The Will to Build

I went to the first day of Yahoo! Open Hack London this weekend – three rooms at Covent Garden’s Congress Centre, a couple of hundred hackers and liberal supplies of catering coffee.

For those unacquainted with the Yahoo!-brand recipe for hack days, their flavour goes something like this: a morning’s talks about Yahoo! hack-worthy technologies and general interest, followed by a 24-hour hackathon started by a supposedly inspiring video and keynote (aka “gas”) from a Yahoo! founder. The day later, the hackers present their produce and prizes are awarded. Everyone goes home to sleep off their pizza hangover.

I wasn’t around on the second day to see the presentations, which is a shame, as I missed out on some good shit: the Dr. Who theme played on an orchestra of 6 iphones and 2 wiimotes, a site that lets you know whether it’s a good or bad day for the UK, a search engine for FreeCycle, a side-scrolling single-touch accessible Google search, an EU-wide TheyWorkForYou (with translations!), a searchable database of all the nation’s blue (and black) plaques, a Twitter-powered taxi-sharing service, a one-shot guest pass for sharing your location…

(The full list of hacks shown is here, but not all have URL’s; see this Tweetmeme page for popular links.)

In the wake of this massive amount of creativity and technical competence, I was thinking about the hacker’s response to problems, as reflected in the frequency of this type of event. That is, put a problem in front of a hacker, and they will try to concoct some sort of solution to it. They will build their way over the problem. “Hacker” here is a description of a mindset, not a specific label for the techno-geek. Hackers can be public-service policy wonks, or garden-centre owners as well as PHP nerds.

I think there’s a lot of this “hack-ish” response to things. To shoot straight to the point I want to elaborate, I think that often, it can be disadvantageous, wasteful of resources and time and disappointing. There is a need for events like this weekend’s hack day, and the smart thing to do is recognise what the effect of 52 interesting hacks is – it is not 52 viable new products and services on the marketplace, it is 52 influences and idea-forming pressures in the heads of the people who, at the end of the day, are the builders and maintenance men of the web. To hack within a hack day is right, it helps. To expect that you can go much further with the hacks is wrong. Hacking on a problem must be understood for its exploratory and inspiring nature, it does not solve the problem.

There’s a phrase used in big biz that describes the hacker’s response – “not made here”. This is applied to product development groups who ignore all of the useful resources outside of the company in favour of building from scratch using the talent in their team (often ignoring the talent in other parts of the company). This is supposed to be a BAD THING, something we are supposed to strive to change. I have spent the last two years working in a team dedicated to the adoption of open source software, possibly the world’s biggest melting pot of already-fixed problems. I know how true it is that there is no such thing as a new idea. And yet, I’m often guilty of assuming that everyone else has done it the wrong way or is irrevocably committed to the wrong path, that the way to implement such-and-such a new idea is to do it again from scratch, myself.

And how many times I’ve been proven wrong! How many half-baked tools and un-loved applications sit on the shelves of my source code repositories. Bah.

Sure, hack. But don’t think that you can transfer a hack to a new, real thing and not have it consume your life. Products take love, care and commitments (like kittehz). They take some big-ass mutherfucka sitting on someone’s head until they fix the bug that no-one wants to tackle but kills it for 66% of people. They take late night seances with the Google PageRank devils. They take more time, effort, pizza and people than you ever thought they would. And they take all these things over and over again.

Someone else is doing all that right now, with your idea. So give over with your glory-seeking and start co-operating.