So You Have Yourself a Hacker,
The Hacker FAQ
The following list is an attempt to cover some of the issues that
will invariably come up when people without previous experience of
the hacker community try to hire a hacker. This FAQ is intended for
free distribution, and may be copied as desired. It is in an early
revision. If you wish to modify the FAQ, or distribute it for
publication, please contact the author.
DISCLAIMER: The author is a hacker. Bias is
This document is copyright 1995, 1996 Peter Seebach. Unaltered
distribution is permitted.
Questions and Answers:
Section 0: Basic understanding.
0.0: Won't my hacker break into my computer and steal my trade
A: No. Hackers aren't, contrary to media reporting,
the people who break into computers. Those are crackers. Hackers
are people who enjoy playing with computers. Your hacker may
occasionally circumvent security measures, but this is not malicious;
they just do it when the security is in their way, or because they're
0.1: Was it a good idea to hire a hacker?
A: It depends on the job. A hacker can be
dramatically more effective than a non-hacker at a job, or
dramatically less effective. Jobs where hackers are particularly
Jobs where hackers are particularly bad are:
- Systems administration
More generally, a job that requires fast and unexpected changes,
signifigant skill, and is not very repetitive will be one a
hacker will excell at. Repetitive, simple jobs are a waste of
a good hacker, and will make your hacker bored and frustrated.
No one works well bored and frustrated.
The good news is, if you get a hacker on something he particularly
likes, you will freqently see performance on the order of five
to ten times what a "normal" worker would produce. This is not
consistant, and you shouldn't expect to see it all the time, but
it will happen. This is most visible on particularly difficult
0.2: How should I manage my hacker?
A: The same way you herd cats. It can be a bit
confusing; they're not like most other workers. Don't worry! Your
hacker is likely to be willing to suggest answers to problems, if
asked. Most hackers are nearly self-managing.
0.3: Wait, you just said "10 times", didn't you? You're not serious,
A: Actually, I said "ten times". And yes, I am
serious; a hacker on a roll may be able to produce, in a period of a
few months, something that a small development group (say, 7-8
people) would have a hard time getting together over a year. They
also may not. Your milage will vary.
0.4: I don't understand this at all. This is confusing. Is there a
book on this?
A: Not yet. In the mean time, check out The New
Hacker's Dictionary (references below; also known as "the
jargon file"), in particular some of the appendicies. The entire
work is full of clarifications and details of how hackers think.
Section 1: Social issues
1.0: My hacker doesn't fit in well with our corporate society. She
seems to do her work well, but she's not really making many friends.
A: This is common. Your hacker may not have
found any people around who get along with hackers. You may wish to
consider offering her a position telecommuting, or flexible hours
(read: night shift), which may actually improve her productivity. Or
hire another one.
1.1: My hacker seems to dress funny. Is there any way to impress upon
him the importance of corporate appearance?
A: Your hacker has a very good understanding of the
importance of corporate appearence. It doesn't help you get your job
done. IBM, Ford, and MicroSoft have all realized that people work
better when they can dress however they want. Your hacker is dressed
comfortably. A polite request to dress up some for special occasions
may well be honored, and most hackers will cheerfully wear clothes
without holes in them if specifically asked.
1.2: My hacker won't call me by my title, and doesn't seem to respect
me at all.
A: Your hacker doesn't respect your title. Hackers
don't believe that management is "above" engineering; they believe
that management is doing one job, and engineering is doing another.
They may well frequently talk as if management are beneath them, but
this is really quite fair; your question implies that you talk as if
engineering is beneath you. Treat your hacker as an equal, and she
will probably treat you as an equal - quite a compliment!
1.3: My hacker constantly insults the work of my other
A: Take your hacker aside, and ask for details of
what's wrong with the existing work. It may be that there's
something wrong with it. Don't let the fact that it runs most of the
time fool you; your hacker is probably bothered by the fact that it
crashes at all. He may be able to suggest improvements which could
dramatically improve performance, reliablity, or other features.
It's worth looking into.
You may be able to convince your hacker to be more polite, but if
there appear to be major differences, it's quite possible that one or
more of your existing staff are incompetent. Note that hackers, of
course, have different standards of competence than many other
people. (Read "different" as "much higher".)
Section 2: Productivity.
2.0: My hacker plays video games on company time.
A: Hackers, writers, and painters all need some
amount of time to spend "percolating" - doing something else to let
their subconscious work on a problem. Your hacker is probably
stuck on something difficult. Don't worry about it.
2.1: But it's been two weeks since I saw anything!
A: Your hacker is working, alone probably, on a big
project, and just started, right? She's probably trying to figure it
all out in advance. Ask her how it's going; if she starts a lot of
sentences, but interrupts them all with "no, wait..." or "drat, that
won't work", it's going well.
2.2: Isn't this damaging to productivity?
A: No. Your hacker needs to recreate and think
about things in
many ways. He will be more productive with this recreation than
without it. Your hacker enjoys working; don't worry about things
getting done reasonably well and quickly.
2.3: My hacker is constantly doing things unrelated to her job
A: Do they need to be done? Very few hackers can
resist solving a problem when they can solve it, and no one else is
solving it. For that matter, is your hacker getting her job done? If
so, consider it a freebie or perk. Although it may not be
conventional, it's probably helping out rather a lot.
2.4: My hacker is writing a book, reading USENET news, playing video
games, talking with friends on the phone, and building sculptures
out of paperclips. On company time!
A: He sounds happy. The chances are he's in one of
Any of these factors may be involved. All of them may be
involved. In general, if the work is challenging, and is getting
done, don't worry too much about the process. You might ask for your
corporation to be given credit in the book.
- Basic job responsibilities are periodic (phone support,
documentation, et al.) and there's a lull in incoming
work. Don't worry about it!
- Your hacker is stuck on a difficult problem.
- Your hacker is bored silly and is trying to find
amusement. Perhaps you should find him more challenging
2.5: But my other workers are offended by my hacker's success, and it
hurts their productivity.
A: Do you really need to have workers around who
would rather be the person getting something done, than have it done
already? Ego has very little place in the workplace. If they can't
do it well, assign them to something they can do.
Section 3: Stimulus and response
3.0: My hacker did something good, and I want to reward him.
A: Good! Here are some of the things most hackers
would like to receive in exchange for their work:
These are not necessarily in order. The 4th item
(understanding) is the most difficult. Try to remember this good
thing your hacker just did the next time you discover he just spent a
day playing xtrek. Rather than complaining about getting work done,
write it off as "a perk" that was granted (informally) as a bonus for
a job well done. Don't worry; hackers get bored quickly when they
aren't doing their work.
- Discounts on expensive toys.
3.1: My hacker did something bad, and I want to punish him.
A: Don't. 30 years of psychological research has
shown that punishment has no desirable long-term effects. Your
hacker is not a lab rat. If you don't like something your hacker is
doing, express your concerns. Explain what it is that bothers you
about the behavior.
Be prepared for an argument; your hacker is a rational entity, and
presumably had reasons. Don't jump on them too quickly; they may
turn out to be good reasons.
Don't be afraid to apologize if you're wrong. If your hacker admits
to having been wrong, don't demand an apology; so far as the hacker
is concerned, admitting to being wrong is an apology, most
3.2: I don't get it. I offered my hacker a signifigant promotion,
and she turned it down and acted offended.
A: A promotion frequently involves spending more
time listening to people describing what they're doing, and less time
playing with computers. Your hacker is enjoying her work; if you
want to offer a reward, consider an improvement in title, a possible
raise, and some compliments. Make sure your hacker knows you are
pleased with her accomplishments - that's what she's there
3.3: My company policy won't let me give my hacker any more raises
until he's in management.
A: Your company policy is broken. A hacker can earn
as much as $150 an hour (sometimes more) doing freelance consulting.
You may wish to offer your hacker a contracted permanent consulting
position with benefits, or otherwise find loopholes. Or, find
perks to offer - many hackers will cheerfully accept a discount
on hardware from their favorite manufacturer as an effective
3.4: I can't believe the hacker on my staff is worth as much as
A: Ask the other staff in the department what the
hacker does, and what they think of it. The chances are that your
hacker is spending a few hours a week answering arcane questions that
would otherwise require an expensive external consultant. Your
hacker may be fulfilling another jobs' worth of responsibilities in
his spare time around the office. Very few hackers aren't worth what
they're getting paid; they enjoy accomplishing difficult tasks, and
improving worker efficiency.
Section 4: What does that mean?
4.0: My hacker doesn't speak English. At least, I don't
A: Your hacker is a techie. Your best bet is to
pick up a copy of TNHD (The New
Hacker's Dictionary). It can be found as ftp://prep.ai.mit.edu/pub/gnu/jarg331.txt.gz
(last I checked) or from a good bookstore. If you have trouble
understanding that reference, ask your hacker if she has a copy, or
would be willing to explain her terms. Most hackers are willing to
explain terms. Be ready for condescension; it's not intended as an
insult, but if you don't know the words, she probably has to
talk down to you at first to explain them.
It's a reasonably difficult set of words; there are a lot of them,
and their usage is much more precise than it sounds. Hackers love
[It is also possible that English is not your hacker's
native language, and that it's not yours either. Feel free to
substitute with a more appropriate language.]
4.1: I can't get an estimate out of my hacker.
A: Your hacker hasn't figured out how hard the
problem is yet. Unlike most workers, hackers will try very hard to
refuse to give an estimate until they know for sure that they
understand the problem. This may include solving it.
No good engineer goes beyond 95% certainty. Most hackers are good
engineers. If you say you will not try to hold him to the estimate
(and mean it!) you are much more likely to get an approximate
estimate. The estimate may sound very high or very low; it may be
very high or very low. Still, it's an estimate, and you get what you
4.2: My hacker makes obscure, meaningless jokes.
A: If you feel brave, ask for an explanation. Most
of them can be explained. It may take a while, but it may prove
4.3: My hacker counts from zero.
A: So does the computer. You can hide it, but
computers count from zero. Most hackers do by habit, also.
Last modified: Wed Mar 6 16:54:07 EST 1996
links updated: Thur 5th Feb 1998