Hackers and Painters

I was first introduced to Paul Graham’s essays in 11th grade by my Math teacher. So much of my desire to be a maker and providing value to society with startups stems from the couple of essays I’d read then. I only got around to reading the original book in 2019.

It seems surprising to me that any employer would be reluctant to let hackers work on open source projects. At Viaweb, we would have been reluctant to hire anyone who didn’t. When we interviewed programmers, the main thing we cared about was what kind of software they wrote in their spare time. You can’t do anything really well unless you love it, and if you love to hack you’ll inevitably be working on projects of your own.

One thing we can learn, or at least confirm, from the example of painting is how to learn to hack. You learn to paint mostly by doing it. Ditto for hacking. Most hackers don’t learn to hack by taking college courses in programming. They learn by writing programs of their own at age thirteen. Even in college classes, you learn to hack mostly by hacking

The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts. I think it’s better to follow the opposite policy. Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. Within my head I make a point of encouraging the most outrageous thoughts I can imagine. But, as in a secret society, nothing that happens within the building should be told to outsiders. The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club.

The trouble with keeping your thoughts secret, though, is that you lose the advantages of discussion. Talking about an idea leads to more ideas. So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it’s also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know

Training yourself to think unthinkable thoughts has advantages beyond the thoughts themselves. It’s like stretching. When you stretch before running, you put your body into positions much more extreme than any it will assume during the run. If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.

E. B. White was amused to learn from a farmer friend that many electrified fences don’t have any current running through them. The cows apparently learn to stay away from them, and after that you don’t need the current. “Rise up, cows!” he wrote. “Take your liberty while despots snore!” If you’re a hacker who has thought of one day starting a startup, there are probably two things keeping you from doing it. One is that you don’t know anything about business. The other is that you’re afraid of competition. Neither of these fences have any current in them.

There are only two things you have to know about business: build something users love, and make more than you spend. If you get these two right, you’ll be ahead of most startups. You can figure out the rest as you go

As for building something users love, here are some general tips. Start by making something clean and simple that you would want to use yourself. Get a version 1.0 out fast, then continue to improve the software, listening closely to users as you do. The customer is always right, but different customers are right about different things; the least sophisticated users show you what you need to simplify and clarify, and the most sophisticated tell you what features you need to add. The best thing software can be is easy, but the way to do this is to get the defaults right, not to limit users’ choices. Don’t get complacent if your competitors’ software is lame; the standard to compare your software to is what it could be, not what your current competitors happen to have. Use your software yourself, all the time. Viaweb was supposed to be an online store builder, but we used it to make our own site too. Don’t listen to marketing people or designers or product managers just because of their job titles. If they have good ideas, use them, but it’s up to you to decide; software has to be designed by hackers who understand design, not designers who know a little about software. If you can’t design software as well as implement it, don’t start a startup.

When people care enough about something to do it well, those who do it best tend to be far better than everyone else. There’s a huge gap between Leonardo and second- rate contemporaries like Borgognone. You see the same gap between Raymond Chandler and the average writer of detective novels. A topranked professional chess player could play ten thousand games against an ordinary club player without losing once.

In the United States, the CEO of a large public company makes about 100 times as much as the average person. 3 Basketball players make about 128 times as much, and baseball players 72 times as much. Editorials quote this kind of statistic with horror. But I have no trouble imagining that one person could be 100 times as productive as another. In ancient Rome the price of slaves varied by a factor of 50 depending on their skills. And that’s without considering motivation, or the extra leverage in productivity that you can get from moderntechnology.

I remember very vividly when in 1985 improved technology made it possible for me to buy a computer of my own. Within months I was using it to make money as a freelance programmer. A few years before, I couldn’t have done this. A few years before, there was no such thing as a freelance programmer. But Apple painters created wealth, in the form of powerful, inexpensive computers, and programmers immediately set to work using it to create more.

Will people create wealth if they can’t get paid for it? Only if it’s fun. People will write operating systems for free. But they won’t install them, or take support calls, or train customers to use them. And at least 90% of the work that even the highest tech companies do is of this second, unedifying kind.

Jan 2021. Built with Tailwind and Jekyll.