Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

The Secret Hacker Code

5 min read

The Secret Hacker Code

In college, I had no idea how to code. I was determined to make my own music sharing app (like Napster!), but I didn’t have a clue how to start.

That summer, I befriended a hacker. His name was The Lion King (seriously, as in his screen name was LionKing909). And he taught me lots of new tricks:

The Secret Hacker Code

The Secret Hacker Code

But most notably, he introduced me to The Hacker Ethic — four principles that differentiate ordinary computer programmers from hackers. The Hacker Ethic inspired me deeply. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t just learn to code: I would become a hacker.

What follows are the four principles that differentiate ordinary computer programmers from hackers.

The Hacker Ethic inspired me deeply. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t just learn to code: I would become a hacker.

What is a hacker?

Defining hacker isn’t so straightforward. The name has an “I know it when I see it” ring to it. Most computer programmers are hackers, but not all of them.
For some, the word hacker conjures up images of Soviet tech experts breaking into CIA computers, or criminals wearing Guy Fawkes masks, Mr. Robot-style. Those people certainly exist, but a hacker who hacks maliciously or for personal gain is a specific type of hacker known as a black hat hacker. Black hat hackers are an unfortunate distraction from all the kickass white hat hackers out there — the people who built and are continuing to build the internet that billions of people use every day!
In general, hackers are problem solvers. Hackers are scrappy. Hackers express themselves with computer code and use their skills to solve problems.
Steve Wozniak is a hacker, and yet Bill Gates, while he certainly has displayed hacker-ish qualities, clashed quite seriously with the hacker community in the mid-70s when he famously began selling his software. To understand the distinction, as well as the causes of many of the most famous tech decisions of the past century, by everyone from Steve Jobs, to Satoshi Nakamoto, you’re going to need to understand the secret code of hackers.
The Hacker Ethic
All hackers (good and evil) share a core belief that information should be free. This was distilled into text for the first time by Steven Levy in his 1984 book Hackers. In the book, Levy outlined The Hacker Ethic — a code of beliefs embraced by nearly all computer hackers. The ethics weren’t crafted by Steven Levy or any one person to dictate how hackers should act, rather they’re a reflection of the hacker culture that has grown organically over many decades.
My hope in sharing The Hacker Ethic here is to give you a deeper understanding of how hackers think. One day you may hire a hacker, work with one, or wish to become one yourself. In that case, consider this your first step into their culture. These are the top four principles of The Hacker Ethic.

1. “Information should be free”

“Free” information means the freedom to copy existing code and to share that information with others.

The first generation of hackers began with a group of students at MIT in the 1950s. After hours, they would sneak into the Lincoln Library on campus where they’d vie for a few hours to play with the $3 million TX-0 computer. Unlike today where most students have individual laptops, passwords, and seemingly unlimited time to spend on their computers, the MIT hackers shared just one computer. There were no passwords, so any one person’s code could be viewed by anyone else on the system. The early hackers were ok with this. More than ok, actually, because they quickly found value in sharing code.

The original MIT hackers quickly began collaborating on building software. Why build competing versions of software, when we can instead work together to share knowledge and create the very best version? That’s the hackers way.

Today the entire world benefits from the decisions of these early hackers.

One of the most meaningful outcomes is the Free and Open Source Software movement. Started by Richard Stallman in 1985, the free software movement encourages millions of people to share, copy, and remix code.

The Secret Hacker Code

Today 80% of smartphones, and 80% of websites run on free software (aka. Linux, the most famous open source operating system). In addition, WordPress, Wikipedia, and nearly all programming languages are all free! All thanks to The Hacker Ethic.

The GPL License (written by Richard Stallman), and the MIT License are two examples of software licenses that render The Hacker Ethic into a legal text. “Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the “Software”), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software…,” says the opening paragraph of the MIT license.

These licenses help explain why no one “owns” the internet (as we’ll discuss in future chapters). Back in the 1990s, Tim Berners Lee released his original World Wide Web software under the MIT license. When Napster was shut down in 2001, it was easy for copycat sites to pop up because — you guessed it — open source versions were already free to share!

2. Computers can change your life for the better.

Hackers see computer programming not merely as a technical pursuit, but also as a tool for making the world a better place.

For example, hackers can write code to automate redundant tasks…

The Secret Hacker Code

The Secret Hacker Code

And they spread free information with the goal of improving the quality of human life…

The Secret Hacker Code

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” — Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia Founder

This tenet of using computers to “improve life for the better” goes all the way back to Vannevar Bush who, in 1945, published the essay “As We May Think,” in which he pressed scientists to stop building war machines and to consider using technology as a force for good.

The Secret Hacker Code

“As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush (1945)

These days, the phrase “make the world a better place” has become so embedded in Silicon Valley culture that it’s satirized as a running gag on the TV series Silicon Valley. On the show, every startup founder seems to justify their actions through the mantra “we’re making the world a better place.”

The Secret Hacker Code  

We’re making the world a better place…

Whether hackers these days are authentically upholding The Hacker Ethic, or just paying it lip service is up for debate. What remains true is The Hacker Ethic’s influence on both hacker culture and our society.

3. Mistrust authority — promote decentralization

Hackers are encouraged to think critically and to challenge the status quo.

In the 1960s, Americans were wary of organizations where only a few powerful people controlled the flow of information. Think: Nazi Germany, The Soviet Union spying vigilantly its own people, and the omen “Big Brother is watching you” as described in George Orwell’s 1984. Hackers promote decentralization in order to dilute the concentration of power and fight to redistribute that power among the many.

The Secret Hacker Code

Hackers Promote Decentralization

One way hackers promote decentralization is by building tools. Bitcoin is a tool that was created by Satoshi Nakamoto that completely removes the authority (and thus power) of banks. Bitcoin allows individuals to manage, send and receive money in a decentralized manner.

Hackers also promote decentralization in their social organizations. WordPress is a software ecosystem that was created by thousands of developers around the world — most of who have never met each other. Many startups attempt to emulate this model of communication with flat company structure (aka. A boss-less culture) so that employees can make decisions without constantly needing to ask permission.

4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not based on degrees, age, race, sex, or position

Hackers judge each other by the quality of their code. This helps explain how Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg could drop out of Harvard build billion dollar companies. Code is meritocratic.

A hacker doesn’t need permission to hack. Your ability is not defined by who you know, or your expensive computer science degree. If your dog writes JavaScript better than you, then the dog should be hired. As Bill Gates has said, “If you want to hire an engineer, look at the guy’s code. That’s all.”

The Swarm of Bees
The Secret Hacker Code
A swarm of decentralized bees

In the 1960s, the early hackers were buzzing like a gigantic swarm of bees. MIT was a beehive in the east, and Silicon Valley in the west.

How do hundreds of bees coordinate? Contrary to popular belief, they’re not led by the queen bee — she stays in the hive. Bees rely on decentralized decision making for critical choices. It is for that reason that bees are often cited as a visual metaphor for how decentralized groups organize.

In the 1960s, The Hacker Ethic was story that helped organize strangers around a single mission: keep code free, and make the world a better place. Everything was buzzing along smoothly. And then someone kicked the nest…

Coming up next: The incident that spread The Hacker Ethic from the halls of academia and out into the rest of the world. And if you missed part one you can read it now at The History of the Internet.

Very special thanks to Pippa Biddle, and Alexis Rondeau for reading early drafts and providing countless insights. The Secret Hacker Code was originally published at One Month: Learn to code in 30 Days.

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.