Breaking the Recursive Loop: Why Purpose Makes Great Programmers

One of the easiest ways to make money these days is to get into the digital world. Programmers are all the rage, with the world becoming even more dependent on technology and interconnectedness with each passing day.

Becoming a programmer really isn’t as hard as it seems, nor as hard as it was two to three decades ago. You don’t even need a degree in computer science to become an expert at C++ or PHP – all the resources you need are readily available and just within your reach.

Pick a programming language, grab a copy of “ for Dummies” from your local bookstore, sit in front of a computer, and start typing away. In fact, there are tons of online courses out there that give you enough knowledge to start working on your own programming projects.

However, if you want to become a great programmer, that’s a totally different story, and it requires one crucial ingredient: A purpose.

More than doing it simply to profit from addressing other people’s needs, great programmers are driven to excellence by their desire to provide a digital solution to persistent problems, either by resolving issues or making processes easier. Great programmers take the time to learn programming not as an easy way to earn money, but as a way for developing a concrete and reliable solution for a puzzle or problem – whether this means creating applications, upgrading systems, or creating entirely new programming languages, the greatest programmers are the people who took one look at their lives and decided to stop complaining and start working.

Here are some examples of the world’s greatest programmers (in no particular order). Through their persistence and steadfast refusal to give up in the face of obstacles, these coding masters have left a lasting digital mark on the world.

1. Alan Turing

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One could say that Alan Turing was way ahead of his time. Ever since he was a young boy, Turing had a difficult time trying to adjust to the world around him – or rather, perhaps the world had a difficult time keeping up with him. Deeply in love with the sciences, Turing took great joy in absorbing and mastering advanced science and mathematical concepts at such an early age, despite the disapproval of his peers and even his teachers at Sherborne School.

Due to Alan Turing’s obsession with mathematics, science, and cryptography, he was tasked with leading the cracking of Enigma, a machine that sends and receives ciphered messages between the Germans during World War II. The way it worked was special in a way that each time a letter is pressed, the mechanical parts of the machine changed in a way that the next time the same letter is pressed it produced a different encrypted text. Meaning, no same “algorithm” can decrypt the next encrypted messages. And even before cryptologists fully decipher each message, it’s already been several hours, which makes the intel moot.

It was his love for cryptography and mathematics that would lead to Turing taking up a key role in World War II: Becoming instrumental in cracking the secrets of the Enigma machine. Even though his automatic machine (a-machine) was deemed impossible by his superiors and peers, he continued to work on it for months. A machine that could think for itself that eventually would crack every message the Enigma machine sent in real-time.

2. Ada Lovelace

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Ada Byron, the countess of Lovelace, is known as the founder of scientific computing. Mathematics played a significant role in her life, even at an early age: from developing plans for a flying machine at the tender age of 13.

Eventually, her fascination with machines led her to be deeply intrigued by Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, whose design resembles the basic elements of a modern computer.

In 1842, a hundred years before the first computer was made, Lovelace translated an article by the mathematician Luigi Menabrea which described Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Because of Lovelace’s genius, Babbage asked her to expand the article, which resulted in a document three times the length of the original. According to Babbage, Lovelace was “the Enchantress of Numbers.”

Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, the Analytical Engine remained only a concept. This was until the 1940s when Alan Turing used her notes which brought the world the first computer.

In her notes, Lovelace believed that the Analytical Engine was a general-purpose computing machine, and that it would lead to many developments in the future, which also inspired and empowered women to enter the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math).

3. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

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Grace Hopper was an officer in the United States Navy from 1943 up until 1986. She was also a computer scientist who was responsible for the creation of the first compiler for programming languages, which was called the A-O. For the uninitiated, a compiler transforms source code into a working program.

According to Hopper, nobody believed that she had an operational compiler because according to the doubters, “computers could only do arithmetic.” Because of her compiler, the world of programming became more efficient and faster.

Fortunatley for the world, she also invented COBOL (common business-oriented language), a programming language designed for business use. The fascinating part? COBOL programs are still being used by governments and businesses to this day.

4. Tim Berners-Lee

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To put it succinctly, Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee is the reason why you can read this article. Hailing from Britain, Berners-Lee is credited with the creation of the World Wide Web; after making a proposal in March 1989 for a system of information management, he was able to administer the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server through the Internet in November of the same year. Currently serving as the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Berners-Lee has been awarded time and again for his contributions to the field and to the world.

5. Linus Trovalds

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It is quite difficult to overstate the importance of Linux, possibly the world’s most widely used open-source software. Linus Trovalds is the brains behind the creation of Linux; he came up with the idea of developing his own kernel due to his frustration at the inavailability of the GNU kernel in 1991 due to licensing issues. Initially developed as a free operating system for use on personal computers, Linux has been ported to multiple hardware platforms, eventually making it possible for programmers to develop Android, a popular operating system for smart devices.

6. Jeff Dean

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Image credit: Google+

Jeff Dean is the person everyone should thank for Google search’s smoothness. He is the guy responsible for Google search indexing, which everyone in the world now thoroughly enjoys. With just a few keystrokes and a click, in just a second thousands of results can be displayed. Without his brains, other search engines could have overtaken Google a long time ago. His fame among Googlers and ex-Googlers is at Chuck Norris’ level.

7. Dennis Ritchie

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The creator of the C programming language, the American computer programmer Dennis Richie is considered to be one of the digital era’s foremost pioneers. Intended to encourage structured programming – an approach towards breaking down what would be large applications into smaller components that are easier to manage – the C language was in turn used to create the UNIX operating system, particularly to aid in making it portable. C has since been used in virtually everything from operating systems to software applications, serving as a guide for many modern programming languages.

8. Steve Wozniak

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Unknown to many, there are two Steves that co-founded Apple Inc. Steve Jobs, who everyone knows and Steve Wozniak, who is probably one of the most brilliant programmers to have ever lived. Together with Jobs (who didn’t code) and Ronald Wayne (a co-founder), Wozniak developed Apple I, then he further developed Apple II, which made Apple one of the leading figures in the world of microcomputing. Some would even argue that Steve Wozniak was responsible for the personal computer revolution.

9. Bill Gates

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Who doesn’t know Bill Gates? He was solely responsible for the tech empire Microsoft. Before he even got famous as a philanthropist, Bill Gates was a monster in terms of coding. His attention to detail and discipline in coding reflected his high intellect, which resulted in where Microsoft is now. His goal was to put Microsoft’s software into every computer, and he did exactly that, which helped a lot of people and companies.

10. Ward Cunningham

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Ward Cunningham is the person responsible for developing the first wiki. He is the person that every student and researcher should thank, because without him Wikipedia would probably not have been born.

Cunningham was asked in a 2006 interview whether he ever thought of patenting his wiki idea, especially since it became popular, he responded that the idea “just sounded like something that no one would want to pay money for.”

In the computing world, Cunningham is well known as someone who shares his ideas openly, wiki being the prime example, and many on the files of software design patterns.

To End

The thing is, you don’t have to build an entire programming language or start a multi-billion dollar company to become a great programmer. Being a great programmer lies in the intent and its rippling effects, not your mastery of a specific language.

These people found something that needed to be fixed and acted on it. They didn’t learn how to program just because it would further their careers. They did it in order to solve a problem. And being a programmer wasn’t simply a job to them, but a lifestyle. And they have inspired people, too.

There are hundreds, even thousands, of great programmers out there that didn’t make our list. For you, who is the greatest programmer? Don’t forget to comment below!

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