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Hidden Talents: The Programming Whiz Kid


Think you have real SelfControl? Try passing up one of these bad boys.

In Hidden Talents, we introduce you to the secret and sensational lives of your classmates. Charlie Stigler, SEAS ’15, has only been at Columbia for a few short weeks, but he’s probably helped you out on more papers, homeworks, and projects than anyone else here. Charlie Stigler is the developer behind SelfControl.

With a lean, athletic build and refreshingly relaxed attitude, Charlie Stigler doesn’t strike you as the stereotypical programmer. As we talked about SelfControl, he seemed enthusiastic that people use the app, but modestly downplayed its importance in his life and his original involvement. He began working on the app as a quick project for Steve Lambert, whom he describes as an “artist, sort of.” Steve wanted something that would block his email while he worked, so SelfControl was originally slated to be a simple command line script to serve just that purpose. Later, Steve requested the project be open-sourced, which got Charlie thinking. One thing led to another, and eventually he decided to “make [it] a little gift to the community.” “So instead of just making it a little command line tool,” he explains, “I ended up delivering an actual application with a GUI, and I put on a name, ‘SelfControl’ and an icon.”

When Charlie finally found accurate download figures for the program, he was surprised to learn just how many people, including his fellow Columbians, were using SelfControl. But plenty of users means plenty of problems. Charlie explained how people get confused about the app’s Whitelist feature, which blocks all sites except for those on the Whitelist. Luckily, he has a quick fix: “I have a copy-paste thing because I get several of those things a day, and I just copy-paste it in, change the name at the top, like ‘Dear Whatever, here, please go do your assignment. Bye.'”

Charlie has been programming since his freshman year in high school, but he didn’t always enjoy it. “I screwed around with computers, but [my brother] always wanted me [to program]. And I was like, ‘Hell no dude, that looks crappy and I don’t think I can do it. It looks really hard—I don’t wanna do that stuff.'” But he wandered back to programming the same way many laymen get into “advanced” things you can do with a computer: torrenting. “I started setting up a lot of crazy stuff for that, because I wanted it to happen more efficiently. And it ended up that I eventually just started coding.” As he got more involved in the world of computer science, he began coding iPhone apps in his spare time.


Remember, when you put sites on the Whitelist they are the ONLY sites you can access!

SelfControl isn’t the only major project he’s got under his belt, though. Charlie described a venture he joined as a high schooler, which he pitched as a “group collaboration-slash-social networking thing.” “It sounded cooler back then,” he admits. Though he doesn’t really contribute to the project anymore, Charlie owns a percentage of the company—or as he puts it, “a bunch of stock and no money.” Now, when he’s not rowing crew or dashing to class, he is working on launching an education-based startup with his dad and another partner in the city.

Oh yeah, did we mention he also rows crew? Well, he does that too. “All I really do is crew, classes, try and get some work done here and there. At home, I used to just lie on the couch, code for 10 hours, go to sleep. It was a lot easier.” As if we weren’t already feeling under-accomplished, dare we ask what else this modern Hercules does? “I make really good quesadillas. I cook nothing else. The only things I ever make are cookies and quesadillas. But I make a good quesadilla.” Charlie’s mother recently shipped him a large quantity of tortillas, for whose use he has grand plans: “Well the first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to have a party either here or in the Carman basement, and I’m going to make quesadillas for everybody. That’s what I’ve allocated 60 of them for. I’m going to make 60 people quesadillas.” Save one for us please!?

Although he’s now in SEAS, Charlie told us he doesn’t really identify with engineers. He’s thinking about transferring to CC, and this semester he’s taking UWriting, Gateway, and Lit Hum to plan ahead. Between that, managing an old once-command line project, two startups, rowing, and Mexican food for 60 people, Charlie seems to have no trouble passing the time. Is the secret to his success a strict budgeting of internet time, courtesy of SelfControl? “No, why would I do that?” he laughs, “I have self control.”

What we got out of the interview via Wikimedia Commons

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  • ryan says:

    @ryan Charlie also happens to be a fantastic rapper, and as one in attendance of the carman basement quesadilla party, I can honestly say that was the best quesadilla I’ve ever had

  • Um... says:

    @Um... whoa.

  • Out of Controll says:

    @Out of Controll hello,

    what is control? is it the ability to choose what you want to do? or is it the ability to be not driven by ancillary sources?

    YEAH YEAH I Know, not another philosophy talk.

    But I couldn’t help it.



    Is it really a language? I argue yes and no.

    -Community “knows” it
    -It’s got different dialects
    -It’s elaborate, with its own grammar.

    -U can’t really speak it!
    -I bet a baby can’t pick it up fast
    -It requires a computer



    The quesadilla as shown in the picture is reminiscent of Taco Bell, an interesting part of American society. Taco Bell is fast food, you can say. But it does not spring to mind so quickly. Wanna eat fast food? You don’t think chalupas. You think fries and a burger.

    As fast food, it is the byproduct of the profit motive. In other words, it is not made to feed society in a humanitarian way (taking nutrition into account, etc). It is also not created to respect culture through some form of homage. There is, as such, as much true Mexicanness in a taco bell chalupa or quesadilla as there is Doritos or Tostitos. So consider it a Mexican-American Product wannabe. Sort of like Jessica Alba is, except she kinda denies her roots a little too much.

    But yeah, Taco Bell is not like a Mexican-American. So do not get me wrong. It is like an American trying to be Mexican. This is very far from a real Mexican.

    So is the quesadilla of Taco Bell ontologically in touch with Mexico? I argue that only in a superficial sense.


    On Entrepreneurship


    A: So what do you for a living?
    B: I’m an entrepreneur.

    THAT IS, in Essence, an awkward moment. How do you respond to that when all that is running through your mind is “Ugh. Clearly someone hasn’t made it in life.”

    Except, entrepreneurs are quite the assortment. Buffett is kinda an entrepreneur. But yeah it’s supposed to be for REBELS, SMART REBELS, INDEPENDENT, CREATIVE, AGAINST THE SYSTEM, LIVING THE HIGH LIFE, ETC. It’s kinda like people with motorcycles, while the I-bankers and other “soulless” money machines are the people with the station wagons.

    But what is success? Is it reaching a certain amount of money? I think that does not suffice, especially since billionaire people never seem to stop wanting to make more money.

    Is it doing something good for society? If your business failed, can you call it a non-profit and get societal brownie points? These questions are worth looking into.

    So is success satisfaction with your professional life? Sorta.

    But some people are satisfied with low-ambition things. So not really. We gotta draw the line between conformity and satisfaction.


    And no, I do not mean carbon footprint.



    Ok! Why on earth would you do this? I actually probably have 1000 reasons, with no disrespect to SEAS people, who I sorta admire cuz they know a lot of math and a lot of things that go straight through my head. But CC is pretty legit in its own way.



    Now this is really interesting. I don’t kno if I would do that.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous How do you have the time for that? Go study for midterms.

    2. Okay says:

      @Okay I try not to make overarching, dramatic statements about Bwog commenters but OMG I HATE YOU.

    3. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous “what is control? is it the ability to choose what you want to do? or is it the ability to be not driven by ancillary sources?”

      Uhh…no comment on all the other stuff and this is pretty irrelevant, but the above quote perfectly encapsulates the matrix trilogy. The rabbit hole goes so much deeper than people realize.

    4. it says:

      @it looks like *someone* needs to download SelfControl..!

    5. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Success troll is successful

    6. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous let me just say that i am a mexican-american who has been happily enjoying quesadillas that look much like the ones depicted here for my whole life.

  • Dude says:

    @Dude Lay off the fucking Adderall!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous this kid is a badass! I love SelfControl, I can’t believe he developed it!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous this app has saved me from countless hours of procrastination. I am truly amazed! thank you charlie. columbia has netted someone truly talented!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous there a windows version of this life saver?

    1. Charlie says:

      @Charlie Sorry, we don’t have a Windows version of it currently. Because one of the main blocking mechanisms does not exist on Windows, it would be more of a full rewrite than a simple port, and I don’t have time right now with other work. But SelfControl is open source, so any other coder who wants to contribute a real port is always welcome to help out.

  • Roko says:

    @Roko Hats off to you, Charlie Stigler.

  • Laura says:

    @Laura I found an easy way to beat Self Control… I wonder if he knows about it.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous make love to me charlie!

  • YOU'VE GOT says:

    @YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. HOW OLD WAS HE WHEN HE MADE THIS?? 16? I feel like such a useless human. One who uses SelfControl too often for it to be okay.

  • CC'12 says:

    @CC'12 I discovered SelfControl during finals spring semester Freshman year. It’s awesome. Thank you Charlie!

  • SEAS '10 says:

    @SEAS '10 I’m older than dirt and I’ve used SelfControl for as long as I remember. You mean to tell me this uppity young thing was the one who developed it? MY LIFE IS MEANINGLESS

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous SelfControl was the only reason I survived sophomore year. Thank you for granting me the gift of life.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous THANK YOU CHARLIE.

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