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Lately I have been learning of more and more programmers who think that if they were working alone, they would be faster and would deliver more quality. Usually that feeling is attached to a feeling that they do the best programming in their team and at the end of the day the idea is quite plausible. If they ARE doing the best programming, and worked alone (and more maybe) the final result would be a better piece of software.

I know this idea would only work if you were passionate enough to work 24/7, on a deadline, with great discipline.

So after considering the idea and trying to learn a little more, I wonder if there are famous one-man-army programmers that have delivered any (useful) software in the past?

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Net productivity drops when hours go to high. Don't assume the best of the best are there merely because they invest more time. If that were the case, anyone could become a great programmer. –  Brian Feb 9 '09 at 20:31
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Most of the answers are wrong. Anders didn't build C# or Turbo Pascal all by himself, for example. –  Robert S. Feb 10 '09 at 2:01
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Its weird that the number of votes to close is constant, while this question have 22 up votes and 14 favs, it only needs 4 votes to have it closed huh? –  DFectuoso Feb 10 '09 at 17:21
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111 Answers

John Carmack

The guy that wrote the engine for the Doom games, Wolfenstein, the Quake games, etc. Read Masters of Doom, it is a great history of what he and John Romero have done.

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Just don't ask about Daikatana :) –  tsilb Feb 9 '09 at 23:12
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Daikatana was done by Romero after he left iD, don't think there was much Carmack involved ;-) –  Jasper Bekkers Feb 9 '09 at 23:17
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Carmack wasn't involved with Daikatana at all. That was Romero and his own company. Read Masters of Doom, you'll find Romero did some pretty good work in the beginning. –  Jamie Penney Feb 10 '09 at 0:19
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I used to read J. Carmack's blog/finger posts in the early 90's and what few papers he wrote... He is and still one of the Einsteins of video game engines and he's literally a rocket scientist :) –  David Feb 10 '09 at 5:44
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I would agree, think John Carmack will voted for one of the best programmers out there. –  Berlin Brown Feb 10 '09 at 7:20
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Donald Knuth

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Indeed. He wrote every line of code of TeX himself, and I believe the same is true of Metafont as well. [He often have discussions with other people about important decisions, but all the code was written alone.] –  ShreevatsaR Feb 10 '09 at 4:50
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oh. don't forget that he wrote TeX ON PAPER in a notebook completely then just 'typed it in'... oh and he invented a new style (Literate programming) in the process too. –  Kevin Won Feb 18 '10 at 4:12
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+1 Knuth - it easy to overlook that the second word of The Art of Computer Programming is "art" when the whole book is an extremely dense manifesto of highly efficient data structures and algorithms. But it really and truly is an art form rather than a science or engineering discipline. –  Robert Davis Feb 18 '10 at 4:19
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Can't afford not to upvote any question where Don is the answer –  Vardhan Feb 13 '11 at 11:53
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Also: Any guy that pays for his own mistakes (literally! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knuth_reward_check ) is awesome in my book. He takes the concept of "one man army" to 11. –  Dan Esparza Oct 5 '11 at 16:38
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Steve Wozniak pretty much was apple's programming staff for the first bit.

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He designed their early hardware too. –  Bill the Lizard Feb 9 '09 at 20:55
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His book 'iWoz' is an interesting read. He is one of the greatest inventors of his era. –  Al pacino Feb 10 '09 at 6:38
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I remember Woz being known as pretty hot stuff back in the 80s so if it's hype, it's been going on a loooooong time. –  willc2 Feb 17 '09 at 7:36
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Legend has it Woz hand-assembled Integer BASIC into 6502 machine code using pencil and paper, then typed those bytes into the Apple II monitor software, which has also designed, and then saved those bytes to a cassette interface, which he also designed. All so that he could implement Atari Breakout in BASIC to show off at the hobby club. –  Darren Feb 12 '11 at 23:27
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@Darren: that's more than legend. I've seen a photocopy of part of it -- all hand-written assembly code, with machine code (also hand written) next to it. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that at the time that wasn't terribly rare (I did the same several times). –  Jerry Coffin Feb 13 '11 at 3:22
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Richard M. Stallman (RMS). While known recently for political rants about closed source software, in his day he was quite the programmer. He single handedly kept up with commercial lisp machine code for quite some time. Emacs and gcc are some of the things he created.

There's a great description of him in the book in Hackers by Steven Levy.

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Berlin: like gcc, gdb and make? –  mjard Feb 10 '09 at 7:26
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RMS was a one man army keeping up with commercial LISP machines only because he was the only one nuts enough and able to do it :) He did the initial emacs on his own because the concept was just too complex to articulate to anyone else.. but after that, he happily worked with others. –  Tim Post Mar 4 '09 at 4:39
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In his defense, Symbolics people would design Lisp machines probably sitting around offices and tables, allowing RMS to hack up imitations on MIT systems of their designs and feature decisions. He would become a one-man army again to keep Emacs apace with the XEmacs fork. –  ashawley Mar 24 '09 at 19:23
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xkcd.com/225 –  Jason Jun 19 '09 at 8:33
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Chris Sawyer. He had a little help with music and graphics, but otherwise RollerCoaster Tycoon was all him. Amazing, especially given the physics engine. Last but not least, the entire game was written in assembly language.

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Don't forget Transport Tycoon, which probably has a bigger cult following than RCT. –  Erik Forbes Feb 9 '09 at 20:38
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All in assembly too! –  Malfist Feb 9 '09 at 20:41
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Fastest gun in the West --- you beat me by 5 seconds :) Good thing you added the thing about assembler --- that's what I still find the most striking thing :D –  onnodb Feb 10 '09 at 7:13
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That OpenTTD exists is a testament to how enjoyable Transport Tycoon was. –  Rob Feb 10 '09 at 15:34
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Had no idea that was built with ASM. Amazing. –  David McGraw Feb 12 '09 at 6:35
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Linus Torvalds

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Linus is more of a manager type then pure dev. the first revision of linux really sucked, it was only after he got others involved that it got good –  Matt Briggs Feb 9 '09 at 20:40
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Exactly. Git is the same way. Linus needs a team :) –  jrockway Feb 9 '09 at 20:47
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Well, Linus is the army. Whatever he starts, the huge army appears out of nowhere and produces something huge. So, no Linus, no army :) –  Marko Feb 10 '09 at 15:41
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Linus's success is based on not being a one-man-army. The GPL was a very important decision of his. –  ashawley Mar 24 '09 at 19:24
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xkcd.com/225 –  Jason Jun 19 '09 at 8:34
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Bill Joy - wrote vi as well as csh, rlogin, rsh, and rcp

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Someone buy that man a dictionary! –  Mike Robinson Feb 9 '09 at 20:54
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Some might consider those programs to be a good reason to use the word infamous instead. Or at least vi and csh. ;) –  Chris Charabaruk Feb 9 '09 at 23:33
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Not to mention the TCP/IP stack for BSD: archive.salon.com/tech/fsp/2000/05/16/chapter_2_part_one/… –  Yawar Oct 1 '09 at 1:46
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@Jerry Coffin: No thanks, I'll stick to emacs. –  Chris Charabaruk Feb 13 '11 at 14:20
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Just for completeness (not really competitive with today's programming "heros", but truly a "one-man-army" in her times ;-): Ada Lovelace

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Drats, you posted before I got mine on. delete mine, +1 to you. –  WolfmanDragon Feb 9 '09 at 21:07
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A one-woman-army programmer really :) –  Paggas Oct 11 '09 at 21:02
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John Resig, creator of the jQuery javascript framework.

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you had me at 'jQuery' –  BPAndrew Feb 11 '09 at 18:04
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+ yeah, jQuery is rocks, I lost 10 pounds in just a week using jQuery wight loss plugin. –  clyfe Feb 13 '11 at 0:08
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Guido van Rossum (author of Python)

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How can Guido be considered a one-man-army? In my view he is a great collaborator. –  asksol Feb 13 '11 at 0:00
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For the most part Guido was alone on Python for 10 years, codeswarm show when it picks up: vimeo.com/1093745 –  Ryan Christensen Feb 13 '11 at 11:55
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Larry Wall - Perl.

And for a fun trip to see what goes in that fabulous mind of his , C programmers can read the winning entry in the international C obfuscation contest in 1986. It's filed under wall.c

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I hardly think Larry Wall considers himself the sole author of perl. There's a big community of contributors guided by Larry Wall, same with Guido and Python. If you meant Perl 1.0, then maybe, I don't know how many major contributors apart from Wall there was at the time. –  asksol Feb 12 '11 at 23:54
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Anders Hejlsberg creator of Turbo Pascal, Delphi, C# (and partly .NET), ....

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Bram Cohen, at least his little project is now causing 50% of all internet traffic[citation needed].

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you can use it for anything that needs to be transported to people. –  Svish Feb 10 '09 at 8:34
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Yes, BitTorrent is used for example by Blizzard to distribute their World of Warcraft Patches or digital downloads from their online store. Also, Linux distributions use it for their DVDs. I will use it for my stuff because 4 GB Webspace is $$$. –  Michael Stum Feb 10 '09 at 11:49
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@svish - I'd like a chocolate bar please, can you seed? –  AShelly Feb 10 '09 at 20:10
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Facebook uses BitTorrent to push their 1GB+ compiled binaries to their servers. –  Paperjam Oct 11 '11 at 22:12
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Bjarne Stroustrup for the invention and 1st implementation of C++

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Yet another who's really much more a collaborator than a one-man-army. The Design and Evolution of C++ lists many contributors going all the way back to the very beginning. –  Jerry Coffin Feb 13 '11 at 3:27
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Yukihiro Matsumoto did deliver a lot of Ruby all by himself. Ruby's popular now, and lots of people have contributed to it, but he did single-handedly start the ball rolling.

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Oren Eini aka Ayende Rahien, author of Rhino Mocks and other great open source tools. His is some of the best and most elegant code around.

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DJ Bernstein. qmail, djbdns, and many many others.

Oh, and suing the United States so people here can freely publish cryptography tools on the Internet. Not exactly programming, but totally one-man-army.

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djb is one of those people you want to lock in a room and let code. The man is a walking flame war when talking to others, but the guy sure has some talent. –  jer Feb 13 '11 at 1:11
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Jon Skeet

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When does Jon Skeet have time for programming? –  jrockway Feb 9 '09 at 20:48
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He has an NMI fire every 8ns during which he stops answering prayers and writes several bug-free programs. –  Ken Feb 9 '09 at 20:58
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@jrockway: Jon uses Butterflies: stackoverflow.com/questions/305223/jon-skeet-facts/… –  OscarRyz Feb 21 '09 at 1:45
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He's a book writer, forum commenter, not a one-man-arm programmer.. –  Ciwee Oct 25 '09 at 11:59
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Jon Skeet writes code whilst sleeping. –  Steven Keith Sep 23 '10 at 15:20
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This is one of those great programmers who doesn't have the "Knuth" fame - Fabrice Bellard. He wrote the original FFmpeg distribution, is the project leader for QEMU, discovered the fastest current pi algorithm, and has not one, but two, wins in the The International Obfuscated C Code Contest. To use a line from one of my favorite CS professors, the man is a rock star.

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Two decades ago, he also wrote a program used by many MS-DOS programmers: LZEXE. It's like PKLITE (or UPX, these days), but he was definitely a pioneer. –  Chris Jester-Young May 21 '09 at 3:39
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After seeing his Linux that runs inside the browser, I had to give this a +1. bellard.org/jslinux –  Mark Ransom May 18 '11 at 2:32
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Jamie Zawinski (links to one of the most epic stories in the history of computer science)

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The netscape launch was hardly computer science. –  user1249 Feb 13 '11 at 8:00
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_why's self-portrait

_why has contributed some cool stuff to the Ruby community :

... and many more :)

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I'd say you're pushing the term "famous" a little too far with this one :) Compared to the others in the bunch here. –  ldigas Feb 10 '09 at 2:51
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I don't think the Ruby people would agree :) –  Geo Feb 10 '09 at 15:56
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Out of everyone posted so far, he is the only one man army on the list. –  stonemetal Feb 12 '11 at 22:39
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Read this article for example, starting twowards the middle at about the place where it says,

... the privately held company Celera appeared on the verge of beating the combined scientific teams of the rest of the world to the goal of sequencing the human genome. Celera's approach was less rigorous but faster than the Human Genome Project's approach, and for a very understandable reason: Celera's goal was not to advance science but to win the race by any means fair or foul and thereby claim what would have been the most astonishing conquistadorial prize in human history. For had Celera won the race to sequence the genome, and had it filed patents aggressively, it is conceivable that one tiny company could have laid claim to royalties on virtually all medical progress thenceforward. Nay, they could have claimed proprietary interest in the evolutionary future of the human race.

Never mind that the proposition was more ludicrous, on the face of it, than a private company's laying claim to the moon. The threat was real, and scientists were scared.

This state of affairs was remedied by the heroic efforts of a once obscure University of California at Santa Cruz biology graduate student named Jim Kent, who, over the course of 40 days of coding so furiously that he literally had to soak his wrists in ice baths every night, wrote a program to assemble and make public the Human Genome Project's own map. He completed the task one day ahead of Celera.

Kent's stealth attack thereby beat Celera at its own game virtually single-handedly, in a feat that deserves to become as iconic as Watson and Crick's.

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His wrists? I would've moved to a more finger-based technique, then. –  Yar Jun 29 '09 at 18:04
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Sid Meier

Co-founded Microprose and wrote Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and Sid Meier's Colonization,[2][3], Sid Meier's Civilization IV and a bunch more

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He didn't write Alpha Centauri by himself, either. He became famous for writing Civ 1, and it seems like he has mostly done collaboration/team management since then. –  drhorrible Jul 22 '09 at 14:15
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This is like giving Bill Gates credit for Windows 7... Sid Meier is more a manager than anything else. With recent games, it seems like his name is just a brand... –  BobMcGee Jan 12 '10 at 1:55
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@Bob. The question was - a one man army ...wrote software in the past...Not, was the latest piece of software written solely by this person... –  asp316 Jan 12 '10 at 6:26
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Is there any evidence that he wrote Civ by himself? And if he did, due to preference rather than necessity? That's what this thread is about. –  Kirk Broadhurst Mar 25 '10 at 12:58
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Chuck Moore - Created Forth, ported it to dozens of architectures, designed several microprocessors, made his own CAD system, earned millions on hardware patents, created colorForth... and so on.

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Phil Katz absolutely deserves mention. Where would we have been without PKZip.

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We'd be using SEA's ARC :-) But yes, PKZIP was quite important when Modems were still slower than postal mail. –  Michael Stum Feb 10 '09 at 11:52
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John Backus - Fortran

Stephen Wolfram - Mathematica package

Sid Meier - Civilization

Tim Berners-Lee - inventor of World Wide Web

Phil Zimmermann - PGP

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This isn't just a feeling, this is the an article in the 20th anniversary edition of a book by Frederick Brooks called The Mythical Man Month. This is actually, I would guess, a very frequent situation. The personality of a software developer leads itself to being somewhat independent anyways. I don't know of prime examples, but you may be interested in the book I linked above.

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Khaled Mardam-Bey, author of mIRC, the famous IRC client.

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