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 where enough passionate to work 24/7, on a deadline, and 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?

180 accepted

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.


Donald Knuth


Steve Wozniak pretty much was apple's programming staff for the first bit.


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.



Linus Torvalds


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.


Guido van Rossum (author of Python)


Bill Joy - wrote vi as well as csh, rlogin, rsh, and rcp


Just for completeness (not really competitive with today's programming "heros", but truly a "one-man-army" in her times ;-): Ada Lovelace


Bjarne Stroustrup for the invention and 1st implementation of C++


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


Anders Hejlsberg creator of Turbo Pascal, Delphi, C# (and partly .NET), ....


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.


Bram Cohen, at least his little project is now causing 50% of all internet traffic[citation needed].


John Resig, creator of the jQuery javacript framework.


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.


DJ Bernstein. qmail, djbdns, and many many others.

Oh, and suing the United States so people here can freely publish cryptography tools on the Internet. Not exactly programming, but totally one-man-army.


Jon Skeet

So that can't be correct he is a micro celebrity.


Jamie Zawinski (links to one of the most epic stories in the history of computer science)


Read this article for example, starting twowards the middle at about the place where it says,

... the privately held company Celera appeared on the verge of beating the combined scientific teams of the rest of the world to the goal of sequencing the human genome. Celera's approach was less rigorous but faster than the Human Genome Project's approach, and for a very understandable reason: Celera's goal was not to advance science but to win the race by any means fair or foul and thereby claim what would have been the most astonishing conquistadorial prize in human history. For had Celera won the race to sequence the genome, and had it filed patents aggressively, it is conceivable that one tiny company could have laid claim to royalties on virtually all medical progress thenceforward. Nay, they could have claimed proprietary interest in the evolutionary future of the human race.

Never mind that the proposition was more ludicrous, on the face of it, than a private company's laying claim to the moon. The threat was real, and scientists were scared.

This state of affairs was remedied by the heroic efforts of a once obscure University of California at Santa Cruz biology graduate student named Jim Kent, who, over the course of 40 days of coding so furiously that he literally had to soak his wrists in ice baths every night, wrote a program to assemble and make public the Human Genome Project's own map. He completed the task one day ahead of Celera.

Kent's stealth attack thereby beat Celera at its own game virtually single-handedly, in a feat that deserves to become as iconic as Watson and Crick's.


Steve Gibson


John Backus - Fortran

Stephen Wolfram - Mathematica package

Sid Meier - Civilization

Tim Berners-Lee - inventor of World Wide Web

Phil Zimmermann - PGP


Phil Katz absolutely deserves mention. Where would we have been without PKZip.


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.


Chuck Moore - Created Forth, ported it to dozens of architectures, designed several microprocessors, made his own CAD system, earned millions on hardware patents, created colorForth... and so on.


Sid Meier

Co-founded Microprose and wrote Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and Sid Meier's Colonization,[2][3], Sid Meier's Civilization IV and a bunch more


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


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.


_why's self-portrait

_why has contributed some cool stuff to the Ruby community :

... and many more :)


This is one of those great programmers who doesn't have the "Knuth" fame - Fabrice Bellard. He wrote the original FFmpeg distribution, is the project leader for QEMU, discovered the fastest current pi algorithm, and has not one, but two, wins in the The International Obfuscated C Code Contest. To use a line from one of my favorite CS professors, the man is a rock star.


John McCarthy -- wrote the first version of lisp


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!)


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


Shawn Fanning, creator of Napster.


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.


Simon Tatham wrote PuTTY. Arguably, one of the most popular [citation needed] windows SSH clients.

Matt Wright wrote a lot of (in)famous Perl scripts that are still in use.


Bram Moolenaar -- wrote almost all of VIM by himself :]


Derek Smart of Battlecruiser 3000AD was pretty big in his day. Apparently he was pretty good at flame wars too...


Matthew Smith, wrote Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy all on his lonesome.


Has anyone mentioned Gary Kildall (CP/M) or are you guys too young to remember?


Steve Streeting whom created Ogre3D, the Object-Oriented Graphics Rendering Engine.


Paul Vixie.


My $0.02: Cleve Moler - original author of MATLAB.


Charles Babbage - Originator of the concept of a programmable computer.


Eugene Roshal for creation of FAR file manager, RAR file format and WinRAR file archiver.


Walter Bright was once a one-man show for several years when it came to Digital Mars' C++ compiler. He also started the D language and wrote a C++ version of Empire by himslef (later ported it to D).


Joe Hewitt, creator of Firebug and DOM Inspector.

I love Firebug. It made web page debugging way easier.


Pixel - Cave Story


Arthur Whitney, the developer of the "K" programming language.

Where I heard about him: Superstar programmers

Thought experiment:

The requirement is to build from scratch an SQL engine working on in memory data (take > this as a given. Try to estimate the no. of lines of code (programming language/environment of your choice) this is going to take, and the time it will take you to build it.

Try to estimate the same considering someone you consider good, and someone you consider average.

Scroll down when you've written down your estimates.

Did you ?

Well ?

Using the programming language K, [ http://nsl.com/k/t.k ], a 14 line implementation, took Stevan Apter a couple of hours to write; But that's just the backend. You want an SQL interface? Arthur Whitney just published one in [ http://kx.com/q/e/s.k ], taking all of 20 lines (admittedly, denser than Stevan's); 3 for lexing, ~8 for parsing, the rest for evaluating. I don't know how long it took Arthur, but a day would probably be way too long.


Wil Shipley of Delicious Library - http://www.delicious-monster.com/company.php


Juan Valdez. Ok, he did't wrote a single line of code. But he helped to code most of apps that we use today.


Shaun Inman I guess he was solo


Paul Lutus (Apple Writer, among others)


Wayne Ratliff - dBASE. Best example of foundational PC software, written the hard way (in assembler).


Markus Frind CEO of Plentyoffish.com

One man show . Created one of largest dating site by himself using asp.net Gross upwards of 30k day .


Probably not on the scale of RMS or Carmack, but Jonathan Blow made Braid single-handedly. Look at how the audio and particle systems reverse in sync with the gameplay; it's a pretty neat effort.


dark_alex - though branded as hacker, its still falls under this one-man-army category


Al Lowe for Leisure Suit Larry series :) Will Wright for SimCity and finally David Braben for Elite

Perhaps Ron Gilbert should also get a mention for bringing the world Monkey Island (tm)


Rod Johnson, creator of Spring framework


The Build Engine History

The Build engine was written by Ken Silverman in 1994 and has gone through several major enhancements from its initial version. Ken wrote a game named "Ken's Labyrinth" in 1992 which he sent demos of to several games companies. One of those companies was Apogee Software. Apogee wasn't interested in the game but they were interested in the engine. He later started writing a demo named "Build" in 1993 which he also sent out to several companies. Apogee offered him a contract to write the Build engine for them.

Ken has a page on his website which features a timeline outlining the development and events surrounding the Build engine. Ken also has available for download old demos of the engine at various points in it's development and now the full source code!



Slava Pestov. Factor creator (Factor is one of the most advanced programming languages out there).

Created Jedit (at 15 years old?)


Doug Cutting

Started Lucene, started Nutch, created Hadoop after Google publish there paper on Map Reduce...


Rich Hickey - author of Clojure.


Most of the notable hackers of the world for good or ill:

Eric Corley, Kevin Mitnick, Solar Designer, Lamo? Poulson?


Wayne Venables, allegedly wrote the Fruitshow forum software in 3 hours


Didier Dambrin: Original creator of FruityLoops. Written in Delphi.


DJ Delorie for DJGPP? Not sure if that was a one man job, though.


Peldi Guilizzoni, the creator of Balsamiq--an Adobe AIR application for creating mockups. The blog post with statistical numbers about first (not full) year of company operation provides a lot of information to think about.


Nasir Gebelli wrote some of the early great Apple II games: Gorgon, Space Eggs, Firebird and Zenith (and many others.)


I am the creator of this post.... one man army


Jordan Mechner

He programmed first Prince of Persia games. All animations on those games were based on his brother's moves. I guess he isn't programming anymore.


I've always been impressed by Scawen Roberts, who has been single-handedly programming the game Live for Speed for the last five or so years.


Simon Peyton Jones - Functional programming researcher and original author of the Glasgow Haskell Compiler.


I can't believe I'm the first person to mention this:

Alan Turing


Carl Friedrich Gauss - the man behind most of humanities understanding probably fits this description.


Kernighan, Ritchie, James Clark, Audrey Tang. Bob Scheifler and Jim Gettys (X11). Jon Bentley. John Ousterhout (tcl/tk).


John Carmack - No need for introduction ;)

Dave Cutler - Only guy on the planet to have worked on 3 major OS kernels. Not sure if he is a one-man-army kinda guy, but certainly did a lot on his own.

Michael Abrash - Optimization god! If he can't optimize it, it probably can't be done at all!

Tim Sweeney - Unreal Engine (Currently working alone on the 4th generation of Unreal Technology)

Steve Wozniak - Apple's one-many-army


Matt Mullenweg?

Created WordPress, BBPress (wrote in a few days), etc.

Pretty influential in web development with regard to weblogs. Doing well for a 25 y/o.


Gus Mueller.


Martin Odersky

A Great Mind behind A Great Language...


Al Gore - He wrote the entire Internet!


Donald Knuth, Ken Thompson, RMS, linus torvalds, Fabrice Bellard, ZeroCool :)


Paul Lutus the father of Apple Writter for the Apple II


Peter Blum, creator of a nice collection of very useful custom ASP.NET controls. On top of everything else he does, his documentation is some of the most detailed I've ever seen even outdoing Microsoft's in granularity. And yet he still does it all himself.