Thursday 15 September 2011

How To Become A Hacker


Table of Contents
Why This Document?
What Is a Hacker?
The Hacker Attitude
1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
4. Freedom is good.
5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.
Basic Hacking Skills
1. Learn how to program.
2. Get one of the open-source Unixes and learn to use and run it.
3. Learn how to use the World Wide Web and write HTML.
4. If you don't have functional English, learn it.
Status in the Hacker Culture
1. Write open-source software
2. Help test and debug open-source software
3. Publish useful information
4. Help keep the infrastructure working
5. Serve the hacker culture itself
The Hacker/Nerd Connection
Points For Style
Historical Note: Hacking, Open Source,and Free Software
Other Resources
Frequently Asked Questions

Why This Document?

As editor of the JargonFile and author of a few other well-known documents of similarnature, I often get email requests from enthusiastic network newbiesasking (in effect) "how can I learn to be a wizardly hacker?". Back in1996 I noticed that there didn't seem to be any other FAQs or webdocuments that addressed this vital question, so I started thisone. A lot of hackers now consider it definitive, and I suppose that means it is. Still, I don't claim to be the exclusiveauthority on this topic; if you don't like what you read here, writeyour own.
If you are reading a snapshot of this document offline, thecurrent version lives at
Note: there is a list of Frequently AskedQuestions at the end of this document. Please readthese—twice—before mailing me any questions about thisdocument.
Numerous translations of this document are available:ArabicBelorussianChinese (Simplified),Danish,Dutch,Estonian,German,GreekItalianHebrew,Norwegian,Portuguese(Brazilian),RomanianSpanish,Turkish,and Swedish.Note that since this document changes occasionally, they may be out ofdate to varying degrees.
The five-dots-in-nine-squares diagram that decorates thisdocument is called a glider. It is a simplepattern with some surprising properties in a mathematical simulationcalled Lifethat has fascinated hackers for many years. I think it makes a goodvisual emblem for what hackers are like — abstract, at first abit mysterious-seeming, but a gateway to a whole world with anintricate logic of its own. Read more about the glider emblem here.

What Is a Hacker?

The JargonFile contains a bunch of definitions of the term ‘hacker’,most having to do with technical adeptness and a delight in solvingproblems and overcoming limits. If you want to know how tobecome a hacker, though, only two are reallyrelevant.
There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers andnetworking wizards that traces its history back through decades to thefirst time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments.The members of this culture originated the term ‘hacker’. Hackersbuilt the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it istoday. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. Ifyou are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and otherpeople in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're ahacker.
The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hackerculture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to otherthings, like electronics or music — actually, you can find it atthe highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognizethese kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them‘hackers’ too — and some claim that the hackernature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker worksin. But in the rest of this document we will focus on the skills andattitudes of software hackers, and the traditions of the sharedculture that originated the term ‘hacker’.
There is another group of people who loudly call themselveshackers, but aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) whoget a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phonesystem. Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ andwant nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers arelazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being ableto break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being ableto hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, manyjournalists and writers have been fooled into using the word‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackersno end.
The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackersbreak them.
If you want to be a hacker, keep reading. If you want to be a cracker,go read the alt.2600 newsgroup and getready to do five to ten in the slammer after finding out you aren't assmart as you think you are. And that's all I'm going to say aboutcrackers.

The Hacker Attitude

Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedomand voluntary mutual help. To be accepted as a hacker, you have tobehave as though you have this kind of attitude yourself. And tobehave as though you have the attitude, you have to really believe theattitude.
But if you think of cultivating hacker attitudes as just a wayto gain acceptance in the culture, you'll miss the point. Becomingthe kind of person who believes these things is important foryou — for helping you learn and keeping youmotivated. As with all creative arts, the most effective way tobecome a master is to imitate the mind-set of masters — not justintellectually but emotionally as well.
Or, as the following modern Zen poem has it:

    To follow the path:
    look to the master,
    follow the master,
    walk with the master,
    see through the master,
    become the master.
So, if you want to be a hacker, repeat the following things untilyou believe them:

1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.

Being a hacker is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takeslots of effort. The effort takes motivation. Successful athletes gettheir motivation from a kind of physical delight in making theirbodies perform, in pushing themselves past their own physical limits.Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solvingproblems, sharpening your skills, and exercising yourintelligence.
If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'llneed to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you'llfind your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, andsocial approval.
(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learningcapacity — a belief that even though you may not know all of what youneed to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learnfrom that, you'll learn enough to solve the next piece — and so on,until you're done.)

2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.

Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource. They shouldn't bewasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinatingnew problems waiting out there.
To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time ofother hackers is precious — so much so that it's almost a moral dutyfor you to share information, solve problems and then give thesolutions away just so other hackers can solve newproblems instead of having to perpetually re-address old ones.
Note, however, that "No problem should ever have to be solvedtwice." does not imply that you have to consider all existingsolutions sacred, or that there is only one right solution to anygiven problem. Often, we learn a lot about the problem that we didn'tknow before by studying the first cut at a solution. It's OK, andoften necessary, to decide that we can do better. What's not OK isartificial technical, legal, or institutional barriers (likeclosed-source code) that prevent a good solution from being re-usedand force people to re-invent wheels.
(You don't have to believe that you're obligated to giveall your creative product away, though thehackers that do are the ones that get most respect from other hackers.It's consistent with hacker values to sell enough of it to keep you infood and rent and computers. It's fine to use your hacking skills tosupport a family or even get rich, as long as you don't forget yourloyalty to your art and your fellow hackers while doing it.)

3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.

Hackers (and creative people in general) should never be bored or haveto drudge at stupid repetitive work, because when this happens itmeans they aren't doing what only they can do — solve new problems.This wastefulness hurts everybody. Therefore boredom and drudgery arenot just unpleasant but actually evil.
To behave like a hacker, you have to believe this enough to want toautomate away the boring bits as much as possible, not just foryourself but for everybody else (especially other hackers).
(There is one apparent exception to this. Hackers willsometimes do things that may seem repetitive or boring to an observeras a mind-clearing exercise, or in order to acquire a skill or havesome particular kind of experience you can't have otherwise. But thisis by choice — nobody who can think should ever be forced into asituation that bores them.)

4. Freedom is good.

Hackers are naturally anti-authoritarian. Anyone who can give youorders can stop you from solving whatever problem you're beingfascinated by — and, given the way authoritarian minds work, willgenerally find some appallingly stupid reason to do so. So theauthoritarian attitude has to be fought wherever you find it, lestit smother you and other hackers.
(This isn't the same as fighting all authority. Children need to beguided and criminals restrained. A hacker may agree to accept somekinds of authority in order to get something he wants more than thetime he spends following orders. But that's a limited, consciousbargain; the kind of personal surrender authoritarians want is not onoffer.)
Authoritarians thrive on censorship and secrecy. And theydistrust voluntary cooperation and information-sharing — theyonly like ‘cooperation’ that they control. So to behavelike a hacker, you have to develop an instinctive hostility tocensorship, secrecy, and the use of force or deception to compelresponsible adults. And you have to be willing to act on thatbelief.

5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

To be a hacker, you have to develop some of these attitudes. Butcopping an attitude alone won't make you a hacker, any more than itwill make you a champion athlete or a rock star. Becoming a hackerwill take intelligence, practice, dedication, and hard work.
Therefore, you have to learn to distrust attitude and respectcompetence of every kind. Hackers won't let posers waste their time,but they worship competence — especially competence at hacking, butcompetence at anything is valued. Competence at demanding skills thatfew can master is especially good, and competence at demanding skillsthat involve mental acuteness, craft, and concentration is best.
If you revere competence, you'll enjoy developing it in yourself— the hard work and dedication will become a kind of intense playrather than drudgery. That attitude is vital to becoming ahacker.

Basic Hacking Skills

The hacker attitude is vital, but skills are even more vital.Attitude is no substitute for competence, and there's a certain basictoolkit of skills which you have to have before any hacker will dreamof calling you one.
This toolkit changes slowly over time as technology creates new skillsand makes old ones obsolete. For example, it used to include programmingin machine language, and didn't until recently involve HTML. Butright now it pretty clearly includes the following:

1. Learn how to program.

This, of course, is the fundamental hacking skill. If you don'tknow any computer languages, I recommend starting with Python. It iscleanly designed, well documented, and relatively kind to beginners.Despite being a good first language, it is not just a toy; it is verypowerful and flexible and well suited for large projects. I havewritten a more detailed evaluationof Python. Good tutorials are available at the Python web site.
I used to recommend Java as a good language to learn early, butthiscritique has changed my mind (search for “The Pitfalls ofJava as a First Programming Language� within it). A hackercannot, as they devastatingly put it “approach problem-solvinglike a plumber in a hardware store�; you have to know what thecomponents actually do. Now I think it isprobably best to learn C and Lisp first, then Java.
There is perhaps a more general point here. If a language does toomuch for you, it may be simultaneously a good tool for production anda bad one for learning. It's not only languages that have thisproblem; web application frameworks like RubyOnRails, CakePHP, Djangomay make it too easy to reach a superficial sort of understanding thatwill leave you without resources when you have to tackle a hardproblem, or even just debug the solution to an easy one.
If you get into serious programming, you will have to learn C,the core language of Unix. C++ is very closely related to C; if youknow one, learning the other will not be difficult. Neither languageis a good one to try learning as your first, however. And, actually,the more you can avoid programming in C the more productive you willbe.
C is very efficient, and very sparing of your machine'sresources. Unfortunately, C gets that efficiency by requiring you todo a lot of low-level management of resources (like memory) by hand.All that low-level code is complex and bug-prone, and will soak uphuge amounts of your time on debugging. With today's machines aspowerful as they are, this is usually a bad tradeoff — it's smarterto use a language that uses the machine's time less efficiently, butyour time much more efficiently. Thus, Python.
Other languages of particular importance to hackers includePerl and LISP. Perl is worthlearning for practical reasons; it's very widely used for active webpages and system administration, so that even if you never write Perlyou should learn to read it. Many people use Perl in the way I suggest you should use Python, to avoid C programming on jobs thatdon't require C's machine efficiency. You will need to be ableto understand their code.
LISP is worth learning for a different reason — theprofound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally getit. That experience will make you a better programmer for the rest ofyour days, even if you never actually use LISP itself a lot. (You canget some beginning experience with LISP fairly easily by writing andmodifying editing modes for the Emacs text editor, or Script-Fuplugins for the GIMP.)
It's best, actually, to learn all five of Python, C/C++, Java,Perl, and LISP. Besides being the most important hacking languages,they represent very different approaches to programming, and each willeducate you in valuable ways.
But be aware that you won't reach the skill level of a hacker oreven merely a programmer simply by accumulating languages — youneed to learn how to think about programming problems in a generalway, independent of any one language. To be a real hacker, you needto get to the point where you can learn a new language in days byrelating what's in the manual to what you already know. This meansyou should learn several very different languages.
I can't give complete instructions on how to learn to programhere — it's a complex skill. But I can tell you that books andcourses won't do it — many, maybe most of the besthackers are self-taught. You can learn language features — bits ofknowledge — from books, but the mind-set that makes that knowledgeinto living skill can be learned only by practice and apprenticeship.What will do it is (a) reading code and (b)writing code.
Peter Norvig, who is one of Google's top hackers and theco-author of the most widely used textbook on AI, has written anexcellent essay called Teach Yourself Programming inTen Years. His "recipe for programming success" is worthcareful attention.
Learning to program is like learning to write good natural language.The best way to do it is to read some stuff written by masters of theform, write some things yourself, read a lot more, write a littlemore, read a lot more, write some more ... and repeat until yourwriting begins to develop the kind of strength and economy you see inyour models.
Finding good code to read used to be hard, because there were fewlarge programs available in source for fledgeling hackers to read andtinker with. This has changed dramatically; open-source software,programming tools, and operating systems (all built by hackers) arenow widely available. Which brings me neatly to our next topic...

2. Get one of the open-source Unixes and learn to use and run it.

I'll assume you have a personal computer or can get access toone. (Take a moment to appreciate how much that means. The hackerculture originally evolved back when computers were so expensive thatindividuals could not own them.) The single most important step anynewbie can take toward acquiring hacker skills is to get a copy ofLinux or one of the BSD-Unixes or OpenSolaris, install it on apersonal machine, and run it.
Yes, there are other operating systems in the world besidesUnix. But they're distributed in binary — you can't read thecode, and you can't modify it. Trying to learn to hack on a MicrosoftWindows machine or under any other closed-source system is like tryingto learn to dance while wearing a body cast.
Under Mac OS X it's possible, but only part of the system is opensource — you're likely to hit a lot of walls, and you have to becareful not to develop the bad habit of depending on Apple'sproprietary code. If you concentrate on the Unix under the hoodyou can learn some useful things.
Unix is the operating system of the Internet. While you canlearn to use the Internet without knowing Unix, you can't be anInternet hacker without understanding Unix. For this reason, the hackerculture today is pretty strongly Unix-centered. (This wasn't alwaystrue, and some old-time hackers still aren't happy about it, but thesymbiosis between Unix and the Internet has become strong enough thateven Microsoft's muscle doesn't seem able to seriously dent it.)
So, bring up a Unix — I like Linux myself but there are otherways (and yes, you can run both Linux andMicrosoft Windows on the same machine). Learn it. Run it. Tinker with it.Talk to the Internet with it. Read the code. Modify the code.You'll get better programming tools (including C, LISP, Python, andPerl) than any Microsoft operating system can dream of hosting, you'llhave fun, and you'll soak up more knowledge than you realize you'relearning until you look back on it as a master hacker.
For more about learning Unix, see The Loginataka. You mightalso want to have a look at TheArt Of Unix Programming.
To get your hands on a Linux, see the Linux Online! site; you candownload from there or (better idea) find a local Linux user group tohelp you with installation.
During the first ten years of this HOWTO's life, I reported thatfrom a new user's point of view, all Linux distributions are almostequivalent. But in 2006-2007, an actual best choice emerged: Ubuntu. While other distros havetheir own areas of strength, Ubuntu is far and away the mostaccessible to Linux newbies.
You can find BSD Unix help and resources at
A good way to dip your toes in the water is to boot up whatLinux fans call a liveCD, a distribution that runs entirely off a CD without havingto modify your hard disk. This will be slow, because CDs are slow,but it's a way to get a look at the possibilities without havingto do anything drastic.
I have written a primer on the basicsof Unix and the Internet.
I used to recommend against installing either Linux or BSD as asolo project if you're a newbie. Nowadays the installers have gottengood enough that doing it entirely on your own is possible, even for anewbie. Nevertheless, I still recommend making contact with your localLinux user's group and asking for help. It can't hurt, andmay smooth the process.

3. Learn how to use the World Wide Web and write HTML.

Most of the things the hacker culture has built do their workout of sight, helping run factories and offices and universitieswithout any obvious impact on how non-hackers live. The Web is theone big exception, the huge shiny hacker toy that evenpoliticians admit has changed the world. Forthis reason alone (and a lot of other good ones as well) you need tolearn how to work the Web.
This doesn't just mean learning how to drive a browser (anyone can dothat), but learning how to write HTML, the Web's markup language. Ifyou don't know how to program, writing HTML will teach you somemental habits that will help you learn. So build a home page.Try to stick to XHTML, which is a cleaner language than classic HTML.(There are good beginner tutorials on the Web;here's one.)
But just having a home page isn't anywhere near good enough tomake you a hacker. The Web is full of home pages. Most of them arepointless, zero-content sludge — very snazzy-looking sludge, mindyou, but sludge all the same (for more on this see The HTML HellPage).
To be worthwhile, your page must havecontent — it must be interesting and/or usefulto other hackers. And that brings us to the next topic...

4. If you don't have functional English, learn it.

As an American and native English-speaker myself, I havepreviously been reluctant to suggest this, lest it be taken as a sortof cultural imperialism. But several native speakers of otherlanguages have urged me to point out that English is the workinglanguage of the hacker culture and the Internet, and that you will need to know it to function in the hacker community.
Back around 1991 I learned that many hackers who have English asa second language use it in technical discussions even when they sharea birth tongue; it was reported to me at the time that English has aricher technical vocabulary than any other language and is thereforesimply a better tool for the job. For similar reasons, translationsof technical books written in English are often unsatisfactory (whenthey get done at all).
Linus Torvalds, a Finn, comments his code in English (itapparently never occurred to him to do otherwise). His fluencyin English has been an important factor in his ability to recruita worldwide community of developers for Linux. It's an example worthfollowing.
Being a native English-speaker does not guarantee that you havelanguage skills good enough to function as a hacker. If your writingis semi-literate, ungrammatical, and riddled with misspellings,many hackers (including myself) will tend to ignore you. While sloppywriting does not invariably mean sloppy thinking, we've generallyfound the correlation to be strong — and we have no use forsloppy thinkers. If you can't yet write competently, learn to.

Status in the Hacker Culture

Like most cultures without a money economy, hackerdom runs onreputation. You're trying to solve interesting problems, but howinteresting they are, and whether your solutions are really good, issomething that only your technical peers or superiors are normallyequipped to judge.
Accordingly, when you play the hacker game, you learn to keepscore primarily by what other hackers think of your skill (this is whyyou aren't really a hacker until other hackers consistently call youone). This fact is obscured by the image of hacking as solitary work;also by a hacker-cultural taboo (gradually decaying since the late1990s but still potent) against admitting that ego or externalvalidation are involved in one's motivation at all.
Specifically, hackerdom is what anthropologists call a giftculture. You gain status and reputation in it not by dominatingother people, nor by being beautiful, nor by having things otherpeople want, but rather by giving things away. Specifically, bygiving away your time, your creativity, and the results of yourskill.
There are basically five kinds of things you can do to be respected byhackers:

1. Write open-source software

The first (the most central and most traditional) is to writeprograms that other hackers think are fun or useful, and give theprogram sources away to the whole hacker culture to use.
(We used to call these works “free software�, but thisconfused too many people who weren't sure exactly what “free� wassupposed to mean. Most of us now prefer the term “open-source�software).
Hackerdom's most revered demigods are people who have written large,capable programs that met a widespread need and given them away, sothat now everyone uses them.
But there's a bit of a fine historical point here. Whilehackers have always looked up to the open-source developers among themas our community's hardest core, before the mid-1990s most hackersmost of the time worked on closed source. This was still true when Iwrote the first version of this HOWTO in 1996; it took themainstreaming of open-source software after 1997 to change things.Today, "the hacker community" and "open-source developers" are twodescriptions for what is essentially the same culture and population— but it is worth remembering that this was not alwaysso. (For more on this, see the section called “Historical Note: Hacking, Open Source,and Free Software�.)

2. Help test and debug open-source software

They also serve who stand and debug open-source software. Inthis imperfect world, we will inevitably spend most of our softwaredevelopment time in the debugging phase. That's why any open-sourceauthor who's thinking will tell you that good beta-testers (who knowhow to describe symptoms clearly, localize problems well, can toleratebugs in a quickie release, and are willing to apply a few simplediagnostic routines) are worth their weight in rubies. Even one ofthese can make the difference between a debugging phase that's aprotracted, exhausting nightmare and one that's merely a salutarynuisance.
If you're a newbie, try to find a program under development thatyou're interested in and be a good beta-tester. There's a naturalprogression from helping test programs to helping debug them tohelping modify them. You'll learn a lot this way, and generategood karma with people who will help you later on.

3. Publish useful information

Another good thing is to collect and filter useful andinteresting information into web pages or documents like Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) lists, and make those generallyavailable.
Maintainers of major technical FAQs get almost as much respect asopen-source authors.

4. Help keep the infrastructure working

The hacker culture (and the engineering development of theInternet, for that matter) is run by volunteers. There's a lot ofnecessary but unglamorous work that needs done to keep itgoing — administering mailing lists, moderating newsgroups,maintaining large software archive sites, developing RFCs and othertechnical standards.
People who do this sort of thing well get a lot of respect, becauseeverybody knows these jobs are huge time sinks and not as much fun asplaying with code. Doing them shows dedication.

5. Serve the hacker culture itself

Finally, you can serve and propagate the culture itself (by, forexample, writing an accurate primer on how to become a hacker :-)).This is not something you'll be positioned to do until you've beenaround for while and become well-known for one of the first fourthings.
The hacker culture doesn't have leaders, exactly, but it does haveculture heroes and tribal elders and historians and spokespeople.When you've been in the trenches long enough, you may grow into one ofthese. Beware: hackers distrust blatant ego in their tribal elders,so visibly reaching for this kind of fame is dangerous. Rather thanstriving for it, you have to sort of position yourself so it drops inyour lap, and then be modest and gracious about your status.

The Hacker/Nerd Connection

Contrary to popular myth, you don't have to be a nerd to be ahacker. It does help, however, and many hackers are in fact nerds.Being something of a social outcast helps you stay concentrated on thereally important things, like thinking and hacking.
For this reason, many hackers have adopted the label‘geek’ as a badge of pride — it's a way of declaringtheir independence from normal social expectations (as well as afondness for other things like science fiction and strategy games thatoften go with being a hacker). The term 'nerd' used to be used thisway back in the 1990s, back when 'nerd' was a mild pejorative and'geek' a rather harsher one; sometime after 2000 they switched places,at least in U.S. popular culture, and there is now even a significantgeek-pride culture among people who aren't techies.
If you can manage to concentrate enough on hacking to be good at itand still have a life, that's fine. This is a lot easier today thanit was when I was a newbie in the 1970s; mainstream culture is muchfriendlier to techno-nerds now. There are even growing numbers ofpeople who realize that hackers are often high-quality lover andspouse material.
If you're attracted to hacking because you don't have a life,that's OK too — at least you won't have trouble concentrating. Maybeyou'll get a life later on.

Points For Style

Again, to be a hacker, you have to enter the hacker mindset. Thereare some things you can do when you're not at a computer that seem tohelp. They're not substitutes for hacking (nothing is) but manyhackers do them, and feel that they connect in some basic waywith the essence of hacking.
  • Learn to write your native language well. Though it's a common stereotype that programmers can't write, a surprising number of hackers (including all the most accomplished ones I know of) are very able writers.
  • Read science fiction. Go to science fiction conventions (a good way to meet hackers and proto-hackers).
  • Train in a martial-arts form. The kind of mental discipline required for martial arts seems to be similar in important ways to what hackers do. The most popular forms among hackers are definitely Asian empty-hand arts such as Tae Kwon Do, various forms of Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, or Ju Jitsu. Western fencing and Asian sword arts also have visible followings. In places where it's legal, pistol shooting has been rising in popularity since the late 1990s. The most hackerly martial arts are those which emphasize mental discipline, relaxed awareness, and control, rather than raw strength, athleticism, or physical toughness.
  • Study an actual meditation discipline. The perennial favorite among hackers is Zen (importantly, it is possible to benefit from Zen without acquiring a religion or discarding one you already have). Other styles may work as well, but be careful to choose one that doesn't require you to believe crazy things.
  • Develop an analytical ear for music. Learn to appreciate peculiar kinds of music. Learn to play some musical instrument well, or how to sing.
  • Develop your appreciation of puns and wordplay.
The more of these things you already do, the more likely it is that youare natural hacker material. Why these things in particular is notcompletely clear, but they're connected with a mix of left- andright-brain skills that seems to be important; hackers need tobe able to both reason logically and step outside the apparentlogic of a problem at a moment's notice.
Work as intensely as you play and play as intensely as you work.For true hackers, the boundaries between "play", "work", "science" and"art" all tend to disappear, or to merge into a high-level creativeplayfulness. Also, don't be content with a narrow range of skills.Though most hackers self-describe as programmers, they are very likelyto be more than competent in several related skills — systemadministration, web design, and PC hardware troubleshooting are commonones. A hacker who's a system administrator, on the other hand, islikely to be quite skilled at script programming and web design.Hackers don't do things by halves; if they invest in a skill at all,they tend to get very good at it.
Finally, a few things not todo.
  • Don't use a silly, grandiose user ID or screen name.
  • Don't get in flame wars on Usenet (or anywhere else).
  • Don't call yourself a ‘cyberpunk’, and don't waste your time on anybody who does.
  • Don't post or email writing that's full of spelling errors and bad grammar.
The only reputation you'll make doing any of these things is as atwit. Hackers have long memories — it could take you years to liveyour early blunders down enough to be accepted.
The problem with screen names or handles deserves someamplification. Concealing your identity behind a handle is a juvenileand silly behavior characteristic of crackers, warez d00dz, and otherlower life forms. Hackers don't do this; they're proud of what theydo and want it associated with their real names.So if you have a handle, drop it. In the hacker culture it will onlymark you as a loser.

Historical Note: Hacking, Open Source,and Free Software

When I originally wrote this how-to in late 1996, some of theconditions around it were very different from the way they look today.A few words about these changes may help clarify matters for peoplewho are confused about the relationship of open source, freesoftware, and Linux to the hacker community. If you are not curiousabout this, you can skip straight to the FAQ and bibliography fromhere.
The hacker ethos and community as I have described it here longpredates the emergence of Linux after 1990; I first became involvedwith it around 1976, and, its roots are readily traceable back to theearly 1960s. But before Linux, most hacking was done on eitherproprietary operating systems or a handful of quasi-experimentalhomegrown systems like MIT's ITS that were never deployed outside oftheir original academic niches. While there had been some earlier(pre-Linux) attempts to change this situation, their impact was atbest very marginal and confined to communities of dedicated truebelievers which were tiny minorities even within the hacker community,let alone with respect to the larger world of software ingeneral.
What is now called "open source" goes back as far as the hackercommunity does, but until 1985 it was an unnamed folk practice ratherthan a conscious movement with theories and manifestos attached to it.This prehistory ended when, in 1985, arch-hacker Richard Stallman("RMS") tried to give it a name — "free software". But his actof naming was also an act of claiming; he attached ideological baggageto the "free software" label which much of the existing hackercommunity never accepted. As a result, the "free software" label wasloudly rejected by a substantial minority of the hacker community(especially among those associated with BSD Unix), and used withserious but silent reservations by a majority of the remainder(including myself).
Despite these reservations, RMS's claim to define and lead thehacker community under the "free software" banner broadly held untilthe mid-1990s. It was seriously challenged only by the rise of Linux.Linux gave open-source development a natural home. Many projectsissued under terms we would now call open-source migrated fromproprietary Unixes to Linux. The community around Linux grewexplosively, becoming far larger and more heterogenous than thepre-Linux hacker culture. RMS determinedly attempted to co-opt allthis activity into his "free software" movement, but was thwarted byboth the exploding diversity of the Linux community and the publicskepticism of its founder, Linus Torvalds. Torvalds continued to usethe term "free software" for lack of any alternative, but publiclyrejected RMS's ideological baggage. Many younger hackers followedsuit.
In 1996, when I first published this Hacker HOWTO, the hackercommunity was rapidly reorganizing around Linux and a handful of otheropen-source operating systems (notably those descended from BSDUnix). Community memory of the fact that most of us had spent decadesdeveloping closed-source software on closed-source operating systemshad not yet begun to fade, but that fact was already beginning to seemlike part of a dead past; hackers were, increasingly, definingthemselves as hackers by their attachments to open-source projectssuch as Linux or Apache.
The term "open source", however, had not yet emerged; it wouldnot do so until early 1998. When it did, most of hacker communityadopted it within the following six months; the exceptions were aminority ideologically attached to the term "free software". Since1998, and especially after about 2003, the identification of 'hacking'with 'open-source (and free software) development' has becomeextremely close. Today there is little point in attempting todistinguish between these categories, and it seems unlikely that willchange in the future.
It is worth remembering, however, that this was not always so.

Other Resources

Paul Graham has written an essay called Great Hackers, andanother on Undergraduation,in which he speaks much wisdom.
There is a document called How To BeA Programmer that is an excellent complement to this one. Ithas valuable advice not just about coding and skillsets, but abouthow to function on a programming team.
I have also written ABrief History Of Hackerdom.
I have written a paper, The Cathedraland the Bazaar, which explains a lot about how theLinux and open-source cultures work. I have addressed this topic evenmore directly in its sequel Homesteadingthe Noosphere.
Rick Moen has written an excellent document on how to runa Linux user group.
Rick Moen and I have collaborated on another document onHowTo Ask Smart Questions. This will help you seek assistancein a way that makes it more likely that you will actually get it.
If you need instruction in the basics of how personal computers,Unix, and the Internet work, seeThe Unix and Internet Fundamentals HOWTO.
When you release software or write patches for software, try tofollow the guidelines in the Software Release Practice HOWTO.
If you enjoyed the Zen poem, you might also like Rootless Root: The Unix Koans ofMaster Foo.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do I tell if I am already a hacker?
Q: Will you teach me how to hack?
Q: How can I get started, then?
Q: When do you have to start? Is it too late for me to learn?
Q: How long will it take me to learn to hack?
Q: Is Visual Basic a good language to start with?
Q: Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?
Q: How can I get the password for someone else's account?
Q: How can I break into/read/monitor someone else's email?
Q: How can I steal channel op privileges on IRC?
Q: I've been cracked. Will you help me fend off further attacks?
Q: I'm having problems with my Windows software. Will you help me?
Q: Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?
Q: Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?
Q: Do I need to be good at math to become a hacker?
Q: What language should I learn first?
Q: What kind of hardware do I need?
Q: I want to contribute. Can you help me pick a problem to work on?
Q: Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?
Q: But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?
Q: Where can I get a free Unix?
Q:How do I tell if I am already a hacker?
A:Ask yourself the following three questions:
  • Do you speak code, fluently?
  • Do you identify with the goals and values of the hacker community?
  • Has a well-established member of the hacker community ever called you a hacker?
If you can answer yes to all three of thesequestions, you are already a hacker. No two alone are sufficient.
The first test is about skills. You probably pass it if youhave the minimum technical skills described earlier in this document.You blow right through it if you have had a substantial amount of codeaccepted by an open-source development project.
The second test is about attitude. If the five principles of the hacker mindset seemedobvious to you, more like a description of the way you already livethan anything novel, you are already halfway to passing it. That's theinward half; the other, outward half is the degree to which youidentify with the hacker community's long-term projects.
Here is an incomplete but indicative list of some of thoseprojects: Does it matter to you that Linux improve and spread? Are youpassionate about software freedom? Hostile to monopolies? Do you acton the belief that computers can be instruments of empowerment thatmake the world a richer and more humane place?
But a note of caution is in order here. The hacker community hassome specific, primarily defensive political interests — two ofthem are defending free-speech rights and fending off"intellectual-property" power grabs that would make open sourceillegal. Some of those long-term projects are civil-libertiesorganizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and theoutward attitude properly includes support of them. But beyond that,most hackers view attempts to systematize the hacker attitude into anexplicit political program with suspicion; we've learned, the hardway, that these attempts are divisive and distracting. If someonetries to recruit you to march on your capitol in the name of thehacker attitude, they've missed the point. The right response isprobably “Shut up and show them the code.�
The third test has a tricky element of recursiveness about it.I observed in the section called “What Is a Hacker?� that being a hacker is partly amatter of belonging to a particular subculture or social network witha shared history, an inside and an outside. In the far past, hackerswere a much less cohesive and self-aware group than they are today.But the importance of the social-network aspect has increased overthe last thirty years as the Internet has made connections with thecore of the hacker subculture easier to develop and maintain. One easybehavioral index of the change is that, in this century, we have ourown T-shirts.
Sociologists, who study networks like those of the hackerculture under the general rubric of "invisible colleges", have notedthat one characteristic of such networks is that they have gatekeepers— core members with the social authority to endorse new membersinto the network. Because the "invisible college" that is hackerculture is a loose and informal one, the role of gatekeeper isinformal too. But one thing that all hackers understand in theirbones is that not every hacker is a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers have tohave a certain degree of seniority and accomplishment before they canbestow the title. How much is hard to quantify, but every hacker knowsit when they see it.
Q:Will you teach me how to hack?
A:Since first publishing this page, I've gotten several requests aweek (often several a day) from people to "teach me all abouthacking". Unfortunately, I don't have the time or energy to do this;my own hacking projects, and working as an open-source advocate,take up 110% of my time.
Even if I did, hacking is an attitude and skill you basically have toteach yourself. You'll find that while real hackers want to help you,they won't respect you if you beg to be spoon-fed everything theyknow.
Learn a few things first. Show that you're trying, that you'recapable of learning on your own. Then go to the hackers you meet withspecific questions.
If you do email a hacker asking for advice, here are two thingsto know up front. First, we've found that people who are lazy orcareless in their writing are usually too lazy and careless in theirthinking to make good hackers — so take care to spell correctly, anduse good grammar and punctuation, otherwise you'll probably beignored. Secondly, don't dare ask for a reply toan ISP account that's different from the account you're sending from;we find people who do that are usually thieves using stolen accounts,and we have no interest in rewarding or assisting thievery.
Q:How can I get started, then?
A:The best way for you to get started would probably be to go to a LUG(Linux user group) meeting. You can find such groups on the LDP General LinuxInformation Page; there is probably one near you, possiblyassociated with a college or university. LUG members will probablygive you a Linux if you ask, and will certainly help you install oneand get started.
Q:When do you have to start? Is it too late for me to learn?
A:Any age at which you are motivated to start is a good age. Most peopleseem to get interested between ages 15 and 20, but I know ofexceptions in both directions.
Q:How long will it take me to learn to hack?
A:That depends on how talented you are and how hard you work atit. Most people who try can acquire a respectable skill set in eighteenmonths to two years, if they concentrate. Don't think it ends there,though; in hacking (as in many other fields) it takes about ten yearsto achieve mastery. And if you are a real hacker, you will spend the restof your life learning and perfecting your craft.
Q:Is Visual Basic a good language to start with?
A:If you're asking this question, it almost certainly means you'rethinking about trying to hack under Microsoft Windows. This is a badidea in itself. When I compared trying to learn to hack under Windowsto trying to learn to dance while wearing a body cast, I wasn'tkidding. Don't go there. It's ugly, and it never stops beingugly.
There is a specific problem with Visual Basic; mainlythat it's not portable. Though there is a prototype open-sourceimplementations of Visual Basic, the applicable ECMA standardsdon't cover more than a small set of its programming interfaces. OnWindows most of its library support is proprietary to a singlevendor (Microsoft); if you aren't extremelycareful about which features you use — more careful than anynewbie is really capable of being — you'll end up locked intoonly those platforms Microsoft chooses to support. If you'restarting on a Unix, much better languages with better libraries are available. Python, for example.
Also, like other Basics, Visual Basic is apoorly-designed language that will teach you bad programminghabits. No, don't ask me to describe them indetail; that explanation would fill a book. Learn a well-designedlanguage instead.
One of those bad habits is becoming dependent on a singlevendor's libraries, widgets, and development tools. In general, anylanguage that isn't fully supported under at least Linux or one of the BSDs,and/or at least three different vendors' operating systems, is a poorone to learn to hack in.
Q:Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?
A:No. Anyone who can still ask such a question after reading this FAQis too stupid to be educable even if I had the time for tutoring.Any emailed requests of this kind that I get will be ignored oranswered with extreme rudeness.
Q:How can I get the password for someone else's account?
A:This is cracking. Go away, idiot.
Q:How can I break into/read/monitor someone else's email?
A:This is cracking. Get lost, moron.
Q:How can I steal channel op privileges on IRC?
A:This is cracking. Begone, cretin.
Q:I've been cracked. Will you help me fend off further attacks?
A:No. Every time I've been asked this question so far, it's beenfrom some poor sap running Microsoft Windows. It is not possible toeffectively secure Windows systems against crack attacks; the code andarchitecture simply have too many flaws, which makes securing Windowslike trying to bail out a boat with a sieve. The only reliableprevention starts with switching to Linux or some other operatingsystem that is designed to at least be capable of security.
Q:I'm having problems with my Windows software. Will you help me?
A:Yes. Go to a DOS prompt and type "format c:". Any problems you are experiencing will cease within a few minutes.
Q:Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?
A:The best way is to find a Unix or Linux user's group local to you andgo to their meetings (you can find links to several lists of usergroups on the LDP site atibiblio).
(I used to say here that you wouldn't find any real hackers on IRC,but I'm given to understand this is changing. Apparently some realhacker communities, attached to things like GIMP and Perl, have IRCchannels now.)
Q:Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?
A:I maintain aLinux Reading List HOWTO that you may find helpful. TheLoginataka may also be interesting.
For an introduction to Python, see the tutorial on the Python site.
Q:Do I need to be good at math to become a hacker?
A:No. Hacking uses very little formal mathematics or arithmetic.In particular, you won't usually need trigonometry, calculus oranalysis (there are exceptions to this in a handful of specificapplication areas like 3-D computer graphics). Knowing some formal logicand Boolean algebra is good. Some grounding in finite mathematics(including finite-set theory, combinatorics, and graph theory) can behelpful.
Much more importantly: you need to be able to think logicallyand follow chains of exact reasoning, the way mathematicians do.While the content of most mathematics won't help you, you will needthe discipline and intelligence to handle mathematics. If you lackthe intelligence, there is little hope for you as a hacker; if youlack the discipline, you'd better grow it.
I think a good way to find out if you have what it takes is to pickup a copy of Raymond Smullyan's book What Is The Name OfThis Book?. Smullyan's playful logical conundrums are verymuch in the hacker spirit. Being able to solve them is a good sign;enjoying solving them is an even better one.
Q:What language should I learn first?
A:XHTML (the latest dialect of HTML) if you don't already know it.There are a lot of glossy, hype-intensive badHTML books out there, and distressingly few good ones. The one I likebest is HTML: TheDefinitive Guide.
But HTML is not a full programming language. When you're readyto start programming, I would recommend starting with Python. You will hear a lot ofpeople recommending Perl, but it's harder to learn and (in my opinion)less well designed.
C is really important, but it's also much more difficult than eitherPython or Perl. Don't try to learn it first.
Windows users, do not settle for VisualBasic. It will teach you bad habits, and it's not portable offWindows. Avoid.
Q:What kind of hardware do I need?
A:It used to be that personal computers were rather underpowered andmemory-poor, enough so that they placed artificial limits on a hacker'slearning process. This stopped being true in the mid-1990s; any machinefrom an Intel 486DX50 up is more than powerful enough for developmentwork, X, and Internet communications, and the smallest disks you canbuy today are plenty big enough.
The important thing in choosing a machine on which to learn iswhether its hardware is Linux-compatible (or BSD-compatible, shouldyou choose to go that route). Again, this will be true for almost allmodern machines. The only really sticky areas are modems and wirelesscards; some machines have Windows-specific hardware that won't workwith Linux.
There's a FAQ on hardware compatibility; the latest version is here.
Q:I want to contribute. Can you help me pick a problem to work on?
A:No, because I don't know your talents or interests. You haveto be self-motivated or you won't stick, which is why having otherpeople choose your direction almost never works.
Try this. Watch the project announcements scroll by on Freshmeat for a few days.When you see one that makes you think "Cool! I'd like to work onthat!", join it.
Q:Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?
A:No, you don't. Not that Microsoft isn't loathsome, but there was ahacker culture long before Microsoft and there will still be one long afterMicrosoft is history. Any energy you spend hating Microsoft wouldbe better spent on loving your craft. Write good code — that willbash Microsoft quite sufficiently without polluting your karma.
Q:But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?
A:This seems unlikely — so far, the open-source softwareindustry seems to be creating jobs rather than taking them away. Ifhaving a program written is a net economic gain over not having itwritten, a programmer will get paid whether or not the program isgoing to be open-source after it's done. And, no matter how much"free" software gets written, there always seems to be more demand fornew and customized applications. I've written more about this at theOpen Sourcepages.
Q:Where can I get a free Unix?
A:If you don't have a Unix installed on your machine yet,elsewhere on this page I include pointers to where to get the mostcommonly used free Unix. To be a hacker you need motivation andinitiative and the ability to educate yourself. Start now...