When to be a hacker. When not.

3/07/2012

Tim Davis I recently answered a question on Quora that was asked in respect to whether you can be an entrepreneur and a hacker at the same time. I’ll reproduce my answer below but I strongly recommend that you go and visit Quora to leave your thoughts.

Can a person be both a great entrepreneur and a great hacker?

In my view, absolutely you can be – however, as with all things in life – it depends on where you want to spend most of your time. I may not be the most qualified person to provide advice on this matter – as I have yet to sell any business or be considered any sort of expert – so this is just my view.

Entrepreneurship is not all about code, just like it is not all about management. You have to learn to manage people – because fundamentally it’s ultimately people that make your startup and nothing else. You have to have to have trust in them, to delegate tasks to them and mostly importantly believe that they will do it properly. If they don’t – you have to be able to resolve the situation (calmly) and in that sense – fix the issues that arise. You’re either a fixer or you’re a hacker and often its very difficult to be both at the same time. Your team will look to you to fix problems with your business (basically everything – strategy, marketing, bus dev, legal, disputes, employee issues, recruiting etc) and you will look to them to fix the issues you have made them responsible for (code/bus dev etc)

Fundamentally however, you can’t spend all your time coding and none of it building your business and managing the above aspects – they can be all consuming and often frustrating if you are very technical person. So you need to make a decision what you want to be – not everyone wants to be the hustler and not everyone wants to be the technical guy. In this sense, not every business in the world takes the view of “oh I’ll just raise of a bunch of venture capital” and idealistically never worry about the business. You have to build the business as much as you build the code – I started out knowing almost nothing about code and a bunch about business. I learnt quickly that I needed some technical skills and so I taught myself how to code. That gave me a pretty good understanding of the ins-and-out of the differences between what was needed and I’m no where near a great coder. I just filled a void in our team and went about doing the best I could. So in my view, you have to be careful to heed this sage advice:

“If you chase 2 rabbits, they’ll both get away.”

The trick with all the names the anon user above listed is they all realized when it was time to code and when it was time to focus on building the business, being the fixer and not coding. They are all brilliant and talented people but none of them had any business experience when they started (except maybe Jobs who wasn’t overtly “technical” in the hacker sense). The point is – they eventually realized that building a business isn’t all about code, or the latest NoSQL DB or some abstract library that optimizes your front-end code by 0.2s – because fundamentally, no business will exist, if it cannot sell it’s message/dream/idea to a wider market. Users might like the fact that your front-end loads 0.2s faster but its not going to make another 10000 people sign up for it – even if it takes 10 secs for a page to load, if people want it – they’ll wait. So arguably, selling the dream is harder than coding – you might produce some amazingly awesome technical feat but if you can’t sell it and make people want it – then you’re limited in scope.

So you have to make your passion define you and you must convey that in any message (at least in my mind) to make people believe. Steve Jobs was the ultimate master – producing “insanely” great products is what defined him, what made him a master and why so many people love Apple. Was he a hacker ? Fundamentally, from a “purist” technical sense, no – but he could deliver in ways no one else could. Would Apple have been the same if Steve Jobs stayed up coding all night ? No way, he didn’t want to be that person – he realized it and got the best people he could to do that. To quote Jim Collins from Good to Great (http://www.jimcollins.com/articl…)

Disciplined people: “Who” before “what” 

When it comes to getting started, good-to-great leaders understand three simple truths. First, if you begin with “who,” you can more easily adapt to a fast-changing world. If people get on your bus because of where they think it’s going, you’ll be in trouble when you get 10 miles down the road and discover that you need to change direction because the world has changed. But if people board the bus principally because of all the other great people on the bus, you’ll be much faster and smarter in responding to changing conditions. Second, if you have the right people on your bus, you don’t need to worry about motivating them. The right people are self-motivated: Nothing beats being part of a team that is expected to produce great results. And third, if you have the wrong people on the bus, nothing else matters. You may be headed in the right direction, but you still won’t achieve greatness. Great vision with mediocre people still produces mediocre results.

So the “hacker/great entrepreneur” question primarily lends itself to the quote above. Chase two things, and you’ll never achieve either. Chase one thing and you’ll be awesome at it. Learn when to chase one thing, learn when to stop chasing that one thing and when to start chasing the other. Everything in between is up to you as a person to figure out – your team, how you delegate, how you sell the message to the world, how you make people believe that what you are doing matters and why they should devote their time to it. That’s your journey as an entrepreneur to figure out.

Steve Jobs said:

“The things that seperates us from the high primate is that we are tool builders, we make things. We make things that change our lives and we make things that change the world. This is a long, and long lasting tradition. We shape our tools and tools shape us.”

Make things that change the world and you’ll figure out whether you are a hacker or business builder. You can be both – the more important part to figure out is when it’s best to be one, or best to be the other.

tim@timdavis.com.au
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