How do ordinary programmers become famous programmers? Since I am not already a famous programmer I can’t speak from experience but, from scientific observations of the those programmers who are well-known, I have been able to identify the following five strategies for becoming a “thought leader”:
1. Do Great Things
Build software that everybody uses and you’ll become famous. Easy.
This is the Torvalds method. Everybody knows who Linus is because of Linux. And, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he followed up by creating Git. This approach is not fool-proof though. Not all great projects become famous and not all famous projects have well-known developers.
2. Talk the Talk
Start a blog, get 100,000 readers, retire on the Adsense revenue.
The best known programmers aren’t necessarily known for their programming. They may still be good programmers but they made their mark by being excellent communicators. Joel Spolsky is the poster child for this category. If it weren’t for Joel’s blog who knows whether Fog Creek Software would be in business at all? By writing regular common sense about software development and management, and by evangelising the programmer’s utopia that he’s building in New York, Joel keeps his company, its products and its offices in the minds of his hundreds of thousands of readers.
Joel’s StackOverflow business partner, Jeff Atwood, is another example of programmer-turned-A-list-blogger. I would love to know how to get from 200-reader blog to 100k-reader blog. I’m sure that in Jeff’s case it has a lot to do with the regular posting schedule that he has maintained over a number of years. Easy-to-read articles, with a hint of danger, posted several times a week leads to an extensive archive of articles that no doubt brings in a huge amount of Google traffic.
Steve Yegge is somebody else you could look to emulate as a blogger, but if you find yourself writing articles so long that they need a full-page table of contents, it’s probably time to lay off the dope.
3. Write the Book
Next time you are in a job interview or pitching for some consulting work and somebody asks “do you know anything about technology XYZ?”, wouldn’t it be great to be able to respond “actually, I wrote the book Professional XYZ in Action for Dummies in a Nutshell”?
There are thousands of software development books published every year. Technology books have short life spans and publishers are always on the lookout for potential authors to write a book on the next big thing. If you can demonstrate basic literacy and sufficient technical knowledge, it could be you. Just don’t expect to get rich from the royalties. If you divide the amount that you make by the number of hours you spend writing, you’ll be lucky to come out ahead of minimum wage levels.
It’s a big time commitment for modest direct financial rewards but, if you’re playing the long game, writing a book can lead to other opportunities such as speaking at conferences, providing expert consultancy and more. You also get the satisfaction of seeing your book on Amazon and, better still, you get to harrass local bookstores by re-enacting the J.R. Hartley Yellow Pages ad.
4. Become a Cult Figure
5. Work at Google
I don’t know whether being a well-known developer gets you a job at Google or if getting a job at Google makes you a well-known developer but either way there are a lot of famous programmers at Google.
Working at Google is like an extra stamp of credibility. If you don’t work at Google and you say something stupid, people think you are dumb. If you do work at Google and you say something stupid, people think that you know something that they don’t.