I used it to brush up on my high school mathematics a little while ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot more accessible than standard textbooks, and it’s written for adults, so this is a pretty good place to start.

There’s also Khan Academy. These guys have a ton of free videos on math and lots of other subjects. Essentially, all the math that you need to know as a software developer, you can learn here.

Also, lots of universities are putting out their courses online for free, but if you want an easy place to start, then Khan Academy is a good place.

Now, if you just want to get your feet wet and explore some mathematical ideas without too much commitment, then why not read popular science books, such as this one, called 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know:


Or, listen to a podcast such as this one. It’s from the BBC; it’s called A Brief History of Mathematics:


There are a lot of entertaining stories about math, and the people who used to practice math throughout the ages. There’s lots of intrigue, there’s lots of drama, but these stories can also give you an appreciation for the art of mathematics, and how fascinating it can be.

You can’t really learn math just by reading about it. You also have to put it into practice. That means you have to do some hard thinking from time to time. These are math puzzle books, and these math puzzle books are a great way to get a feel for what it is to think through mathematical problems.


If you like to do puzzles, if you like to do Sudokus, then these can be a lot of fun. They sell them at any bookstore, they sell them at airports, so you might pick one up on your way home.

If you’re ready for a real challenge, then give Project Euler a try:


This is a website that has lots of mathematical challenges, but the interesting thing is that you often have to write a short program to solve those puzzles. This tests your math skills, it also tests your programming skills.

Start Small


My advice is that you start easy, that you get over this limiting belief that math is somehow this horrible thing. There are recent stories about mathematical discoveries, and learn to see the beauty of mathematical ideas.

By the way, I said mathematical ideas can be beautiful a few times now, so what do I mean by that?

Well, you’re coders. You probably know beautiful code when you see it, right It’s basically the same thing. A beautiful mathematical idea, or a beautiful piece of code, is a thought or idea that’s expressed in an elegant way. It’s like the opposite of a hack.

I’m pretty sure beauty in mathematics, that you’ll recognize it when you see it. If you want to get serious, brush up on your basics first, basically learn all the high school stuff, but in a nice way this time. Get something, the books like Math Overboard, or Khan Academy.

Then from then on, it really depends on what you want to do. Math is this huge field. You can’t possibly learn it all, so pick something from areas that interest you. For example:

  • If you want to get into audio processing or video processing, learn about complex numbers and fourier analysis.
  • If you want to do 3D games, learn about linear algebra.

You can pick, just a topic here, topic there. There’s lots to explore, lots to learn, and you’ll never run out of stuff to learn for the rest of your life.

Math Isn’t Scary, but Can Be Hard

Now, I won’t lie to you; on your schedules, it actually said the talk is called “Math Isn’t Hard,” which is my mistake. It should have said “Math Isn’t Scary,” because math can definitely be hard.

It can be hard, it can be frustrating, and it’s very much an uphill climb. I get stuck all the time, but it doesn’t matter, because learning anything new is always hard. Finding bugs is hard, fixing bugs is hard; but it’s also half the fun of programming, right? I mean, I think it’s half the fun of programming.

It’s okay to be confused when you’re learning math, it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to struggle. Even professional mathematicians are in a state of constant confusion. It’s no big deal; the only thing that really matters is that you’re thinking about this stuff, because the thinking is what literally makes you smarter.

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Math isn’t really that scary. It’s only as scary as learning to program is for a newbie. You’ve all been there.

You’ve all had to learn programming at some point, and you stuck with it, and now here you are. You’ve been able to learn programming; I’m pretty sure you’re all able to learn mathematics.

I hope I’ve inspired you a little to give math another go. Play around with it, explore some of those mathematical ideas, such as how does Pythagoras work, where does pi come from, why are prime numbers such a big deal. What’s the point of negative numbers, anyway? It’s these simple ideas, simple thoughts, but they get you thinking about math, and you take it from there.

I wish you all a safe and happy journey through the land of mathematical ideas!

Note from Ray: Did you enjoy this inspiration talk? If so, sign up to our RWDevCon newsletter to be notified when RWDevCon 2016 tickets go on sale!