Computer Crime Research Center

How To Become A Hacker

Date: August 04, 2004
Source: The personal domain of Eric S. Raymond.
By: Eric Steven Raymond

... 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 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 'nerd' and even use the harsher term 'geek' as a badge of pride --- it's a way of declaring their independence from normal social expectations. See The Geek Page for extensive discussion.

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.

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.

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

Peter Seebach maintains an excellent Hacker FAQ for managers who don't understand how to deal with hackers. If Peter's site doesn't respond, the following Excite search should find a copy.

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: 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: Are Visual Basic or C# good languages 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: How can I get started? Where can I get a free Unix?


Will you teach me how to hack?


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 traveling 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...

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