Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

The hacker culture is winning

Driven by companies like Google, the hacker spirit is winning. Though we fail to see it, our culture is being hacked.

One annoying element of this culture has become ubiquitous: constant updates. The old-school software industry minimized updates. Then companies like Google or Facebook came about with software that was constantly updated. For a hacker, this is quite natural… But it breaks rather fundamentally classical organizational and engineering principles. You are supposed to document what needs to be built, build it, verify it and ship it. Only ten years ago, most people were unaware of software updates. That was something that the IT guys did. When that happened, you occasionally were retrained, but you never had to handle it yourself.

Today everybody knows about software updates. Little boys can tell you exactly which version of Minecraft they are running, down to the last digit.

Of course, constant updates are annoying. Too many of these updates are “up in your face”. They disrupt your work and annoy you. That’s very much the wrong way to do it. Engineers need to perfect “use-friendly updates”.

Nevertheless, sit back and think. If you have ever worked for a traditional organization, these constant updates should be puzzling. Very few people are allowed to redefine their tools and their work on a weekly basis based on constant feedback. Most of us work with time horizons in months or years. Take accounting. At most places, you have a yearly budget that is set in stone and only redefined every year.

Though people are often careful to relabel their work as “engineering” or “scientific”, these constant updates still originate from the hacker culture and its need to make things “work”.

The typical organizational argument against frequent updates is “risk”. But hackers know that this cut both ways… Yes, an update can bring about trouble… but rigid projects often collapse while delivering nothing and costing a lot.

Last time I embarked in a plane, the little monitors set in each chair were showing a Linux update being installed. I was amazed by two things… one, that a plane is running Linux (a “hacker” system) and, two, that they were doing a live update with passengers onboard. So where does that leave us? I think that once you accept frequent software updates, other things become easier to consider… and that’s the big culture hack I refer to…

  • Maybe your budget could be revised on a weekly basis instead of a yearly one? The counterargument is that it would create chaos… the counter-counter-argument is that by being rigid, you risk missing the boat entirely.
  • Maybe your program should not be set for five years, set to ignore all feedback that you may receive in the future… In fact, maybe we should make five-year plans illegal.
  • Maybe instead of taking fifteen years to see if a drug therapy works… we could administer a therapy to people and review it on a weekly basis based on the thousands of metrics we measure? The counter-argument is “do no harm”… but the counter-counter-argument is that we have millions of people dying with no cure in sight… delaying progress by 30 years means letting millions of people suffer needlessly while wasting enormous resources.

When people show me that, in the past, we have invested millions and billions and failed to make progress… what I see are old-school industries waiting to be disrupted by the hacker spirit.