Tech Life A disruptive act

Hacking is Important

Back in the early 90s, Borland International was the place to be an engineer. Coming off the purchase of Ashton-Tate, Borland was the third largest software company, but, more importantly, it was a legitimate competitor to Microsoft. Philippe Kahn, the CEO at the time, was fond of motorcycles, saxophones, and brash statements at all-hands meetings: “We’re barbarians, not bureaucrats!”

At the time, Kahn was not only navigating the integration of Ashton-Tate, he was in the midst of moving the product suite from DOS to Windows. All the products were complete object-oriented rewrites and they were running late. Years late. At one all-hands, he explained how he wanted the company to think about itself. Recounted from a story in the LA Times from 1992:

… Kahn was reading a dense history of Central Asia a few years ago when it struck him that many of the nomadic tribes of the steppes were actually far more ethical and disciplined than the European “civilizations” they were confronting.

They were austere and ambitious, eager for victory but not given to celebrating it. They were organized around small, collaborative groups that were far more flexible and fast-moving than the entrenched societies of the time. They were outsiders and proud of it. They were barbarians.

Kahn’s thinking regarding “barbarians” was prescient. It not only partially inspires Agile and other lightweight software development methods, it reinforces a theme big companies are often unintentionally trying to forget: hacking is important.

“Hackers Believe Something Can Always Be Better”

Facebook doesn’t want to be a big company. Like Google before it, Facebook took the time to carefully document the reasons they were not intending to become a traditional company in their S1 filing, and while this letter is positioned to the future legion of investors, the letter is a recipe for Facebook employees:

The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.

Facebook is worried about the growth paradox, which goes something like this: The end result of successful hacking is product, and that product needs to grow by building more things. The more you grow, the more things you have, and the more you need people whose job is simply to coordinate the increasingly interdependent building activities. These people, called managers, don’t create product, they create process.

Hackers are allergic to process not because they don’t understand the value; they’re allergic to it because it violates their core values. These values are well documented in Zuckerberg’s letter: “Done is better than perfect”, “Code wins arguments”, and that “Hacker culture is extremely open and meritocratic”. The folks who create process care about control, and they use politics to shape that control and to influence communications, and if there is ever a sentence that would cause a hacker to stand up and throw his or her keyboard at the screen, it’s the first half of this one.

The growth paradox is that the chaotic means by which you found success might become distasteful to those you hire to maintain and build on that success. Once they’ve established themselves, they will point at the hacking and ask important sounding questions like, “What is it they are building?” or “How does this poorly defined thing fit into our overall strategy?” They will label these hackers “disruptors” and they are 100% correct.

Hacking is disruptive, and whether you code software, write books, or film movies, I believe bringing anything new into the world is a disruptive act. By being novel and compelling, the new is likely to replace something else and that something else isn’t being replaced without a fight.

Reasonable people are often scared by the new. This is because reasonable people are not Barbarians and they are not hackers. They appreciate the predictable, profitable, and knowable world that comes with a well-defined process, and I would like to thank each and everyone of them because these people keep the trains running and on time. No one likes Barbarians because the Barbarian strategy is one at odds with civilization. By definition, a Barbarian, a hacker, is building on a strategy that is at odds with the majority.

It’s awesome.

Facebook’s letter documents its core values: focus on impact, move fast, be bold, be open, and build social value. And as I read those bullets, I see two people at the table defining them. A high impact, fast moving and bold Barbarian who couldn’t care less about the Biz Dev guy who is arguing for being open and building social value.

Both people are essential to a business thriving, but only one of them knows that hacking is important.

“Where’s Dieter?”

Apple solved the disruptive hacker problem by hiding it, and it starts with a question:

“Where’s Dieter?”

“He moved to another project.”

“Uh, he has 32 open radars and we’ve got two weeks until Feature Complete.”

“He moved to another project.”

“Ok, what project?”

“I don’t know.”

It happens quietly, but the projects that could be the most disruptive to the company begin in silence. Someone, somewhere has a bright idea and a handful of talented engineers are whisked off to a different building behind a locked door. Their status is “elsewhere” and their project is “need to know.”

Having never sat with one of these projects, I can only infer how they work, but when you see the results, you know for certain – these guys and gals are hacking. Their projects are the definition of ambition, you’ve never heard their names, they are small and fast-moving, and they are outsiders in their own company. Sound familiar?

Now, I don’t believe the secret projects are entirely about preventing disruption, there is a large marketing component. The return of Steve Jobs was the returning of marketing and a project being secret was less about secrecy and more about marketing. Steve wanted to be the first guy standing in front of the entire planet telling you the story: “You are not going to fucking believe what we’ve done.”

Yes, there is internal jealously about the teams performing the wizardry that resulted in products like the iPad, the iPhone, and AppleTV. There are people wondering, Why wasn’t I invited to the hacking? Yes, this did create some elitism, but, for better or worse, the secrecy kept this discussion out of the mainstream.

The secret projects at Apple are institutionalized hacking. They are places of elsewhere where the engineers don’t have to worry about being Barbarians because everyone there knows hacking is important.

Unintentionally Forgetting What It Took To Get You There

The story of every company begins with a clever hack. Pick any company, read its history, and I’m pretty sure there will be a well-documented origin story that will define its beginning and involves someone building something new and possibly of unexpected value. What isn’t documented is the story of every moment before where everyone surrounding the hacker asked, “Why the hell are doing you that?”, “Why would you take the risk with so little reward?”, or “Why are you wasting your time?” What’s not documented are the nine spectacular failures the hacker survived before they built one success.

The well-intentioned people who arrive after the initial success of the hack don’t know of a world without it. They assume its existence and are tasked with growing the company around it. Don’t for a moment think I don’t value these people, because I happen to be one of them, but I am also intimately aware that the people who grow the company are not same people who found it.

A healthy product company is, confusingly, one at odds with itself. There is a healthy part which is attempting to normalize and to create predictability, and there needs to be another part that is tasked with building something new that is going to disrupt and eventually destroy that normality.

Failure to create some form of predictability will result in chaos. Failure to create some sort of well-maintained Barbaric chaos inside the company guarantees that a fast-moving, ambitious, risk-taking and ruthless someone else – someone outside the company will invade, because they know what you forgot: hacking is important.

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26 Responses

  1. Great article, and all very true, but this sentiment:

    “Hacker culture is extremely open and meritocratic.”

    …is clearly more aspirational than accurate. A week of working with developers, reading hacker news, hanging out on reddit, or mentioning Ron Paul on Twitter will disabuse anyone of that notion. Hackers (like me) may want to think of ourselves that way, but our culture is just as suffused with sexism and racism as anything else.

    What can we do to make it true?

  2. Anon Y. Mous 12 years ago

    In software its called hacking, in business its called the Innovator’s Dilemma:

  3. Hacker 12 years ago

    Hackers don’t work for Palantir. They don’t work to undermine the American way of life by enabling a CIA front operation to engage in massive domestic spying.

    Hackers are rebels, true, they are not the people who enable evil, incompetent bureaucrats to impose tyrannical control on a previously free country.

    Shame on you, Michael.

  4. Let’s say that hacker culture is the source of big game-changing ideas that revolutionize software etc. In my opinion these radical ideas have a higher probability of failure as well. Now consider hundreds of small companies doing hacker culture. Most fail, a few succeed. Now one has succeeded: does the hacker culture persist? They may have some advantage to the other start ups, they may have been lucky. Maybe they worked really hard because of the promise of success. Maybe there’s some combination of these things. Will the next project for that company have the same incentives, risks and rewards as the one that got it going? The same chance of success? Should it? In some sense it makes more sense for the bigger companies to change gears somewhat: refine what they have, acquire something transformative (let someone else take the risk), protect what they have with highly trained experts (who can perhaps afford to be more risk-averse).

    Am I wrong?

  5. Trinton Azaleth 12 years ago

    You list several different scenarios of which hackers integrate into successful companies:

    • Hackers started the company after failing repeatedly until they succeeded
    • Hackers are employed but their work is kept secret until it is good enough

    You then go on to suggest that hacking must be balanced in order to be successful, because otherwise it is disruptive and results in chaos.

    It would be nice to see some explanation of how to properly balance hacking without “hiding away” the “hackers”.

    For example, some discussion on how google allows hacking intentionally a percentage of the time, and the rest is more directed.

  6. Geoff 12 years ago

    Ironic that Apple creates iProducts that they absolutely do not want anyone to hack?

  7. Brian 12 years ago


    You may be missing the point. In my experience hacking never happens the same way twice. Its the dynamic chemistry of personalities, environment, mission & …. There’s no formula, the human element is too much of an influence to be well modeled. Anon Y. Mous has it covered in the link she offered along with the reference to the Innovators Dilemma. It starts with hackers, if it grows, catches on – then the suits move in.

    Try craigslist as a counter example to the typical shift through the phases of a growing disruptive company.

    True, Google and many others, institutionalized hacking but it would have happened anyway.

  8. Ethical hacking.. reminds me of a quote from Clifford Stoll’s the Cuckoos Egg:

    The word “hacker” has two very different meanings. The people I knew who called themselves hackers were software wizards who managed to creatively program their way out of tight corners. They knew all the nooks and crannies of the operating system. Not dull software engineers who put in forty hours a week, but creative programmers who can’t leave the computer until the machine’s satisfied. A hacker identifies with the computer, knowing it like a friend.

  9. Roland 12 years ago

    I have never read the word barbarian in a context lkie this. Mostly it is used to decribe somebody as uncivilized and lacking a sense of morality or ethics. Or not being part of the Roman Empire.

    What is awesome about that?

  10. Joshu 12 years ago


    What is awesome about not being part of the Roman Empire?

    Where to start…

    When you read the word “barbarian” it’s usually in the context of a history textbook written from the perspective of the Western conquerors. Describing any and all outsiders as “lacking in morals and ethics” is how they rationalized senselessly killing thousands and destroying their cultures and ideas simply because they were different.

    What is awesome about that?

  11. chuck 12 years ago

    “Hackers believe … that nothing is ever complete.”

    “Done is better than perfect”


  12. I agree. Turbo Pascal was a great product and its sad that Microsoft destroys some really good software companies because the innovation they bring to market gets destroyed in the process. And I believe in white hat hacking and coding fore the fun of it. I wonder how much Phillips would admire barbarians though if his family was on the wrong side of the spear though.

  13. Right now I’m in various types of administrative support for various types of hacking, and my understanding of my role is pretty simple.

    1. Understand what’s been done.

    2. Document what’s been done.

    3. Document how it was done (including the things that worked and things that did not work).

    4. Get the menial tasks, petty annoyances, and various obstructions the hell out of my people’s way.

    5. When it’s not getting in the way of anything else, ask questions from my non-coder’s perspective, as this has been helpful in tracking down bugs, creating new features, and so forth in the past.

    6. Document the culture, act as a social lubricant, and welcome new arrivals.

    This does lead to possessing a certain amount of control, but I strive to not abuse the privilege.

  14. Your piece reminded me of my favorite Machiavelli quote, just read “hacker” for “reformer”:

    there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had the actual experience of it.

  15. Allen Laudenslager 12 years ago

    Barbarian is just one phase of business. While it’s now out of print, my favorite business book is Barbarians to Bureaucrats by Lawrence M. Miller. It is worth your time to track down a copy.

  16. Henk Poley 12 years ago

    I might be mistaken, but Apple’s internal secrecy is mostly a result of their answer to R&D. They commonly set up two teams to solve the same thing (make a phone based on iPod, make a phone based on OS X). The winner is deployed, and the other project results get cut up into good parts and put into a future product.

    You can’t do two of the same projects in a company without secrecy between the teams.

  17. Came across your blog via Technori. A couple of keeper quotes here:

    “Hacking is disruptive, and whether you code software, write books, or film movies, I believe bringing anything new into the world is a disruptive act. By being novel and compelling, the new is likely to replace something else and that something else isn’t being replaced without a fight.”

    “Reasonable people are often scared by the new. This is because reasonable people are not Barbarians and they are not hackers. They appreciate the predictable, profitable, and knowable world that comes with a well-defined process, and I would like to thank each and everyone of them because these people keep the trains running and on time. No one likes Barbarians because the Barbarian strategy is one at odds with civilization. By definition, a Barbarian, a hacker, is building on a strategy that is at odds with the majority.”

    Great stuff. Every word counts. I love spending time with rhinos and barbarians…

  18. Hacking is one method of providing a paradigm shift. Paul Feyerabend is famous for “Against Method” claiming that all of science is stuck in a culture that supports the status quo and requires revolution to change direction, usually by a renegade scientist who is probably ridiculed in his/her own time. Hacking (revolutionary science) and Barbarians at the Gate (Paradigm shift) have been a part of human discovery since the beginning of time.

    However, it is not the only way, Companies such as Intel and Honda have built vast empires by incremental improvements,that look revolutionary over time. For these companies, slow and steady (follow the process) has produced results.

  19. Song Lee 12 years ago

    Philippe Kahn may be the most influential software person. And he continues to be. Message from honors is: “follow me, I write code, innovate now”. The Barbarian metaphor perfect it is. Is made of the same material. Very hopeful for Facebook it is. Kahn continues to bring disruptive solution, such as Camera phone ( many patents that Apple, Motorola, Kodak, Google fighting with, name is on the patents) Nd MotionX sleeping tech tha is in jawbone. I do Patent working around the world and see many trading patents with Kahn name on. Like famous artist with painting sold fro one to another . Zucherberg and spirit of Facebook Beth similar. Question to author of article: do they know how similar?

  20. Gerald 12 years ago

    So… where is Borland these days?

  21. I agree with the premise of your article, however I think the title should have been “Good Hacking is Important”. Unfortunately, kids these days see hacking as a “good” and “cool” thing and they do primitive form of hacking that cause a lot more harm than good. I think it’s important to distinguish the two.

  22. I see some confusion about the meaning of “barbarian” intended in Rands’ essay.

    Rands doesn’t mean barbarian in the classical Greco-Roman sense.

    Rands is referring to a barbarian vs. civilized dichotomy used by more recent historians such as Ibn Khaldun.

    Khaldun in his _Muqaddimah_ laid out a model of historical cycles based on the idea that so-called ‘barbaric’ tribal peoples cultivated strong social cohesion or group solidarity (his exact phrasing in Arabic does not translate into English with unambiguous precision.) When a people is living in a rich civilized land, the people loses its tribal-style cohesion and solidarity against conquerors. This gives rise to a recurring cycle in which civilized lands are conquered by tribal ‘barbarians’ who become a new ruling class; the new ruling class becomes decadent and unable to cooperate effectively against invaders, and the cycle restarts as a new barbaric tribe conquers the civilized land to become the new rulers.

    Khaldun’s model of this historical cycle favorably impressed many historians centuries later, and has caused some to call him the ‘founder of sociology.’

  23. Alex Smith 11 years ago

    Nice blogvut i need some help Can anyone help? . I will immediately grasp your rss as I can not find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service. Do you have any? Please allow me recognise in order that I may just subscribe. Thanks.

  24. Mending 11 years ago

    So if Borland were so great, why did they fail so catastrophically in the early 90s?

    According to the accounts I’ve read, Microsoft was much more disciplined, focused on the right projects and hired much more carefully. And was purchasing Ashton-Tate really such a good idea?

  25. Eugene Kim 9 years ago

    Hackers vs Managers, Conquerors vs Rulers. Apple used to have a Conqueror as CEO with a Ruler as COO. Now they have a Ruler as CEO with Conquerors below. The balance between the two is contentious, but we’ll see how well Apple’s culture protects and allows free reign of the Conquerors.

    I wrote about separating the innovators from the managers and builders in a blog post but reflecting on it made me realize that the Conqueror’s power must be much more deeply embedded, where they have free reign to bust in on a mature product and project plan and say, “Screw the timeline, screw the existing features. The time to innovate is *now* and we’re re-writing from the ground up”.