Hacking is not a crime. It’s a problem solving activity — and the key to innovating like a startup
Hackers are criminals, right? You certainly get that impression from the business media. Run a Google search on ‘hackers’ and you’ll find a long string of stories about hackers ransacking databases, corrupting computers and releasing malware onto the internet, together with a bunch of images of some guy in a Guy Fawkes mask gloating into a laptop while a wall of zeroes and ones streams Matrix-like behind him.
Hackers are the bogeymen of the digital era. According to a recent Gallop poll, Americans are more afraid of hackers than terrorists and murderers.
This view is limiting and wrong. It focuses on black hat hackers, who are just a small minority of the global hacking community. There is a flip side to the story that is obscured by the media’s obsession with black hat hacking.
Hacking is a core element of startup entrepreneurship. If you are building agile and launching lean, you are a hacker. Business leaders who want to bake entrepreneurship into their company’s operating system should start with hacking and make it a key ingredient in their innovation toolkit.
Silicon Valley startup entrepreneurs embraced hacking in the wake of the dotcom crash of 2001. Investors were placing their bets elsewhere, and so entrepreneurs took the advice of their technical co-founders and began hacking their business ideas into shape. Open source code had slashed the upfront costs of starting a business, enabling software hackers to become entrepreneurs. The complex miscegenation of hacker and entrepreneurial mindsets in this period played out in the BarCamp movement, the early coworking scene, and at Meetups and events like SuperHappyDevHouse, the popular party ‘for hackers and thinkers’.
Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to bake hacking into Facebook management and engineering culture was an overt expression of the widespread affirmation of hacking in the Silicon Valley tech scene in the aughts. By the time Eric Ries published The Lean Startup, in 2011, hacking was a major part of Silicon Valley culture and an integral element of the startup way.
To appreciate what changed here, we need to clarify what hackers actually do. Set aside everything you think you know about hackers, and reflect on the practice of hacking itself. Hacking is a problem solving activity. Hackers solve problems by running short, targeted experiments and iterating on the results.
This is the hacker way: try something out and see what happens. Run an experiment, learn from it, adapt your approach and try again.
The early computer hackers at MIT, in the 1960s, figured out how to use the PDP-1 computer by hacking it, writing programs and seeing what the machine spat back at them. The hardware hobbyists who gathered at the Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s prototyped the personal computer by hacking kitset units like the Altair 8800, learning through a tenacious process of trial and error. Black hat hackers crack databases by exploring backdoors and password hacks until they find their way in. They work fast and learn from their mistakes. Hacking is an iterative, exploratory practice.
Lean startup entrepreneurs take a hacker approach to developing new business models. Just like computer hackers solve problems by running experiments and learning from them, lean entrepreneurs clear up problems in their business models by pinpointing the assumptions baked into these models and testing them. Startup entrepreneurs have been called many names in recent years, not all of them flattering. But there is nothing spurious about calling lean startup entrepreneurs ‘hackers’. Hacking is what they do.
Startup entrepreneurs aren’t the only people in the Silicon Valley tech scene who’ve adapted hacking as a problem solving activity. Agile software developers are hackers too. Agile developers employ a structured form of hacking, extending the life-cycle of experimentation over a series of sprints. The rapid-fire prototyping and testing used in design thinking is another version of hacking, involving direct engagement with customers to gather valuable feedback that can be used to iterate and perfect designs.
None of these methods involve breaking through firewalls and stealing data. Sometimes they don’t even involve coding. Hacking is a way of solving problems. Anyone can be a hacker, assuming an experimental mindset and a willingness to get hands on, move fast and learn.
Sharing is caring. If you like this post, please pass it on.
Tim Rayner is the author of Hacker Culture and the New Rules of Innovation (Routledge 2018). He teaches at UTS Business School in Sydney, Australia.