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A few months ago I finished a new book, and in reviews I keep noticing words like "provocative\'\' and "controversial.\'\' To say nothing of "idiotic.\'\'
I didn\'t mean to make the book controversial. I was trying to make it efficient. I didn\'t want to waste people\'s time telling them things they already knew. It\'s more efficient just to give them the diffs. But I suppose that\'s bound to yield an alarming book.
There\'s no controversy about which idea is most controversial: the suggestion that variation in wealth might not be as big a problem as we think.
I didn\'t say in the book that variation in wealth was in itself a good thing. I said in some situations it might be a sign of good things. A throbbing headache is not a good thing, but it can be a sign of a good thing-- for example, that you\'re recovering consciousness after being hit on the head.
Variation in wealth can be a sign of variation in productivity. (In a society of one, they\'re identical.) And that is almost certainly a good thing: if your society has no variation in productivity, it\'s probably not because everyone is Thomas Edison. It\'s probably because you have no Thomas Edisons.
In a low-tech society you don\'t see much variation in productivity. If you have a tribe of nomads collecting sticks for a fire, how much more productive is the best stick gatherer going to be than the worst? A factor of two? Whereas when you hand people a complex tool like a computer, the variation in what they can do with it is enormous.
That\'s not a new idea. Fred Brooks wrote about it in 1974, and the study he quoted was published in 1968. But I think he underestimated the variation between programmers. He wrote about productivity in lines of code: the best programmers can solve a given problem in a tenth the time. But what if the problem isn\'t given? In programming, as in many fields, the hard part isn\'t solving problems, but deciding what problems to solve. Imagination is hard to measure, but in practice it dominates the kind of productivity that\'s measured in lines of code.
Productivity varies in any field, but there are few in which it varies so much. The variation between programmers is so great that it becomes a difference in kind. I don\'t think this is something intrinsic to programming, though. In every field, technology magnifies differences in productivity. I think what\'s happening in programming is just that we have a lot of technological leverage. But in every field the lever is getting longer, so the variation we see is something that more and more fields will see as time goes on. And the success of companies, and countries, will depend increasingly on how they deal with it.
If variation in productivity increases with technology, then the contribution of the most productive individuals will not only be disproportionately large, but will actually grow with time. When you reach the point where 90% of a group\'s output is created by 1% of its members, you lose big if something (whether Viking raids, or central planning) drags their productivity down to the average.
If we want to get the most out of them, we need to understand these especially productive people. What motivates them? What do they need to do their jobs? How do you recognize them? How do you get them to come and work for you? And then of course there\'s the question, how do you become one?
More than Money
I know a handful of super-hackers, so I sat down and thought about what they have in common. Their defining quality is probably that they really love to program. Ordinary programmers write code to pay the bills. Great hackers think of it as something they do for fun, and which they\'re delighted to find people will pay them for.
Great programmers are sometimes said to be indifferent to money. This isn\'t quite true. It is true that all they really care about is doing interesting work. But if you make enough money, you get to work on whatever you want, and for that reason hackers are attracted by the idea of making really large amounts of money. But as long as they still have to show up for work every day, they care more about what they do
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Hacker, Hacker culture, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Software, Hacker ethic, PlayStation Portable homebrew, variation between programmers, fred brooks, throbbing headache, thomas edison, complex tool, diffs, solving problems, consciousness, controversy, productivity, imagination, ki, tribe, suggestion
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