Great Hackers

Submitted by Bill St. Clair on Fri, 30 Jul 2004 12:00:00 GMT
From smith2004:
"Once and for all, oil will never be used up. We can make it out of garbage, it's seeping back into "deplated" regions from much deeper in the crust where it's being created continuously, and the asteroids are positively dripping with the stuff.

"Any shortages we presently suffer are generated politically."

L. Neil Smith

# Mey at Simon Fraser University - Japanese Cuisine - Windows Media Player video. What if Japanese culinary "tradition" were a global practical joke? Hehe. [smith2004]

# Thomas L. Knapp at Rational Review - The Life of the Party, part 21 - Michael Badnarik's campaign is spending $20,000 on polling, to figure out where they can best spend their time with the largest probability of losing Bush his electoral votes in "battleground" states. [smith2004]

# Washington Post - Text of John Kerry's Acceptance Speech at the Democratic National Convention BugMeNot ( bugmenot password) - I crashed before the speech last night. The Post also has video BugMeNot and analysis BugMeNot. 55 minutes. 81 applause breaks. I haven't read most of it yet. Time for work...

I was born, as some of you saw in the film, in Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Colorado...


... when my dad was a pilot in World War II. Now, I am not one to read into things, but guess which wing of the hospital the maternity ward was in?


I'm not kidding. I was born in the West Wing.

# Paul Graham - Great Hackers - a speech about Mr. Graham's book, Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age. [pelle]

I didn't say in the book that variation in wealth was in itself a good thing. I said in some situations it might be a sign of good things. A throbbing headache is not a good thing, but it can be a sign of a good thing-- for example, that you're recovering consciousness after being hit on the head.

Variation in wealth can be a sign of variation in productivity. (In a society of one, they're identical.) And that is almost certainly a good thing: if your society has no variation in productivity, it's probably not because everyone is Thomas Edison, but because you have no Thomas Edisons.

In a low-tech society you don't see much variation in productivity. If you have a tribe of nomads collecting sticks for a fire, how much more productive is the best stick gatherer going to be than the worst? A factor of two? Whereas when you hand people a complex tool like a computer, the variation in what they can do with it is enormous.


I know a handful of super-hackers, so I sat down and thought about what they have in common. Their defining quality is probably that they really love to program. Ordinary programmers write code to pay the bills. Great hackers think of it as something they do for fun, and which they're delighted to find people will pay them for.

Great programmers are sometimes said to be indifferent to money. This isn't quite true. It is true that all they really care about is doing interesting work. But if you make enough money, you get to work on whatever you want, and for that reason hackers are attracted by the idea of making really large amounts of money. But as long as they still have to show up for work every day, they care more about what they do there than how much they get paid for it.

Economically, this is a fact of the greatest importance, because it means you don't have to pay great hackers anything like what they're worth. A great programmer might be ten or a hundred times as productive as an ordinary one, but he'll consider himself lucky to get paid three times as much. As I'll explain later, this is partly because great hackers don't know how good they are. But it's also because money is not the main thing they want.

What do hackers want? Like all craftsmen, hackers like good tools. In fact, that's an understatement. Good hackers find it unbearable to use bad tools. They'll simply refuse to work on projects with the wrong infrastructure.


After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you're a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.


Along with good tools, hackers want interesting projects...


This is an area where managers can make a difference. Like a parent saying to a child, I bet you can't clean up your whole room in ten minutes, a good manager can sometimes redefine a problem as a more interesting one. Steve Jobs seems to be particularly good at this, in part simply by having high standards. There were a lot of small, inexpensive computers before the Mac. He redefined the problem as: make one that's beautiful. And that probably drove the developers harder than any carrot or stick could.

They certainly delivered. When the Mac first appeared, you didn't even have to turn it on to know it would be good; you could tell from the case. A few weeks ago I was walking along the street in Cambridge, and in someone's trash I saw what appeared to be a Mac carrying case. I looked inside, and there was a Mac SE. I carried it home and plugged it in, and it booted. The happy Macintosh face, and then the finder. My God, it was so simple. It was just like ... Google.

Hackers like to work for people with high standards. But it's not enough just to be exacting. You have to insist on the right things. Which usually means that you have to be a hacker yourself. I've seen occasional articles about how to manage programmers. Really there should be two articles: one about what to do if you are yourself a programmer, and one about what to do if you're not. And the second could probably be condensed into two words: give up.


Having great hackers is not, by itself, enough to make a company successful. It works well for Google and ITA, which are two of the hot spots right now, but it didn't help Thinking Machines or Xerox. Sun had a good run for a while, but their business model is a down elevator. In that situation, even the best hackers can't save you.


The key to being a good hacker may be to work on what you like. When I think about the great hackers I know, one thing they have in common is the extreme difficulty of making them work on anything they don't want to. I don't know if this is cause or effect; it may be both.

To do something well you have to love it. So to the extent you can preserve hacking as something you love, you're likely to do it well. Try to keep the sense of wonder you had about programming at age 14. If you're worried that your current job is rotting your brain, it probably is.


[7] Google is much more dangerous to Microsoft than Netscape was. Probably more dangerous than any other company has ever been. Not least because they're determined to fight. On their job listing page, they say that one of their "core values'' is "Don't be evil.'' In a company selling soybean oil or mining equipment, such a statement would merely be eccentric. But I think all of us in the computer world recognize who that is a declaration of war on.

# Skype is now shipping version 1.0. It now allows encrypted transfer of files and SkypeOut, which allows calls to phones on the plain old telephone service (POTS). This costs 1.7 Euros/minute to 22 countries, and from 5 to 60 Euros elsewhere. The price depends only on the location of the POTS phone, not the Skype phone. I haven't downloaded the new version yet.

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