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What hackers can teach us about responding to Covid-19


Given their propensity for unleashing viruses on the world, you might be forgiven for thinking that hackers are the last people we should turn to as we look to respond to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus. As Eric Raymond reminds us in his seminal work on the open source movement, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, there are aspects of the hacker mindset that are ideally suited to responding to challenging and uncertain times, which is certainly something that defines our current situation.

1. The world is full of problems to be solved

Problem solving is at the heart of what it means to be a hacker. The very essence of the endeavor revolves around relentlessly honing one’s skills, wielding your intelligence to crack the most impenetrable of problems. It also requires a faith not only in our abilities at any given moment, but our ability to learn the things we need in order to tackle the task at hand. Each piece of the puzzle provides the nudge required to master the next piece, and so on until the whole problem has been solved.

2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice

Raymond also believed that the thinking time of true hackers was incredibly valuable, with this infusing the spirit of sharing that underpins the community, and the open source aspect of it in particular. There is almost a moral duty to share what it is you know so that the community becomes collectively wiser and not have to crack problems that have already been solved elsewhere. There is a strong risk of countries taking a nationalistic approach to the coronavirus, whether in terms of equipment, technologies, or treatments. That would almost certainly be a mistake that would worsen the hardship for people around the world.

3. Boredom and drudgery are evil

Hacking is in many ways the art of focusing. Its exponents are uniquely good at solving the most intractable of problems, and Raymond argues that they do all they can to remove any distractions or drudgery that may get in the way of what they do best. There’s a strong argument that wastefulness has become synonymous with our age of plenty, and perhaps now, more than ever, we will focus on the things that really matter, both in our personal and professional lives. Endless meetings that help no one? Business trips that take up day after day? Buying trinkets we don’t really need? Now will be a time for prioritisation and focus.

4. Freedom is good

There is something universally anti-authoritarian about hackers. Their very essence is a case of ‘sticking it to the man,’ and much of their existence involves dancing to their own tune, free from the shackles and guidance of a ‘manager’ who can tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it by. As workers across the world flood out of offices and into their homes, the command and control infrastructure loses a central part of its essence. When you’re working primarily from home, you have to figure out far more for yourself, whether it’s how to motivate yourself, how to solve problems, or how to simply function in this new and unusual way of working. For hackers, this freedom is an essential part of the joy they get from doing what they do, and while such freedom is not for everyone, it’s something we’ll all have to learn to love, if only a little bit.

5. Attitude is no substitute for competence

In human resources circles lately there has been a growing sense that companies hire for attitude, as they reason that you can train skills, but attitude is something more ingrained and that we either have, or not. For the hacker, however, the reverse is usually the case, and they spend countless hours honing and developing their skills so that their competence is sufficient to allow them to master the challenge at hand. Raymond argues that the best hackers require a combination of intelligence, practice, dedication, and hard work. We’ve seen a growing number of ways for people to learn and develop their skills in recent years, but this forced dislocation will require more of us to learn new ways of working than ever before. The hacker mindset will see you embrace this uncertainty as a chance to learn the requisite things to crack the problem.

2020 is likely to be a year unlike any other, but perhaps if you can adopt some of the above characteristics, you can weather the storm and come out of it the other side with renewed vigor.

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