Archive for the ‘hackers’ tag
There was an interesting New Year’s Day post on TechCrunch about something we’ve all noticed: for certain keyword phrases, Google is entirely spam. A search for a high-value keyword like “online degrees”, for instance, turns up little more than affiliate directories run by spammers with a solid grasp of SEO. So many people are gaming Google that it has lost much of its value.
But — contrary to Wadhwa’s implication — this isn’t a special failure on the part of Google’s engineers. Rather, it’s a fundamental characteristic of dominant technologies. Through market dominance, a technology can become the sole target of those who wish to exploit: an easy ROI for scammers, marketers and anyone else out to make a buck. Rather than building and optimizing for multiple competitive technologies, system gamers must only target one.
This is of particular concern for monopoly technologies, or borderline monopolies. Microsoft ran into the same problems fifteen years ago and continues to suffer the fallout. Hackers and virus creators knew that they only had to optimize for one operating system — Windows — and could target a massive share of the market. They ignored Unix and Mac OSes, giving those systems a reputation of relative security and safety against viruses and hackers. But have no doubt that if, say, Mac OS gained sufficient market share and corporate adoption, malware creators would see a new opportunity and begin writing viruses and malware for Macs. Suddenly, finding exploits in OS X would become orders of magnitude more important than it is today.
And thus Wadhwa’s conculsion (“We need a new Google”), makes no sense. We don’t need a new Google, an overwhelming search monopoly. We need a diversity of competitive search engines. Blekko’s engineers are no better than Google’s. And even if they were better, creating a search engine that is immune to gaming is fundamentally impossible, with increasing difficulty as the search engine’s market share increases. Blekko is simply not spammed because it’s not worth the spammers’ time to figure it out.
Display advertising is a great counter-example of a market with diverse technologies, protocols and big players. While display isn’t totally immune to gaming — click arb and ads that launch malware, for instance — it doesn’t fundamentally challenge the value of the technology as overzealous SEO does to search.
When a technology is in a constant arms race with competitors, users win. When it is a black box inside a giant monopoly, the internet’s underbelly rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.
I’ve been stewing over this post for a while. It gets a little bit closer to being written every time I meet with an “idea guy” who is looking to find a hacker to build his or her (but typically his) dream site. Interestingly, a lot of these guys spend a decent amount of their spare time at an analogous task: picking up women.
I’ve always wondered why they don’t see the natural parallels. For some reason, the principles that apply to meeting women are a lot easier for people to intuitively grasp than the same principles applied to meeting developers. Unfortunately, most of these guys happen to live in NYC, where there are way more available women than available technical cofounders. But the same ideas apply:
Go into their world. If you’re looking for single women, you probably need to venture outside of sports bars. Go to a more female-friendly club or volunteer for a cause. Go anywhere single women congregate. Similarly, I meet way too many “business guys” who only hang out with people like themselves — other business guys — and stick around events and meetups that are dominated by folks who think pointers are the handheld lasers you use to give Powerpoint presentations. If you want to meet the technical co-founder of your dreams, you need to find the places they hang out — technology-specific meetups and user groups, Hackers and Founders, et cetera.
Understand their motivations. Or alternatively, “Don’t assume their motivations are the same as yours.” In the dating scene, this is obvious — not everyone wants the same thing from the evening’s encounter. And as many of us know, variations in motivation and interests can lead to some pretty awkward situations. Similarly, developers often have very different motivations than non-technical entrepreneurs. First of all, many (most) developers aren’t entrepreneurs. Given that entrepreneurship can be a bizarre and irrational pathology, this can make for a pretty big delta in motivations, perspectives and interests. Money, for instance, may or may not be a big motivator to an engineer — in fact, I’d say a plurality of engineers I’ve met would say that making a lot of money would be “nice, but definitely not necessary.”
This is a generalization, and above everything it’s important to understand the motivations and interests of the individuals you’re talking to, not the generalized category “developer”.
Show your value. Unemployed, balding 40-somethings have a much harder time picking up women than rich, balding 40-somethings. Truly smart, well-connected business co-founders aren’t easy to find. Be that person and demonstrate it early and often.
Speak their language. The number of “idea guys” who don’t even attempt to understand the basics of web development is hugely frustrating, both to me and most startup developers. Even if you can’t code, take some time and learn the basics. But don’t take learning the basics to mean that you actually know anything about making high-level development decisions — it just shows that you care. And like women in bars, technical co-founders appreciate it when you care.
Don’t try to fuck on the first date. Pretty self-explanatory. Get to know someone first, then seek a deeper relationship.
We need more hackers building startups and fewer writing black boxes for hedge funds, so I’m being honest when I say I hope more non-technical folks can use the skills they have to recruit talented developers into the startup world.
There’s an old adage in the game design field that good games are easy to learn, yet difficult to master. That is, a game should be simple enough for even the most uninitiated user to understand yet challenging enough for a master to spend years working to hone their skills. Chess is one oft-cited example.
Cities operate by similar principles. Great cities are easy for visitors to navigate yet take years if not decades for residents to fully explore and understand. Cities can be too simple, like so many in middle America that bore their smartest residents into submission (or departure). And cities can be too complex for newcomers — New York, for instance.
This is why Adopt a Hacker is a great idea. New York is possibly the most fascinating city on earth to master — but it’s also one of the most difficult places for a newcomer to learn, especially when it comes to meeting new people. Adopt a Hacker NYC lowers the bar to get great hackers engaged in the city by lowering the learning curve. By pairing visiting developers up with veteran NYC residents, it adds a tutorial to an otherwise dense game.
I don’t usually like pointing out others’ failures (I prefer to focus on my own), but one particular demo by a startup at this past Tuesday’s New York Tech Meetup is particularly instructive in How to Fail at Presenting to Hackers.
A brief guide to failure, courtesy this demo:
Expect your connections to high profile individuals will build credibility: Exceptions include Richard Stallman, Cory Doctorow and probably Steve Jobs. Don’t rattle off a list of Silicon Valley investors and expect us to be impressed. We’ll just wonder why you’re not showing us a product.
Put the conclusion before the story: It’s fine to say that you’re raking in cash or you have amazing clients, but do it after you show us the product you used to get there. Otherwise the story seems backwards and you seem full of yourself. Explain how something was built from the ground up, gained traction and eventually convinced people with money to buy your product and support you. That’s a story that resonates with hackers.
Ignore the allegiances and perspectives of the audience: This is more of a general presentation rule, but this company couldn’t have blown it worse with a hacker crowd. For instance: if your product has applicability to hiring for both Fortune 500 companies and early-stage startups, don’t show examples of how Fortune 500 companies can use it to gain leverage over potential employees. You seem to be enabling a corporate culture that your audience is rebelling against.
Send someone who isn’t a cultural fit with the audience: I’m sure your company has hackers. Even an executive CTO or VP of Engineering. Send them, not the business development executive you just recruited out of an investment bank.
Like any audience, presenting to hackers isn’t hard. But just as it wouldn’t be a good idea to wear jeans and Birkenstocks when making a presentation to the board of a Fortune 500 company, pitching a crowd of hackers requires a level of understanding and respect of the group’s culture. Anything less is simply going to waste everyone’s time.