Letters to Joel Spolsky

Dear Joel,

I regret to inform you that I must decline your invitation to be a featured guest blogger for Joel On Software.

I realize this will come as a shock, especially given my well-documented need for attention.

The fact is, I don’t care how many thousands of readers you have, how many millions of dollars of software you sell, or how many minor celebrities worship you.  At the end of the day, you appear in a little window in an RSS reader. You fill in a template consisting of a cute story tenuously connected to a dramatic point, inspiring wanna-bes to commiserate and laugh with indignation at the stupidity of others.

While they’ve been laughing, I’ve wondering whether you practice what you preach. You admonish programmers who don’t understand Unicode, yet five years later our copy of Fogbugz still cannot receive email from Korea because of a character encoding issue.

Also, are you out of gas? Your column in Inc Magazine consists of 1300-word reproductions of chapters from your book which themselves are reproductions of blog entries you wrote in 2001. And your blog has turned into announcements for products and tradeshows.

I can already hear your fanboys calling for my head, but from where I’m sitting, you’re a celebrity who is cashing in on fame, no longer compelled to have new ideas.

But introspection isn’t your thing. Admitting you’ve been wrong or that you don’t take your own advice would crack your well-crafted façade.

I’m not like that, and I can’t pretend otherwise for you or your readers. I’m afraid the answer is no.


Dear Mr. Spolsky,

I’m not sure if you received the last email I sent. I hope not. I used Outlook’s “recall this message” feature, but sometimes that doesn’t work. (That’s Microsoft for ya, am I right?  Ha ha!)

Anyway, I’d like to apologize for the things I wrote. I feel I’ve done both of us a disservice by refusing your generous offer to be a featured guest writer for Joel On Software.

If you want to know the truth, my unwarranted outburst stems from a core insecurity. Had you rejected my article, I would have been crushed. I guess this was my way of rejecting you before you could reject me. Juvenile, I know.

In fact I have deep respect for what you’ve done for the software development community over the past decade. I myself have been inspired by you since 2000; I can still remember the glee of getting new articles delivered to my inbox.

As an entrepreneur, you’ve taught me everything from how to hire great people, how to think properly about bootstrapping, how new projects help you cope with burn-out, and even how to run tech support. In fact, there’s very little I do each day that isn’t influenced by you in some way.

That’s incredible, if you think about it.

What I’m trying to say is, I would be honored to accept your invitation, and I trust that you will disregard my first email.

Apologetically and humbly yours,
Jason Cohen

Hi Joel!

I haven’t heard from you, so I’m forwarding a copy of an email I sent earlier this week.

You must get an ass-ton of email! So no hard feelings.

Talk to you soon,

Hi Joel,

Oh man, that article about hanging the blinds at Fogcreek was awesome. Did you really do all that? Of course you did, it was in the photo! I loved how you tied in the army story — it’s really motivational.

I’m so glad Inc is featuring you. They need someone to speak truth to power and put the stuffed suits in their place. You’re like the Moses of software developers! What’s next, the New York Times? Why not!

Speaking of articles, I’ve got some article ideas I’d love to discuss! I know you’re super-busy — that’s what I keep telling my friends. They’re such nervous nellies — they think you’re ignoring me! A quick little two-second reply from you would really reassure them. Thanks!

+1 for Joel in the NYT!


Quick idea: I was thinking of doing an interview series about how your writing has inspired successful software projects. Maybe even make a short film? You could attach it to your next “Interning at Fogcreek” DVD. What do you think?

Here’s what I’d say: Your three part series on designing software for real people permanently changed my perspective and continues to be my bible. It’s the kind of thing you have to re-read every few months to make sure you’re building great, usable software.

P.S. I still haven’t heard back about the guest post. Should I be worried?

Thanks again,

Hey hey J-Spol!

I was just telling a friend about your offer. You know, all I have to say is “Joel” and everyone knows exactly who I’m talking about. I guess that’s how you know you’ve made it!

Anyway, this friend thinks that if you were truly interested, we would have had more conversations by now. Imagine how surprised she’ll be when you publish my article! Ha ha, we’ll both get a kick out of that.

Let me know.

Waiting expectantly,
Your boy JC

Hi Joel,

This will be my final email. I don’t want to seem like a stalker!

So it turns out I have some influence over one of your interns (one of those friend-of-a-friend-who-owes-a-favor-to-a-friend type deals). He (or she!) set up me with a Copilot account behind the FogCreek firewall, so I’ve been playing with the Joel On Software system myself.

Seems like it’s a custom job. No problem — I’m Smart and I Get Things Done — I’ll figure it out.

So you should see my article appear soon! I’m glad I found a way we could work together without interfering with your schedule. Cheers!


Modeled after “Dear Oprah” from Steve Almond‘s fantastic short story book Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions (Not that you asked). Good artists copy; great artists steal. (Said by Steve Jobs, stealing a quote from Pablo Picasso.)

  • Very funny, Jason.

    I think the reason Joel is successful is because he’s working in a community dominated by such a dramatic range of incompetence. There are millions of active programmers in the world, but it seems most of have no formal knowledge and can’t pass the "Fizz Buzz" test. This would be akin to a world of accountants who are not actually able to do subtraction.

    In such an environment, there’s not much room for nuance. Hopefully, the software field will grow up and we’ll have less punditry and more reasoned discussion about various techniques. In the meantime, since we collectively have no idea what we are doing, Joel is quite popular.

  • Jason

    @Robby — I know your theory of the great incompetent masses… and I won’t argue! … but there’s still far more great developers than people like Joel.

    IMHO, it’s not just the philosophy or the ability to write software that works, it’s the personality, the insight, the ability to put pen to paper and communicate it to others in an entertaining way, and also the fact that when he started there were almost no "blogs" so there was less Internet noise for these kinds of essays.

  • LikesJoel

    Not sure I really know what to make of this… Joel helped my managers understand that testing isn’t just for lame-os. He made managers undersatnd that yes, good developers are worth paying for. I subscribe to Rob’s theory of incompetence not just in software, but even in accounting. The amount of money my accountants have left on the table to have me figure it out later is astounding. I think it’s the same thing.

  • ReallyReallyLikesJoelMoreThanTheOtherGuy

    lol. Seriously tho, my first job out of college didn’t pass the 12 point Joel test, (scored 2) and it had all the suck you’d expect, incompetent fazzboozing colleagues, and management that didn’t understand that unit tests were deliverables. Besides all that, pundits are fun, and fame is a real asset.

  • Dave

    Uh oh Jason! You have angered the gods!!!!

    How dare you insult Joel! Don’t you know that he can cure cancer, catch a bullet in his teeth and behead Medusa all before 9am.

    Some people want to be told what to think. These people worship at the altar of Joel.

  • Steve Almond, in turn, must have read Philip Roth’s short story "On The Air", which was a series of letters from talent agent M. Lippman to Albert Einstein:

    I can understand how busy you must be thinking, and appreciate that you did not answer my letter suggesting that I try to get you on a radio program that would make "The Answer Man" look like the joke it is. Will you reconsider, if the silence means no? I ealize that one of the reasons you don’t wear a tie or even comb your hair is because you are as busy as you are, thinking new things. Well, don’t think that you would have to change your ways once you become a radio personality.

  • This link was posted to Hackernews front page, with comments, and then quickly disappeared when I refreshed. You have indeed angered the Gods.

  • Anonymous

    I’m posting this anonymously due to a fear of backlash…

    Hear, Hear! I had the "pleasure" of meeting Joel in person, talking to him, and listening to him speak. The guy really came off as a conceited jackass, for lack of a more proper term. This is something that really needed to be said, and I’m glad you had the balls to say it (I don’t; at least in public).

    I read all his essays years back, and I felt they were, for the most part, informative and entertaining. However, the man oozes an arrogance and condescension that is completely unmatched by anyone I’ve met, "famous" people included.

  • Jason

    @AlmostAnon — Wow, you’re right! The post was "flagged" on HackerNews and taken down. I think it’s sad that I can’t write a satire piece without getting "flagged," especially with comments on the actual HackerNews item saying they agree with both paragraphs 1 and 2 (which was the point!).

  • @Robby A good friend of mine is an accountant and can’t do a lick of math (addition or subtraction) without her ten-key. Such are the rules of accounting: rigorously apply the methods of accounting (which by the way, include built in "unit tests"). For better or worse, formality of that order exists in only a small part of the software development world. Hence, the need for people who are Done and Get Things Smart. Inventive software developers are championed; inventive accountants go to jail (hopefully).

  • @Jason: Yes, it’s true that:

    Number of Great Developers > Number People Like Joel

    But also,

    Number of Terrible Developers > Number of Grains of Sand in the World

    So, People Like Joel tend to get a most of the press .


    @Brandon : Perhaps that analogy isn’t quite right. I suppose it’s more like confusing "credit" and "debit", which I’ve ranted about in a sidebar.

  • Ina

    Hello Jason,

    That was a very enjoyable read:)

    I think the satire could go out for PR people as well. It’s hard to try get in touch with someone you find interesting, not annoy them, yet not be invisible.

    Liked the way you ended your e-mails too.

  • Jason, this is great, very entertaining =).

  • The more contradictory views, the more discussions and the more different opinions we have the more enlightened we all become. It really doesn’t matter whether Joel is great or whether Jason is right, the real benefit we have from this post is the enticing discussions that follow, the posts that generate buzz and finally having everyone questioning their assumptions.

    Thanks again, Jason, for a great post and for creating some disturbance in the force. ;)

  • Jason

    @Daniel — Amen amen! I’ve said it before: My goal is always to make you think, make you reconsider, and to get more points of view in the comments section. Persuading is OK, but better is jostling you out of complacency.

  • Chris

    Loved it!

  • Chris

    Just a quick follow on, is this entire website a satire, does this Smart Bear software really exist?