Ramblings & ephemera

What makes a great hacker?

From Paul Graham’s "Great Hackers":

… In programming, as in many fields, the hard part isn’t solving problems, but deciding what problems to solve. …

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. …

Great hackers also generally insist on using open source software. Not just because it’s better, but because it gives them more control. Good hackers insist on control. This is part of what makes them good hackers: when something’s broken, they need to fix it. …

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. …

Indeed, these statistics about Cobol or Java being the most popular language can be misleading. What we ought to look at, if we want to know what tools are best, is what hackers choose when they can choose freely– that is, in projects of their own. When you ask that question, you find that open source operating systems already have a dominant market share, and the number one language is probably Perl. …

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. …

Along with interesting problems, what good hackers like is other good hackers. Great hackers tend to clump together …

When I was in grad school I used to hang around the MIT AI Lab occasionally. It was kind of intimidating at first. Everyone there spoke so fast. But after a while I learned the trick of speaking fast. You don’t have to think any faster; just use twice as many words to say everything. …

I’ve found that people who are great at something are not so much convinced of their own greatness as mystified at why everyone else seems so incompetent. …

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. …

The best hackers tend to be smart, of course, but that’s true in a lot of fields. Is there some quality that’s unique to hackers? I asked some friends, and the number one thing they mentioned was curiosity. I’d always supposed that all smart people were curious– that curiosity was simply the first derivative of knowledge. But apparently hackers are particularly curious, especially about how things work. That makes sense, because programs are in effect giant descriptions of how things work.

Several friends mentioned hackers’ ability to concentrate– their ability, as one put it, to ‘tune out everything outside their own heads.’ …

Notes

It’s hard to say exactly what constitutes research in the computer world, but as a first approximation, it’s software that doesn’t have users.

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