Illustration by tom jennings

The Long & Hard Code

What hackers can teach us about innovation & why learning how to code is a good idea. 

As a writer, I never really thought I’d ever have to dip into the mysterious - and bloody frightening - world of technology.

I loved science as a kid, I was fascinated particularly with how scientific discoveries happened. It’s had a huge impact on my work today: I still like to tell stories of innovation through anecdotes of scientific progress, trying to communicate the message that most progress occurs through openness and collaboration. But as a kid, it was when I read and wrote that I really came into my own. And so I focused on reading and writing for the rest of my education (and beyond), never really honing hard skills in the realm of computer science, or any other science, for that matter. Recently though, and particularly after spending time with hackers, delving deeply into their worlds, I’ve become obsessed with the idea of learning how to code and program.

I know many seasoned programmers who get really annoyed when they hear the now oft-heard phrase “learn how to code in a day,” or “become a web developer in xx weeks.” I get why. It would irk me intensely, too, to hear that a craft that I’ve spent my whole life refining can be taught in less than six months.

In fact, I have a very similar attitude as a writer and researcher. Before I write anything, for example, I become obsessive over my research. I write my initial thoughts and insights, but then I dive into a pit of reading and interviews that lasts for at least 1 month, if not longer on many occasions. Some may think it’s a wretched and time wasting exercise, but I feel pretty strongly about this process. Writers, and I think this applies particularly to non-fiction writers, need to gain the right to write about a topic - nobody is simply entitled to it. Show the reader that you put in the work, that it is not simply a lazy and superficial attempt to understand something complex. Articles, or books, that exhibit that kind of attitude are, to me, like to an experienced hacker, the version of spending one day coding and calling yourself a programmer. Perhaps crafts that cleverly and imperceptibly radiate a sense of humility are more effective in communicating their message.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t just go for it. In fact, more and more people should act on tingling curiosities. In the end, that’s the mother of innovation: follow a hunch and you never know where it might lead you. For me though, it’s about how you act on that curiosity: with a healthy dose of deference being key.

So I guess I was a little apprehensive at first when I decided to learn how to code. Thoughts started circling around in my head: “Who do you think you are?,” “There are so many people who are already amazing at this,” “You can barely work Microsoft Word.” But I guess I argued against these thoughts. Telling someone not to bother to learn how to code is like discouraging someone from learning a new language, say French, just because everybody who grew up in France can already speak it better than you. I’m not looking to become a developer for Facebook or Google, or even attempt to base my income on hard coding. But still, there is virtue, always, in adopting a new lens through which to look at the world.

I first became intrigued by the world of hackers when I opened Steven Levy’s delightful book, Hackers. It was published in 1984, but I found it to be as relevant today as I bet it was over two decades ago. In it, Levy describes how obsessive programming with machines, and the resulting relationship hackers built with systems themselves, gave rise to what he dubbed “The Hacker Ethic,” an informal, organically developed and agreed to manifesto that, in several iterations, continues to animate the movement today:

· Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.

· All information should be free.

· Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.

· Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.

· You can create art and beauty on a computer.

· Computers can change your life for the better.

Each of these tenets reveals certain characteristics that were – at least during the advent of the movement – unique to hackers. All were naturally different people, but Levy proclaims, quite beautifully, that one commonality ran across them all:

“As I talked to these digital explorers…I found a common element, common philosophy that seemed tied to the elegantly flowing logic of the computer itself. It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and to improve the world. This Hacker Ethic is their gift to us: something with value even to those of us with no interest at all in computers.”

Through my research into their world, I found hackers very much inextricably linked to these concepts of open information, dencentralization, and hands-on philosophy that Levy refers to. But what I adored about them the most - and what I think there’s immense potential to learn from - is their intemperate devotion to the perpetual, almost maniacally obsessive, improvement of systems. This is the beauty of their curiosity. If you observe how some of them operate, they seem to believe that systems only realize their meaning if you can reveal how they work, and, as an extension of this belief, there’s the unshakeable hacker conviction that knowing how a particular system works can teach us something valuable about the world we inhabit.

This attitude is why I think hackers believe in taking things apart as a way of understanding them. In this way, they can clearly see not only the parts a system is composed of, but also the connection between those parts that make the system work. This is a crucial and helpful outlook, as seeing the connections between elements can reveal a vital aspect of innovation: that it’s “combinatorial” in nature, the result of putting things together into new configurations rather than inventing one sole, new product, service or idea. Hackers sit in an enviable position; they understand that grasping the connections that make up the big element allows them to not only recombine existing aspects of a system, but to create new connections between the old and the new. There’s immeasurable integrity in this, and we should take heed.

So my motivation for wanting to learn how to code and program is based on wanting to better understand this mind-set, to see whether I could gain more from getting my hands dirty, from experiencing the process that animates so much of today’s method of working first hand.

I find that already, with only a brief sojourn into this world, that my approach to writing itself has changed. Just a few lessons on Codeacademy will drill it into you that a simple and seemingly meaningless comma can ruin an exercise, much like it can destroy a sentence. The hard work and attention to detail that it trains you in can be transferred to any craft.

Over the next year, I’ll be practicing regularly. I signed up for my friend Mattan’s course online, One Month Rails. I’ll then move on to Codeacademy and Code School. I’ll post weekly (on Sundays) with updates on my progress - and guaranteed regress - all year, so that I’m held accountable and can’t back out.

Any words of encouragement (or discouragement, if you must!) will be appreciated muchly.

Written for #sundaypost (write a blog post on a Sunday with others) and everyone who supported me to write this idea on Makeshift’s Help Me Write.What should I write next?