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In the class of programmer given as an example, I think a lot of the answer is some amount of self promotion. This is not meant in a derogatory way: it is true some people self promote to the exclusion of doing something actually interesting, but there are a number of programmers who are very, very good whose names are known by very few, and the biggest difference I can see is self promotion. Self promotion can take the form of writing useful, thought provoking articles, so it is not in and of itself counter-productive.

Here's one of the programmers I respect most who I will guess only a few here have ever heard of who falls into this category:

I heard of him because of a PostgreSQL committer I had the privilege of working with briefly, Neil Conway, who described him in glowing language that left an impression on me. However, his achievements far outstrip his strong part in the stewardship of PostgreSQL: if you have seen a TIFF, JPEG, or a PNG, you may also have some thanks to give to him. Especially mind-boggling is his contribution as measured by a study in 2000[0]. I can't comment as to the details of its methodology, but anyone who manages to show up in the top ten, nestled among entire organizations (FSF, Sun, University of California, and above MIT) is, to me, already someone deserving of a legend, or two. So are probably the other individuals mentioned there...who, unfortunately, I have never heard of: Gordon Matzigkeit, and Paul Houle. I have, like many people, heard of Ulrich Drepper, who appears on this list, and the tidings I hear are not entirely positive. But we know what is said about publicity...

Since that conversation with Neil some years ago, I have interacted with Tom and read his mailings on the postgresql mailing lists a number of times. There, you see him dealing with all the usual bullshit everyone has to put up with in real time: toolchain regressions, build farm issues, niggles in two features that interact badly, and so on. Besides that, the quality and care in even the first draft of his features are also remarkable.

Unlike some famous programmers who -- while very competent -- can be very contrarian in their work (and invite controversy, which is some form of self-promotion), Tom is not as such, and I think provides a great counter-point to that style of distinguishment.

I think it'd be fascinating for someone who has the skill to interview him about his long and productive service to writing useful software. If I have to guess on his behalf, here's what I can assess about Tom:

* Work on important problems

* Work on them for a long time each

* ...but not necessarily forever

* Build the software to last

* Keep working

[0]: http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/ar...

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