The Ten Greatest Self-Taught Programmers of All Time

  1. Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was the world’s first programmer. She is best known for creating the first algorithm, designed to run on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was the first design for a Turing-complete computer: a computer that can solve any computational problem.

Ada Lovelace

2. Steve Wozniak

Steve Wozniak

Coming in at number two is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. One of the pioneers of the personal computer industry, he single-handedly built Apple’s first computer: the Apple I. In Newsweek, he described what motivated him to found the personal computer industry,

“Our first computers were born not out of greed or ego, but in the revolutionary spirit of helping common people rise above the most powerful institutions.”

According to his excellent book iWoz, he was interested in math and science from an early age, especially radio transistors. He earned a ham radio license when he was just ten years old. Once he got to high school, he taught himself to program in Fortran.

3. Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton

While Steve Wozniak may have pioneered the personal computer revolution, Margaret Hamilton ushered in the era of software development. After Hamilton had graduated from college (she studied math), she went to work for the Apollo space program, where, according to Wired,

“As Hamilton and her colleagues were programming the Apollo spacecraft, they were also hatching what would become a $400 billion industry.”

She helped write the software that enabled the Apollo’s successful moon landing, stretching previous notions of what people and software were capable of. In 2016, Margaret Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work.

4. Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper

Not only was Dr. Grace Hopper a famous computer scientist, she was a Rear Admiral in the Navy as well. As a high ranking member of the Navy, she was one of the first people to program the Harvard Mark I computer, which was used to fight Germany during WWII. Dr. Hopper had several extraordinary contributions to computer science, including building the first compiler in the world for a programming language called A-0 System. Her ideas, like that a programing language should resemble English as opposed to machine code, led to the creation of one of the first high-level programming languages: COBOL.

The the term “computer bug” originates from an incident when Grace Hopper and her associates found and removed a moth stuck in a relay (which was preventing it from working). Dr. Hopper never let anything stand in her way, she was famous for saying,

“If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”

With this attitude, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University.

5. Bill Gates

Bill Gates

Bill Gates is the philanthropic, billionaire Co-Founder of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Microsoft began when Bill Gates and Paul Allen coded the Altair Basic, an interpreter for the BASIC programming language originally built for the MITS Altair 8800 computer, which they build while they were still in college. Microsoft, of course, went on to become the world’s largest PC software maker. A lifelong learner and author of several books, including Business @ the Speed of Thought, Gates learned to program during lunch while he was still in middle school. Reflecting on coding during his childhood he recalled,

“I wrote my first software program when I was thirteen years old. It was for playing tic-tac-toe. The computer I used was huge and cumbersome and slow and absolutely compelling.”

6. Elon Musk

Elon Musk

Best known for being involved with three public companies tackling three of the world’s biggest problems (Tesla, Space X, Solar City), Elon Musk first learned to program when he was only twelve. His parents bought him a computer, and a few days later he built a video game you can still play today called Blastar. He is known for inspiring entrepreneurs, saying things like

“Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.”

7. Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg changed the world by releasing a website he coded in his dorm at Harvard: Facebook. Zuckerberg summed up the experience, saying

“I literally coded Facebook in my dorm room and launched it from my dorm room. I rented a server for $85 a month, and I funded it by putting an ad on the site, and we’ve funded ever since by putting ads on the site.”

Facebook changed the world by connecting everyone and kicked off a new era of internet social media domination. Although Zuckerberg was studying computer science in college before he dropped out, he already knew how to program, having taught himself in middle school. By high school, Zuckerberg had already created an artificially intelligent music player that Microsoft attempted to buy for a million dollars. Zuckerberg declined the offer.

8. Jack Dorsey

Jack Dorsey

Another social media pioneer, Jack Dorsey co-founded Twitter, the social network that lets you share messages of 140 characters or less. After leaving Twitter, he went on to found Square, a now public company whose mission is to democratize credit card payments. In an interview with Business Insider, he recently announced,

“Most of the best programmers are self-taught.”

9. Fran Allen

Fran Allen

Fran Allen is the first woman to win the Turing Award, considered the Noble Prize for computer science. She is best known for her work optimizing compilers over a 45-year career at IBM. Her first assignment at IBM was to show research scientists there how to use Fortran. She did not know how to program yet, so to help them, she first had to teach herself. Amturing wrote that to accomplish this,

“As part of this process, she read the source code for the FORTRAN compiler that had been developed by John Backus (later a Turing Award winner) and his team.”

10. John Carmack

John Carmack

Topping off the list is John Carmack, a 3D graphics pioneer, and creator of the computer games Doom and Quake (I was obsessed with both growing up). Currently, he is the CTO of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality company acquired by Facebook in 2014 for over 2 billion dollars. Here is a quote from an inspiring email John Carmack wrote to a 14-year-old asking for advice about learning to program,

“Don’t expect it to be easy, you will have to work at it. Get a few more books from the library that cover beginning programming to go with the ones you have — sometimes a different author explaining the same thing will help a concept click. Go through all of them at least twice. Try to do every problem and exercise, don’t just read them and think you get it. Lots of people that want to program will talk a lot about programming, but not actually write that many programs. You should write hundreds of programs.”

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The Self-Taught Programmer is a publication about programming, productivity, breaking down the degree barrier, and self-improvement.

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Cory Althoff

Cory Althoff

Author of The Self-Taught Programmer. Blogger at

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