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Neo Programmers

January 3, 2015

A bit on the very best programmers, but first read Paul Graham, then read Eric Sink.

OK. Now, my 2 cents.

In short, I mostly agree with Eric Sink and I suppose by association of sorts Paul Graham (though less so on the immigration aspect), but I’d like to take Sink’s argument to it’s next logical step.

Yes, programming is more like sports than accounting in a lot of ways. Perhaps that’s because it’s more like art than science.

But, here’s where it gets sticky for me. There ARE programmers who are far better than the average professional programmer (this is not me!). No, their output isn’t 10X more, but I like to think of them as more like Neo.


They’re more productive because the rules don’t apply to them. They don’t think like other programmers or even other people. In fact, most of them will do their most remarkable work in just a few lines of actual code.

They can SEE the code that makes up The Matrix if you will and they can alter it. They can thread together hundreds of disparate facts, ideas, code lines into one place in their head at one time and make a connection that 100 other devs looking at it would never make. That is what makes them like Neo. Heck, maybe some of them can even fly!

Here’s the rub though. Paul G seems to think that we need more of these great programmers. That giving us access to the entire world (which BTW we already have, let them work remote duh) would create more Neo’s and that is where I disagree.

Sure, there might be another 1 or 2 or 5 maybe in there. Maybe. The reality is these individuals are so incredibly rare that they have no bearing on your business. Policy should not be made based on them. They are unicorns.

Graham's article references a startup that would hire 30 tomorrow. 30!

If you believe your business depends on finding a unicorn because what you’re building requires 30 or 40 unicorns to build a solid product that has value, then I think you’re in very big trouble.

I also don’t believe that in small, startup size companies the only factors involve hiring the Mike Jordan’s of the programming world. Because unlike sports, where Jordan is the star, the startup world is the opposite. The owners and/or the VC’s are the stars.

Heck, can you name even one top level full time coder at Facebook, Apple, Google? Nope.

Why do you think the few unicorn programmers you do know by name work in open source or are hackers?

Most businesses fail because the ideas are bad, not because the programmers are bad. A great idea with professional execution will beat out a bad idea executed on by the very best programmer in the world.

In startups, I also think the emphasis on ‘coder quality’ overshadows so many other important factors. What about a coder who’s willing to do support? Willing to write docs? Willing to help with building the marketing website?

So, are there superstar devs? Yes. Will they make you money? Maybe, but no guarantee. Are they worth moving heaven and earth to get? Waiting for 18 months to find the right one? Lobbying congress so you can get one to move to San Francisco rather than just let them work remote? No.

Hire great people, give them meaningful work, choose the right ideas to work on, make a product people need.

An Aside

I’d feel remiss if I didn’t point out another element in this. That almost always when you hear these arguments about the best programmers being 50X better than an average one the person doing the touting has a serious bias.

For example, the first time I ever heard this case made in earnest was Joel Spolsky. He talked about it all the time. He also ran a job board for programmers, sold millions of dollars in software to programmers, and drove a huge amount of business via his blog which was for programmers.

Paul Graham is in pretty much the same spot. He’s invested in lots of companies that need programming talent. For some crazy reason all these startups insist on being in 1 physical location together. Getting enough people to want to make $100K/year but also be forced to share an apartment and live on Raman noodles is tricky. It’s also expensive for the companies. Flooding the market with people willing to live in the most expensive place on earth would be good for him and his investments.

Aside 2

:) this article isn’t a statement about if we should/shouldn’t allow more immigration. I’m generally for immigration of all types, but that’s not the aspect in this case I find particularly interesting.

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