Hacker. The word conjures up visions of a bleary-eyed geek for whom every day is a bad hair day, hunkered behind a screen in the early hours of the morning, surrounded by dirty coffee mugs and empty pizza boxes, working on some computer code that the rest of us will never understand.
But that’s not the true definition of a hacker. A hacker is someone who enjoys a deeper understanding of a complex system; someone who takes that complex system and breaks it down to its component parts; someone who then puts it back together again in new, groundbreaking ways to make that system work better, or at least bends it to his own ends. By this definition, you’ll find hackers in all kinds of places – not necessarily illuminated by the glow of a PC.
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All of the hackers below are hackers based on people that I know, but you’ll find hackers in all walks of life – the people not willing to take things as they are, but actively make them better.
1. The Corporate Hacker
As far from the computer geek as you can get, the corporate hacker can be spotted by his sparkling white teeth, tailored suit, excellent Spanish leather shoes, and his ability to climb the corporate ladder by skipping most of the rungs.
The corporate hacker is a sub-species of the systems hacker (see Hacker Type 2). He’s able to take real-life, complex systems, and see them clearly. He’ll be able to navigate office politics and organograms to further his career at break-neck speed. That 25-year-old vice-president of a multinational is a corporate hacker.
One corporate hacker I met realised he’d hit a glass ceiling at his organisation, so he quit his job and rejoined a year later at a much higher position. He’d seen the various routes the company allowed for career advancement, and decided to forge his own to shoot to the top.
Since corporates are complex beasts, and the corporate life doesn’t appeal to most with the hacker mentality, corporate hackers are extremely rare.
Famous corporate hacker: Nat Friedman
2. The Systems Hacker
These hackers often start as computer hackers, but soon realise that the complexities of real environments hold much greater appeal. They tend to become high-level consultants, helping companies that have serious internal problems navigate their way through to calmer waters.
They’re not particularly corporate – they’ll wear jeans and t-shirts to the boardroom and prefer to stay self-employed, and yet are incredibly social and likable. It’s this ability to live in both worlds – that of the white-tower hacker and the real world – that makes them so valuable.
Famous systems hacker: Guy Taylor
3. The Bio-hacker
The newest notable hacker group. Bio-hackers do to poor, unsuspecting animals and plants what hackers have been doing to PCs for years – “modding” them.
My favourite bio-hack involved a project to stop the anopheles mosquito from carrying malaria. After they’d genetically adapted a strain of the mosquito that couldn’t hold the malaria virus in its body, they also spliced in some genes to make the mosquito’s eyes glow in the dark.
Other bio-hackers use biology to build stuff we’d usually rely on inanimate objects for, like batteries. Seriously.
Famous bio-hacker: Angela Belcher
4. The Motor Hacker
Motorcar and motorbike tuning and pimping is an old-school hobby, but the guys who make it an art are respectable hackers. Nowadays, there’s even a large crossover between computer hackers and car tuners, as cars become more electronic. The first step for many car tuners is to hack the onboard computer .
Serious boy racers will take parts from multiple cars and aftermarket manufacturers and put them together in the most ingenious ways to get that half-a-second off of the quarter-mile time.
The serious motor hackers do more than tune their rides – they design entirely new ones, based on parts and chassis from existing cars. Sounds like hacking to me.
Famous motor hacker: George Barris
5. The Engineering Hacker
Engineering has no shortage of hackers – it is exactly the type of career that would appeal to the hacker. Like the motorcar hacker, the engineering hacker is becoming more reliant on computers, but is also being pushed to understand a great number of other disciplines to rise above the journeyman engineer.
One chemical engineering hacker I know finished his PhD knowing more about digital image recognition than chemicals – his “hack” for his doctorate saves the world’s biggest platinum miner hundreds of millions of Rands a year by analysing foam with his image recognition software.
The engineering hacker takes a job and turns it into an art – the true test of a hacker.
Famous engineering hacker: The man, Nikola Tesla
6. The Robo-hacker
My generic term for those crazy geniuses that are able to straddle hardware and software, and create robots, control their coffee machines through their PCs, or invent a Segway.
If you have a friend who plays with Lego NXT, he’s a robo-hacker.
Famous robo-hacker: Dean Kamen
7. The Model Railroad Hacker
Scoff not – the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) of the 1940s to 1970s pretty much launched hacker culture, right down to the use of the word “hack”. The members of the club went on to define computing as it is today. Some formed the MIT AI labs, and others moved into the corporate IT world.
By hacking together telephone exchanges, the TMRC built an incredibly sophisticated network, eventually controlled multimillion-dollar mainframes, followed by minis, and today a Linux PC.
In Steven Levy’s book Hackers, he describes the TMRC as the birthplace of hacking culture.
Famous model railroad hacker: Alan Kotok