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.

Daniel Lemire, "The hacker culture is winning," in Daniel Lemire's blog, September 14, 2015.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

4 thoughts on “The hacker culture is winning”

  1. Yeah, it’s infectious. I’ve applied the approach to book writing with moderate success. From author’s point of view having a quick feedback loop is the greatest thing ever. This helps you to iterate towards a good outcome.

    Of course it’s likely a little annoying for the readers to receive constant revisions. Given I’m dealing with technical topic and the technology changes constantly, there’s not much I can about it, though.

    It’s simpler in fiction I suppose.

  2. Frequent updates less mean less quality assurance and incremental software development, where the specification is fluid and never finilized.

    Secondly, some systems and/or processes simply can’t be updated daily, they run continously with only a short downtime window. Take FX platforms, their maintenance window is Friday 5pm. It is very difficult to upgrade a live system.

    Upgradig mission critical systems like power plants, water treatment, financial exchangnes should not be taken lightly as every upgrade poses a risk. Unless every upgrade comes exponential improvements in quality, hacker culture will not be adopted universally.

  3. @Anonymous

    Hacker culture went from it being a tiny minority at the margin, to being widespread. And I think that what will follow is a realization that, yes, the future is possible. We can walk to it.

    Critical systems are an interesting case. In the last 40 years, we have declared some problems to be outside the realm of hacking… nuclear technology, bio-medecine… But then, what did you get? Mass stagnation despite high costs. The result is that despite exponentially increasing investments, we fail to produce more new therapies than we did in the past. Nuclear technology is totally frozen in time (no progress in safety or costs) and, in many places, being retired entirely.

    A revelation in this respect was 9/11. We found that government agencies did not adopt modern information technology (shared web spaces, and so on). Why would they? This could only expose them to risks, right?

    Wrong. You can’t hide from the risks. You have to tackle them.

    Japan got stuck in time with nuclear technology from the 1970s. This technology, even if you never changed it, was not “safe”. They have poisoned their people and are stuck having to close things down as far as they can.

    Someone should have realized, 40 years ago, that standing still technologically was foolish. You needed people hacking nuclear technology to make it safer, more efficient…

    Medical technology is another one… We are scared to trying things out for fear of making people sick or killing them… but people get sick and die right now…

    By standing still, we are killing people. It is unsafe to stand still.

    I think that we are starting to collectively realize that though change is perilous, it is also the only way forward.

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