06 Sep “Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age”
In a departure from her series of entrepreneurial profiles, this week Teresa reviews Hackers & Painters, by Paul Graham, which was published by O’Reilly Press in 2004.
Nerds have always been unpopular. Paul Graham thinks this is a good thing.
The first essay in Hackers & Painters depicts a young Paul Graham sitting in his junior high school cafeteria, mapping out lunch tables according to popularity. The tables favored by football players and cheerleaders are labeled with the letter “A”. Graham and his friends from chess club sit at a “D” table, just one notch above the kids with Down Syndrome.
Popularity, according to Graham, is overrated. To achieve popularity in high school, a teenager must develop an affinity for mutilating effigies of opposing sports teams at high school pep rallies. In this day and age it is better for young people to spend their time learning to write computer programs, since this will allow them to enrich themselves and those around them.
Graham devotes huge chunks of his book to celebrating unpopular ideas and questioning ideas held by the masses. One of the most interesting chapters is a defense of heretical thoughts, titled “What You Can’t Say.”
“Nerds are always getting into trouble,” Graham writes. “They say improper things for the same reason they dress unfashionably and have good ideas. Convention has less hold over them.”
Graham believes that progress is made when people ignore convention and pursue truth. In order for a society to advance, it needs to look closely at those statements and ideas that are considered blasphemous, heretical, indecent, improper, defeatist, divisive, or un-American. The leaders of the Catholic Church looked absurd when they imprisoned Galileo for saying that the earth orbited the sun. How will history view those present-day leaders who call certain activities un-patriotic?
To do good work, Graham writes, you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to. “Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable,” he writes. Ground-breaking scientists look for places where conventional wisdom is broken, and then try to pry apart the cracks and see what’s underneath. “That’s where new theories come from,” Graham says. According to Graham, good scientists do not merely ignore conventional wisdom, they make a special effort to go against it.
Graham believes that leading-edge thinkers will always be unpopular, since they go out of their way to reject convention. “Whatever the reason, there seems a clear correlation between intelligence and willingness to consider shocking ideas,” he writes. “This isn’t just because smart people actively work to find holes in conventional thinking. Conventions also have less hold over them to start with.”
It is Graham’s belief that people who spent their formative years dining at their high school’s most popular lunch tables have a hard time maintaining their social status once they get out in the real world. Fortunately for Graham and his friends in Chess club, those who spent their childhoods ignoring social cues and mastering the personal computer are more likely to succeed in today’s high-paying tech sector.
Graham approves of the notion of “creating wealth,” especially when that wealth is created by starting and selling a high-tech startup company. He respects painters, novelists, craftsmen and software engineers, since they create products which that can be sold for much more than the cost of materials. He has no respect for those who only talk about it. “In our world, you sink or swim, and there are no excuses,” Graham writes. “When those far removed from the creation of wealth — undergraduates, reporters, politicians — hear that the richest 5% of the people have half the total wealth, they tend to think injustice! An experienced programmer would be more likely to think is that all? The top 5% of programmers probably write 99% of the good software.”
Graham defends the unequal distribution of wealth. “No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong,” he writes. “Is it possible that in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health?”
He challenges a reader’s notion of “what a job is,” and criticizes the way that big-company employees are rewarded. “I think the single biggest problem afflicting large companies is the difficulty of assigning a value to each person’s work,” he writes. Employees in large corporations who are incompetent or lazy are permitted to earn as much, or more, than their harder-working colleagues, even though “in the right kind of business, someone who really devoted himself to work could generate ten or even a hundred times as much wealth as an average employee.”
Graham argues that incompetent programmers can become a net drain on the company if they consistently produce software that is full of bugs. On the other hand, monstrously productive programmers can create hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of value in a single day.
“If you’re a good hacker in your mid twenties, you can get a job paying about $80,000 per year,” Graham writes. “So on average a hacker must be able to do at least $80,000 worth of work per year for the company just to break even.
“You could probably work twice as many hours as a corporate employee, and if you focus you can probably get three times as much done in an hour. You should get another multiple of two, at least, by eliminating the drag of the pointy-haired middle manager who would be your boss in a big company. Then there is one more multiple: how much smarter are you than your job description expects you to be? Suppose another multiple of three. Combine all these multipliers, and I’m claiming you could be 36 times more productive than you’re expected to be in a random corporate job. If a fairly good hacker is worth $80,000 a year at a big company, then a smart hacker working very hard without any corporate bullshit to slow him down should be able to do work worth about $3 million a year.”
Much of the book reads like a defense of financial luck. Yes, some programmers made a lot of money during the high tech bubble, and apparently Paul Graham was among them. During the same period, many other high-tech entrepreneurs bet the farm on high tech startups and wound up losing their shirts.
While true startup success is laudable, it is also rare. There were many highly intelligent, extremely hardworking computer programmers who failed to achieve high-tech riches because their competitors beat them to the finish line, or because their business partners failed to properly market and sell the products they had created. It seems a bit excessive to write a book praising wealth creation without showing any empathy for those who worked as hard as the winners, in all the right places, and for all the right reasons — and failed anyway.
Graham spends a great deal of time celebrating technology’s winners, and explaining why they won. He spends almost no time discussing what happens to those who aren’t so lucky.
Teresa Esser is a contributing columnist for the Wisconsin Technology Network and author of the book, The Venture Café. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.