Nerd Insight

I was just going to post a link to Paul Graham's latest essay, What the Bubble Got Right (which is brilliant), until I started poking around his site.

Graham is a nerd--he has a PhD in Computer Science from Harvard, has written several books on the LISP programming language, and started Viaweb, which was bought by Yahoo! and morphed into Yahoo! Stores--and a well-written one at that. His insights about what make nerd-types tick are some of the most poignant that I've read.

For example, here's Graham on how to define a 'nerd':

Nerds tend to eschew formality of any sort. They're not impressed by one's job title, for example, or any of the other appurtenances of authority.

Indeed, that's practically the definition of a nerd. I found myself talking recently to someone from Hollywood who was planning a show about nerds. I thought it would be useful if I explained what a nerd was. What I came up with was: someone who doesn't expend any effort on marketing himself.

A nerd, in other words, is someone who concentrates on substance. So what's the connection between nerds and technology? Roughly that you can't fool mother nature. In technical matters, you have to get the right answers. If your software miscalculates the path of a space probe, you can't finesse your way out of trouble by saying that your code is patriotic, or avant-garde, or any of the other dodges people use in nontechnical fields.

On nerds and clothes:

If you're a nerd, you can understand how important clothes are by asking yourself how you'd feel about a company that made you wear a suit and tie to work. The idea sounds horrible, doesn't it? In fact, horrible far out of proportion to the mere discomfort of wearing such clothes. A company that made programmers wear suits would have something deeply wrong with it.

And what would be wrong would be that how one presented oneself counted more than the quality of one's ideas. That's the problem with formality. Dressing up is not so much bad in itself. The problem is the receptor it binds to: dressing up is inevitably a substitute for good ideas. It is no coincidence that technically inept business types are known as "suits."

Nerds don't just happen to dress informally. They do it too consistently. Consciously or not, they dress informally as a prophylactic measure against stupidity.

On working in an office environment:

After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you're a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.

The cartoon strip Dilbert has a lot to say about cubicles, and with good reason. All the hackers I know despise them. The mere prospect of being interrupted is enough to prevent hackers from working on hard problems. If you want to get real work done in an office with cubicles, you have two options: work at home, or come in early or late or on a weekend, when no one else is there. Don't companies realize this is a sign that something is broken? An office environment is supposed to be something you work in, not something you work despite.

And on developing products on the web:

The hard part, if you want to win by making the best stuff, is the beginning. Eventually everyone will learn by word of mouth that you're the best, but how do you survive to that point? And it is in this crucial stage that the Internet has the most effect. First, the Internet lets anyone find you at almost zero cost. Second, it dramatically speeds up the rate at which reputation spreads by word of mouth. Together these mean that in many fields the rule will be: Build it, and they will come. Make something great and put it online. That is a big change from the recipe for winning in the past century.

I got those insights from reading "What the Bubble Got Right" and "Great Hackers", but Graham has a whole list of articles along with a book, Hackers and Painters.

If you care at all about running a business that employs technology-types, Graham can describe the workings of a nerd's mind like few that I've read.

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About

Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

I've done time at ESPN and FIM.

I advise WorldBlu, helping them build democratic companies.

I moderated a council for Creative Good.

And, I helped bring Barcamp, a technology un-conference, to LA, which is where I live. I am now living and working in cool cities around the world.

More about me.

Opinions stated here are mine alone.

Contact: blog -at- reemer

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