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How I Learned To Hack

The origins of the term “hack” are unusually rich and expansive. Originally, it was a wholly pejorative term, meaning to work haphazardly. When people called you a “talentless hack,” it meant that you were wholly unoriginal, cobbling together mediocre performance from the scraps of others’ work.

Yet these same attributes, when applied to technology, came to represent the height of creativity. In a quickly evolving field largely devoid of standard operating procedures, the ability to cobble together solutions from disparate pieces became a highly sought after skill. More recently, terms such as life hacking and growth hacking have come into vogue

Today, with every field evolving at light speed, we all need to be able to come up with unconventional hacks for thorny problems and synthesize solutions from disparate places. Unfortunately, that’s not something typically taught in school or in management training programs, although it probably should be. Here’s how I learned to hack.

In 1997, when I was still in my twenties, I took a job in Warsaw for what I thought would be a six-month stint. To my great surprise, I ended up spending fifteen years living and working in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. It was a time of enormous transition and transformation, where nothing was “standard” and everything was in flux.

I felt well prepared. My previous company had an excellent management training program and, with my experience in a highly developed and competitive market, I knew a lot of things that those around me did not. With Poland still trying to shrug off the rust and malaise built up over fifty years of Communism, it seemed like I would have a distinct advantage.

Boy was I wrong! Much to my surprise, my background was, in many ways, a drawback. I had been trained to work within a system, to play a specific part in a greater whole. When a problem came up that was outside my purview, I went to someone down the hall who played another part. Yet now there was no system and no one down the hall.

So I had to learn a new outlook and a new set of skills. When I problem came up, I had to figure it out myself. That meant cobbling together bits and pieces from anywhere I could find them, seeing what worked and iterating toward a solution. It was challenging, fun and, as I soon found, something the Poles had been doing for a long time.

The communist system was hopelessly broken. Everything was run by centralized 5-year plans that couldn’t possibly take into account the needs for an entire society. That meant constant shortages of everything from basic foodstuffs to consumer products like toilet paper. You had to hack to survive.

The Poles called it “kombinować” and it worked like this: Say you wanted to build a house and needed bricks. You couldn’t buy them, because nobody had thought to include your preference for shelter in the central plan. Even if you had the money to buy them, you would need a special permit. So buying bricks directly would be out of the question.

So you would start by getting your hands on something else, like a bicycle. You could then trade the bicycle to get some chocolates and bring those chocolates to the lady at the meat store. With an invaluable extra ration of meat, you might be able to finally get your bricks. Then you would repeat the process for nails, wood and so on.

It was all an incredible waste of time and effort, but it made people master hackers, which may be why today Eastern Europe is a such hotbed for both high tech skills and entrepreneurial energy.

As I continued on in my Eastern European adventure, I had the opportunity to do business in an amazingly wide variety of countries and contexts. Sometimes I found myself working with major multinationals, other times with agile and energetic entrepreneurs and, on occasion, I had to deal with some unsavory characters.

What struck me was the way that everybody was hacking together different solutions. A particular market in the Czech Republic, for instance, would develop very differently than in Poland, Russia or Ukraine. So companies in the very same industry, putting out what on the surface seemed like very similar products, had wholly different business models.

For me, it was not only fascinating, but an amazing opportunity. I was not a Pole, a Czech, A Turk, a Ukrainian or a Russian and was not tied down to any one context. I became something of a travelling gypsy, picking up bits and pieces of various businesses and later figuring out how I could cobble them together into a new contraption of a business model.

It was only after returning to the US that I began to realize just how unusual my experiences were. I found that typical corporate executives seemed a whole lot more like apparatchiks than the entrepreneurs I had become used to working with. Everybody was playing their part in a particular system, with little understanding of what lay outside of it.

Today I think just about everybody is experiencing something similar to what I did in the 1990’s. We’re in the midst of a shift in power from institutions that control resources to platforms that weave together disparate ecosystems. No system is safe anymore and everybody needs to learn how to hack. Welcome to the hacker economy.

Organizations will need to adapt. Rather than focusing on building efficiency to compete within traditional lines of industry and category, managers now need to foment agility and interoperability. No firm, division or line of business can operate as an island. In networked age, we need to widen and deepen connections.

But even more than operational changes, we need to transform how we recruit and train. Rather than asking job candidates, “where do you want to be in 5 years?“ we should ask, “what problems do you most want to solve?” Rather than touting the number of years people have been doing a job, we should ask what they have learned in the last 6 months.

In a sense, I was very lucky. I learned how to hack in a foreign environment where uncomfortable barriers of culture, language and custom put me on constant alert. It was scary, exciting, bewildering and, at times, incredibly lonely and depressing. But it forced me to adapt, cobble things together and find a way to make things work.

Most people, for better or worse, will never know that kind of discomfort. Nevertheless, in a disruptive age, the ability to adapt is the ability to compete and everyone needs to learn how to hack.

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Greg Satell

Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.