Companies like cisco are proud that everyone there has a cubicle, even the ceo. But they're not so advanced as they think; obviously they still view office space as a badge of rank. Note too that Cisco is famous for doing very little product development in house. They get new technology by buying the startups that created it- where presumably the hackers did have somewhere quiet to work. One big company that understands what hackers need is Microsoft. I once saw a recruiting ad for Microsoft with a big picture of a door.
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2 The final Frontier After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than best that: they use their office as a place to think. And if wallpaper you're a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot. The cartoon strip Dilbert has a lot to say about cubicles, and with good reason. All the hackers i know despise them. The mere prospect of being interrupted is enough to prevent hackers from working on hard problems. If you want to get real work done in an office with cubicles, you have two options: work at home, or come in early or late or on a weekend, when no one else is there. Don't companies realize this is a sign that something is broken? An office environment is supposed to be something that helps you work, not something you work despite.
Good hackers insist on control. This is study part of what makes them good hackers: when something's broken, they need to fix. You want them to feel this way about the software they're writing for you. You shouldn't be surprised when they feel the same way about the operating system. A couple years ago a venture capitalist friend told me about a new startup he was involved with. But the next time i talked to him, he said they'd decided to build their software on Windows nt, and had just hired a very experienced nt developer to be their chief technical officer. When I heard this, i thought, these guys are doomed. One, the cto couldn't be a first rate hacker, because to become an eminent nt developer he would have had to use nt voluntarily, multiple times, and I couldn't imagine a great hacker doing that; and two, even if he was good, he'd have.
I've read that java has just overtaken Cobol as the most popular language. As a standard, you couldn't wish for more. But as a medium of expression, you could do a lot better. Of all the great programmers I can think of, i know of only one who would qualitative voluntarily program in java. And of all the great programmers I can think of who don't work for Sun, on java, i know of zero. Great hackers also generally insist on using open source software. Not just because it's better, but because it gives them more control.
The programmers you'll be able to hire to work on a java project won't be as smart as the ones you could get to work on a project written in Python. And the quality of your hackers probably matters more than the language you choose. Though, frankly, the fact that good hackers prefer Python to java should tell you something about the relative merits of those languages. Business types prefer the most popular languages because they view languages as standards. They don't want to bet the company on Betamax. The thing about languages, though, is that they're not just standards. If you have to move bits over a network, by all means use tcp/IP. But a programming language isn't just a format. A programming language is a medium of expression.
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But it's also because money is not the main thing they want. What do hackers want? Like all craftsmen, hackers like good tools. In fact, that's an understatement. Good hackers find it unbearable to use bad resume tools. They'll simply refuse to work on projects with the wrong infrastructure.
At a startup i once worked for, one of the things pinned up on our bulletin board was an ad from ibm. It was a picture of an AS400, and the headline read, i think, "hackers despise. 1 When you decide what infrastructure to use for a project, you're not just making a technical decision. You're also making a social decision, and this may be the more important of the two. For example, if your company wants to write some software, it might seem a prudent choice to write it in java. But when you choose a language, you're also choosing a community.
More than Money i know a handful of super-hackers, so i sat down and thought about what they have in common. Their defining quality is probably that they really love to program. Ordinary programmers write code to pay the bills. Great hackers think of it as something they do for fun, and which they're delighted to find people will pay them for. Great programmers are sometimes said to be indifferent to money. This isn't quite true.
It is true that all they really care about is doing interesting work. But if you make enough money, you get to work on whatever you want, and for that reason hackers are attracted by the idea of making really large amounts of money. But as long as they still have to show up for work every day, they care more about what they do there than how much they get paid for. Economically, this is a fact of the greatest importance, because it means you don't have to pay great hackers anything like what they're worth. A great programmer might be ten or a hundred times as productive as an ordinary one, but he'll consider himself lucky to get paid three times as much. As I'll explain later, this is partly because great hackers don't know how good they are.
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But in every field the lever is getting longer, so the variation we see plan is something that more and more fields will see as time goes. And the success of companies, and countries, will depend increasingly on how they deal with. If variation in productivity increases with technology, then the contribution of the most productive individuals will not only be disproportionately large, but will actually grow with time. When you reach the point where 90 of a group's output is created by 1 of its members, you lose big if something (whether viking raids, or central planning) drags their productivity down to the average. If we want to get the most out of them, we need to understand these especially productive people. What do they need to do their jobs? How do you recognize them? How do you get them to come and work for you? And then of course there's the question, how do you become one?
In programming, as in many fields, the hard part isn't solving problems, but deciding what problems to solve. Imagination is hard to measure, but in practice it dominates the kind of productivity that's measured in lines of code. Productivity varies business in any field, but there are few in which it varies so much. The variation between programmers is so great that it becomes a difference in kind. I don't think this is something intrinsic to programming, though. In every field, technology magnifies differences in productivity. I think what's happening in programming is just that we have a lot of technological leverage.
going to be than the worst? A factor of two? Whereas when you hand people a complex tool like a computer, the variation in what they can do with it is enormous. That's not a new idea. Fred Brooks wrote about it in 1974, and the study he"d was published in 1968. But I think he underestimated the variation between programmers. He wrote about productivity in lines of code: the best programmers can solve a given problem in a tenth the time. But what if the problem isn't given?
But I suppose that's bound to yield an alarming book. Edisons, there's no resume controversy about which idea is most controversial: the suggestion that variation in wealth might not be as big a problem as we think. I didn't say in the book that variation in wealth was in itself a good thing. I said in some situations it might be a sign of good things. A throbbing headache is not a good thing, but it can be a sign of a good thing- for example, that you're recovering consciousness after being hit on the head. Variation in wealth can be a sign of variation in productivity. (In a society of one, they're identical.) And that is almost certainly a good thing: if your society has no variation in productivity, it's probably not because everyone is Thomas.
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Want to start a startup? Get funded by, y combinator. July 2004 (This essay is derived from a talk at Oscon 2004.). A few months ago i finished a new book, and in reviews i keep noticing words like "provocative and "controversial. to say nothing of "idiotic. i didn't mean to make the book controversial. I was trying to make it efficient. I didn't want to waste people's time telling them things they already knew. It's more efficient just to give them the diffs.