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Hacking is Important (randsinrepose.com)
181 points by filament on Mar 13, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments

Here's what's funny: Rands begins with a story about Borland, and how it was this amazing software company run by hacker barbarians who by 1992 were converting their products with "complete object-oriented rewrites." What he doesn't say is that Borland's hacker ethos is what greatly diminished the company.

The company indulged a well-known programmer tendency to bulldoze and rewrite code. The company tried to rewrite Arago into dBase for Windows and in the meantime was surpassed by Microsoft Access. It tried to rewrite Quattro Pro for Windows, ended up with few new features to show for years of work, and was surpassed by Microsoft Excel. Joel Spolsky wrote about both cases in one of his best known essays http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000069.html

Rands is making the point that companies need hacking, or, as he puts it, "well-maintained Barbaric chaos inside the company." In this he is right. Facebook is trouncing Google with a more hackerish ethos, and is not making the same "rewrite everything" mistake as Borland.

But Facebook /is/ making some fresh mistakes. If you were to ask yourself, "Is Facebook maybe taking an excessively hackerish view on anything like Borland did?" it would not be hard to find affirmative examples, including a series of features that use private data in a way that tends to offend non hackers, and a series of privacy defaults that do likewise.

By more fully acknowledging the ways in which the hacker ethos burned Borland (beyond the understatement that Borland's products were "running late"), and by acknowledging the problems hacker culture contributed to at Facebook, Rands would have an even better essay, one that both asserted the importance of the hacker way and that acknowledged the potential downsides of hacker thinking. I'd be interested to hear his thoughts on how to embrace hacking while also instituting some checks on the less useful impulses of programmers.

> a series of features that use private data in a way that tends to offend non hackers, and a series of privacy defaults that do likewise.

Really? I find it's the opposite: hackers tend to be both conscious of and bothered by Facebook's flippancy toward privacy, whereas non-hackers don't seem to know or care either way.

Aren't you simply reinforcing his point, though? There's a deep and fundamentally unsolvable conflict between the need to nurture the existing good versus throwing it away for what may turn out to be a failure. That companies fail attempting risky projects is not an indictment of risk-taking: Taking risk is the only way to succeed in the long term. At the same time, risk is, well, risky.

Also, you cannot look at a single company in isolation. The barbarians at Borland may have been bearded and fearsome, but that didn't mean that there weren't any other barbarians around, hacking away at other companies at the same time. There's just no fool-proof path to success. There's plenty of fool-proof ways of failing, though, and to stop taking risks and attempting to innovate has to be one.

I don't think it's really all that useful to try to learn lessons from individual mistakes made by companies in the past. They made their mistakes because they attempted things they hadn't tried in the past. With hindsight, they probably shouldn't have. Hindsight is the one thing I can guarantee you'll never have access to before you set out on a project.

Hindsight won't fix old mistakes, but looking at the past helps avoid new ones. If there are lessons in the success of Borland and Facebook, surely there are lessons in their failures, too. Or maybe we disagree on that.

Well, I don't agree with you entirely at least. It is not at all evident to me that looking at the past helps avoid new mistakes. It might help avoiding the exact mistakes that were made before, but it is highly probable that the mistakes that, again, in hindsight, should have been avoided are not the same mistakes as those that others made before.

In fact, I think there are plenty of examples throughout history of how it is the desire to avoid certain previous mistakes that directly lead to new mistakes being made.

I do agree that the lessons to be learned can be found equally among previous failures as in successes. In the same way that I think it is problematic to focus on individual previous mistakes, I also think it is problematic to focus overly much on individual previous successes. Simply copying the strategies that worked for someone else won't lead to similar success, as hundreds of failed attempts at replicating the Apple iPad can attest to.

Borland's hacker ethos is what greatly diminished the company. The company indulged a well-known programmer tendency to bulldoze and rewrite code.

The company, as in management, took wrong decissions. But the blame still manages to fall on poor programmers :-)

I actually blamed the "hacker ethos," not the rank and file programmers, but the CEO of Borland was very much a coder:


I don't think so. The Wikipedia article you link to doesn't support that claim anyway.

I'd say he was a hacker, in the broad sense of the word, but not a programmer. That would be Anders. A comparison with Jobs and Wozniak comes to mind.

> The Wikipedia article you link to doesn't support that claim anyway

"As a student, Kahn developed software for the MICRAL, the earliest non-kit personal computer based on a microprocessor."

The creative destruction alluded to in this post is well covered by John Boyd's life work, although Boyd presented things through a military perspective. For a teaser, know that Boyd's philosophies underpinned the U.S. plan of attack in Operation Desert Storm.

If you want a dense white paper try Boyd's mangum opus: http://goalsys.com/books/documents/DESTRUCTION_AND_CREATION....

and here's his excellent (and quite accessible) biography: http://www.amazon.com/Boyd-Fighter-Pilot-Who-Changed/dp/0316...

I'm genuinely curious: why have people downvoted dpritchett's comment?

Surprises me too as I had read Boyd and immediately knew that dpritchett was making a salient point.

I'd love to understand why the downvotes.

I hope it's OK that I go of track and rant a bit about Rands in general, instead of specifically this post. Because Rands reminds me so much of both Joel and Yegge, in a very specific way. All of their posts make sense, I agree with them and I like them. Most new insight is often just provoking enough that I find myself arguing with it for a few moments before buying it wholesale. Nothing that pushes me far away from my existing core of values and ideas. At the same time it's very well written and hard to dislike. The rands test, for example, I circulated to my managers the second I read it, much like the Joel test.

The last few days I've rewatched a bunch of my favorite West Wing episodes. In a sense, reading Rands reminds me of that. It's well written, I agree with it and I enjoy it and recommend it, even though it might not teach me anything new.

I watched Rands speak at CUSEC in 2011 in Montreal. The way he speaks is similar to the way he writes. His thoughts are though-provoking and insightful, generally teaching you at least one new thing you hadn't known before.

Holding up Facebook and Apple as examples of hacking is kinda... weird. I guess skunkworks isn't a byword anymore?

Facebook's idea of hacking: "find thing that works, break it, reimplement it, release early, fix bugs later" . That's how their platform has (not) evolved over the years.

Apple's idea of hacking? I have no clue, i guess it's "brushed aluminum"

I am not sure if I am the only one, but having read some of Rands longer pieces I have found that I have identified certain traits in myself that I hadn't realised before. I couldn't list them off if I wanted to right now, and generally it was some sort of epiphany that I had after thinking about a certain essay of his for a little while, but it has made me a better person.

Using some of the ideas and knowledge in his essays has helped me understand people better, and as I said before myself a better person. Through understanding myself better I know what to ask of others around me to accomplish greatness. It allowed me to be more confident and self-assured.

His "Nerd Handbook"[1] is probably one of my favourite essays, if you haven't read it; I suggest it.

[1]: http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2007/11/11/the_nerd_ha...

"These people, called managers, don't create product, they create process." Please allow me to say "bulls@#t". Those people (engineering managers, product managers, managers in general) are in the same team as the hackers and they're usually not dumb automatons with the single desire to maintain status quo. I think they all know the benfits of distruption and hacking and are willing to support it. So use them rather than blame them.

I think the bigger problem in major companies is that the engineers are so overburden with work and deadlines that they lose interest to hack or come up with brilliant new ideas.

Maybe I'm getting old but reading this preaching for the choir is getting me frustrated. Like all groups of engineers you put in a room will make a disruptive technology. Maybe it just burns corporate money without reaching anything.

What disruptive technology came from google's 20%? Companies make a shift from some hackers to a big corporation where you have to report to shareholders: Hey shareholders we are going to burn a lot of money and we hope to invent the next ipod, facebook, … Or maybe not. But’s not our money so let’s do it.

>What disruptive technology came from google's 20%?

gmail, it disrupted the entire email market (both free and for pay email hosting).

yay rands!

I have a hard time gleaning much of value from his posts. They are well-written, though.

That's because we're not his intended audience; our bosses are.

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