“Beware of programmers carrying screwdrivers.”


Every now and then I run into the programmer proverb “Beware of programmers carrying screwdrivers.” I’m intrigued by it and I want to know: Who said that and what does it mean? Two names showed up on my Google searches to the origin of the quote: Leonard Brandwein and Chip Salzenberg. I’ve got absolutely no evidence to claim that either one of them said it, let alone said it first. Maybe they’ve both said it independently.

What does it mean?

Despite my searching, I am not sure what the quote means. I feel the most obvious meaning is that, since programming normally does not involve screwdrivers, you should stick to your specialism. Sort of the same meaning as: “Jack of all trades, master of none”. It could also mean that programmers with screwdrivers are the ones building computers. They might be hardware enthusiasts that are overly obsessed with getting every last Mhz of performance out of the machine and are likely to be guilty of “premature optimization“. Or it could mean that people that have screwdrivers might be the ones that will be replacing parts, when things don’t work. They may be the “blame the hardware” or overly pragmatic type. Last explanation I could come up with is that it is about programmers in the 70’s that were building their own computers like the Apple I DIY kit. You probably need to be aware that their level of experience and reputation is unparalleled and arguing with their ideas is pointless. But let’s assume it is about specialism vs. generalism as that seems most likely.

Specialists vs. generalists

Nobody argues in favor of being a generalist like Tim Ferriss on his fourhourworkweek blog:

“Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness. As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest.”

So was Steve Jobs a programmer carrying a screwdriver? And what about specialists?

“The specialist who imprisons himself in self-inflicted one-dimensionality — pursuing and impossible perfection — spends decades stagnant or making imperceptible incremental improvements while the curious generalist consistently measures improvement in quantum leaps. It is only the latter who enjoys the process of pursuing excellence.”

I tend to agree, but I guess I just overly romanticize the idea of being a Renaissance man. 🙂

2 thoughts on ““Beware of programmers carrying screwdrivers.””

  1. Read “Hackers” by Steven Levy, especially the MIT section which includes young Richard Stallman. In the 60’s and 70’s this group of pentagon-funded hackers would actually rewire the internals of the MIT lab computers and modify instruction sets if they didn’t like them, and too bad for the actual enrolled students whose code no longer worked or the maintenance people whose tools went missing. DEC and other manufacturers actually sold DIY boards so you could modify many of their computers. I did this to PDP-8, PDP-11, and VAX computers myself and I believe that the original “Lisp Machines” were hacked into the hardware at the MIT lab by programmers with screwdrivers.

  2. @Jon: Thank you for the extensive background information and for the book advice. It is much appreciated!

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