Hackers and Painters

Sun 27 March 2011 by Thejaswi Puthraya

When I picked up "Hackers and Painters", I didn't believe that I would be bored even for a moment but my premonition was wrong.

"Hackers and Painters" is a collection of 15 essays on startups and programming by Paul Graham, an eminent VC and the founder of Y Combinator.

"Why nerds are unpopular?" is the first essay where PG (as Paul Graham is fondly called) discusses the reasons why students with good academics and better IQ are treated shabbily by the rest of the pack. He places most of the blame on adults while almost exonerating the education system. PG gives an example of teens in the Renaissance age, who were productively employed as apprentices. I failed to understand if he was encouraging child labour to quell teen problems?

"Hackers and Painters", after which the book is named draws an analogy between hackers and painters.

"What you can't say?" is a long boring essay on how trend setters are branded heretics for their outspokenness and open defiance.

"Good bad attitude" is the best essay where PG summarizes that attitude plays an huge role in a startup and hacker's career.

"The other road ahead" is an essay where PG exhorts his readers (mostly startup wannabes) that web apps are the best way forward. He points out various problems in desktop apps and I feel most of these problems have been addressed like cross platform libraries, one click installers etc. Whereas with regards to web apps, he doesn't address questions like privacy and data ownership.

"How to make wealth?" as PG points out is his most controversial essay. He defends the high pays of certain people like CEOs as they are highly skilled, guide a company and take risks and are answerable for the decisions. I am not sure if PG would defend the huge payouts to CEOs of banks who were partly responsible for the recent financial crisis. They took decisions to fire thousands of employees while paying themselves huge bonuses and bailing their companies out with tax payer's money. PG also states that creators of wealth are generally the richest. I differ with him on this point. For example, take the Indian farmer, he toils hard and his produce is not just his wealth but for thousands of consumers. But he still languishes, while the middlemen and speculators who hardly create any wealth make a killing. VCs and PE funds also hardly create any wealth but make quite a lot when a startup is acquired.

"Programming languages explained" is a high level overview of programming languages and a good read for non-technical people.

"The hundred year language" is a set of predictions on the direction of hardware and it's impact on programming languages.

"Taste for makers" is a long and repetitive essay on how taste like attitude decides the course of a startup.

"Beating averages" is an essay where PG informs his startup's decisions of choosing Lisp and how they outperformed their "average" competitors. He makes use of an Eric Raymond (ESR) quote to convince startups and hackers to use Lisp. While there is no doubt that Lisp is a powerful language, I personally believe that a startup should focus most of it's time on solving it's problem rather than hiring or learning a new language. It should be interesting how many of YC backed companies use Lisp.

PG encourages companies to come out with prototypes early in the "Research and Design" essay. This contradicts his earlier view where he advices them to take time to design. One point I liked in the essay was "Research doesn't have to be good but new and design doesn't have to be new but good".

As I mentioned earlier, I found the book disappointing because I picked it up with high expectations. Most of the essays are fairly long and explaining "one" point. Thankfully, the essays are not interdependent and so you can mix and match the order of reading.