We need more Hackers

The Hacker’s First Project

When I was a kid, I wanted to code my own website. I was already using Dreamweaver to crank out static HTML web pages but this was different. I needed to learn PHP to create a website which would earn passive income for the rest of my life. Very important!

The idea was already clear in my mind and I just needed to code the damn thing. I read through a very superficial guide on PHP 3 (yes, the stone age) and got started.

As I was 13 at the time, I had to go to school during the day but the afternoons were for free for hacking. True hacking! I didn’t have an IDE, I just popped open Notepad. I didn’t have a runtime, I just FTP-ed into my server and uploaded the PHP files to production. I created the schema for my MySQL database in phpMyAdmin. I inlined all sorts of PHP into HTML and HTML into PHP. I didn’t know what SQL JOINs were, I would do them manually in my PHP code. Of course I didn’t know about indices.

And it worked. And I was fast. I shipped it after a few weeks. Actually, I didn’t have to ship it - I had been developing on the production server all along.

The first day the site was online public, it had 68 sign-ups without any marketing. During the next two weeks, nearly 1000 people signed up. It’s still the most successful project I’ve ever launched and quite some time has passed as I’m a bit older than 13 now.

Fun fact: It never had any performance issues. And it was seeing some significant traffic! Hell, it was running on a shared server with like 20-50 other tenants on it. Keep that in mind next time you refactor your microservices to scale to crowds of users which don’t exist.

But let’s think about the 13-year-old me, hacking in Notepad: That’s the greatest combination ever. A person who has encountered a problem and already knows how the solution looks. It just has to be implemented.

Let’s call that person a Hacker. The Hacker doesn’t care about style guides, design patterns and performance optimization. The Hacker cares about solving the problem as fast as possible. The Hacker doesn’t get caught up in technology decisions. As long as the technology can be bent to solve the problem, it suffices. The Hacker just starts hacking.

We need more hackers.

Or do we? Most of us developers actually started out as Hackers. We wanted to build something cool and learnt how to code in the process. Fast-forward three years and we’re standing in front of whiteboards, writing down user stories and debating UML diagrams.

What the hell happened?

I think there are two things at play here: The “Second Project” effect and “Solving other People’s Problems”.

The Second Project Effect

I was talking to Peter some time ago and he noted that there’s an interesting thing that happens to Hackers on their second project.

Now that they’ve solved their first problem with technology, they get more interested in it. Now they want to dive deep and “do it the right way” for their next project.

They start reading programming books and watch conference talks. They spend days pondering whether to use MySQL or Postgres. They wonder why the fault-tolerance of the BeamVM hasn’t made it into other virtual machines. During their sleepless nights, they wonder why the world hasn’t adopted Lisp as superior language.

This is the Second Project Effect. It’s when suddenly technology enters the main stage and the actual problem becomes secondary. And guess what, when that happens, the problem usually doesn’t get solved very well. Most of the time, the problem didn’t even exist at all.

At the time of writing, Blockchain and Deep Learning are examples of great technology which spawn tons of startups yearning to solve problems. And if those problems don’t exist, well, they’ll create some for you!

Solving other People’s Problems

The other thing which has happened to the UML whiteboard people is that they’re not solving their own problems any more.

There’s this magical feedback loop when solving your own problems: While developing your solution, you can constantly ask yourself “Is this solving it? What if I change this?” and you’ll have answers to these questions. This way, you can iterate on your solution multiple times.. per minute. It’s only limited by the speed of your thoughts. Those could be a couple hundreds of iterations per day.

Now, what happens if you have to solve someone else’s problem? Imagine you want to apply Blockchain to used car sales but don’t even own a car. If your client (the used car salespeople) is responsive, you can call them maybe once.. per week? So while you’d already have done hundreds of iterations by yourself for your own problem, you have to make hundreds of assumptions until presenting your next prototype to your customers.

This of course opens up a ton of new problems: Firstly, you’ll be developing the wrong thing. Secondly, your customers may not have a clear idea on what the solution should look like. Maybe the problem doesn’t even exist. Thirdly, as you don’t understand the problem, you won’t be able to come up with random ideas which may lead to huge improvements or new products - like say, using the Beam VM to build a communications platform for used car salespeople.

The Return of the Hacker

What can we do to become Hackers again?

Firstly, we must be clear that languages and frameworks are only tools to solve problems and We must not tie yourself to particular technology. There’s no such thing as an “X programmer” where X is Java or any other language, as Steve Yegge points out.

Secondly, we must attempt to solve real-world problems which we fully understand.

Sounds simple? Truth be told, only very few people come back from the dark side to see the light of productivity again. But when they do, it’s fabulous!

It’s the quality which is most valuable in a developer: Having seen multiple programming languages and frameworks, knowing their pros and cons. Being able to write great, well-documented, polished, perfectly-tested code - but, and this is important - knowing when to prioritise shipping over perfection and throwing all those things out of the window while cranking out the hackiest code ever, solving the problem because right now, the damn problem needs to be solved.

Crappy code itself doesn’t separate good programmers from great ones. It’s the ability to know which aspects of the code are crappy, why the trade-off was made and when to fix it. It’s the constant internal battle of balancing perfection and hackiness. Great developers get it just right.