Engineer or Hacker?

Eric Raymond would have us believe that everyone that develops software for fun is a hacker. I know that historically this has always been the case, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing. All good, and bad, things come to an end.

I doubt that it will happen any time soon, but I think that ‘hacker’ is a term that should whither and die.

The first problem, and this is the obvious one, is the public perception of it. Yes we all know that hackers write code while crackers break into computer systems, but how many people ‘outside’ know that? How many professional software developers, i.e., those who do it just for a living rather than for fun, know that?

If even professionals don’t know the difference, how can the rest of the population have a chance?

Of course there’s always the fanatical wing, those that claim that we should hit the problem face-on. We should call ourselves hackers because we know that we’re right and that everyone else is wrong.

It’s actually a very politically correct way of doing things, but I remain unconvinced that it works. Richard Stallman continues to insist on the term ‘free software,’ even though most people find it more confusing than ‘Open Source.’ None of this is about changing ideals or opinions, it’s just about the correct marketing of the term.

The second problem I identified is much more subtle. What does the term ‘hacker’ mean? My dictionary defines it as follows:

hackvt cut, chop (at) violently;

It goes on, but that’s the important part. My objection comes from the lack of precision that the term implies. You get a program and violently cut and chop it around until, by chance, you get something out at the end that seems to work okay.

I hope you don’t develop software like that, I certainly don’t. Any half-decent developer follows a process, no matter how ill-documented. When you debug software you don’t just dive in adding ‘print’ statements all over the place, guessing where it goes wrong. Instead you make a hypothesis and test, modifying your original until you get a good idea what’s wrong, then you start with the ‘print’ commands or your debugger.

Does that sound uncontrolled and violent?

All that planning and precision, all the experience that it takes to be able to make a reasonable and accurate hypothesis sounds more like engineering of some kind.

And that it why I call myself a Software Engineer rather than a hacker, even when I write code in my spare time.