What real life systems have you hacked?

I recently read the sparkling ‘Chaos Monkeys‘ by Antonio Garcia Martinez, which talks about his life at a Startup, and then at Facebook.

One interesting question which he mentioned was from Y-Combinator‘s form when a startup applied to it.

Please tell us about the time you (…) most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage

I love the ‘non-computer’ hacking part. Most hustlers are ‘hackers’ of social systems. Every founder must be able to hustle; find novel solutions to problems in real life. It might sound similar to doing unethical, or borderline unethical things, but that’s not what this necessarily means.

Paul Graham, the founder of Y-Combinator, agreed with a definition of this on Hacker News:

I assume that the PG et al. mean “hack” in the positive sense — as much as news.yc occasionally sounds cultish, I don’t think they’re following the usual cult scheme of having prospective members confess their crimes in order to ensure that the cult has blackmail material on everybody. 🙂
That said, I’m having trouble coming up with a good example of what would qualify here — the best I have so far is when I was a new graduate student at Oxford and dug through the Exam Decrees And Regulations (also known as the “big grey book”) to discover what nobody else in the Computing Lab was aware of: That instead of writing a 50 page dissertation at the end of my first year and being examined on it, I could count the fact that I had a paper published in a major journal as equivalent to holding a Master’s degree, and thereby transfer from Probationary Research Student status to D.Phil. Student status six months early and with hundreds of hours less work.
I would personally call this “reading the rules and understanding how they work” rather than “hacking the system”, but maybe that’s what they mean.

To this comment, Paul Graham replied,

That is exactly what we mean.

This is a very good question to think about. Coming from India, I find it not too hard to think of answers and examples, there is even a Hindi word for it.

To me, sales, or reaching people, is the most clear example of real-life hacking. You generate valuable insights by reaching the right people. This is bound mostly by social conventions, and sometimes you need to hack these conventions. Books written on sales and the psychology of marketing are hacker guides in this sense. As a Product Manager or a Designer, you maximize learning by maximizing customer contact, but potential customers are not going to just let you have their time. This is one area where you will need social hacking to get something difficult done.

But of course, more non-computer systems can be ‘hacked’, and this is one question I think one should reflect on often, not just what you have hacked before, but what you can hack now, to fulfil your goals.

Notes:

  • Paul Graham mentions that this is the most important question in the application, in this essay.
  • “Hacker” is another good Paul Graham essay where he lays out how it’s meant among programmers.

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