Why it’s important to be a hacker

I’ve had the privilege to meet a lot of amazing entrepreneurs, product peeps, business minds and generally cool kids since moving to San Francisco.

The lifestyle here is really something that my dreams are made of. I wake up everyday and am faced with ambitious, focussed, hard working and ridiculously intelligent individuals who will stop for little to achieve their dreams. They are driven, they’re happy and they live in an ecosystem that supports them breaking the rules. When it’s time to party, they make even Australians look like a batch of pre-schoolers by waking up a few hours later with their focus switched back onto “11”.

One of the interesting things however about the people of this town is the existence and huge promotion of a personality type called the hacker.

The hacker has been depicted in pop culture as an unethical, ruthless and disruptive punk with poor fashion sense who is focussed on breaking down doors and causing general wanton damage. Recently popularised by the group Anonymous, the media has painted hackers as digital terrorists, out to harm you and your pet poodle’s facebook picture. Granted there are the unsavoury types but I’ve also had my fair share of dodgy mechanics so the point is moot. The fact is, you can’t varnish hackers with one broad stroke.

Looking past the stereotypical sticker-plastered laptop, hoodie, unkept facial hair and a passion for dubstep music, the hacker has a series of qualities to their approach to life that sets them apart. Yes, they are real people with souls but they see the world as a series of puzzles to crack rather than as a set of rules to follow.

They also aren’t all anti-establishment computer whiz kids out on a mission to annoy governments. They are everyday people who don’t settle for the thought that what exists today is the best and only way to do something. They are people who embrace change, who thrive on breaking things to work out how to make them better and who need to tinker in order to feel alive.

You could argue that Henry Ford hacked the automotive industry, Richard Branson hacked the airline industry and Ingvar Kamprad hacked the furnishings industry. (He’s the founder of IKEA in case you’re wondering). None of them were evil, faceless deprivations of your liberty but are rather heralded as ‘innovations’, ‘improvements’ and valuable contributors to a better world.

Sure, hackers disrupt the status quo and that can make anyone uncomfortable particularly at first when it seems like more damage is being done than good. However, hacking is all about improvement through finding the cracks within existing systems and fixing them. It’s about disrupting the status quo then handing you back a better solution – because of the failures.

If you think about it, you hack every day. You might not be an engineer but perhaps you’re adjusting your interpersonal communication, finding a shortcut to work, re-arranging your furniture, changing which way you hang your toilet paper or just split testing between sock/shoe/sock/shoe or sock/sock/shoe/shoe. If you are doing anything like this, then you’re hacking.

You are subconsciously finding a way to take what you know, test it, break it and try something new to see if it’s a better way.

Here’s a few things I’ve noticed that makes hackers so damn good here and perhaps these could apply to you next time you’re looking at something in your life and wondering how you can make it better.


How to be a better hacker

Keep it simple. It’s cool here to not own a lot of crap and be weighed down and dictated by junk. It’s about keeping everything light, straight forward, common sense and whatever it takes to just ‘keep it up in the air.’ This means patience and a focus on small, regular adjustments rather than inconsistent big ones.

Keep trying. Throw it together quickly, let it break, fix it, learn from the failure and keep improving it. It’s not about getting caught up on the failure but learning from it and moving forward. It’s called iterating. Laugh when you fail and chalk it up as another potential way not to do it.

Plug in and focus. Party hard but also know when to shut off the phone, close facebook, plug in the headphones and churn out the work. Have a highly intensive and focussed hour of power or two or three or more. It’s about not resting until it’s done.

Ruthlessly cut the fat. Whether it’s time wasting people to time wasting process, regularly review what can be trimmed down to reduce waste. It’s about removing the unnecessary distractions from your focus. Yes this can and will include people.

Commit to a pivot. Unlike iterating which is a series of incremental updates, a pivot is a milestone change. It could be a certain amount of users or a commercial need to change – think Facebook Timeline and Subscriptions coinciding with Google +. It’s about knowing change is inevitable and being prepared to move fast when the call comes.

Don’t get locked in. A seasoned hacker will always think of an escape plan. A smart pivot is when you don’t have to waste your hard work because it’s not working out the first way you tried it. It’s about being able to step sideways, refocus and use your existing resources to try again in a new context.

Just ship it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in being a perfectionist and decide not to execute or publish because it just needs one more read. Trust me, I know this one all too well. You gotta be in it to win it and even if the ticket is a bit crumpled, you have a chance. You’ll never be perfect but don’t worry, neither will they so just do it now.

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