What is a ‘Hacker’?

TL;DR: Hackers embody sharing, openness, decentralization — coding to improve the world
3 minute read

Working in DC, “hacker” can often be seen as a four-letter word. I can’t count the number of times a press aide or government attorney has cringed at seeing it in a draft release, or even worse, as an upcoming event audaciously entitled a “hackathon”. To the media and many government types “hacking” often conjures up images of malcontents in ski masks crouched over computer screens, but to the rest of the world (and especially the internet), the term has a different meaning. Heck, even Merriam-Webster defines hacker as:

  1. “One that hacks” (defined as “to write computer programs for enjoyment”),
  2. “a person who is inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity”, and
  3. “an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer”

Being a hacker isn’t about stealing credit card numbers or disabling public utilities, but rather it’s the exact opposite. It’s about embodying all three of those meanings simultaneously. It’s about sharing, openness, decentralization… It’s about trying to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for defying expectations and making the impossible a reality, often involving nothing more than duct tape, bubblegum, and ultimately solutions that purported experts would certainly balk at for being too simplistic.

The term traces its routes all the way back to the 1960s when it emerged to describe a certain playful cleverness of exploration that surrounded those at MIT who openly pushed the limits of the world’s first computers. Today it continues to embody that ethic as the pursuit of excellence — constantly asking oneself “is this even possible?” (and instinctively responding “let’s find out”). It’s the intrinsic delight one gets from solving never-before-solved problems and overcoming limits conventional wisdom long-ago presumed too difficult to tackle. Somewhat surprisingly, hacking isn’t at all about technology. It’s about community. Think about it in terms of a hacker ethic, a hacker way, and a hacker culture.

The Hacker Ethic

Hackers are motivated by a distinct ethos.1 It’s about sharing. Hacking requires the ability to take things apart and figure out how they work in the hopes of ultimately improving upon them. It’s a “hands on” imperative that necessitates both access to and the right to fork a project in hopes of building something even more interesting and ultimately bettering what’s available to all. It’s about openness. Hacking is a group effort, and thus the free flow of information is a necessity to empower hackers to fix, improve, and reinvent. Secrecy simply serves to stifle creative possibility. Freedom of inquiry requires that information be free. And it’s about decentralization. The best way to promote the free exchange of information is to have an open system that provides no friction between a hacker and his or her quest for knowledge. By intentionally or unintentionally erecting such barriers, bureaucracies, whether corporate, government, or university, are inherently flawed systems.

The Hacker Way

But it’s more than ideology. There’s a practical side to it as well. There’s a thirst, a drive. There’s a constant intellectual itch just begging to be scratched.2 The world is full of problems waiting to be solved. In the hands of a creative mind, technology can make the world a better place for all. Just as athletes seek delight in pushing their bodies past their physical limits, hackers seek the thrill of pushing tools beyond what is known, what is solved, and what is possible. But that also means that No problem should ever have to be solved twice. Creative minds are a valuable, finite resource and shouldn’t be wasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are other fascinating, unsolved problems waiting to be solved.

Hacker Culture

Last, hackers embody a unique culture that often flies in the face of traditional paradigms. It’s a culture of meritocracy. Contribution is the sole currency of the internet. Money and title bare far less weight than meaningful contributions, be they code, copy, design, whatever. It’s a culture of elegance. Hackers strive for artfully arranged, innovative techniques that perform complicated tasks with as few instructions as possible. and It’s a culture of playful cleverness. There’s a certain lighthearted cleverness to being a hacker, often expressed by injecting dry wit and memes into otherwise mundane tasks.

Hackers in the Enterprise

It’s no surprise then, that as the pace of technological innovation quickens, the very bureaucracies that hackers condemn are beginning to appreciate their ability to consistently deliver high-value projects at little cost. Heck, even the White House recently announced its first hackathon. But elevating hackers in traditional organizations is not simply another name for “skunk works,” just as a hackathon is no excuse for not consistently fostering a culture of innovation. It’s not about working faster or cheaper.

“Hacker” isn’t just the next hot buzzword, following a long history of “rock star”, “ninja”, and “guru”. Nor is it synonymous with “cybercriminal” or imply any nefarious intentions whatsoever. Instead the exact opposite is true. It’s about embracing an ethos, a drive, a culture. It’s about coding to improve the world.

  1. As articulated best by Steven Levy 

  2. See Eric S. Raymond 

Originally published February 4, 2013 | View revision history

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Ben Balter is the Director of Engineering Operations and Culture at GitHub, the world’s largest software development platform. Previously, as Chief of Staff for Security, he managed the office of the Chief Security Officer, improving overall business effectiveness of the Security organization through portfolio management, strategy, planning, culture, and values. As a Staff Technical Program manager for Enterprise and Compliance, Ben managed GitHub’s on-premises and SaaS enterprise offerings, and as the Senior Product Manager overseeing the platform’s Trust and Safety efforts, Ben shipped more than 500 features in support of community management, privacy, compliance, content moderation, product security, platform health, and open source workflows to ensure the GitHub community and platform remained safe, secure, and welcoming for all software developers. Before joining GitHub’s Product team, Ben served as GitHub’s Government Evangelist, leading the efforts to encourage more than 2,000 government organizations across 75 countries to adopt open source philosophies for code, data, and policy development. More about the author →

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