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Like most people, I think of myself as being a bit above average in my field. I get paid well, I've gotten promotions, and I've never had a real problem getting good references or getting a job.

But I've been around enough to notice that many of the worst programmers I've worked with thought they were some of the best. Bad programmers who are surrounded by other bad programmers seem to be the most self-deluded.

I'm certainly not perfect. I do make mistakes. I do miss deadlines. But I think I make about the same number of bonehead moves that "other good programmers" do. The problem is that I define "other good programmers" to mean "people who are like me."

So, I wonder, is there any way a programmer can make some sort of reasonable self-evaluation? How do we know whether we are good or bad at our jobs?

Or, if terms like good and bad are too ill-defined, how can programmers honestly identify their own strengths and weaknesses, so that they can take advantage of the former and work to improve the latter?

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38 Answers

A good programmer understands that that they have to continue to learn and grow. They strive to do their best at every effort, admit to failures and learn from them.

They are extraordinarily communicative. Not only are they able to explain complex technical terms to a layperson, but they go out of their way to act as devil's advocate to their own idea to make sure they're giving the best options to their client.

The best programmers know and accept that there is more than one way to do things, that not every problem is a nail, and that because there is always a better way to do something than how they were planning on they constantly seek to learn new techniques, technologies, and understanding.

A good programmer loves to program, and would do so in their spare time even if they already spend 80+ hours a week programming.

A good programmer knows that she/he is not a great programmer. Truly great programmers do not exist, there are only those who claim to be great, and those who know they are not great.

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You nail this right on the head! IMO! –  Jose B. Sep 9 '08 at 17:37
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And I think a more general corollary is that you're good at what you do when you care about what you do. –  C Hogg Sep 9 '08 at 21:32
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Well said. Regarding ego/humility, I came through the MIT AI Lab in the 70s. The best coders had a certain humble confidence. If you think you're doing something important, you could be wrong, but if you don't, you're probably right. –  Mike Dunlavey Dec 18 '08 at 21:44
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I agree partially with para.#2, "Not only are they able to explain complex technical terms to a layperson..." I know some good programmers. But they couldn't explain anything to anyone outside of their circle. Nor could they understand what the layperson was trying to say. They both look at each other with "deer in the headlights" eyes. I will say they are extraordinarily communicative. For the rest of your points, I'll sum them up by saying a good programmer is humble and willing to share his/her knowledge in the best manner he/she knows. –  IAbstract Jan 31 '10 at 7:04
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"and would do so in their spare time even if they already spend 80+ hours a week programming." Get rid of this silly statement and I'd completely agree with the rest. A truly 'good programmer', realizes that when working 80+ hour weeks doing something other than programming (in spare time) is essential for physical and mental health, and productivity at work. –  Ash Jun 14 '10 at 12:42
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As Paul Graham points out eloquently in this pod cast, you can't. Only your coworkers can tell you.

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This answer is so much better than the accepted one... –  Constantin Sep 29 '08 at 19:03
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Your coworkers can't tell if you're competent if they are incompetent. They will just think you have strange opinions and argue passionately about irrelevant subjects. –  KeyserSoze Jun 9 '09 at 19:22
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Agree, keysersoze. Then nobody can tell you and you'll never know, unless you get yourself some new coworkers. I think it is not rewarding in the long run to work with nobody that is competent. –  malach Jun 9 '09 at 20:28
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@keysersoze, but if I'm actually incompetent my co-workers may be competent and I'm just too stupid to realize it ;) –  Ash Dec 29 '09 at 13:35
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Paul Graham also wrote an essay about great programmers, pointing out that he's at a loss to name great ones, since he's never actually worked with the obvious choices (like Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, et al.). –  David Thornley Jan 12 '10 at 17:58
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I've always found that it's easiest to judge your performance by doing two things.

  1. Surround yourself with other good programmers
  2. See how much they complain about the code you write.

The issue of course is finding good programmers, and then being a good programmer also isn't just about coding. You need to be able to work well in groups, yet also work well by yourself.

Now for the sake of going off topic, I will quote Robert A. Heinlein and his view on the subject:

"[A kick-ass programmer] should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
- from The Notebook of Lazarus Long.

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kinda reminds me of the quote: "Stupid people surround themselves with smart people. Smart people surround themselves with smart people who disagree with them." –  Sam Hasler Sep 9 '08 at 21:21
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The problem is that other programmers may or may not be on or above your level, but they may not want to insult you. I have not gotten much in the way of feedback from three programmers I've worked with, and very minimal from 2 others, one which I would consider "good"... –  MetroidFan2002 Feb 15 '09 at 6:06
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...although we're sterotyped as being anti-social, other programmers may pre-empt defense of code by simply not providing feedback of problems with it. Which may actually overlook code actual problems in order to not create social problems. –  MetroidFan2002 Feb 15 '09 at 6:07
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This is the Programmer Competency Matrix just for you: http://www.indiangeek.net/wp-content/uploads/Programmer%20competency%20matrix.htm

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-1 - knowledge of algorithms is good, but there's no way all that stuff is going to be stored in your head when someone interviews you. That is what wikipedia, google and stackoverflow is for. –  MetroidFan2002 Feb 15 '09 at 6:09
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Agreeing that that list is mostly useless; it's a nice source of ideas if you're looking for exercises, but it's not very useful insofar as making the determination that you're a "good programmer". "Good programmer" is more attitude than arbitrary list. –  cookiecaper Apr 13 '09 at 13:54
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+1. While I don't disagree with what's said above I still think this is a very good list. Thank you for posting it. These are definitely the sorts of criteria on which I'd evaluate a programmer applying for a job. And @macnnicken, it only goes to level 3. :) –  EMP May 28 '10 at 7:10
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Jeff has one of my favorite blog posts on this topic...Why I'm The Best Programmer In The World

"...it's not our job to be better than anyone else; we just need to be better than we were a year ago."

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I like that quote, very good. And its what programming is all about. "Be better in what you do and know day after day." –  Fábio Antunes Oct 25 '09 at 13:17
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Every year for the last 12 years, I've looked back at code I'd written a year before and thought it was utter shite. Maybe I'm doing something right! There is nothing worse than a stagnant programmer. –  Andrew Hedges Feb 8 '10 at 19:08
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I think the fact that you are asking the question proves you are not a bad programmer, so, in my opinion, you are half way there. :)

Bad programmers always think they are great programmers, in my experience.

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My experience agrees with your experience, which is why I get worried whenever I start thinking that I'm good. –  Kristopher Johnson Jan 12 '10 at 17:37
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@Nick's statement "Bad programmers always think they are great programmers..." is explained by the Dunning Kruger Effect, which generalises that people who know a little about a subject often over estimate how much they actually know.

Being a bit facetious... the less you think you know the more you probably do.... unless of course you are a really self aware idiot.

Answering the original question, though i tend to think that the more influence (not control) you have generally is a good indicator. If you see other's following your lead, or picking up your practises then you are on the right path.

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The answer that got the most plus votes is really distressing. Basically it says that you have no life outside of programming. What about family? Community? Hobbies? What kind of a profession are we in where you have to be preoccupied to the point of obsession just to be considered "good"? I really think we need to get some perspective here.

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I agree. We should striving to be a great person before we become a great programmer. –  iPhoney Feb 4 '10 at 5:31
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You could try competing in the TopCoder algorithm contests.

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I'm not perfect. I make mistakes. I miss deadlines. But I think I make about the same number of bonehead moves that "other good programmers" do.

That realization alone makes you a better programmer than most of the bad programmers out there.

A lot of the worst programmers tend to think that they already know everything there is to know and are not aware of their limitations. As a result, they never improve their skills.

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If you look at your code from let's say a year ago, and think, jeez, I could have done that a lot better, you're probably good :).

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Here are some real life examples of bad programming. Of course, similar code was all over the place copy/pasted in 100 places. Guy got fired, but I've heard that he got a nice job again. Enjoy:

a)

if (! TableObject.loadList("sql condition").isEmpty()) {  
    List<TableObject> myList = TableObject.loadList("sql condition");  
    ...  
}

b)

public static Type getInstance() {  
    if (instance == null) {  
        return new Type();  
    }  
    return instance;  
}

c)

getForeignKeyObjectProperty1() {  
    return ForeignKeyObject.loadByPrimaryKey(foreignId).getProperty1();  
}  

getForeignKeyObjectProperty2() {  
    return ForeignKeyObject.loadByPrimaryKey(foreignId).getProperty2();  
}  

...

getForeignKeyObjectPropertyN() {
    return ForeignKeyObject.loadByPrimaryKey(foreignId).getPropertyN();
}

d)

public boolean isHasImage() throws SQLException {
    StringBuilder query = new StringBuilder();
    query.append("select user_name");
    query.append(" from user");
    query.append(" where has_image = 1");
    query.append(" and user_name ='"+getUserName()+"' and user_image is not null");
    Connection c = Database.getInstance().getConnection();
    Statement st = c.createStatement();

    try {
        ResultSet rs = st.executeQuery(query.toString());
        if (rs.hasNext()) {
            return true;
        } else {
            return false;
        }
    } finally {
        st.close();
    }
}

If you make this kind of code, stop programming. If you don't see anything strange in this code, stop programming. Otherwise you aren't bad, so you even might be good :)

EDIT: To answer comments: I got job before graduating, and this guy already had few years of programming experience. He got fired few months after I got employed so I wasn't in position to tutor anyone. Examples above were just from top of my head - every peace of code he touched was flawed in various and imaginative ways. Most of the stuff started to creep out after he went from the company, because only then other people saw some parts of the code. He is generally a nice guy, pleasant to talk with etc. but he will NEVER be a good programmer, just as I will never be a good painter or a writer or whatever.

To contrast this with another example, guy who came to replace him was also undergrad at the time. He studied college more famous for management then programming. He isn't too geeky in a sense that he programmed anything for fun or would sit home and read about java or programming, yet he is doing just fine. He adjusted quickly and started producing useful and maintainable code. Some people can do that, other can't - just ask dailywtf.

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Anyone can post up arbitrary code and claim that those who don't understand it are stupid. I'll go stand in the dumb line. –  Ian P Feb 15 '09 at 4:03
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A good programmer would have taken the time (2 min maybe?) to explain to his/her colleague what was wrong with code such as this. –  CurtainDog Apr 12 '09 at 11:33
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Agreed, a good programmer would have pointed out why this code was 'bad' and would have helped his colleague to become better instead of mocking him. –  KyleFarris Apr 13 '09 at 14:07
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I hope that guy found a job where his coworkers helped him grow rather than chide him. –  Robert S. Apr 14 '09 at 14:36
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@Morph : instance field is never assigned a Type instance and so always remains null =) –  missingfaktor Jan 21 '10 at 5:12
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There are a few things you could try, to get a better gauge of how you stack up.

  • Compare code reviews. See whose review revealed more problems.
  • Ask when was the last time they read books that were peripheral to their normal course of study. Then ask yourself the same thing.
  • Ask yourself who brings in new ideas to the company (and how well they work).
  • Last (and least), is there some form of company recognition?

(I put that one last because at my last company, one programmer received "developer of the year" twice in three years. After he left, we found at least 20 TDWTF-worthy code snippets. He developed code fast, but not necessarily well. Management just didn't know the difference.)

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+1 for "compare code reviews". That seems like a novel and very practical thing to do. –  j_random_hacker May 27 '09 at 13:14
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Allow other developers who you respect to work with or see your code.

Have people actually use what you like and see what they think.

-- Kevin Fairchild

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Can you understand this?

if(rp->p_flag&SSWAP) {
	rp->p_flag =& ~SSWAP;
	aretu(u.u_ssav);
}

:-)

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You're not expected to understand this –  mike511 Oct 2 '08 at 17:07
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@j_random_hacker I suspect that =& is right as this code was written by Dennis Ritchie. See cm.bell-labs.com/who/dmr/odd.html –  Iain Holder Jun 7 '09 at 22:07
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@IainMH, dmr also admits it was buggy. –  user1249 Mar 19 '11 at 20:24
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Just the mere thought that you need to self-evaluate makes you a cut above the rest.

One way I always judge myself is listening to what my co-workers have to say about me. Trick is in finding the right people.

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It's always subjective who is a good programmer. I agree with Nick that simply asking the question is a step in the right direction. I think the constant desire to learn more and improve is what makes a good programmer.

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To me the very best programmers are never looking for work. They have standing offers for new positions just based on their reputation. So a good programmer may have offers from previous employers to return, if they desired. Or a good programmer would have had inquiries from former coworkers about coming to work for them at a new company.

In terms of strengths/weaknesses, you probably already know them. If not, ask a more senior person on your team. It doesn't even have to be a developer. A good project manager knows the strengths/weaknesses of programmers. Besides, the traits that define a good programmer are not just limited to code. Understanding the business, communication skills, judgement, etc. are all performed outside of your IDE.

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You could be a great programmer and a horrible person. Would you rather work with a nice person that maybe doesn't know so much but is willing to learn or with a total jerk that is a fantastic programmer in every way? So what you describe makes a good employee, not a good programmer. ;) –  Pickle Pumper Apr 11 '09 at 10:57
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I don't understand where this comment is coming from. The two main questions I am addressing are 'How do I KNOW if I am a good programmer?' and 'How to I know my strengths/weaknesses?' What's all this talk about jerks and horrible people. I have opinions on those things, but I don't think they relate to my response. –  MattH Apr 17 '09 at 17:37
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Getting a reputation is often more of a matter of PR and confidence than actual ability. –  David Thornley Jan 12 '10 at 18:04
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I think this is about like wondering how you can know if you're a nice person.

I think, unfortunately, the answer is that only other credible people can tell you that. I don't think it's something you can accurately determine for yourself (at least it's very difficult - but I think it might be impossible).

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i would simply say: if you're passionate (i mean REALLY passionate) about what you do, if you're flexible (another language, new technology, complete remake of an old project - let's do it!), if you keep learning and improving your skills and never, never think you're good enough to stop - then you're a good programmer!

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95% of all programmers think they are among the top 5% programmers, the other 5% are managers. So if you are a manager, you are probably not a good programmer, otherwise you probably are.

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I think it's more a matter of what you do with your programming skills. Being a great programmer is fine, but what does it matter if you're coding bank software all day (no offense). It just doesn't add up.

To really prove to yourself that you're a good programmer, take on an interesting a difficult side project. This shows a few things: you're interested in programming on your own free time and genuinely enjoy the subject -- this is essential to being a good programmer. It shows versatility in that you can extend your skills beyond what you do in your work environment. It shows motivation and creativity as well: you've defined a problem on your own and are taking steps to solving it.

All of these aspects define a good programmer to me.

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My answer will be politically incorrect. However, I am actually a founder of a start up and my job is to hire the best programmers.

How do I know which people will be good programmers or can be good programmers?

1 word: IQ.

IQ is for programming as height is for basket ball players.

I would put Math skills as another more politically correct indicators. My computer science teachers told me that there is one criteria that correctly predict who will succeed at programming courses. High School Math scores. Those are effectively IQ anyway.

This may come as a surprise. We are told that programming is a college degree job. Guess what, I don't care about degree. I care only about 3 things.

  1. Programming skills (that can be tested).
  2. Aptitude.
  3. Common sense (not too low) people's skills.

Unfortunately IQ only measures one thing. So I do some tests.

I ask people questions. Simple question I expect elementary school kid should be able to answer.

I ask questions like:

  1. What's the distance between short and long hand of the clock at 7:35
  2. If I go from Jakarta to Semarang and want to maintain 60km/hour speed. Then on first 2 hours I drive 100km/hour. How fast I should go for the rest of the trip so that my AVERAGE speed is 60km/hour?

If you look carefully those questions do not require creativity at all. Only common sense. Any elementary school kids with IQ can answer that.

MOST college graduate cannot. Now imagine if someone cannot answer that? Can he program? Think about it. How often you will have to specify what he should do?

You can also ask questions like Microsoft that do require creativity. You can ask questions on how to weigh 8 balls in a balance scale to know which one is the heaviest. The problem with such questions is that it involves luck. However, some are quite easy it should be a minimum requirement.

Getting an awesome programmer can improve morales of other programmers. Getting one lawsy programmers can lower everyone else' morale.

After people can answer questions like that, which is very easy, I would make them write some google jam code.

Good programmers can solve google jam code and can predict which problems are easier.

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imho you are a good programmer if

-you have a sound theoric background. reinventing the wheel as well as an algorithm or a framework is a waste of time, most of the times.

-you can see things and problems from a skewed perspective sometimes. this may bring you to find innovative solutions.

-you spend time money and efforts to have the best tools and the best skills updated.

-your code is easy to modify. if you design clean, elegant and understandable code, modyfing it will not be painful.

-if your code/bugs rate is reasonably high. I know this may seem trivial, but I know many creative and skilled developers that nonetheless are very prone to do trivial bugs. this impairs greately their effectiveness and usefulness.

-people around you know that you can help deciding what choices to do

-you can solve problems using different tools. bad programmers keep using the same tool (be it a language or a technology or an architecture and so on) for whatever problem they get

-you keep learning, you are curious.

-you have fun programming, after all these years

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"Sir, I have been through it from Alpha to Omaha, and I tell you that the less a man knows the bigger the noise he makes and the higher the salary he commands." Mark Twain

... my conclusion is that good programmers command a low salary and make little noise... :)

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Best Programmer: Complete the task with lowest number of code statements on time.

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How many bugs does your code have per some metric? (i.e. bugs per line) How much of your code has to be recoded when new features need to be added? Do your coworkers have issues modifying your code?

Ultimately, the question is next to impossible to answer given that the question of "what is quality code" is still a hotly debated topic after all these years.

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I really like what Adam V said above.

In addition to what others have said, look at the maintainability and support history of your work. If your code has heavy maintenance requirements and is constantly being fixed, or is difficult to change, those can be indicators of its quality. But these can also be indicators of poor requirements.

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"But these can also be indicators of poor requirements." most probably our case here. poor requirements made us rewrite a whole module. –  jerbersoft Sep 2 '09 at 15:23
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It's very hard to self-assess. Incompetent people tend to have wildly inflated assessments of their own abilities.

A good metric is whether other people whom you respect as programmers themselves want to work on/with code that you've written. Given the chance to work directly with you, or to inherit code that you've written, will then turn it down? Agree grudgingly? Or jump at the chance to learn from your work? This technique works even better if it's a peer, not an underling or someone who thinks there may be any benefit to them from making you feel good.

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If you really want to find out, submit some code to your peers, and ask for a (constructive) code review. In the worst case, you learn something. The mere fact that you're here on this site seeking enlightenment already sets you apart from the unwashed masses. (unless you're just here for ego stroking. :-)

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