Superclass: 15 of the world’s best living programmers

When programmers talk shop about the best in their field, these are the names that rise to the top.

A man pulling open his shirt to reveal Superman logo
tom_bullock CC BY 2.0 (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

It seems like there are lots of programmers out there these days, and lots of really good programmers. But which one is the very best?

Even though there’s no way to really say who the best living programmer is, that hasn’t stopped developers from frequently kicking the topic around. ITworld has solicited input and scoured coder discussion forums to see if there was any consensus. As it turned out, a handful of names did frequently get mentioned in these discussions.

Use the arrows above to read about 15 people commonly cited as the world’s best living programmer.

Also on ITworld:

Picture of Margaret Hamilton during Apollo days

Margaret Hamilton

Main claim to fame: The brains behind Apollo’s flight control software

Credentials: As the Director of the Software Engineering Division at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, she headed up the team which designed and built the on-board flight control software for NASA’s Apollo and Skylab missions. Based on her Apollo work, she later developed the Universal Systems Language and Development Before the Fact paradigm. Pioneered the concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling, and ultra-reliable software design. Coined the term “software engineering.” Winner of the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award in 1986 and NASA’s Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003.

Quotes: “Hamilton invented testing , she pretty much formalised Computer Engineering in the US.” ford_beeblebrox

“I think before her (and without disrespect including Knuth) computer programming was (and to an extent remains) a branch of mathematics. However a flight control system for a spacecraft clearly moves programming into a different paradigm.” Dan Allen

“... she originated the term ‘software engineering’ — and offered a great example of how to do it.” David Hamilton

“What a badass” Drukered

Picture of Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth

Main claim to fame: Author of The Art of Computer Programming

Credentials: Wrote the definitive book on the theory of programming. Created the TeX digital typesetting system. First winner of the ACM’s Grace Murray Hopper Award in 1971. Winner of the ACM’s A. M. Turing Award in 1974, the National Medal of Science in 1979 and the IEEE’s John von Neumann Medal in 1995. Named a Fellow at the Computer History Museum in 1998.

Quotes: “... wrote The Art of Computer Programming which is probably the most comprehensive work on computer programming ever.” Anonymous

“There is only one large computer program I have used in which there are to a decent approximation 0 bugs: Don Knuth's TeX. That's impressive.” Jaap Weel

“Pretty awesome if you ask me.” Mitch Rees-Jones

Picture of Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Main claim to fame: Creator of Unix

Credentials: Co-creator, along with Dennis Ritchie, of Unix. Creator of the B programming language, the UTF-8 character encoding scheme, the ed text editor, and co-developer of the Go programming language. Co-winner (along with Ritchie) of the A.M. Turing Award in 1983, IEEE Computer Pioneer Award in 1994, and the National Medal of Technology in 1998. Inducted as a fellow of the Computer History Museum in 1997.

Quotes: “... probably the most accomplished programmer ever.  Unix kernel, Unix tools, world-champion chess program Belle, Plan 9, Go Language.” Pete Prokopowicz

“Ken's contributions, more than anyone else I can think of, were fundamental and yet so practical and timeless they are still in daily use.“ Jan Jannink

Picture of Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

Main claim to fame: Creator of Emacs, GCC

Credentials: Founded the GNU Project and created many of its core tools, such as Emacs, GCC, GDB, and GNU Make. Also founded the Free Software Foundation. Winner of the ACM's Grace Murray Hopper Award in 1990 and the EFF's Pioneer Award in 1998.

Quotes: “... there was the time when he single-handedly outcoded several of the best Lisp hackers around, in the Symbolics vs LMI fight.” Srinivasan Krishnan

“Through his amazing mastery of programming and force of will, he created a whole sub-culture in programming and computers.” Dan Dunay

“I might disagree on many things with the great man, but he is still one of the most important programmers, alive or dead” Marko Poutiainen

“Try to imagine Linux without the prior work on the GNu project. Stallman's the bomb, yo.” John Burnette

Picture of Anders Hejlsberg

Anders Hejlsberg

Main claim to fame: Creator of Turbo Pascal

Credentials: The original author of what became Turbo Pascal, one of the most popular Pascal compilers and the first integrated development environment. Later, led the building of Delphi, Turbo Pascal’s successor. Chief designer and architect of C#. Winner of Dr. Dobb's Excellence in Programming Award in 2001.

Quotes: “He wrote the [Pascal] compiler in assembly language for both of the dominant PC operating systems of the day (DOS and CPM). It was designed to compile, link and run a program in seconds rather than minutes.” Steve Wood

“I revere this guy - he created the development tools that were my favourite through three key periods along my path to becoming a professional software engineer.” Stefan Kiryazov

Picture of Doug Cutting

Doug Cutting

Main claim to fame: Creator of Lucene

Credentials: Developed the Lucene search engine, as well as Nutch, a web crawler, and Hadoop, a set of tools for distributed processing of large data sets. A strong proponent of open-source (Lucene, Nutch and Hadoop are all open-source). Currently a former director of the Apache Software Foundation.

Quotes: “... he is the same guy who has written an exceptional search framework(lucene/solr) and opened the big-data gateway to the world(hadoop).” Rajesh Rao

“His creation/work on Lucene and Hadoop (among other projects) has created a tremendous amount of wealth and employment for folks in the world….” Amit Nithianandan

Picture of Sanjay Ghemawat

Sanjay Ghemawat

Main claim to fame: Key Google architect

Credentials: Helped to design and implement some of Google’s large distributed systems, including MapReduce, BigTable, Spanner and Google File System. Created Unix’s ical calendaring system. Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2009. Winner of the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences in 2012.

Quote: “Jeff Dean's wingman.” Ahmet Alp Balkan

Picture of Jeff Dean

Jeff Dean

Main claim to fame: The brains behind Google search indexing

Credentials: Helped to design and implement many of Google’s large-scale distributed systems, including website crawling, indexing and searching, AdSense, MapReduce, BigTable  and Spanner. Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2009. 2012 winner of the ACM’s SIGOPS Mark Weiser Award and the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences.

Quotes: “... for bringing breakthroughs in data mining( GFS, Map and Reduce, Big Table ).” Natu Lauchande

“... conceived, built, and deployed MapReduce and BigTable, among a bazillion other things” Erik Goldman

Picture of Linus Torvalds
Krd CC BY-SA 4.0 (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Linus Torvalds

Main claim to fame: Creator of Linux

Credentials: Created the Linux kernel and Git, an open source version control system. Winner of numerous awards and honors, including the EFF Pioneer Award in 1998, the British Computer Society’s Lovelace Medal in 2000, the Millenium Technology Prize in 2012 and the IEEE Computer Society’s Computer Pioneer Award in 2014. Also inducted into the Computer History Museum’s Hall of Fellows in 2008 and the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.

Quotes: “To put into prospective what an achievement this is, he wrote the Linux kernel in a few years while the GNU Hurd (a GNU-developed kernel) has been under development for 25 years and has still yet to release a production-ready example.” Erich Ficker

“Torvalds is probably the programmer's programmer.” Dan Allen

“He's pretty darn good.” Alok Tripathy

Picture of John Carmack

John Carmack

Main claim to fame: Creator of Doom

Credentials: Cofounded id Software and created such influential FPS games as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. Pioneered such ground-breaking computer graphic techniques adaptive tile refresh, binary space partitioning, and surface caching. Inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 2001, won Emmy awards in the Engineering & Technology category in 2007 and 2008, and given a lifetime achievement award by the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2010.

Quotes: “He wrote his first rendering engine before he was 20 years old. The guy's a genius. I wish I were a quarter a programmer he is.” Alex Dolinsky

“... Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake were revolutionary at the time and have influenced a generation of game designers.” dniblock

“He can write basically anything in a weekend....” Greg Naughton

“He is the Mozart of computer coding….” Chris Morris

Picture of Fabrice Bellard

Fabrice Bellard

Main claim to fame: Creator of QEMU

Credentials: Created a variety of well-known open-source software programs, including QEMU, a platform for hardware emulation and virtualization, FFmpeg, for handling multimedia data, the Tiny C Compiler and LZEXE, an executable file compressor. Winner of the Obfuscated C Code Contest in 2000 and 2001 and the Google-O'Reilly Open Source Award in 2011. Former world record holder for calculating the most number of digits in Pi.

Quotes: “I find Fabrice Bellard's work remarkable and impressive.” raphinou

“Fabrice Bellard is the most productive programmer in the world....” Pavan Yara

“Hes like the Nikola Tesla of sofware engineering.” Michael Valladolid

“He's a prolific serial achiever since the 1980s.” Michael Biggins

Picture of Jon Skeet

Jon Skeet

Main claim to fame: Legendary Stack Overflow contributor

Credentials: Google engineer and author of C# in Depth. Holds highest reputation score of all time on Stack Overflow, answering, on average, 390 questions per month.

Quotes: “Jon Skeet doesn't need a debugger, he just stares down the bug until the code confesses” Steven A. Lowe

“When Jon Skeet's code fails to compile the compiler apologises.” Dan Dyer

“Jon Skeet's code doesn't follow a coding convention. It is the coding convention.” Anonymous

Picture of Adam D'Angelo

Adam D'Angelo

Main claim to fame: Co-founder of Quora

Credentials: As an engineer at Facebook, built initial infrastructure for its news feed. Went on to become CTO and VP of engineering at Facebook, before leaving to co-found Quora. Eighth place finisher at the USA Computing Olympiad as a high school student in 2001. Member of California Institute of Technology’s silver medal winning team at the  ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest in 2004. Finalist in the Algorithm Coding Competition of Topcoder Collegiate Challenge in 2005.

Quotes: “An "All-Rounder" Programmer.” Anonymous

"For every good thing I make he has like six." Mark Zuckerberg

Picture of Petr Mitrechev

Petr Mitrechev

Main claim to fame: One of the top competitive programmers of all time

Credentials: Two-time gold medal winner in the International Olympiad in Informatics (2000, 2002). In 2006, won the Google Code Jam and was also the TopCoder Open Algorithm champion. Also, two-time winner of the Facebook Hacker Cup (2011, 2013). At the time of this writing, the second ranked algorithm competitor on TopCoder (handle: Petr) and also ranked second by Codeforces

Quote: “He is an idol in competitive programming even here in India…” Kavish Dwivedi

Picture of Gennady Korotkevich

Gennady Korotkevich

Main claim to fame: Competitive programming prodigy

Credentials: Youngest participant ever (age 11) and 6 time gold medalist (2007-2012) in the International Olympiad in Informatics. Part of the winning team at the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest in 2013 and winner of the 2014 Facebook Hacker Cup. At the time of this writing, ranked first by Codeforces (handle: Tourist) and first among algorithm competitors by TopCoder.

Quotes: “A programming prodigy!” Prateek Joshi

“Gennady is definitely amazing, and visible example of why I have a large development team in Belarus.” Chris Howard

“Tourist is genius” Nuka Shrinivas Rao