Thursday, July 18, 2024

When you search for the word “hacker,” the immediate image that comes to mind is one of criminals defaming companies, destroying lives, ransacking databases, emptying bank accounts, and releasing malware. This image is often accompanied by visuals of individuals in creepy white masks gloating into the camera.

Hackers are perceived as the boogeymen of the digital era, feared more than terrorists or murderers. A group of teenagers, involved in gang-related crime, were more terrified of “hacker” involvement than the police when someone threatened to expose their activities. Fortunately for the individual making the threat, the teens didn’t realize that while they might know a few tricks, they are bound by laws and can’t actually tie a string to a paper cup and a phone system to invoke a wiretap. (Any IT person, or modern human, would figure that out, but seemingly not.)

This narrow view of hackers is limiting and wrong. It focuses on black hat hackers, a small minority of the hacking community. The media’s agenda to instill fear in people’s minds by highlighting malicious hacking hides the other side of the story.

The old saying, “What people do not understand, they fear,” remains relevant today. This was starkly illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic when reports emerged of UK citizens destroying 5G towers, mistakenly believing they were the cause of the virus. This incident highlights that even in a developed country like the United Kingdom, misinformation and fear can drive irrational behavior

Hacking is crucial for innovation. Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to bake hacking into Facebook’s management and engineering culture is a testament to this. Facebook’s early pages featured the word “Hacker” whitewashed into the background images, and the company used hacking competitions to recruit talent, as depicted in the movie The Social Network. This embodies the hacker way: try something out, see what happens, learn from it, adapt your approach, and try again.

Developers and programmers use a hacking approach when learning. They take code, strip it down, examine the source, figure it out, write or rewrite it. They work fast and learn from their mistakes. Hacking is an iterative, exploratory practice.

Entrepreneurs also take a hacker approach to developing new business models. Like computer hackers solving problems through experiments, lean entrepreneurs clear up problems in their business models by pinpointing assumptions and testing them. Entrepreneurs have been called many names in recent years, not all flattering. But calling them ‘hackers’ is accurate because hacking is what they do. Hacking is a way of solving problems.

Companies can learn a lot from adopting this mindset, which exists in all skill sets involving creativity and ingenuity. I’ve seen hackers within third-line departments, low-level debuggers in R&D, engineers, coders, programmers, and scientists hacking away at new solutions.

Even one of the child actors from the 1993 Jurassic Park movie referred to herself as a hacker. She wasn’t portrayed like the masked individual in the typical hacker imagery.

Anyone can be a hacker, assuming an experimental mindset and an enthusiasm to get hands-on, move fast, and learn.

For more insights on how hacking can drive innovation, check out Mark Zuckerberg’s 2006 letter to potential Facebook investors, where he discusses his views on the hacker culture and its importance to Facebook’s success: Wired Article.

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