Today, even large corporations are trying to be agile, experimental and collaborative — an approach that could be termed ‘hacking’. Simon Day talks to the author of a new book about what business can learn from hackers.
This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.
When I think of hacking, I think of the The Net, the 1995 Sandra Bullock thriller about a woman whose entire life is wiped when she deletes her digital footprint after discovering the illicit secrets of a cybersecurity company. Or else I think of Baby Boomers posting about their Facebook being “hacked”.
This is part of a general misunderstanding that undervalues the profound effects hacker culture is having on our world, according to Dr Tim Rayner, a lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney’s Business School (and formerly of the University of Auckland) who has just published Hacker Culture and the New Rules of Innovation. I asked him to fill me in on why I shouldn’t be afraid of hacking.
What actually is hacking?
Contemporary hacker culture has a long and proud history that goes back to the 1960s. It was born in the bowels of the research laboratory for electronic engineering at MIT, when computers were these massive mainframe machines the size of rooms, with the processing power of pocket calculators.
The only people who used computers in those days were research scientists, mainly for military and government purposes, like tracking missiles. The first hackers were students and electronics enthusiasts who saw these machines and wanted to figure out how to do cool stuff with them. They crept into these research labs at night and played around. They didn’t know what these machines could do or how they could actually use them, but they ran little experiments and tried things out, wrote programmes, fed them in, and saw what happened as a result. They tried, they failed, they learned, and they did it again and again and again.
That is essentially what hacking is: it’s an iterative, experimental approach to solving problems. It involves a lot of prototyping ideas and making mistakes, but understanding the process of making mistakes is part of learning. Hacking is central to the way software has been developed over the past few decades.
In the 90s and the 00s, as everything went digital, the media started paying attention to the threat of cyber sabotage — people breaking into computers, busting through firewalls, planting viruses. They’re “hackers” because they don’t know how to break into these systems, so they run experiments, try things out and figure out a way in. Now, people think of hacking as something that involves breaking into computers, whereas hacking has always been a way of solving problems through experimentation, failure and iterative learning.
And that’s influencing businesses?
Yes. We’re in the middle of a really widespread, profoundly important shift in the way people think about work, leadership and innovation. This shift is being driven by the success of the software industry but it’s now being seen in other fields, too.
The practices of software development, which are fundamentally hacker practices, have proven so successful that everyone is asking, “How are these people getting their work done? How can we learn to be more agile and experimental and collaborative?”
That has huge implications for the future of work.
How could hacking impact the average job?
The rise of robotics and automation is going to completely transform the nature of work and strip so many jobs. We all know this is coming. I think within the next 10 years, powerful AI will be cheap and ubiquitous, and most of the more menial jobs (and you could include journalism) will be performed by algorithms.
The jobs that will be vital will be the jobs machines can’t do: jobs that involve complex problem-solving challenges and require teams of diverse people with different mindsets and skill-sets working together to solve problem after problem, and generate innovative solutions, fast. That is increasingly going to be the nature of work in the 21st century.
It sounds like businesses will have to get over their fear of failure?
There are psychological and emotional challenges that people will increasingly have to confront. Solving problems in this collaborative way starts by acknowledging that you don’t know how to address this challenge, you don’t know all the factors involved, you don’t know the impact of the different solutions you might try, you just don’t have a sense of the way ahead.
For most professionals, who are highly trained and who accumulate huge expertise over the course of their careers, that is a terrifying situation to be in. But that is precisely the state of mind one has to put oneself in.
The hacker approach begins by acknowledging you don’t know what your solution is going to look like, but you can gain insight into that solution by designing a very clever target experiment that is going to shed some light on the problem you are dealing with.
The experiment should be fast, it should be cheap, you run it really quickly, then you absorb those insights. Then you run another experiment.
By cycling through this process really fast, you can push back the limits of the unknown and create a space of insight, when previously there was just nothingness.
That’s the hacker approach, and it does require this incredible intellectual humility.
Are there examples of things we use every day that were produced by hacking?
We are using one right now: Skype. Microsoft has been using Agile innovation (a group of software development methodologies based on iterative development and collaboration) since 2015.
The old approach for the leaders, the men in suits, was to sit in a little room, come up with a strategy, then produce a document and pass it down the food chain to be executed. The roll-out would typically take weeks or months or years, and everything would change in the meantime, so they would produce something that was wrong for the problems they were confronting.
Tech companies today do everything they can to avoid that happening to them. They’re constantly hacking at the problems they are facing and producing small little experiments which they test with customers as regularly as possible.
Amazon and Facebook are great examples. Both enable their engineering teams to live-test new product ideas on segments of their user base at any time without asking for permission. If you are a Facebook engineer and you have this new idea for organising news feeds, you can develop a prototype overnight and run it live in the morning with 100,000 people from South Korea, develop some data about how it’s functioning, tweak it a bit, run a few more experiments, and by the end of the week, Facebook will be rolling out that innovation globally.
That’s just the way things work in the tech industry these days, but I think it’s perfectly possible for organisations outside of tech to be employing these practices. But to make them work, you need the right mindset and the right culture.
Are New Zealand companies using this approach?
There’s a great organisation in Wellington called Enspiral. They’re a hacker cooperative. They’ve produced some great software, like Loomio, which is a democratic decision making tool used widely internationally. They’ve got another project called Cobudget, which enables teams to collaboratively set budgets for projects, and figure out how money will be distributed between team members.
They’ve developed these tools to enable their own hacker practices and they test them themselves, then they release them to the world, because their vision is to be an incubator for new cultural practices and provide the tools and insights that will enable organisations to transform themselves. Enspiral are world leaders in this regard.
It sounds very egalitarian.
It’s very much a “we”-orientated culture, as opposed to a “me”-orientated culture, and that’s another challenge for traditional organisations trying to adopt hacker culture. Usually, they’ve set up a highly competitive internal environment, but in tech companies like Enspiral, they’re much more focused on things like purpose, because if teams are driven by a common sense of purpose, people are inspired by what they can achieve as a team.
In your book, you discuss the effect technology will have by 2020. It sounds as though, in just two years, we will be living in a different world.
The pace of technological change is continuing to accelerate at an exponential rate. Increases in processing power are part of the reason, as well as the growth of the open standards movement. Increasingly, technology is built so it can interface with others, so creators can create really cool mashups.
But the big factor that people aren’t paying attention to is the rise and spread of these new hacker approaches. In software development, in entrepreneurship, in the world of design, this hacker approach is becoming ubiquitous, and it’s driving a sea change in work and innovation practices that is already taking place all around us.
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