More about great hackers

I’ve hired a few great hackers. In general, it is very hard to get them to work on things that they’re not interested in. However, if you can spark their interest, you can persuade them to give you better work than you are paying them for. This is a very difficult balance to maintain.

Now, I certainly don’t claim to be a great hacker. But, when working on projects that are uninteresting to me, my burnout rate is very fast. But I’m also disciplined enough to keep plodding on. I’m doing an upgrade now – roughly 200 machines from NT to XP, and RAM in about 600 machines. This is not exciting work. But I keep doing it because it’s what I’m getting paid to do. And, after all, my job is what I do in order to pay for the part of my life that matters.

The thing is, I think that this is what Paul Graham is saying. He’s speaking both to employers and to the hackers themselves, about the good and bad parts of hiring “hackers.” They will produce quality work, but they are harder to motivate, because very few business problems are interesting. On the other side, if you’re one of those folks, get over yourself and learn to work under those conditions, or learn to look for another job. The days of the “rock star” programmer are long gone, and folks need to adjust.

Does the “hacker ethos” need to go away? Of course not. It is very valuable. But it needs to be tempered with a sober understanding no job is exciting all the time, and many are never exciting, but you’re not being hired for your own personal amusement, but for the benefit of a capitalist economy, and one business in particular. For the rare Great Hacker that gets to work on fun stuff all the time, relish it, because it won’t last.

Now, there are some things in the article that I disagree with, and many of these things are put in there *specifically* to pander to a particular audience. The whole “python programmers are smart, java programmers are dolts” thread that runs through it is both unnecessary and false. After all, a Great Hacker should be language-blind, right? The “get your hacker a nicer office” bit is a nice sentiment, but grossly self-serving, and simply impractical in most organizations. Treating programmers like rock stars went out with the dot-bomb, and isn’t coming back. It was really nice while it lasted, and some of us have fond memories.

On the whole, I’m not really sure who the target audience for this article is. If it is managers, it will largely get ignored. “Yeah, nice, but I’m not treating my programmers like superstars or spoiled children.” If it is the hackers themselves, then it needs to emphasize that not all of the character traits that he is discussing are *good* things, and some of them may be worth trying to change or adapt. If this is merely a psychological character study, then I think it’s pretty much right on.

What I guess I’m still not entirely clear on is why people are reacting quite so negatively towards the article. I need to read more of these reactions. I have a suspicion that the anti-Java sentiments in the article are spurring a lot of the negative reactions to be more negative than they would be otherwise.