Hackers and Painters

Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters essay surprised me. I put off reading it for months, because I assumed I knew what it was about — that programmers are artists, that their work today is just as important an art form as that of painters during the Renaissance. And sure, there’s some of that in there, but that’s not really the point at all. By looking for patterns between two seemingly unrelated subjects, Paul attempts to better understand the strengths or weaknesses of different approaches to programming. In the process I think he also defines what a hacker is — a tinkerer, a designer, but also someone who jumps in and starts coding. Not all programming projects should be tackled this way, and that’s fine too.

“If universities and research labs keep hackers from doing the kind of work they want to do, perhaps the place for them is in companies. Unfortunately, most companies won’t let hackers do what they want either. Universities and research labs force hackers to be scientists, and companies force them to be engineers.

“I only discovered this myself quite recently. When Yahoo bought Viaweb, they asked me what I wanted to do. I had never liked the business side very much, and said that I just wanted to hack. When I got to Yahoo, I found that what hacking meant to them was implementing software, not designing it. Programmers were seen as technicians who translated the visions (if that is the word) of product managers into code.”