Perhaps it’s the term “hacker.” To anyone who has been the unwitting victim of a malicious virus that has wiped out their information, used their address book to spread its poison code to friends and family, or sent their financial institution into panic, a hacker conjures the image of someone who spends their time dreaming up programs intended to do harm, not a mindset that could be the savior of the U.S. tech sector. But, according to Ed Cotton and Paul Graham, corporate America needs to encourage a “hacker culture” in order to not only survive, but thrive.
Paul Graham’s description of what ailed—and eventually brought down—Yahoo certainly is compelling. As he tells the story, you can see where a company that was “run by suits” instead of being propelled by creativity and innovation was doomed to eventually topple under its stagnant, top-heavy management structure. But, underneath Graham’s epiphany about Yahoo’s misuse of what should have been its greatest asset–its programmers– the story is a common one, isn’t it? Yahoo was riding high on abundant capital and popularity when it rested on its laurels, turned its programmers into data entry clerks, failed to both attract and retain talent, and lost its competitive edge due to a lack of identity, direction and ambition. This story isn’t limited to Yahoo or tech companies – these factors would, and should, cripple any company in any industry.
It’s no surprise, then, that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recognizes the importance of not only attracting the most talented hackers but encouraging their creativity, and most importantly, allowing them the freedom to try new ideas. Tech knowledge and the hacker mentality can be found at all levels of Facebook. In an interview at Startup School, Zuckerberg said, “I look at some companies that call themselves technology companies, and there are lots of managers who aren’t technical. So we were always committed to maintaining technical people in the company. One of our major marketing roles is an engineer. That kind of tech culture is important to have in the DNA of the company. Google is a tech company that I really admire. And as we’ve grown it’s clear how we’re different. I look at Google and think they have a strong academic culture. Elegant solutions to complex problems. We pride ourselves on strong hacker culture, building things quickly for lots of people. We have small team — ratio of engineers to users is by far more than any other company (1 mil+ per engineer).”
Interestingly, Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to emphasize retention (the HR department at Facebook must want to rip their hair out). He seems to accept the fact that for a company to continue to move forward and innovate, there must be a certain amount of movement in the hacker ranks. Some will leave, some will stay and new ones will come with their fresh voices and ideas. He doesn’t encourage people to leave, but is philosophical about hackers that might only stay for a couple of years and move on to create new technologies, citing former Facebook employee Steve Chen who founded YouTube as an example. “We want Facebook to be one of the best places people can go to learn how to build stuff.” He adds, “We do try to attract people, but our goal isn’t necessarily to keep people forever…If people want to come for a few years and move on and build something great, that’s something we’re proud of.”
Go ahead and insert “innovator” for “hacker” here. Isn’t that really the point? That the true hacker culture is one of invention and evolution? Yes, some hackers have used their skills for ill, but the hackers/innovators who have changed the face of technology and business (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, among others) are the ones who always looked forward, tried new ideas, worked tirelessly to solve problems, and continued to create new technologies, products and practices.
If that is what we’re talking about, then yes, corporate America—and U.S. businesses as a whole—should embrace the “hacker culture,” also known as innovation, ambition, and constant change.