What makes a great hacker?

The last couple of years I’ve been blessed to have an opportunity to rediscover my “roots” at work. More specifically, I’ve been able to return to programming after spending many years in infrastructure support and design.

Best of all, the work I do is not strictly regimented assembly line stuff. I work in a team that does webcasting. I see a problem: maybe its someone having to spend hours consolidating log files in spread sheets to find out how many people watched a stream. Or perhaps its not being able to monitor the state of our stream servers in real time. Once I see the problem, I start playing with solutions. I have the luxury to choose my tools (within certain parameters), to perform my own design work, and to experiment. A while later, I have something useful that partially or fully solves the problem. This makes me happy…very happy.

I often fear describing myself as a “hacker”, because of all the bad connotations that has. Whatever I call myself, I also often have a hard time defining what it is that makes me “tick”. Its even hard for me to know whether I’m doing things “right”: that is, is my pleasure in solving a problem by writing some code actually bad, because perhaps I’m writing the code without following the traditional structure? I mean, where are the weeks of requirements meetings? What about the sizing plans, the testing teams, the entity relationship diagrams, the design patterns? Will someone one day come along, look upon my work, and despair?

Then I read an article about identifying and encouraging the best hackers. Don’t get me wrong: I’m by no means saying I’m a “top flight” coder. But many of the statements in the article resonate for me: my tendency to focus on the piece of code I’m working on to the exclusion of all else; the difficulty I have getting truly “in the zone” when there are distractions…any distractions; the fact that I can’t program after a beer….

It all makes me wonder whether perhaps I’m not so wrong, whether perhaps my code will stand the test of time with more grace than something written by a committee and reviewed by a standards group. If nothing else, its nice to know that I’m not the only coder who can’t tell if they are good at what they do.

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