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28 August, 2008

How To Become A Hacker

Eric Steven Raymond

Revision History
Revision 1.3914 Aug Jan 2008esr

Link fixes.
Revision 1.388 Jan 2008esr

Deprecate Java as a language to learn early.
Revision 1.374 Oct 2007esr

Recommend Ubuntu as a Unix distro for newbies.
Revision 1.3621 Mar 2007esr

Add note about live CDs, and ten years to mastery.
Revision 1.3503 Aug 2006esr

Minor fixes.
Revision 1.3407 Mar 2006esr

Remove C# from the list of languages to be avoided now that
Mono is out of beta.
Revision 1.3329 Nov 2005esr

Add a pointer to Peter Norvig's excellent essay.
Revision 1.3229 Jun 2005esr

Substantial new material on not solving problems twice.
Answer a FAQ on hacking and open-source programming.
The three questions that reveal if you are already a hacker.
Revision 1.3122 Mar 2005esr

Added a link to another Paul Graham essay, and advice on
how to pick a first project. More translation-link updates.
Revision 1.302 Mar 2005esr

Added and updated many translation links.

Why This Document?

As editor of the Jargon
File
and author of a few other well-known documents of similar
nature, I often get email requests from enthusiastic network newbies
asking (in effect) "how can I learn to be a wizardly hacker?". Back in
1996 I noticed that there didn't seem to be any other FAQs or web
documents that addressed this vital question, so I started this
one. A lot of hackers now consider it definitive, and I
suppose that means it is. Still, I don't claim to be the exclusive
authority on this topic; if you don't like what you read here, write
your own.

If you are reading a snapshot of this document offline, the
current version lives at
http://catb.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html
.

Note: there is a list of Frequently Asked
Questions
at the end of this document. Please read
these—twice—before mailing me any questions about this
document.

Numerous translations of this document are available:
Arabic
Bulgarian,
Catalan,
Chinese (Simplified),
Danish,
Dutch,
Estonian,
Farsi,
Finnish,
German,
Greek
Hebrew,
Italian
Japanese,
Norwegian,
Polish,
Portuguese
(Brazilian)
,
Romanian
Russian
Spanish,
Turkish,
and Swedish.
Note that since this document changes occasionally, they may be out of
date to varying degrees.

The five-dots-in-nine-squares diagram that decorates this
document is called a glider. It is a simple
pattern with some surprising properties in a mathematical simulation
called Life
that has fascinated hackers for many years. I think it makes a good
visual emblem for what hackers are like — abstract, at first a
bit mysterious-seeming, but a gateway to a whole world with an
intricate logic of its own. Read more about the glider emblem here.

What Is a Hacker?

The Jargon
File
contains a bunch of definitions of the term ‘hacker’,
most having to do with technical adeptness and a delight in solving
problems and overcoming limits. If you want to know how to
become a hacker, though, only two are really
relevant.

There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and
networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the
first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments.
The members of this culture originated the term ‘hacker’. Hackers
built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is
today. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If
you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other
people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a
hacker.

The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker
culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other
things, like electronics or music — actually, you can find it at
the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize
these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them
‘hackers’ too — and some claim that the hacker
nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works
in. But in the rest of this document we will focus on the skills and
attitudes of software hackers, and the traditions of the shared
culture that originated the term ‘hacker’.

There is another group of people who loudly call themselves
hackers, but aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who
get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone
system. Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ and
want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are
lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able
to break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being able
to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many
journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word
‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers
no end.

The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers
break them.

If you want to be a hacker, keep reading. If you want to be a cracker,
go read the alt.2600 newsgroup and get
ready to do five to ten in the slammer after finding out you aren't as
smart as you think you are. And that's all I'm going to say about
crackers.

The Hacker Attitude

Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom
and voluntary mutual help. To be accepted as a hacker, you have to
behave as though you have this kind of attitude yourself. And to
behave as though you have the attitude, you have to really believe the
attitude.

But if you think of cultivating hacker attitudes as just a way
to gain acceptance in the culture, you'll miss the point. Becoming
the kind of person who believes these things is important for
you — for helping you learn and keeping you
motivated. As with all creative arts, the most effective way to
become a master is to imitate the mind-set of masters — not just
intellectually but emotionally as well.

Or, as the following modern Zen poem has it:



    To follow the path:

    look to the master,

    follow the master,

    walk with the master,

    see through the master,

    become the master.

So, if you want to be a hacker, repeat the following things until
you believe them:

1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.

Being a hacker is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takes
lots of effort. The effort takes motivation. Successful athletes get
their motivation from a kind of physical delight in making their
bodies perform, in pushing themselves past their own physical limits.
Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving
problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your
intelligence.

If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'll
need to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you'll
find your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and
social approval.

(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning
capacity — a belief that even though you may not know all of what you
need to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn
from that, you'll learn enough to solve the next piece — and so on,
until you're done.)

2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.

Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource. They shouldn't be
wasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinating
new problems waiting out there.

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time of
other hackers is precious — so much so that it's almost a moral duty
for you to share information, solve problems and then give the
solutions away just so other hackers can solve new
problems instead of having to perpetually re-address old ones.

Note, however, that "No problem should ever have to be solved
twice." does not imply that you have to consider all existing
solutions sacred, or that there is only one right solution to any
given problem. Often, we learn a lot about the problem that we didn't
know before by studying the first cut at a solution. It's OK, and
often necessary, to decide that we can do better. What's not OK is
artificial technical, legal, or institutional barriers (like
closed-source code) that prevent a good solution from being re-used
and force people to re-invent wheels.

(You don't have to believe that you're obligated to give
all your creative product away, though the
hackers that do are the ones that get most respect from other hackers.
It's consistent with hacker values to sell enough of it to keep you in
food and rent and computers. It's fine to use your hacking skills to
support a family or even get rich, as long as you don't forget your
loyalty to your art and your fellow hackers while doing it.)

3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.

Hackers (and creative people in general) should never be bored or have
to drudge at stupid repetitive work, because when this happens it
means they aren't doing what only they can do — solve new problems.
This wastefulness hurts everybody. Therefore boredom and drudgery are
not just unpleasant but actually evil.

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe this enough to want to
automate away the boring bits as much as possible, not just for
yourself but for everybody else (especially other hackers).

(There is one apparent exception to this. Hackers will
sometimes do things that may seem repetitive or boring to an observer
as a mind-clearing exercise, or in order to acquire a skill or have
some particular kind of experience you can't have otherwise. But this
is by choice — nobody who can think should ever be forced into a
situation that bores them.)

4. Freedom is good.

Hackers are naturally anti-authoritarian. Anyone who can give you
orders can stop you from solving whatever problem you're being
fascinated by — and, given the way authoritarian minds work, will
generally find some appallingly stupid reason to do so. So the
authoritarian attitude has to be fought wherever you find it, lest
it smother you and other hackers.

(This isn't the same as fighting all authority. Children need to be
guided and criminals restrained. A hacker may agree to accept some
kinds of authority in order to get something he wants more than the
time he spends following orders. But that's a limited, conscious
bargain; the kind of personal surrender authoritarians want is not on
offer.)

Authoritarians thrive on censorship and secrecy. And they
distrust voluntary cooperation and information-sharing — they
only like ‘cooperation’ that they control. So to behave
like a hacker, you have to develop an instinctive hostility to
censorship, secrecy, and the use of force or deception to compel
responsible adults. And you have to be willing to act on that
belief.

5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

To be a hacker, you have to develop some of these attitudes. But
copping an attitude alone won't make you a hacker, any more than it
will make you a champion athlete or a rock star. Becoming a hacker
will take intelligence, practice, dedication, and hard work.

Therefore, you have to learn to distrust attitude and respect
competence of every kind. Hackers won't let posers waste their time,
but they worship competence — especially competence at hacking, but
competence at anything is valued. Competence at demanding skills that
few can master is especially good, and competence at demanding skills
that involve mental acuteness, craft, and concentration is best.

If you revere competence, you'll enjoy developing it in yourself
— the hard work and dedication will become a kind of intense play
rather than drudgery. That attitude is vital to becoming a
hacker.

Basic Hacking Skills

The hacker attitude is vital, but skills are even more vital.
Attitude is no substitute for competence, and there's a certain basic
toolkit of skills which you have to have before any hacker will dream
of calling you one.

This toolkit changes slowly over time as technology creates new skills
and makes old ones obsolete. For example, it used to include programming
in machine language, and didn't until recently involve HTML. But
right now it pretty clearly includes the following:

1. Learn how to program.

This, of course, is the fundamental hacking skill. If you don't
know any computer languages, I recommend starting with Python. It is
cleanly designed, well documented, and relatively kind to beginners.
Despite being a good first language, it is not just a toy; it is very
powerful and flexible and well suited for large projects. I have
written a more detailed evaluation
of Python
. Good
tutorials
are available at the Python web site.

I used to recommend Java as a good language to learn early, but
this
critique
has changed my mind (search for “The Pitfalls of
Java as a First Programming Language
” within it). A hacker
cannot, as they devastatingly put it “approach problem-solving
like a plumber in a hardware store
”; you have to know what the
components actually do. Now I think it is
probably best to learn C and Lisp first, then Java.

If you get into serious programming, you will have to learn C,
the core language of Unix. C++ is very closely related to C; if you
know one, learning the other will not be difficult. Neither language
is a good one to try learning as your first, however. And, actually,
the more you can avoid programming in C the more productive you will
be.

C is very efficient, and very sparing of your machine's
resources. Unfortunately, C gets that efficiency by requiring you to
do a lot of low-level management of resources (like memory) by hand.
All that low-level code is complex and bug-prone, and will soak up
huge amounts of your time on debugging. With today's machines as
powerful as they are, this is usually a bad tradeoff — it's smarter
to use a language that uses the machine's time less efficiently, but
your time much more efficiently. Thus, Python.

Other languages of particular importance to hackers include
Perl and LISP. Perl is worth
learning for practical reasons; it's very widely used for active web
pages and system administration, so that even if you never write Perl
you should learn to read it. Many people use Perl in the way I
suggest you should use Python, to avoid C programming on jobs that
don't require C's machine efficiency. You will need to be able
to understand their code.

LISP is worth learning for a different reason — the
profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get
it. That experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of
your days, even if you never actually use LISP itself a lot. (You can
get some beginning experience with LISP fairly easily by writing and
modifying editing modes for the Emacs text editor, or Script-Fu
plugins for the GIMP.)

It's best, actually, to learn all five of Python, C/C++, Java,
Perl, and LISP. Besides being the most important hacking languages,
they represent very different approaches to programming, and each will
educate you in valuable ways.

But be aware that you won't reach the skill level of a hacker or
even merely a programmer simply by accumulating languages — you
need to learn how to think about programming problems in a general
way, independent of any one language. To be a real hacker, you need
to get to the point where you can learn a new language in days by
relating what's in the manual to what you already know. This means
you should learn several very different languages.

I can't give complete instructions on how to learn to program
here — it's a complex skill. But I can tell you that books and
courses won't do it — many, maybe most of the best
hackers are self-taught. You can learn language features — bits of
knowledge — from books, but the mind-set that makes that knowledge
into living skill can be learned only by practice and apprenticeship.
What will do it is (a) reading code and (b)
writing code.

Peter Norvig, who is one of Google's top hackers and the
co-author of the most widely used textbook on AI, has written an
excellent essay called Teach Yourself Programming in
Ten Years
. His "recipe for programming success" is worth
careful attention.

Learning to program is like learning to write good natural language.
The best way to do it is to read some stuff written by masters of the
form, write some things yourself, read a lot more, write a little
more, read a lot more, write some more ... and repeat until your
writing begins to develop the kind of strength and economy you see in
your models.

Finding good code to read used to be hard, because there were few
large programs available in source for fledgeling hackers to read and
tinker with. This has changed dramatically; open-source software,
programming tools, and operating systems (all built by hackers) are
now widely available. Which brings me neatly to our next topic...

2. Get one of the open-source Unixes and learn to use and run it.

I'll assume you have a personal computer or can get access to
one. (Take a moment to appreciate how much that means. The hacker
culture originally evolved back when computers were so expensive that
individuals could not own them.) The single most important step any
newbie can take toward acquiring hacker skills is to get a copy of
Linux or one of the BSD-Unixes or OpenSolaris, install it on a
personal machine, and run it.

Yes, there are other operating systems in the world besides
Unix. But they're distributed in binary — you can't read the
code, and you can't modify it. Trying to learn to hack on a Microsoft
Windows machine or under any other closed-source system is like trying
to learn to dance while wearing a body cast.

Under Mac OS X it's possible, but only part of the system is open
source — you're likely to hit a lot of walls, and you have to be
careful not to develop the bad habit of depending on Apple's
proprietary code. If you concentrate on the Unix under the hood
you can learn some useful things.

Unix is the operating system of the Internet. While you can
learn to use the Internet without knowing Unix, you can't be an
Internet hacker without understanding Unix. For this reason, the hacker
culture today is pretty strongly Unix-centered. (This wasn't always
true, and some old-time hackers still aren't happy about it, but the
symbiosis between Unix and the Internet has become strong enough that
even Microsoft's muscle doesn't seem able to seriously dent it.)

So, bring up a Unix — I like Linux myself but there are other
ways (and yes, you can run both Linux and
Microsoft Windows on the same machine). Learn it. Run it. Tinker with it.
Talk to the Internet with it. Read the code. Modify the code.
You'll get better programming tools (including C, LISP, Python, and
Perl) than any Microsoft operating system can dream of hosting, you'll
have fun, and you'll soak up more knowledge than you realize you're
learning until you look back on it as a master hacker.

For more about learning Unix, see The Loginataka. You might
also want to have a look at The
Art Of Unix Programming
.

To get your hands on a Linux, see the Linux Online! site; you can
download from there or (better idea) find a local Linux user group to
help you with installation.

During the first ten years of this HOWTO's life, I reported that
from a new user's point of view, all Linux distributions are almost
equivalent. But in 2006-2007, an actual best choice emerged: Ubuntu. While other distros have
their own areas of strength, Ubuntu is far and away the most
accessible to Linux newbies.

You can find BSD Unix help and resources at www.bsd.org.

A good way to dip your toes in the water is to boot up what
Linux fans call a live
CD
, a distribution that runs entirely off a CD without having
to modify your hard disk. This will be slow, because CDs are slow,
but it's a way to get a look at the possibilities without having
to do anything drastic.

I have written a primer on the basics
of Unix and the Internet
.

I used to recommend against installing either Linux or BSD as a
solo project if you're a newbie. Nowadays the installers have gotten
good enough that doing it entirely on your own is possible, even for a
newbie. Nevertheless, I still recommend making contact with your local
Linux user's group and asking for help. It can't hurt, and
may smooth the process.

3. Learn how to use the World Wide Web and write HTML.

Most of the things the hacker culture has built do their work
out of sight, helping run factories and offices and universities
without any obvious impact on how non-hackers live. The Web is the
one big exception, the huge shiny hacker toy that even
politicians admit has changed the world. For
this reason alone (and a lot of other good ones as well) you need to
learn how to work the Web.

This doesn't just mean learning how to drive a browser (anyone can do
that), but learning how to write HTML, the Web's markup language. If
you don't know how to program, writing HTML will teach you some
mental habits that will help you learn. So build a home page.
Try to stick to XHTML, which is a cleaner language than classic HTML.
(There are good beginner tutorials on the Web;
here's one.)

But just having a home page isn't anywhere near good enough to
make you a hacker. The Web is full of home pages. Most of them are
pointless, zero-content sludge — very snazzy-looking sludge, mind
you, but sludge all the same (for more on this see The HTML Hell
Page
).

To be worthwhile, your page must have
content — it must be interesting and/or useful
to other hackers. And that brings us to the next topic...

4. If you don't have functional English, learn it.

As an American and native English-speaker myself, I have
previously been reluctant to suggest this, lest it be taken as a sort
of cultural imperialism. But several native speakers of other
languages have urged me to point out that English is the working
language of the hacker culture and the Internet, and that you
will need to know it to function in the hacker community.

Back around 1991 I learned that many hackers who have English as
a second language use it in technical discussions even when they share
a birth tongue; it was reported to me at the time that English has a
richer technical vocabulary than any other language and is therefore
simply a better tool for the job. For similar reasons, translations
of technical books written in English are often unsatisfactory (when
they get done at all).

Linus Torvalds, a Finn, comments his code in English (it
apparently never occurred to him to do otherwise). His fluency
in English has been an important factor in his ability to recruit
a worldwide community of developers for Linux. It's an example worth
following.

Being a native English-speaker does not guarantee that you have
language skills good enough to function as a hacker. If your writing
is semi-literate, ungrammatical, and riddled with misspellings,
many hackers (including myself) will tend to ignore you. While sloppy
writing does not invariably mean sloppy thinking, we've generally
found the correlation to be strong — and we have no use for
sloppy thinkers. If you can't yet write competently, learn to.

Status in the Hacker Culture

Like most cultures without a money economy, hackerdom runs on
reputation. You're trying to solve interesting problems, but how
interesting they are, and whether your solutions are really good, is
something that only your technical peers or superiors are normally
equipped to judge.

Accordingly, when you play the hacker game, you learn to keep
score primarily by what other hackers think of your skill (this is why
you aren't really a hacker until other hackers consistently call you
one). This fact is obscured by the image of hacking as solitary work;
also by a hacker-cultural taboo (gradually decaying since the late
1990s but still potent) against admitting that ego or external
validation are involved in one's motivation at all.

Specifically, hackerdom is what anthropologists call a gift
culture
. You gain status and reputation in it not by dominating
other people, nor by being beautiful, nor by having things other
people want, but rather by giving things away. Specifically, by
giving away your time, your creativity, and the results of your
skill.

There are basically five kinds of things you can do to be respected by
hackers:

1. Write open-source software

The first (the most central and most traditional) is to write
programs that other hackers think are fun or useful, and give the
program sources away to the whole hacker culture to use.

(We used to call these works “free software”, but this
confused too many people who weren't sure exactly what “free” was
supposed to mean. Most of us now prefer the term “open-source
software).

Hackerdom's most revered demigods are people who have written large,
capable programs that met a widespread need and given them away, so
that now everyone uses them.

But there's a bit of a fine historical point here. While
hackers have always looked up to the open-source developers among them
as our community's hardest core, before the mid-1990s most hackers
most of the time worked on closed source. This was still true when I
wrote the first version of this HOWTO in 1996; it took the mainstreaming of
open-source software after 1997 to change things. Today, "the hacker
community" and "open-source developers" are two descriptions for what
is essentially the same culture and population — but it is worth
remembering that this was not always so.

2. Help test and debug open-source software

They also serve who stand and debug open-source software. In
this imperfect world, we will inevitably spend most of our software
development time in the debugging phase. That's why any open-source
author who's thinking will tell you that good beta-testers (who know
how to describe symptoms clearly, localize problems well, can tolerate
bugs in a quickie release, and are willing to apply a few simple
diagnostic routines) are worth their weight in rubies. Even one of
these can make the difference between a debugging phase that's a
protracted, exhausting nightmare and one that's merely a salutary
nuisance.

If you're a newbie, try to find a program under development that
you're interested in and be a good beta-tester. There's a natural
progression from helping test programs to helping debug them to
helping modify them. You'll learn a lot this way, and generate
good karma with people who will help you later on.

3. Publish useful information

Another good thing is to collect and filter useful and
interesting information into web pages or documents like
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) lists, and make those generally
available.

Maintainers of major technical FAQs get almost as much respect as
open-source authors.

4. Help keep the infrastructure working

The hacker culture (and the engineering development of the
Internet, for that matter) is run by volunteers. There's a lot of
necessary but unglamorous work that needs done to keep it
going — administering mailing lists, moderating newsgroups,
maintaining large software archive sites, developing RFCs and other
technical standards.

People who do this sort of thing well get a lot of respect, because
everybody knows these jobs are huge time sinks and not as much fun as
playing with code. Doing them shows dedication.

5. Serve the hacker culture itself

Finally, you can serve and propagate the culture itself (by, for
example, writing an accurate primer on how to become a hacker :-)).
This is not something you'll be positioned to do until you've been
around for while and become well-known for one of the first four
things.

The hacker culture doesn't have leaders, exactly, but it does have
culture heroes and tribal elders and historians and spokespeople.
When you've been in the trenches long enough, you may grow into one of
these. Beware: hackers distrust blatant ego in their tribal elders,
so visibly reaching for this kind of fame is dangerous. Rather than
striving for it, you have to sort of position yourself so it drops in
your lap, and then be modest and gracious about your status.

The Hacker/Nerd Connection

Contrary to popular myth, you don't have to be a nerd to be a
hacker. It does help, however, and many hackers are in fact nerds.
Being something of a social outcast helps you stay concentrated on the
really important things, like thinking and hacking.

For this reason, many hackers have adopted the label
‘geek’ as a badge of pride — it's a way of declaring
their independence from normal social expectations (as well as a
fondness for other things like science fiction and strategy games that
often go with being a hacker). The term 'nerd' used to be used this
way back in the 1990s, back when 'nerd' was a mild pejorative and
'geek' a rather harsher one; sometime after 2000 they switched places,
at least in U.S. popular culture, and there is now even a significant
geek-pride culture among people who aren't techies.

If you can manage to concentrate enough on hacking to be good at it
and still have a life, that's fine. This is a lot easier today than
it was when I was a newbie in the 1970s; mainstream culture is much
friendlier to techno-nerds now. There are even growing numbers of
people who realize that hackers are often high-quality lover and
spouse material.

If you're attracted to hacking because you don't have a life,
that's OK too — at least you won't have trouble concentrating. Maybe
you'll get a life later on.

Points For Style

Again, to be a hacker, you have to enter the hacker mindset. There
are some things you can do when you're not at a computer that seem to
help. They're not substitutes for hacking (nothing is) but many
hackers do them, and feel that they connect in some basic way
with the essence of hacking.

  • Learn to write your native language well. Though
    it's a common stereotype that programmers can't write, a
    surprising number of hackers (including all the most accomplished
    ones I know of) are very able writers.

  • Read science fiction. Go to science fiction
    conventions (a good way to meet hackers and proto-hackers).

  • Train in a martial-arts form. The kind of mental
    discipline required for martial arts seems to be similar in
    important ways to what hackers do. The most popular forms among
    hackers are definitely Asian empty-hand arts such as Tae Kwon Do,
    various forms of Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, or Ju Jitsu. Western
    fencing and Asian sword arts also have visible followings. In
    places where it's legal, pistol shooting has been rising in
    popularity since the late 1990s. The most hackerly martial arts
    are those which emphasize mental discipline, relaxed awareness,
    and control, rather than raw strength, athleticism, or physical
    toughness.

  • Study an actual meditation discipline. The perennial
    favorite among hackers is Zen (importantly, it is possible to
    benefit from Zen without acquiring a religion or discarding one
    you already have). Other styles may work as well, but be careful
    to choose one that doesn't require you to believe crazy
    things.

  • Develop an analytical ear for music. Learn to
    appreciate peculiar kinds of music. Learn to play some musical
    instrument well, or how to sing.

  • Develop your appreciation of puns and
    wordplay.

The more of these things you already do, the more likely it is that you
are natural hacker material. Why these things in particular is not
completely clear, but they're connected with a mix of left- and
right-brain skills that seems to be important; hackers need to
be able to both reason logically and step outside the apparent
logic of a problem at a moment's notice.

Work as intensely as you play and play as intensely as you work.
For true hackers, the boundaries between "play", "work", "science" and
"art" all tend to disappear, or to merge into a high-level creative
playfulness. Also, don't be content with a narrow range of skills.
Though most hackers self-describe as programmers, they are very likely
to be more than competent in several related skills — system
administration, web design, and PC hardware troubleshooting are common
ones. A hacker who's a system administrator, on the other hand, is
likely to be quite skilled at script programming and web design.
Hackers don't do things by halves; if they invest in a skill at all,
they tend to get very good at it.

Finally, a few things not to
do.

  • Don't use a silly, grandiose user ID or screen name.

  • Don't get in flame wars on Usenet (or anywhere
    else).

  • Don't call yourself a ‘cyberpunk’, and don't waste
    your time on anybody who does.

  • Don't post or email writing that's full of spelling
    errors and bad grammar.

The only reputation you'll make doing any of these things is as a
twit. Hackers have long memories — it could take you years to live
your early blunders down enough to be accepted.

The problem with screen names or handles deserves some
amplification. Concealing your identity behind a handle is a juvenile
and silly behavior characteristic of crackers, warez d00dz, and other
lower life forms. Hackers don't do this; they're proud of what they
do and want it associated with their real names.
So if you have a handle, drop it. In the hacker culture it will only
mark you as a loser.

Other Resources

Paul Graham has written an essay called Great Hackers, and
another on Undergraduation,
in which he speaks much wisdom.

There is a document called How To Be
A Programmer
that is an excellent complement to this one. It
has valuable advice not just about coding and skillsets, but about
how to function on a programming team.

I have also written A
Brief History Of Hackerdom
.

I have written a paper, The Cathedral
and the Bazaar
, which explains a lot about how the
Linux and open-source cultures work. I have addressed this topic even
more directly in its sequel Homesteading
the Noosphere
.

Rick Moen has written an excellent document on how to run
a Linux user group
.

Rick Moen and I have collaborated on another document on
How
To Ask Smart Questions
. This will help you seek assistance
in a way that makes it more likely that you will actually get it.

If you need instruction in the basics of how personal computers,
Unix, and the Internet work, see

The Unix and Internet Fundamentals HOWTO
.

When you release software or write patches for software, try to
follow the guidelines in the
Software Release Practice HOWTO
.

If you enjoyed the Zen poem, you might also like Rootless Root: The Unix Koans of
Master Foo
.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do I tell if I am already a hacker?
Q: Will you teach me how to hack?
Q: How can I get started, then?
Q: When do you have to start? Is it too late for me to learn?
Q: How long will it take me to learn to hack?
Q: Is Visual Basic a good language to start with?
Q: Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?
Q: How can I get the password for someone else's account?
Q: How can I break into/read/monitor someone else's email?
Q: How can I steal channel op privileges on IRC?
Q: I've been cracked. Will you help me fend off further attacks?
Q: I'm having problems with my Windows software. Will you help me?
Q: Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?
Q: Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?
Q: Do I need to be good at math to become a hacker?
Q: What language should I learn first?
Q: What kind of hardware do I need?
Q: I want to contribute. Can you help me pick a problem to work on?
Q: Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?
Q: But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?
Q: Where can I get a free Unix?

Q:

How do I tell if I am already a hacker?

A:

Ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Do you speak code, fluently?

  • Do you identify with the goals and values of the
    hacker community?

  • Has a well-established member of the hacker
    community ever called you a hacker?

If you can answer yes to all three of these
questions, you are already a hacker. No two alone are sufficient.

The first test is about skills. You probably pass it if you
have the minimum technical skills described earlier in this document.
You blow right through it if you have had a substantial amount of code
accepted by an open-source development project.

The second test is about attitude. If the five principles of the hacker mindset seemed
obvious to you, more like a description of the way you already live
than anything novel, you are already halfway to passing it. That's the
inward half; the other, outward half is the degree to which you
identify with the hacker community's long-term projects.

Here is an incomplete but indicative list of some of those
projects: Does it matter to you that Linux improve and spread? Are you
passionate about software freedom? Hostile to monopolies? Do you act
on the belief that computers can be instruments of empowerment that
make the world a richer and more humane place?

But a note of caution is in order here. The hacker community has
some specific, primarily defensive political interests — two of
them are defending free-speech rights and fending off
"intellectual-property" power grabs that would make open source
illegal. Some of those long-term projects are civil-liberties
organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the
outward attitude properly includes support of them. But beyond that,
most hackers view attempts to systematize the hacker attitude into an
explicit political program with suspicion; we've learned, the hard
way, that these attempts are divisive and distracting. If someone
tries to recruit you to march on your capitol in the name of the
hacker attitude, they've missed the point. The right response is
probably “Shut up and show them the code.

The third test has a tricky element of recursiveness about it.
I observed in the section called “What Is a Hacker?” that being a hacker is partly a
matter of belonging to a particular subculture or social network with
a shared history, an inside and an outside. In the far past, hackers
were a much less cohesive and self-aware group than they are today.
But the importance of the social-network aspect has increased over
the last thirty years as the Internet has made connections with the
core of the hacker subculture easier to develop and maintain. One easy
behavioral index of the change is that, in this century, we have our
own T-shirts.

Sociologists, who study networks like those of the hacker
culture under the general rubric of "invisible colleges", have noted
that one characteristic of such networks is that they have gatekeepers
— core members with the social authority to endorse new members
into the network. Because the "invisible college" that is hacker
culture is a loose and informal one, the role of gatekeeper is
informal too. But one thing that all hackers understand in their
bones is that not every hacker is a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers have to
have a certain degree of seniority and accomplishment before they can
bestow the title. How much is hard to quantify, but every hacker knows
it when they see it.

Q:

Will you teach me how to hack?

A:

Since first publishing this page, I've gotten several requests a
week (often several a day) from people to "teach me all about
hacking". Unfortunately, I don't have the time or energy to do this;
my own hacking projects, and working as an open-source advocate,
take up 110% of my time.

Even if I did, hacking is an attitude and skill you basically have to
teach yourself. You'll find that while real hackers want to help you,
they won't respect you if you beg to be spoon-fed everything they
know.

Learn a few things first. Show that you're trying, that you're
capable of learning on your own. Then go to the hackers you meet with
specific questions.

If you do email a hacker asking for advice, here are two things
to know up front. First, we've found that people who are lazy or
careless in their writing are usually too lazy and careless in their
thinking to make good hackers — so take care to spell correctly, and
use good grammar and punctuation, otherwise you'll probably be
ignored. Secondly, don't dare ask for a reply to
an ISP account that's different from the account you're sending from;
we find people who do that are usually thieves using stolen accounts,
and we have no interest in rewarding or assisting thievery.

Q:

How can I get started, then?

A:

The best way for you to get started would probably be to go to a LUG
(Linux user group) meeting. You can find such groups on the LDP General Linux
Information Page
; there is probably one near you, possibly
associated with a college or university. LUG members will probably
give you a Linux if you ask, and will certainly help you install one
and get started.

Q:

When do you have to start? Is it too late for me to learn?

A:

Any age at which you are motivated to start is a good age. Most people
seem to get interested between ages 15 and 20, but I know of
exceptions in both directions.

Q:

How long will it take me to learn to hack?

A:

That depends on how talented you are and how hard you work at
it. Most people who try can acquire a respectable skill set in eighteen
months to two years, if they concentrate. Don't think it ends there,
though; in hacking (as in many other fields) it takes about ten years
to achieve mastery. And if you are a real hacker, you will spend the rest
of your life learning and perfecting your craft.

Q:

Is Visual Basic a good language to start with?

A:

If you're asking this question, it almost certainly means you're
thinking about trying to hack under Microsoft Windows. This is a bad
idea in itself. When I compared trying to learn to hack under Windows
to trying to learn to dance while wearing a body cast, I wasn't
kidding. Don't go there. It's ugly, and it never stops being
ugly.

There is a specific problem with Visual Basic; mainly
that it's not portable. Though there is a prototype open-source
implementations of Visual Basic, the applicable ECMA standards
don't cover more than a small set of its programming interfaces. On
Windows most of its library support is proprietary to a single
vendor (Microsoft); if you aren't extremely
careful about which features you use — more careful than any
newbie is really capable of being — you'll end up locked into
only those platforms Microsoft chooses to support. If you're
starting on a Unix, much better languages with better libraries
are available. Python, for example.

Also, like other Basics, Visual Basic is a
poorly-designed language that will teach you bad programming
habits. No, don't ask me to describe them in
detail; that explanation would fill a book. Learn a well-designed
language instead.

One of those bad habits is becoming dependent on a single
vendor's libraries, widgets, and development tools. In general, any
language that isn't fully supported under at least Linux or one of the BSDs,
and/or at least three different vendors' operating systems, is a poor
one to learn to hack in.

Q:

Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?

A:

No. Anyone who can still ask such a question after reading this FAQ
is too stupid to be educable even if I had the time for tutoring.
Any emailed requests of this kind that I get will be ignored or
answered with extreme rudeness.

Q:

How can I get the password for someone else's account?

A:

This is cracking. Go away, idiot.

Q:

How can I break into/read/monitor someone else's email?

A:

This is cracking. Get lost, moron.

Q:

How can I steal channel op privileges on IRC?

A:

This is cracking. Begone, cretin.

Q:

I've been cracked. Will you help me fend off further attacks?

A:

No. Every time I've been asked this question so far, it's been
from some poor sap running Microsoft Windows. It is not possible to
effectively secure Windows systems against crack attacks; the code and
architecture simply have too many flaws, which makes securing Windows
like trying to bail out a boat with a sieve. The only reliable
prevention starts with switching to Linux or some other operating
system that is designed to at least be capable of security.

Q:

I'm having problems with my Windows software. Will you help me?

A:

Yes. Go to a DOS prompt and type "format c:". Any problems you are
experiencing will cease within a few minutes.

Q:

Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?

A:

The best way is to find a Unix or Linux user's group local to you and
go to their meetings (you can find links to several lists of user
groups on the LDP site at
ibiblio).

(I used to say here that you wouldn't find any real hackers on IRC,
but I'm given to understand this is changing. Apparently some real
hacker communities, attached to things like GIMP and Perl, have IRC
channels now.)

Q:

Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?

A:

I maintain a

Linux Reading List HOWTO
that you may find helpful. The
Loginataka may also be interesting.

For an introduction to Python, see the introductory
materials
on the Python site.

Q:

Do I need to be good at math to become a hacker?

A:

No. Hacking uses very little formal mathematics or arithmetic.
In particular, you won't usually need trigonometry, calculus or
analysis (there are exceptions to this in a handful of specific
application areas like 3-D computer graphics). Knowing some formal logic
and Boolean algebra is good. Some grounding in finite mathematics
(including finite-set theory, combinatorics, and graph theory) can be
helpful.

Much more importantly: you need to be able to think logically
and follow chains of exact reasoning, the way mathematicians do.
While the content of most mathematics won't help you, you will need
the discipline and intelligence to handle mathematics. If you lack
the intelligence, there is little hope for you as a hacker; if you
lack the discipline, you'd better grow it.

I think a good way to find out if you have what it takes is to pick
up a copy of Raymond Smullyan's book What Is The Name Of
This Book?
. Smullyan's playful logical conundrums are very
much in the hacker spirit. Being able to solve them is a good sign;
enjoying solving them is an even better one.

Q:

What language should I learn first?

A:

XHTML (the latest dialect of HTML) if you don't already know it.
There are a lot of glossy, hype-intensive bad
HTML books out there, and distressingly few good ones. The one I like
best is HTML: The
Definitive Guide
.

But HTML is not a full programming language. When you're ready
to start programming, I would recommend starting with Python. You will hear a lot of
people recommending Perl, and Perl is still more popular than Python,
but it's harder to learn and (in my opinion) less well designed.

C is really important, but it's also much more difficult than either
Python or Perl. Don't try to learn it first.

Windows users, do not settle for Visual
Basic. It will teach you bad habits, and it's not portable off
Windows. Avoid.

Q:

What kind of hardware do I need?

A:

It used to be that personal computers were rather underpowered and
memory-poor, enough so that they placed artificial limits on a hacker's
learning process. This stopped being true in the mid-1990s; any machine
from an Intel 486DX50 up is more than powerful enough for development
work, X, and Internet communications, and the smallest disks you can
buy today are plenty big enough.

The important thing in choosing a machine on which to learn is
whether its hardware is Linux-compatible (or BSD-compatible, should
you choose to go that route). Again, this will be true for almost all
modern machines. The only really sticky areas are modems and wireless
cards; some machines have Windows-specific hardware that won't work
with Linux.

There's a FAQ on hardware compatibility; the latest version is

here
.

Q:

I want to contribute. Can you help me pick a problem to work on?

A:

No, because I don't know your talents or interests. You have
to be self-motivated or you won't stick, which is why having other
people choose your direction almost never works.

Try this. Watch the project announcements scroll by on
Freshmeat for a few days.
When you see one that makes you think "Cool! I'd like to work on
that!", join it.

Q:

Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?

A:

No, you don't. Not that Microsoft isn't loathsome, but there was a
hacker culture long before Microsoft and there will still be one long after
Microsoft is history. Any energy you spend hating Microsoft would
be better spent on loving your craft. Write good code — that will
bash Microsoft quite sufficiently without polluting your karma.

Q:

But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?

A:

This seems unlikely — so far, the open-source software
industry seems to be creating jobs rather than taking them away. If
having a program written is a net economic gain over not having it
written, a programmer will get paid whether or not the program is
going to be open-source after it's done. And, no matter how much
"free" software gets written, there always seems to be more demand for
new and customized applications. I've written more about this at the
Open Source
pages.

Q:

Where can I get a free Unix?

A:

If you don't have a Unix installed on your machine yet,
elsewhere on this page I include pointers to where to get the most
commonly used free Unix. To be a hacker you need motivation and
initiative and the ability to educate yourself. Start now...

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