Alpha Coders: 20% off the top


Jeff Atwood wrote a long and thoughful blog post about the difference between Alpha Coders and “the other 80%” of programmers out there. He expresses concern for the 80% who are “just getting by” and not out expanding their knowledge, forging new paths through the jungle, and being all that they can be.Quoting Ben Collins-Sussman:

There are two “classes” of programmers in the world of software development: I’m going to call them the 20% and the 80%.

The 20% folks are what many would call “alpha” programmers — the leaders, trailblazers, trendsetters, the kind of folks that places like Google and Fog Creek software are obsessed with hiring. These folks were the first ones to install Linux at home in the 90’s; the people who write lisp compilers and learn Haskell on weekends “just for fun”; they actively participate in open source projects; they’re always aware of the latest, coolest new trends in programming and tools.

The 80% folks make up the bulk of the software development industry. They’re not stupid; they’re merely vocational. They went to school, learned just enough Java/C#/C++, then got a job writing internal apps for banks, governments, travel firms, law firms, etc. The world usually never sees their software. They use whatever tools Microsoft hands down to them — usally VS.NET if they’re doing C++, or maybe a GUI IDE like Eclipse or IntelliJ for Java development. They’ve never used Linux, and aren’t very interested in it anyway. Many have never even used version control. If they have, it’s only whatever tool shipped in the Microsoft box (like SourceSafe), or some ancient thing handed down to them. They know exactly enough to get their job done, then go home on the weekend and forget about computers.

One has to ask themselves, what are the fundamental differences between the 20 and the 80? What makes the Alpha Coders better then the proletariat? Do Alpha Coders have no life as some have suggested? Are the 80% populated by guys (and gals) with families, kids, spouses, little league games and other things taking up their time? Or, are the Alpha Coders just able to buckle down and get the job done and dedicate a block of time each night to learning and experimenting and trying to not burn the candle at both ends?

For the record, I’ve been to a presentation by Jeff Atwood in Fresno at the Central Cal Dot Net Users Group. It got me excited! While I’m probably in the 80%, I do make forays into the 20% camp on occasion. I’ve installed Linux several times back in the 90s, switched from Win 95 to NT Workstation SP2 when it was available, have tinkered with AJAX, drupal/joomla, etc. I’m not an alpha programmer by any stretch of the imagination, but I like to think I’m an alpha geek.