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The Absolutely True Story of a Real Programmer Who Never Learned C

Wil Shipley
Dec 15, 2015 · 2 min read

I have a young friend named Sam who is quite a programming prodigy. Sam does know C! I need to make this clear: he’s not the titular programmer.

But a couple years ago Sam told me a story about a different programmer who never learned C, and I liked it so much that right on the spot I asked his permission to repeat it. (I could never just steal such a tale.)

Sam wasn’t always a programmer—actually he started in his later teens, in part because he was more of a jock, and in part because he was related to programmers and wanted to do his own thing. But, like all great programmers, once he was bitten by the bug he immersed himself completely in it.

One day Sam happened to be talking programming with his uncle, who was also a programmer but from way, way back.

“Hey,” said Sam, “I’m learning this language called C. You must know a lot of languages, did you ever study C?”

“No,” said the uncle, to Sam’s surprise. “I am one of the very few programmers who never had to learn C.”

“Because I wrote it.”

Oh, Sam’s last name is Ritchie.

What I love about this story is the idea of Dennis waiting Sam’s entire life to deliver this zinger. Just imagine sitting on a line that good, watching your nephew grow up and waiting, waiting until the one day he finally starts learning to code. Did he work on the line in his head at night? Like, “Hmm, how should I word it so I can deliver the punch line perfectly? Should I say ‘I never took a class on C?’ Nah, too awkward…”

The great thing about geniuses is how much effort they put into everything.

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