Who are the programmers who are famous for doing programmer things?
I’m wondering about this because my wife Cathy asked me a simple question last night, and I realized I didn’t have an answer to it. “Are you” she asked “the most famous programmer in the world?”
This was a question which I had, believe it or not, never thought about before. But it’s a reasonable one to ask, given recent evidence – notably, the unexpected success of my Patreon page. This is relevant because Patreon is mainly an arts-funding site – it’s clearly not designed for or by techies.
There are a couple of obvious ways to get this question wrong. One is to point at, the likes of, say Donald Knuth – towering reputation among programmers, but no visibility outside CS and math academia.
Another is to point at programmers who are famous, but not for being programmers. Bill Gates, for example, is famous for running Microsoft, not for code he’s written, or (at an acceptable one metalevel) anything he’s written about code.
A third error would be to point at people like Kevin Mitnick or Aaron Swartz, or anyone else who’s famous because of their role in a high-profile cracking incident.
My immediate reaction was to try to think of other programmers who are both famous for doing programmer things and have name recognition outside the population of programmers itself. So…the first person I thought of was actually John Carmack.
“What”? I hear you say. “What about Richard Stallman? Or Linus Torvalds?” Good question. But I think the insider perspective of hackers and programmers is unhelpful here. Yes, these guys are heroes to us…but Carmack has fame for writing code among people who have never written a line of code in their lives, because of Doom. So do I, for different reasons – I’ve even had my photo in People magazine with a keyboard in my hand.
Mind you, it’s not important to me whether I’m the world’s most famous programmer – fame is merely an instrument I picked up for tactical reasons and have since discovered is pretty adhesive even when you no longer want it. But my anthropologist head finds the more general question interesting. Besides, I’d like to have a better answer to give my wife.
Who are the programmers who are famous as programmers? How did they get that way? Are there any useful generalizations to be made about the group? Discuss in comments.