This started as post in response to the wise and talented Josh , but eventually got so unwieldy I split it off into this post. Josh’s post – and the post he was responding to – are worth reading but all the context you actually need to know is that somebody made the claim that the top 5% of programmers are more 20x more productive than the other 95%.

1. So as to this 5% business, I’ve actually heard a ton of various numbers along these lines. Now that I’m a honest-to-goodness academic who is supposed to know about this kind of stuff, I feel pretty confident in saying that these numbers are made up. Though if anybody has actual references to studies or something, I would really seriously appreciate if you’d post them up here because I could really use them.

But from an academic perspective, just having some semi-viable metric of evaluating 1 programmer against another basically doesn’t exist. There is someone in my lab who’s currently working on a test to compare CS1 students against one another, and if that works out it’ll be a Ph.D. for her. And if you think about how you would try and compare a CS1 student trained in Java to one trained in Scheme, it ain’t easy.

2. So whether it’s 10x or 100x, I agree that the numbers we hear kicking around are talking about a phenomenon that people really do see out there in the real world. And I wouldn’t say that it’s likely unique to programming – programming is just an obvious example because it has something to do with quantity as well as quality. That is, maybe the best writer can crank out a screenplay that’s 100x better than a average writer but it’d be pretty hard to know that. With a programmer you might be able to really write something in 3 days that would take someone else a year.

So I’m not disputing the 5% thing, except to say that 5% is just a catchy way somebody came up with to describe “some programmers are waaaaay better than others”.

3. The real million dollar question in my mind, Josh, is what are these super-programmers doing that others are not? Even if there’s just something irreproducible in their genes – shouldn’t this be the sort of thing we could detect somehow? Or if there are strategies involved, could we use them to make the 90 percentile 5x better than everybody else?

Because I think that all of us serious programmers, on our darker nights, think about those 5%ers and wonder if we are really making the cut. And we shake it off in the morning and say well “I got thus-and-such on my SATs, and I went to this school, and didn’t I get a 5 on my last performance review?” “Surely,” we think, “surely that must mean I’m on the list.” It’s a lot like Calvinism, when you think about it.

But I think those doubts afflict students most of all, and especially those who are not white male with a lifetime of hacking experience and tons of free time. I think it’s likely (though unproven) that once you decide you can’t make the 5%, you’re likely not going to put in the time and effort to get there even if it was possible.

Which of course brings me around to my research – say you had a group of the 50 cs students who enter an average program around the country. And say your goal was to get absolutely as many of them as possible into that 5% and screw everything else. What would you say to them? What would you do with them?

Comment, you slackers!


  1. Ben Bernard says:

    Hey mike,

    I’ve commented on my blog:


    Triedt o use trackback, but I’m really not sure how

  2. […] finally responding to Buffalo’s perspective on my last post about “Brilliant programmers.” I didn’t say anything at first […]

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