Hackers & Painters

I read Paul Graham‘s book “Hackers & Painters” the other day. If you’re reading weblogs, you’re probably interested in technology, society, or both. If so, you’ll enjoy this book. Subtitled “Big Ideas from the Computer Age,” the writing is lucid and insightful, and I was filled with ideas while reading. Aaron Swartz thinks it should be called “How to Think Like a Computer Millionaire.”
Most of the essay‘s (along with others unpublished) are available online, though revised and edited for publication, so you can get a taste of the work. You could even avoid buying it altogether, but I like the book format because, well, it’s a book. It has nice typography, you can read it on the couch, etc.
If you’re a business-person, the important thing to know about Paul Graham is not that he has Ph.D. in Computer Science from Harvard, or that after grad school he studied painting at RISD and at the Accademia in Florence. No, the important thing to know is that he and Robert Morris started Viaweb in 1995, and wrote what was probably the first web-based application – to build online stores – and three years later sold it to Yahoo! (June 1998) where it became the Yahoo! Store. The Yahoo! Store is the largest online store builder, with over 20,000 users. The code was written by three people, and the company had about ten employees when it was bought ($49MM). That’s a nice effort/reward ratio. Yes, it was Internet Bubble pricing, but it delivered a lot of value to Yahoo!, and doesn’t seem unreasonable compared to other Bubble-era acquisitions. Yahoo! has 20,000 people paying between $30 and $300 per month for the service – how much would you pay for the technology behind it?
The book starts by getting inside the mind of nerds – you know, those unpopular kids in high school who got beat up and had their lunch money stolen. Kids like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Graham, Larry Ellison, etc. Probably a helpful chapter for parents and teenagers alike. He then offers a defense of free speech, explaining why programmers think the issue is so important, and why societies live and die on their acceptance of heretical ideas. He discusses the opportunities of web-based software applications, and even though I’ve been offering such services for over five years, I still learned a few things (which things exactly are trade secrets). Well, okay, here’s one:

At Viaweb, one of our rules was, run upstairs. […] What this meant in practice was that we deliberately sought hard problems. If there were two features we could add to our software, both equally valuable in proportion to their difficulty, we’d always take the harder one. Not just because it was more valuable, but because it was harder. We delighted in forcing bigger, slower competitors to follow us over difficult ground.

The last part of the book is about programming languages, especially Lisp, and you might be tempted to skip over it, but if you’re at all technical – or work with or supervise someone who is technical – then it’s recommended reading. He’s trying to describe why the choice of language matters, and how it impacts your ability to succeed in business. Not everyone will agree with his reasoning, but it is hard to dismiss it, if for no other reason than his personal success with this approach.
In the middle is an excellent chapter on “How to Create Wealth,” and since this one’s not online it’s reason enough to buy the book. If you’re wondering how exactly the computer enables wealth-creation, this is the place to start. Reading it got me interested in starting another startup – even though I swore it off three years ago, after having started two companies myself and been an early hire at two others, and seen the inside of a venture capital-funded businesses twice. Like making sausage, it’s not the for faint of heart.
Finally, the last chapter on Design and Research provides a quick overview of how design matters to people, and the factors that matter to design. Along with Taste for Makers, which argues for an objective standard of tasteful design, you can get a sense of his aesthetics and how to apply it to “virtual” products like software code, and software interfaces.
Lynne started reading this yesterday, and seems pretty engaged in it too.
Next up on my reading list is James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which is all the rage right now. It should be an interesting comparison, since Hackers & Painters is about small teams producing something excellent that affects large groups, and Wisdom of Crowds argues that: “Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.” The Battle of Big Ideas awaits!