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The hacker FAQ
One side of the coin

Peter Seebach
President of Plethora Internet
December 2000

 Basic understandingtoc
 Stimulus and response
 What does that mean?
 Next time
 About the author

The following Q&A session attempts to cover some of the issues that invariably come up when people hire hackers, but donít have previous experience with the hacker community.

DISCLAIMER: The author is a hacker. Bias is inevitable.

Section 0: Basic understanding

0.0: Won't my hacker break into my computer and steal my trade secrets?

No. Hackers aren't, contrary to media reporting, the people who break into computers. Those are crackers. Hackers are people who enjoy playing with computers. Your hacker may occasionally circumvent security measures, but this is not malicious; she just does it when the security is in her way, or because she's curious.

0.1: Was it a good idea to hire a hacker?

It depends on the job. At some tasks, a hacker can be dramatically more effective than a non-hacker. Jobs where hackers are particularly good are:

  • Systems administration
  • Programming
  • Design

Jobs where hackers are often particularly bad are:

  • Data entry
  • Customer service

More generally, a job that requires fast and unexpected changes, significant skill, and is not very repetitive is the one that a hacker will excel in. Repetitive, simple jobs are a waste of a good hacker.

If you get a hacker on something he particularly likes, youíll frequently see performance on the order of five to ten times what a "normal" worker would produce. Iím serious -- a hacker on a roll may be able to produce, in a period of a few months, something that a small development group (say, 7-8 people) would have a hard time getting together over a year. He also may not. Your mileage will vary.

IBM used to report that certain programmers might be as much as 100 times as productive as other workers, or more. This kind of thing happens.

0.2: How should I manage my hacker?

The same way you herd cats. It can be a bit confusing; they're not like most other workers. Don't worry! Your hacker is likely to be willing to suggest answers to problems, if asked. Most hackers are nearly self-managing.

0.3: I still don't understand why hackers should be managed differently from other workers. Is there a book on this?

Not yet. In the meantime, check out The New Hacker's Dictionary, also known as the "jargon file" (see Resources). Check out, in particular, some of the appendices. The entire work is full of clarifications and details of how hackers think.

Section 1: Productivity

1.0: My hacker plays video games on company time.

Hackers, writers, and painters all need some amount of time to spend "percolating" -- doing something else to let their subconscious work on a
problem. Your hacker is probably stuck on something difficult. Don't worry about it.

1.1: But it's been two weeks since Iíve seen anything!

Your hacker is working, alone probably, on a big project, and just started, right? She's probably trying to figure it all out in advance. Ask her how it's going; if she starts a lot of sentences, but interrupts them all with "no, wait..." or "drat, that won't work," it's probably going well.

1.2: Isn't this damaging to productivity?

No. Your hacker needs to recreate and think about things in many ways. He will be more productive with this recreation than without it. Your hacker enjoys working; don't worry about things getting done reasonably well and quickly.

1.3: My hacker is constantly doing things unrelated to her job responsibilities.

Do they need to be done? Very few hackers can resist solving a problem when itís in their capacity. If your hacker is getting her job done, consider these other things a freebie or perk (for you). Although it may not be conventional, it's probably helping out quite a bit.

1.4: My hacker is writing a book, reading USENET news, playing video games, talking with friends on the phone, and building sculptures out of paper clips. On company time!

He sounds happy. The chances are he's in one of three states:

1. Basic job responsibilities are periodic (phone support, documentation, et al.) and there's a lull in incoming work. Don't worry about it!
2. Your hacker is stuck on a difficult problem.
3. Your hacker is bored silly and is trying to find amusement. Perhaps you should find him more challenging work?

Any combination of these factors may be involved. If the work is challenging, and is getting done, don't worry too much about the process. You might ask for your corporation to be given credit in the book.

1.5: But my other workers are offended by my hacker's success, and it hurts their productivity.

Do you really need to have workers around who would rather be the person getting something done, than have it done already? Ego has very little place in the workplace. If they can't do it well, assign them to something they can do.

1.6: My hacker doesn't like to come in to the office.

Much of your hacker's work is best approached without the distractions you face when in the office.  Working in oneís own space can be very productive, and is often a significant perk for hackers.

Section 2: Stimulus and response

2.0: My hacker did something good, and I want to reward her.

Good! Here are some of the things most hackers would like to receive in exchange for their work:

1. Respect
2. Admiration
3. Compliments
4. Understanding
5. Discounts on expensive toys
6. Money

These are not necessarily in order. The 4th item (understanding) is the most difficult. Try to remember this good thing your hacker just did the next time you discover she just spent a day playing x-trek. Rather than complaining about getting work done, write it off as "a perk" that was granted (informally) as a bonus for a job well done. Remember -- hackers get bored quickly when they aren't doing their work.

2.1: I don't get it. I offered my hacker a significant promotion, and she turned it down and acted offended.

A promotion frequently involves spending more time listening to people describing what they're doing, and less time playing with computers. Your hacker is enjoying her work; if you want to offer a reward, consider an improvement in title, a possible raise, and some compliments. Make sure your hacker knows you are pleased with her accomplishments -- that's what she's there for.

2.2: My company policy won't let me give my hacker any more raises until he's in management.

Your company policy is broken. A hacker can earn as much as $500 an hour (sometimes more) doing freelance consulting. You may wish to offer your hacker a contracted permanent consulting position with benefits, or otherwise find loopholes. Or, find perks to offer -- many hackers will cheerfully accept a discount on hardware from their favorite manufacturer as an effective raise.

2.3: I can't believe the hacker on my staff is worth as much as we're paying.

Ask the other staff in the department what the hacker does, and what they think of it. The chances are that your hacker is spending a few hours a week answering arcane questions that would otherwise require an expensive external consultant. Your hacker may be fulfilling another job's worth of responsibilities in his spare time around the office. Very few hackers aren't worth what they're getting paid; they enjoy accomplishing difficult tasks, and improving worker efficiency.

Section 3: What does that mean?

3.0: My hacker doesn't speak English. At least, I don't think so.

Your hacker is a techie. Your best bet is to pick up a copy of TNHD (The New Hacker's Dictionary). You can find a copy online, too (see Resources). If you have trouble understanding that reference, ask your hacker if she has a copy, or would be willing to explain her terms -- most hackers are. Be ready for condescension; it's not intended as an insult, but if you don't know the words, she probably has to talk down to you at first to explain them.

[It is also possible that English is not your hacker's native language, and that it's not yours either. Feel free to substitute a more appropriate language.]

3.1: I can't get an estimate out of my hacker.

Your hacker hasn't figured out how hard the problem is yet. Unlike a lot of workers, hackers will try very hard to refuse to give an estimate until they know for sure that they understand the problem. This may include solving it.  Could you estimate how long it would take you to find your keys, if you'd lost them?

No good engineer goes beyond 95% certainty. Most hackers are good engineers. If you say you will not try to hold him to the estimate (and mean it!) you are much more likely to get an approximate estimate. The estimate may sound (and actually be) very high or very low. Still, it's an estimate, and you get what you ask for.

3.2: My hacker counts from zero.

So does the computer. You can hide it, but computers count from zero. Most hackers do by habit, also.

Next time
Next time, the
flip side.


Other features by Peter Seebach, here on developerWorks:

About the author
Peter Seebach has been playing with computers for a number of years. The Hacker FAQ was originally written about a year after he was told he would never be able to get a job in computing without cutting his hair. He has since learned to work effectively on a team, respect management, and evaluate stock option plans. His hair is still long.

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