The popular notion of hackers and ‘hacking’ melodramatically play out in the 1995 film by the same name. Packs of rebellious teens running around the city with their skateboards (roller-blades too), using overclocked, modded-out computers in subversive ways.
The more recent equivalent (and a big fat cliché) would be someone wearing a guy fawkes mask tapping away on something similar to Sheldon’s laptop (plastered with geeky stickers of course) or a huge multiple monitor setup. S/he is in a dark, messy room full of greasy old pizza boxes and crumpled cans of soda indiscriminately scattered throughout while an intense techno break-beat pounds away in the background at 110 decibels.
There are many stories of hackers spending inordinate amounts of time breaking-in to corporate networks, stealing proprietary data, deploying viruses, and generally causing havoc throughout the business world, all in the quest to freely distribute information.
Some of the most notorious computer hackers have preferred to carry a distinctive moniker or handle. Acid Burn, Crash Override and Zero Cool have long since been taken, sorry. In some circles these hacker aliases are worn like a badge of honour, in other self-proclaimed “elite” groups screen names are seen as juvenile and silly; vanity personas symbolic of the desire to remain anonymous, but memorable enough as a leave-behind like the lone graffiti artist tagging walls and street posts late at night.
But hacking isn’t all about digital vandalism nor does it exclusively involve computers —but this is the stereotypical assertion. Hackers are frequently painted with the same derogatory brush strokes as criminals. They are seen as an anarchy-touting subculture responsible for many of the cyber crimes and high level corporate security breaches we hear about on the news periodically —precisely the incidents garnering the lion’s share of media attention when discussing “hacker culture” and their “illegal” motivations. A dark menacing hooded character routinely fits the bill.
Well no, because in recent years this narrow composite of what hackers do has gradually shifted to a more positive light thanks in part to the social Web.
A number of high profile start-ups, most notably Facebook, have embraced so-called hacker-centric culture in their workplaces with open arms. But exactly what does that mean?
No, not the exploitation of data vulnerabilities in competitor applications. It’s more of an ethos for innovation; a new work ethic for the tech industry; a radical departure from the Silicon Valley enterprises of years long past.
Hackers just want to have fun and work on really interesting things. If that means breaking from established rules and conventions, so be it. This doesn’t involve causing harm to others, physical or otherwise.
Start-ups in particular attract so many talented people because they offer the chance to wear multiple hats, the opportunity to work on insanely challenging projects, and above all, deal with less bureaucracy. Coveted full-stack development positions typically provide the sought after flexibility to “define one’s role within the organization”, again, with minimal supervision and maximum latitude governing the employee’s contributions.
In 2010 Facebook’s (then) Manager of Corporate Development Michael Brown speaks to this culture, exemplified by the all night hack-a-thons so elevated in stature by Mark Zuckerberg and others in the tech start-up space:
“We’re looking for hackers. We’re looking for men and women who want to drink Red Bull or Mountain Dew and stay up all night, and turn an idea into an ugly-looking prototype that they can buy some Google search traffic on and test, and see what people think of it. We’re looking for people who are impatient. Who like to write code. Who want to crank stuff out, and think social is going to change the world. So hackers, welcome.” (source)
Perhaps Brown took the hacker mantra a little too far, because in 2011 he was terminated from his position at Facebook after it was revealed he was involved in an insider trading scandal.
Nevertheless, the ‘code wins arguments‘ attitude fostered at Facebook has become a model other tech companies feel compelled to adopt, supposedly as a path to profitability (e.g. RIM’s recent flood of BBM hack-a-thons are a good indication). If anything else modern hackerdom could be seen as a positive force for employee engagement and a catalyst for creating industry leading products and services. But as a recipe for running a wickedly successful company, perhaps not quite the be-all-end-all solution.
So to gain a deeper understanding of the hacker ethos and what motivates certain people to stay up all night pushing through challenging problems wired on caffeinated energy drinks (as opposed to booze), I’ve started reading The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age.
Naturally there are parallels and certain personality traits shared among hackers and creative/designer types I’m interested in exploring in light of this blog’s emphasis on the subjects of design thinking and digital culture, so stay tuned.
Image source: Ben Barry