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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 111

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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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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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 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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John McCarthy -- wrote the first version of lisp

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ICBW, but I thought he designed it as a language to run on a chalkboard. One/more of his students surprised him by actually implementing it. –  Alister Bulman Apr 10 '09 at 19:37
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+1 - the original implementation of 'eval' was done by a grad student. –  ConcernedOfTunbridgeWells Jun 19 '09 at 8:43
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That grad student was Steve Russell, and it was for the IBM 704. He's also the creator of Spacewar!, one of the first video games. –  Andrew Gwozdziewycz Feb 12 '11 at 22:40
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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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Derek Smart of Battlecruiser 3000AD was pretty big in his day. Apparently he was pretty good at flame wars too...

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

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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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In the gaming world:

  • Jon Van Caneghem - Known for the Might and Magic series, he single-handedly wrote, designed and developed the first entry in the series, with just a little help for artwork.
  • Dan Bunten - Created M.U.L.E., Seven Cities of Gold and a variety of other games, again, back in the early days when game designers were one-man (and, come 1992 for her, one-woman) armies.
  • Bill Budge - Created Pinball Construction Set, alongside many other games. From scratch. Himself. A great Gamasutra piece on PCS's legacy was published recently.

Not to mention all the Atari alumni who went on to Activision. Remember: In the early days, these were all one-man jobs.

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A lot of early games were one-man-shows. The last couple assembly language games I worked on had 3 or 4 people. This was before source control and we had nightmarish Friday code integrations. –  Nosredna Feb 10 '09 at 3:00
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Shaun Inman I guess he was solo

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There are so many great answers here, but I'll add in my own suggestions, and these come from the 1980's heydays of computer games on the Commodore 64:

Andrew Braybrook (Paradroid, Morpheus, Gribbly's Day Out)

Archer MacLean (Jimmy White's Snooker, Dropzone)

Stavros Fasoulas (Sanxion, Delta)

Martin Walker (Citadel)

Jon Hare/Chris Yates (aka Sensible Software) (Wizball, Sensible Soccer)

Ok, that last one is more of a "two-man" army, however, many of these guys worked (mostly) alone, coded mostly in assembler (6510) and also did sound, music and graphics all by themselves.

(Useless trivia - My gravatar is Gribbly Grobbly from Gribbly's day out!)

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+1 because i loved sensible soccer :)) –  Shadi Almosri Jun 17 '09 at 16:48
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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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Matthew Smith, wrote Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy all on his lonesome.

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Paul Lutus (Apple Writer, among others)

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Richard Greenblatt, wrote much stuff at MIT AI Lab, including chess program, Lisp Machine, etc. etc.

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Also mentioned in the book hackers, by Steven Levy. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative! –  tsilb Feb 9 '09 at 23:14
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Wayne Ratliff - dBASE. Best example of foundational PC software, written the hard way (in assembler).

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Nick Bradbury. He wrote HomeSite, TopStyle, and FeedDemon. All three programs top notch. Plus, he pays a lot of attention to his users - that can't be easy for a one-man shop.

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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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