To laymen’s ears, the word “hacker” or “hacking” means cyber-attacks, phishing schemes or other nefarious acts, usually based out of Nigeria and usually involving voluntary donations. I know, because my non-technical friends admit as much. Whatever the specifics, it means something bad. In the startup world, however, it means something good. Desired, even.
Today, tech job postings abound looking for “hacker ninjas.” Facebook’s onboarding includes a six week bootcamp inculcating new recruits to the “hacker way.” Online programming courses liberally use the word. Given the positive spin, what does it mean to be a hacker?
Hacking is an attitude, not a skill. It’s a certain way of approaching problems that is especially valued by startups. Why? Because if you were to sum up the hacker attitude it would be: Don’t ask for permission. Do the most valuable thing and ship, then iterate. When a startup doesn’t know its product/market/fit, time is everything.
Hacking values speed over perfection. It’s not about Gant charts and meticulously road-mapping product specifications. It’s about rapid experimentation by doing what you need to do to get product into the hands of actual customers. Thinking of a five month re-architecting of your database for high scalability? Forget it. Ship first and scale later. (This is essentially what Facebook did. Until they couldn’t ignore the problem anymore. This was also the early attitude of Google.)
Hacking values flexibility and independence over rules. This is where the spirit of the Lone Coder, probing and dismantling a computer system in the dead-of-night, holds true. A hacker never thinks, “This is not my job. This is not my area.” Instead, they are guided by curiosity and an innate tendency to fix things and make things “right.” Hackers have a strong aesthetic sense.
So next time you look to hire someone for your startup, you might want to ask: “Are they a hacker?”