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Rediscovering Hacking

I’ve always told people that I’m a Hacker; anyone in the computer industry should know what that means (and, here’s a hint, it doesn’t mean criminal.)

I’ve always chosen the moniker Hacker because I’m not a programmer or an engineer, or even a developer, pick any of the other suitably business sounding job titles… and that’s not how I self-identify.

As a Hacker, I think years of having a serious job title "Platform Developer", "Manager Software Engineering", etc has clouded my judgement, it’s made me start talking about risk, and speaking about features as "n-Days man-time" not "a few hundred lines of code".

I’ve stopped working on untested code, this might be a good thing, but I’m not doing it because of a religious regions, or because hackers don’t like crappy code, I’ve done it to dodge work, and cover my ass, corporate style - this needs to change.

A friend recent linked me to Duct Tape Programming by Joel Spolsky, I remember I used to be that guy, I used to hack for a 50% solution, and patch up holes later.

I’m working (as many of those close to me) on a project which in addition to a complex web application (which is home turf for my skills) requires a piece of companion software running natively on the user’s desktop. This has to be built in a mixture of C, C++ and Objective-C - three languages I don’t really know that well (I can read the syntax, and the code, but I’m not comfortable working in them) - It also requires OpenSSL (security), ØMQ (messaging), libJSON (data transport) - another three complex libraries I’ve never used.

My response was to buy all the books I could possibly find on the related topics… and read them, instead of hacking.

After a good kick in the rear from @paukul - I spent some free time when I returned to the UK hacking on the companion code, and I mean hacking. I tried 200 things to make some obscure C/C++ bridge (which I now realise is simple) work, because I didn’t have a choice, I was hacking at my Gran’s place, in the Car, and on a Plane - there’s no way you can sit with a book in this situation, you have to just go for it!

As a result, after three days, out of the 9 months I’ve been researching, and background reading - I have more working than I could have imagined… sure - it’s basically a cross-platform build, of some software I don’t fully understand, and I don’t know precisely why some of it is working; but it doesn’t matter.

I’m not trolling through life to build perfect software, I should aim to build useful software, and build-in the stability later. To that end, my project right now doesn’t compile on Windows, doesn’t deal with all characters in file paths, and probably a bunch of other things I’ve missed.

But that’s not important, this project is supposed to be a product, and there’s more than 100 people signed up to beta-test it, and it’s going to be free… so there’s basically no risk to getting something wrong.

I’m still not resolute about the route I took, on the one hand a lot of reading, and planning, and design thinking has helped, I have a pretty strong foundation, which is paying dividends now, but I’ve also got no evidence that I even needed it. Interestingly, the more work I do - the more this project looks like 5 individual projects, which is something I hadn’t expected… but it’s moving so quickly, it’s changing every few hours.

I’m lucky to have a free-day every week, one day every week I can spend working solely on this, and I even have the use of my private office at work on these days. It’s a great space, with a couch, a fatboy, and a couple of desks, and walls soon to be covered in posters, emacs cheat sheets, and diagrams of software nonsense my colleagues don’t understand.

I can’t wait… a messy, informal space to do great work, fast, with enough safety not to risk the business, or my job, and enough free time to have a clear mind, and balance work, play and hacking, all in one space.

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