How will you make it if you never even try?

June 23, 2011

Analogies for 1000 Mediocre Programmers vs. 5 Great Programmers

Filed under: C# — charlieflowers @ 5:30 pm

Recently, there was an article and a corresponding Hacker News discussion on whether you’d rather have 1000 mediocre programmers, or 5 great programmers. To me, the choice is so blindingly obvious that I can’t believe there’s a debate.

To help illustrate why, here are some fun (and pretty darn accurate) analogies:

1. You’re on trial, facing the death penalty, for a crime you didn’t commit, but with a lot of circumstantial evidence that makes you look guilty. You are given a choice — have a team of 1000 mediocre lawyers, or a team of only 5 great lawyers.

2. Would you rather buy a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition with 5 incredibly gorgeous models, or one with 1000 mediocre models?

3. You’re in a chess tournament. You don’t get to choose your moves directly … rather, you must select a team to choose your moves. All moves must be made in 30 minutes or less, and your team must reach consensus on each move. You may have either 5 brilliant chess players, or 1000 mediocre ones.

4. You’re going on a 18 hour road trip. You must drive straight through, with no more than 4 30-minute breaks. You must listen to music from an iPod the entire way. Do you want the iPod filled with music from 5 distinct, excellent musicians, or do you want it filled with music from 1000 distinct, mediocre musicians?

5. You’re going to read a novel that is over 1500 pages and then take an extensive reading comprehension quiz. Do you want the novel that is written by a collaboration of 1000 mediocre authors? Or would you prefer the novel written by a collaboration of 5 excellent authors?

6. Your wife is in the hospital, giving birth, but there are complications. You can’t be there for some strange reason, and you’re a nervous wreck. Which would you rather hear from the hospital:
a. “Unfortunately, sir, we have only mediocre doctors available right now. However, don’t worry, we have *1000* of them on the case!”
b. “Don’t worry sir, we have 5 outstanding doctors on her case.”

Think about it! (And let me hear your analogies too!)



  1. The best argument I’ve seen for this is Joel Spolsky’s “Hitting the High Notes”:

    “The mediocre talent just never hits the high notes that the top talent hits all the time.”

    If you want mediocre products, go get that mediocre talent and be happy. It’s obvious to me that the people quoted in the original article were NOT aiming for mediocre products.

    Comment by Mark Ransom — June 23, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    • Oh yes. That’s a classic article, and right on the money. Thanks for the comment.

      Comment by charlieflowers — June 23, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

  2. The only situation where I might want diversity is the 18-hour road trip. 5 top-notch musicians would almost always be preferable to 1000 mediocre musicians, but there might not be enough different songs & styles to keep me awake for that very long drive. Then again, I go through tons of XM channels during my 30-min morning commute, so my choice might be more a function of my short attention span for music than pure logical reasoning.

    Comment by Barbara Marks — August 8, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

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