Back in the early 90s, Borland International was the place to be an engineer. Coming off the purchase of Ashton-Tate, Borland was the third largest software company, but, more importantly, it was a legitimate competitor to Microsoft. Philippe Kahn, the CEO at the time, was fond of motorcycles, saxophones, and brash statements at all-hands meetings: “We’re barbarians, not bureaucrats!”
At the time, Kahn was not only navigating the integration of Ashton-Tate, he was in the midst of moving the product suite from DOS to Windows. All the products were complete object-oriented rewrites and they were running late. Years late. At one all-hands, he explained how he wanted the company to think about itself. Recounted from a story in the LA Times from 1992:
… Kahn was reading a dense history of Central Asia a few years ago when it struck him that many of the nomadic tribes of the steppes were actually far more ethical and disciplined than the European “civilizations” they were confronting.
They were austere and ambitious, eager for victory but not given to celebrating it. They were organized around small, collaborative groups that were far more flexible and fast-moving than the entrenched societies of the time. They were outsiders and proud of it. They were barbarians.
Kahn’s thinking regarding “barbarians” was prescient. It not only partially inspires Agile and other lightweight software development methods, it reinforces a theme big companies are often unintentionally trying to forget: hacking is important.
“Hackers Believe Something Can Always Be Better”
Facebook doesn’t want to be a big company. Like Google before it, Facebook took the time to carefully document the reasons they were not intending to become a traditional company in their S1 filing, and while this letter is positioned to the future legion of investors, the letter is a recipe for Facebook employees:
The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.
Facebook is worried about the growth paradox, which goes something like this: The end result of successful hacking is product, and that product needs to grow by building more things. The more you grow, the more things you have, and the more you need people whose job is simply to coordinate the increasingly interdependent building activities. These people, called managers, don’t create product, they create process.
Hackers are allergic to process not because they don’t understand the value; they’re allergic to it because it violates their core values. These values are well documented in Zuckerberg’s letter: “Done is better than perfect”, “Code wins arguments”, and that “Hacker culture is extremely open and meritocratic”. The folks who create process care about control, and they use politics to shape that control and to influence communications, and if there is ever a sentence that would cause a hacker to stand up and throw his or her keyboard at the screen, it’s the first half of this one.
The growth paradox is that the chaotic means by which you found success might become distasteful to those you hire to maintain and build on that success. Once they’ve established themselves, they will point at the hacking and ask important sounding questions like, “What is it they are building?” or “How does this poorly defined thing fit into our overall strategy?” They will label these hackers “disruptors” and they are 100% correct.
Hacking is disruptive, and whether you code software, write books, or film movies, I believe bringing anything new into the world is a disruptive act. By being novel and compelling, the new is likely to replace something else and that something else isn’t being replaced without a fight.
Reasonable people are often scared by the new. This is because reasonable people are not Barbarians and they are not hackers. They appreciate the predictable, profitable, and knowable world that comes with a well-defined process, and I would like to thank each and everyone of them because these people keep the trains running and on time. No one likes Barbarians because the Barbarian strategy is one at odds with civilization. By definition, a Barbarian, a hacker, is building on a strategy that is at odds with the majority.
Facebook’s letter documents its core values: focus on impact, move fast, be bold, be open, and build social value. And as I read those bullets, I see two people at the table defining them. A high impact, fast moving and bold Barbarian who couldn’t care less about the Biz Dev guy who is arguing for being open and building social value.
Both people are essential to a business thriving, but only one of them knows that hacking is important.
Apple solved the disruptive hacker problem by hiding it, and it starts with a question:
“He moved to another project.”
“Uh, he has 32 open radars and we’ve got two weeks until Feature Complete.”
“He moved to another project.”
“Ok, what project?”
“I don’t know.”
It happens quietly, but the projects that could be the most disruptive to the company begin in silence. Someone, somewhere has a bright idea and a handful of talented engineers are whisked off to a different building behind a locked door. Their status is “elsewhere” and their project is “need to know.”
Having never sat with one of these projects, I can only infer how they work, but when you see the results, you know for certain - these guys and gals are hacking. Their projects are the definition of ambition, you’ve never heard their names, they are small and fast-moving, and they are outsiders in their own company. Sound familiar?
Now, I don’t believe the secret projects are entirely about preventing disruption, there is a large marketing component. The return of Steve Jobs was the returning of marketing and a project being secret was less about secrecy and more about marketing. Steve wanted to be the first guy standing in front of the entire planet telling you the story: “You are not going to fucking believe what we’ve done.”
Yes, there is internal jealously about the teams performing the wizardry that resulted in products like the iPad, the iPhone, and AppleTV. There are people wondering, Why wasn’t I invited to the hacking? Yes, this did create some elitism, but, for better or worse, the secrecy kept this discussion out of the mainstream.
The secret projects at Apple are institutionalized hacking. They are places of elsewhere where the engineers don’t have to worry about being Barbarians because everyone there knows hacking is important.
Unintentionally Forgetting What It Took To Get You There
The story of every company begins with a clever hack. Pick any company, read its history, and I’m pretty sure there will be a well-documented origin story that will define its beginning and involves someone building something new and possibly of unexpected value. What isn’t documented is the story of every moment before where everyone surrounding the hacker asked, “Why the hell are doing you that?”, “Why would you take the risk with so little reward?”, or “Why are you wasting your time?” What’s not documented are the nine spectacular failures the hacker survived before they built one success.
The well-intentioned people who arrive after the initial success of the hack don’t know of a world without it. They assume its existence and are tasked with growing the company around it. Don’t for a moment think I don’t value these people, because I happen to be one of them, but I am also intimately aware that the people who grow the company are not same people who found it.
A healthy product company is, confusingly, one at odds with itself. There is a healthy part which is attempting to normalize and to create predictability, and there needs to be another part that is tasked with building something new that is going to disrupt and eventually destroy that normality.
Failure to create some form of predictability will result in chaos. Failure to create some sort of well-maintained Barbaric chaos inside the company guarantees that a fast-moving, ambitious, risk-taking and ruthless someone else - someone outside the company will invade, because they know what you forgot: hacking is important.