Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

Paul Graham has an interesting story. After earning a Ph.D from Harvard, Mr. Graham went to Europe to study Painting. After a few years of this, he returned to the States to start a new company in 1995 called Viaweb, the first web-based application service provider, who’s product was purchased by Yahoo! in 1998 and re-branded as Yahoo! Stores.

Since then, Mr. Graham has taken to writing essays on his website, which O’Reilley helped compile in 2004 into the book Hackers & Painters. The essays which make up the book consist of Graham’s experiences ranging from being a Nerd in High School (and what that means), to his thoughts on programming languages, and where they’re heading.

The essays are well written, using language that even lay-people should be able to follow. He doesn’t pull punches on the technical details, including quite a few code-samples in his discussion of Programming Langauges and where they’re headed. He argues that all Languages are slowly converging on LISP.

While I am far from fluent in any LISP dialect, I know just enough to be able to read the code, but I can appreciate what he means. LISP was a technology that was decades ahead of it’s time. You could do interesting things with LISP back in the ’60s, but the execution times were simply unacceptable for most business practices. My first programming language that I was truly fluent in was C, and now I wonder if that perhaps wasn’t a disadvantage, as I see how languages have moved more and more dynamic in the last decade. However, my favorite languages are more dynamic, like Perl and Python, which provide me with the power of the REPL, but a syntax that is more comfortable than that of LISP. I really do need to study LISP further, however.

The book isn’t really about the advantages of LISP, and the fact that languages appear to be implementing more and more LISP-isms every day. While that discussion was interesting, Mr. Graham offered interesting insight on the social and psychological effects of intelligence, and of how the Computer Revolution has changed the nature of business. He opens with the papers of sociology, in which he is highly critical of the modern education system, likening it to the prison system in this country. To a certain degree, I understand what he’s referring to. Young people are not particularly valued in this country, relegated to menial tasks and a daily situation where we’d been forced to create our own society which was anything but a meritocracy (unless you count the merit of athletic ability). His observation that perhaps the reason we require kids to read The Lord of Flies was to try to show students that the society we’d created was dangerous was, if true, definitely lost of me and my contemporaries, but I sometimes wonder if my High School experience was less negative than Graham’s.

More interesting was the insight that Graham was unique in being able to offer between Hackers and Painters, how great Hackers tend to resemble, at least mentally, to the Great Painters of the past. I’m apt to agree with that, but I think that it goes beyond Hackers and Painters to the more general class of people that are now being called Makers. Makers are are people who simply wish to create, whatever their medium is. The need to create is within everyone, but for some people it’s such a driving force that it appears to be the dominant aspect of their personalities. And Makers are always the most critical of their own work. If Michaelangelo were alive today, he could no doubt point out every last flaw in his work on the Sistine Chapel, just as a master carpenter can see flaws in every piece he’s ever constructed, flaws which no others can see.

If you’ve ever thought about starting your own company, you owe it to yourself to buy this book. Graham acknowledges that he was one of the lucky ones with Viaweb. Still, he acknowledges that Viaweb succeeded because they did things differently than so many companies that came after them. They did, where others promised. They had little in Venture Capitalist money, which they didn’t need because of their release- early-and-release-often design philosophy. They would sometimes push out half-a-dozen of features and dozens of bugfixes in a single day, simply because they depended upon their swiftness to market and the feedback they’d receive from their users.

While Graham’s business experience is particularly well suited to the web, anyone looking to start a business should consider his lessons. He’s absolutely right, that small companies have a huge advantage due to their lack of overhead. Tech Support guys could always walk down the hall to talk to the programmers when a customer was on the phone. He’s honest, small companies win because they move faster than big companies, big companies win because they can outspend (or simply buy) small companies. Startups are risky, most fail with nothing to show for the effort, but those that win, win big.

Even if you don’t agree with everything Paul Graham says, which I don’t think you should, his essays are still well thought out and written, and his points are worth reading. The book is fantastic, and a must read for anyone who’s even entertained the thought of founding a high-tech company in this day and age.