What we mean when we say “hacker”

What do you think of when you hear the word “hacker?” If you’re like many people, you think of a 20-something white guy hunched over his computer, intently working alone at 4am, surrounded by darkness and empty soda cans.

That’s the popular culture view of a hacker, but that’s not at all what we want in potential Hacker Schoolers. Here’s what we mean by the word “hacker”:

Someone who is intellectually curious. Hackers enjoy tinkering and understanding how things work. They revel in going deeper into things, and love asking questions: How can I make my code easier to debug? What is making my program slow? How does this work?

Someone who enjoys programming. We spend most of our time at Hacker School programming, there aren’t grades or tests to make you study, and you don’t get a degree or certificate for doing Hacker School, so it’s important that you like coding.

We used to say applicants must “love” programming, but we’ve learned that was a mistake. While it sounds good, it doesn’t actually describe what we care about, and it was dissuading qualified people from applying.

In fact, many of our best students have said they almost didn’t apply because they worried they didn’t love programming enough. Hacker School alum David Peter expressed this fear perfectly:

One of the questions in the interview was, “Do you love programming?” I said yes, because I loved it more than most people I knew. But was it love? I enjoyed writing and drawing equally, if not more. After Hacker School, I’m revisiting these hobbies. Programming wasn’t my first love.“

(You should read David’s entire post if you haven’t already. It’s moving.)

In reality, we just want people who enjoy programming, and who are serious about improving in a focused way. You should like programming enough that the prospect of spending three months getting better at it sounds like fun and not a chore.

If you like feeling your brain stretch as you understand a new concept, or take pride in making your code more concise and elegant, or delight in building things, you’re probably a good fit for Hacker School.

Someone who enjoys sharing what she learns with others. The most respected hackers are those who have built or discovered great things and shared them with the world. At Hacker School, everyone writes free and open source software, and everyone both learns from and teaches everyone else.

Someone who is friendly and communicates well. This is especially important for Hacker School, since we spend three months working closely together. If you can’t communicate effectively, it’s both hard to ask for help and to help others.

Now here’s what we don’t care about

You don’t need to have a lot of programming experience. While not every programmer is in a place where Hacker School makes sense, you don’t need to have started your own open source projects or mastered two programming languages to be an awesome Hacker Schooler. If you’re at the point where you can write simple programs from scratch, you’ve probably got enough experience.

The lower bound for experience for students who have successfully done Hacker School seems to be about two months. That is, we’ve had exceptional students who have come to Hacker School with as little as two months of programming experience and who have done enormously well. We don’t think there’s an upper bound for experience.

You don’t need to only care about programming. If you thought Hacker School wasn’t for you because you don’t spend all your time programming, don’t worry. While all Hacker Schoolers enjoy programming, we also like lots of other things, from ballroom dancing to dumpling tours. You don’t need to be single-mindedly obsessed with programming to excel at Hacker School.

You don’t need to have the superficial trappings commonly associated with hackers. None of that stuff matters at Hacker School. The factors that determine if people are good Hacker Schoolers have nothing to do with how they look or other superficial attributes, and everything to do with being a thoughtful, curious person who enjoys programming and wants to focus on improving.

If you enjoy programming and want to spend three, focused months getting better in a diverse and supportive environment, we want you at Hacker School.