A version of this has been bought by IBM
Furthermore, IBM sponsored another article, the Manager
FAQ, a guide to managers for hackers who are frustrated and confused
by corporate life. I'd like to thank IBM for their kind support of this
project. I'm pretty happy with the new piece, and I'm glad to have finally
been nudged into posting it.
I'd like to point out how reasonable and friendly IBM has been about
this; compare with the way that CRC has treated Eric Weisstein.
The Hacker FAQ
The following list is an attempt to cover some of the issues that will
invariably come up when people without previous experience of the hacker
community try to hire a hacker. This FAQ is intended for free distribution,
and may be copied as desired. It is in an early revision. If you wish to
modify the FAQ, or distribute it for publication, please contact the author.
The author is email@example.com.
The official distribution site (as of revision 0.05) is "http://www.plethora.net/~seebs/faqs/hacker.html".
DISCLAIMER: The author is a hacker. Bias is inevitable.
This document is copyright 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 Peter Seebach. Unaltered
distribution is permitted.
Revision 0.05 - Last modified September 28, 1999
Questions and Answers:
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. A hacker can be dramatically more effective than
a non-hacker at a job, or dramatically less effective. Jobs where hackers
are particularly good are:
Jobs where hackers are particularly bad are:
More generally, a job that requires fast and unexpected changes, significant
skill, and is not very repetitive will be one a hacker will excel at. Repetitive,
simple jobs are a waste of a good hacker, and will make your hacker bored
and frustrated. No one works well bored and frustrated.
The good news is, if you get a hacker on something he particularly likes,
you will frequently see performance on the order of five to ten times what
a "normal" worker would produce. This is not consistent, and you shouldn't
expect to see it all the time, but it will happen. This is most visible
on particularly difficult tasks.
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: Wait, you just said "10 times", didn't
you? You're not serious, right?
Actually, I said "ten times". And yes, I am 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.
0.4: I don't understand this at all. This is
confusing. Is there a book on this?
Not yet. In the meantime, check out The New Hacker's Dictionary
(references below; also known as "the jargon file"), in particular some
of the appendices. The entire work is full of clarifications and details
of how hackers think.
Section 1: Social issues
1.0: My hacker doesn't fit in well with our
corporate society. She seems to do her work well, but she's not really
making many friends.
This is common. Your hacker may not have found any people around who get
along with hackers. You may wish to consider offering her a position telecommuting,
or flexible hours (read: night shift), which may actually improve her productivity.
Or hire another one.
1.1: My hacker seems to dress funny. Is there
any way to impress upon him the importance of corporate appearance?
Your hacker has a very good understanding of the importance of corporate
appearance. It doesn't help you get your job done. IBM, Ford, and Microsoft
have all realized that people work better when they can dress however they
want. Your hacker is dressed comfortably. A polite request to dress up
some for special occasions may well be honored, and most hackers will cheerfully
wear clothes without (unintentional) holes in them if specifically asked.
1.2: My hacker won't call me by my title, and
doesn't seem to respect me at all.
Your hacker doesn't respect your title. Hackers don't believe that management
is "above" engineering; they believe that management is doing one job,
and engineering is doing another. They may well frequently talk as if management
is beneath them, but this is really quite fair; your question implies that
you talk as if engineering is beneath you. Treat your hacker as an equal,
and she will probably treat you as an equal -- quite a compliment!
1.3: My hacker constantly insults the work of
my other workers.
Take your hacker aside, and ask for details of what's wrong with the existing
work. It may be that there's something wrong with it. Don't let the fact
that it runs most of the time fool you; your hacker is probably bothered
by the fact that it crashes at all. He may be able to suggest improvements
which could dramatically improve performance, reliability, or other features.
It's worth looking into.
You may be able to convince your hacker to be more polite, but if
there appear to be major differences, it's quite possible that one or more
of your existing staff are incompetent. Note that hackers, of course, have
different standards of competence than many other people. (Read "different"
as "much higher".)
Section 2: Productivity.
2.0: My hacker plays video games on company
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.
2.1: But it's been two weeks since I saw 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 going well.
2.2: 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
2.3: 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 they can solve it, and no one else is solving it. For that matter,
is your hacker getting her job done? If so, consider these other things
a freebie or perk (for you). Although it may not be conventional, it's
probably helping out quite a bit.
2.4: 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:
Any of these factors may be involved. All of them may be involved. In general,
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
Basic job responsibilities are periodic (phone support, documentation,
et al.) and there's a lull in incoming work. Don't worry about it!
Your hacker is stuck on a difficult problem.
Your hacker is bored silly and is trying to find amusement. Perhaps you
should find him more challenging work?
2.5: 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.
Section 3: Stimulus and response
3.0: My hacker did something good, and I want
to reward him.
Good! Here are some of the things most hackers would like to receive in
exchange for their work:
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 he 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. Don't worry; hackers
get bored quickly when they aren't doing their work.
Discounts on expensive toys.
3.1: My hacker did something bad, and I want
to punish him.
Don't. 30 years of psychological research has shown that punishment has
no desirable long-term effects. Your hacker is not a lab rat. (Even if
he were a lab rat, punishment wouldn't work; at least, not if he
were one of the sorts of lab rats the psych research was done on.) If you
don't like something your hacker is doing, express your concerns. Explain
what it is that bothers you about the behavior.
Be prepared for an argument; your hacker is a rational entity, and
presumably had reasons. Don't jump on him too quickly; they
may turn out
to be good reasons.
Don't be afraid to apologize if you're wrong. If your hacker admits
to having been wrong, don't demand an apology; so far as the hacker is
concerned, admitting to being wrong is an apology, most likely.
3.2: 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.
3.3: 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 $200 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
3.4: 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 4: What does that mean?
4.0: 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). It can be found as http://catb.org/esr/jargon
(last I checked) or from a good bookstore. 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 willing to explain terms. 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
It's a reasonably difficult set of words; there are a lot of them,
and their usage is much more precise than it sounds. Hackers love word
[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
4.1: I can't get an estimate out of my hacker.
Your hacker hasn't figured out how hard the problem is yet. Unlike most
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
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 very high or very low; it may be very high or very low.
Still, it's an estimate, and you get what you ask for.
4.2: My hacker makes obscure, meaningless jokes.
If you feel brave, ask for an explanation. Most of them can be explained.
It may take a while, but it may prove interesting.
4.3: My hacker counts from zero.
So does the computer. You can hide it, but computers count from zero. Most
hackers do by habit, also.
If you found this information useful, please consider sending a token
donation to the author; email for details. You might also consider buying
a couple of books through my "affiliate program" link; you get cool books,
I get pocket change. :)
The links in this section will all try to take you to Powell's, where you
can spend your money on cool books.
Cathedral & the Bazaar (Eric
Raymond) - a discussion of different ways of building systems.
New Hacker's Dictionary (Eric
Raymond) - a great source of trivia, lore, and translations for difficult
concepts. (Not always in stock, I'm afraid.)
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