Book Review: Hackers and Painters

Firstly – my sincerest apologies for the long delay in posting to anyone reading this weblog. In a lottery of several jobs, myriad miscellaneous projects, and various other responsiblities writing articles drew a losing ticket. My next review from Joel’s MBA software reading list is Paul Graham’s “Hackers and painters”.

Paul Graham co-created an early web application with Robert Morris, and reaped a very lucrative buyout as the economy (or Yahoo in this case) threw money at every startup in town. As their next collaboration, they started Y-Combinator, an incubator which helps young entrepreneurs turn their ideas into salient products.

Hackers and Painters is a collection of Graham’s writings from his website. Although available for free, I always find it easier to read printed material. Also, having a stack of books next to my desk allows me to pretend I’m smart (until I open my mouth and ruin it all). There is no central theme to these essays although they generally stay within the “tech” umbrella and furtively dart into dark and murky industry corners.

The book is enjoyable although the essays can occasionally slip into subjective and emotive thought. Graham loves LISP, certainly understandable as his original fortune-making application was written in the language. For some reason though, this keeps cropping up. While I may be exaggerating the frequency of his soliloquies to this programming language the overwhelming impression I was left with after reading this book was “Man, this guy really digs LISP.”.

Occasionally the crux of his argument is a little tentative, for example in the article which gives the book it’s name Graham argues for the similarities between Hackers and Painters. While reasonably convincing, I think it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to compare Hackers to several other creative disciplines, though the fact that the author has studied classical art would seem to have influenced his opinion. In another he argues that companies who use proprietry software such as Oracle databases aren’t worth worrying about, as they’ll be “too slow” and populated by mediocre drones. It’s perfectly acceptable to love technology for personal reasons, but dismissing any company out of hand for chosing a particular technology could be considered myopic.

Minor gripes aside, some of these articles are required reading and will certainly inspire lateral thought. This is a collection of opinion pieces though, so any reader looking for hard fact and step-by-step instructions should look elsewhere. Here are some links to articles I feel stand out:

To be objective, I wouldn’t put this book at the top of your reading list as Graham’s articles are available online. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches on his opinions, and if you sit on the wrong side of the technology fence some of his comments might smart.  I would definitely recommend that you check out his online essays; there’s gold in them thar hills.

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