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How to Become a Hacker by Eric S. Raymond

How To Become A Hacker

Why This Document?

As editor of the Jargon File,
I often get email requests from enthusiastic network newbies asking
(in effect) "how can I learn to be a wizard hacker?". Oddly enough
there don't seem to be any FAQs or Web documents that address this
vital question, so here's mine.

If you are reading a snapshot of this document offline, the current
version lives at

What Is A Hacker?

The Jargon File contains a bunch
of definitions of the term `hacker', most having to do with technical
adeptness and a delight in solving problems and overcoming limits.  If
you want to know how to become a hacker, though, only two are
really relevant.

There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and
networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the
first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments.
The members of this culture originated the term `hacker'.  Hackers
built the Internet.  Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is
today.  Hackers run Usenet.  Hackers make the World Wide Web work.  If
you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other
people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a

The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture.
There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like
electronics or music -- actually, you can find it at the highest
levels of any science or art.  Software hackers recognize these
kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them "hackers" too -- and some
claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular
medium the hacker works in.  But in the rest of this document we will
focus on the skills and attitudes of software hackers, and the
traditions of the shared culture that originated the term

There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers,
but aren't.  These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick
out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system.  Real
hackers call these people `crackers' and want nothing to do with them.
Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not
very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn't make
you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an
automotive engineer.  Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have
been fooled into using the word `hacker' to describe crackers; this
irritates real hackers no end.

The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.

If you want to be a hacker, keep reading.  If you want to be a cracker,
go read the alt.2600 newsgroup and get
ready to do five to ten in the slammer after finding out you aren't as
smart as you think you are.  And that's all I'm going to say about

The Hacker Attitude

Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom
and voluntary mutual help.  To be accepted as a hacker, you have to
behave as though you have this kind of attitude yourself.  And to
behave as though you have the attitude, you have to really believe the

But if you think of cultivating hacker attitudes as just a way to gain
acceptance in the culture, you'll miss the point.  Becoming the kind
of person who believes these things is important for you --
for helping you learn and keeping you motivated.  As with all creative
arts, the most effective way to become a master is to imitate the
mind-set of masters -- not just intellectually but emotionally as

So, if you want to be a hacker, repeat the following things until
you 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 takes lots
of effort.  The effort takes motivation.  Successful athletes get
their motivation from a kind of physical delight in making their
bodies perform, in pushing themselves past their own physical limits.
Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving
problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your intelligence.

If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'll
need to become one in order to make it as a hacker.  Otherwise you'll
find your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and
social approval.

(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning
capacity -- a belief that even though you may not know all of what you
need to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn
from that, you'll learn enough to solve the next piece -- and so on,
until you're done.)

2. Nobody should ever have to solve a problem twice.

Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource.  They shouldn't be
wasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinating
new problems waiting out there.

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time of
other hackers is precious -- so much so that it's almost a moral duty
for you to share information, solve problems and then give the
solutions away just so other hackers can solve new
problems instead of having to perpetually re-address old ones.

(You don't have to believe that you're obligated to give all
your creative product away, though the hackers 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 in food and rent and
computers.  It's consistent to use your hacking skills to support a
family or even get rich, as long as you don't forget you're a hacker
while you're doing it.)

3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.

Hackers (and creative people in general) should never be bored or have
to drudge at stupid repetitive work, because when this happens it
means they aren't doing what only they can do -- solve new problems.
This wastefulness hurts everybody.  Therefore boredom and drudgery are
not just unpleasant but actually evil.

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe this enough to want to
automate away the boring bits as much as possible, not just for
yourself but for everybody else (especially other hackers).

(There is one apparent exception to this.  Hackers will sometimes do
things that may seem repetitive or boring to an observer as a
mind-clearing exercise, or in order to acquire a skill or have some
particular kind of experience you can't have otherwise.  But this is
by choice -- nobody who can think should ever be forced into boredom.)

4. Freedom is good.

Hackers are naturally anti-authoritarian.  Anyone who can give you
orders can stop you from solving whatever problem you're being
fascinated by -- and, given the way authoritarian minds work, will
generally find some appallingly stupid reason to do so.  So the
authoritarian attitude has to be fought wherever you find it, lest
it smother you and other hackers.

(This isn't the same as fighting all authority.  Children need to be
guided and criminals restrained.  A hacker may agree to accept some
kinds of authority in order to get something he wants more than the
time he spends following orders. But that's a limited, conscious
bargain; the kind of personal surrender authoritarians want is not on

Authoritarians thrive on censorship and secrecy.  And they distrust
voluntary cooperation and information-sharing -- they only like
`cooperation' that they control. So to behave like a hacker, you have to
develop an instinctive hostility to censorship, secrecy, and the use
of force or deception to compel responsible adults.  And you have to
be willing to act on that belief.

5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

To be a hacker, you have to develop some of these attitudes.  But
copping an attitude alone won't make you a hacker, any more than it
will make you a champion athlete or a rock star.  Becoming a hacker
will take intelligence, practice, dedication, and hard work.

Therefore, you have to learn to distrust attitude and respect
competence of every kind.  Hackers won't let posers waste their time,
but they worship competence -- especially competence at hacking, but
competence at anything is good.  Competence at demanding skills that
few can master is especially good, and competence at demanding skills
that 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 play
rather than drudgery.  And that's vital to becoming a hacker.

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 basic
toolkit of skills which you have to have before any hacker will dream
of calling you one.

This toolkit changes slowly over time as technology creates new skills
and makes old ones obsolete.  For example, it used to include programming
in machine language, and didn't until recently involve HTML.  But
right now it pretty clearly includes the following:

1. Learn how to program.

This, of course, is the fundamental hacking skill.  If you don't
know any computer languages,a
well documented, and relatively kind to beginners.  Despite being
a good first language, it is not just a toy; it is very powerful
and flexible and well suited for large projects.

But be aware that you won't reach the skill level of a hacker or even
merely a programmer if you only know one language -- you need to learn
how to think about programming problems in a general way, independent
of any one language.  To be a real hacker, you need to have gotten to
the point where you can learn a new language in days by relating
what's in the manual to what you already know.  This means you should
learn several very different languages.

If you get into serious programming, you will have to learn C, the
core language of Unix (though it's not the one to try learning first
thing).  Other languages of particular importance to hackers include
Perl and
href="httLISP.  Perl is worth
learning for practical reasons; it's very widely used for active web
pages and system administration, so that even if you never write Perl
you should learn to read it.  LISP is worth learning for the profound
enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it; that
experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your
days, even if you never actually use LISP itself a lot.

It's best, actually, to learn all four of these (Python, C, Perl, and
LISP).  Besides being the most important hacking languages, they
represent very different approaches to programming, and each will
educate you in valuable ways.

I can't give complete instructions on how to learn to program here --
it's a complex skill.  But I can tell you that books and courses won't
do it (many, maybe most of the best hackers are self-taught).
What will do it is (a) reading code and (b) writing

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 the
form, write some things yourself, read a lot more, write a little
more, read a lot more, write some more ... and repeat until your
writing begins to develop the kind of strength and economy you see in
your models.

Finding good code to read used to be hard, because there were few
large programs available in source for fledgeling hackers to read and
tinker with.  This has changed dramatically; open-source software,
programming tools, and operating systems (all built by hackers) are
now 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'm assuming you have a personal computer or can get access to
one (these kids today have it so easy :-)).  The single most
important step any newbie can take towards acquiring hacker skills
is to get a copy of Linux or one of the BSD-Unixes, install
it on a personal machine, and run it.

Yes, there are other operating systems in the world besides Unix.  But
they're distributed in binary -- you can't read the code, and you
can't modify it.  Trying to learn to hack on a DOS or Windows machine or
under MacOS is like trying to learn to dance while wearing a body

Besides, Unix is the operating system of the Internet.  While you can
learn to use the Internet without knowing Unix, you can't be an
Internet hacker without understanding Unix.  For this reason, the hacker
culture today is pretty strongly Unix-centered. (This wasn't always
true, and some old-time hackers still aren't happy about it, but the
symbiosis between Unix and the Internet has become strong enough that
even Microsoft's muscle doesn't seem able to seriously dent it.)

So, bring up a Unix -- I like Linux myself but there are other ways
(and yes, you can run both Linux and DOS/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, and Perl) than any Microsoft
operating system can dream of, you'll have fun, and you'll soak up
more knowledge than you realize you're learning until you look back on
it as a master hacker.

For more about learning Unix, see

To get your hands on a Linux, see the
href="http://linuxresources.com/apps/f Where can I get

You can find BSD Unix hela

(Note: I don't really recommend installing either Linux or BSD as a
solo project if you're a newbie.  For Linux, find a local Linux user's
group and ask for help; or conta
href="http://www.linpeople.org"ternet Support
Co-Operative. LISC maintains
href="http://openprojects.nu/IRC channels where
you can get help.)

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

Most of the things the hacker culture has built do their work out of
sight, helping run factories and offices and universities without any
obvious impact on how non-hackers live.  The Web is the one big
exception, the huge shiny hacker toy that even politicians
admit is changing the world.  For this reason alone (and a lot of
other good ones as well) you need to learn how to work the Web.

This doesn't just mean learning how to drive a browser (anyone can do
that), but learning how to write HTML, the Web's markup language. If
you don't know how to program, writing HTML will teach you some
mental habits that will help you learn. So build a home page.

But just having a home page isn't anywhere near good enough to make
you a hacker.  The Web is full of home pages.  Most of them are
pointless, zero-content sludge -- very snazzy-looking sludge, mind
you, but sludge all the same (for more on this sA
HREF="http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/html-hell.html" HTML Hell

To be worthwhile, your page must have content -- it must be
interesting and/or useful to other hackers.  And that brings us to the
next topic...

Status in the Hacker Culture

Like most cultures without a money economy, hackerdom runs on
reputation.  You're trying to solve interesting problems, but how
interesting they are, and whether your solutions are really good, is
something that only your technical peers or superiors are normally
equipped to judge.

Accordingly, when you play the hacker game, you learn to keep score
primarily by what other hackers think of your skill (this is why you aren't
really a hacker until other hackers consistently call you one).  This fact is
obscured by the image of hacking as solitary work; also by a hacker-cultural
taboo (now gradually decaying but still potent) against admitting that ego
or external validation are involved in one's motivation at all.

Specifically, hackerdom is what anthropologists call a gift
culture.  You gain status and reputation in it not by dominating
other people, nor by being beautiful, nor by having things other
people want, but rather by giving things away.  Specifically, by
giving away your time, your creativity, and the results of your

There are basically five kinds of things you can do to be respected by

1. Write open-source software.

The first (the most central and most traditional) is to write programs
that other hackers think are fun or useful, and give the program
sources to the whole hacker culture to use.

(We used to call these works ``free software'', but this confused too
many people who weren't sure exactly what ``free'' was supposed to mean.
Many of us now prefer the term ``a
href="http://www.opensource.org/"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, so
that now everyone uses them.

2. Help test and debug open-source software

They also serve who stand and debug open-source software.  In this imperfect
world, we will inevitably spend most of our software development time
in the debugging phase. That's why any open-source author who's
thinking will tell you that good beta-testers (who know how to
describe symptoms clearly, localize problems well, can tolerate bugs
in a quickie release, and are willing to apply a few simple diagnostic
routines) are worth their weight in rubies.  Even one of these can
make the difference between a debugging phase that's a protracted,
exhausting nightmare and one that's merely a salutary nuisance.

If you're a newbie, try to find a program under development that
you're interested in and be a good beta-tester.  There's a natural
progression from helping test programs to helping debug them to
helping modify them.  You'll learn a lot this way, and generate
good karma with people who will help you later on.

3. Publish useful information.

Another good thing is to collect and filter useful and interesting information
into Web pages or documents like FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions
lists), and make those generally available.

Maintainers of major technical FAQs get almost as much respect as
open-source authors.

4. Help keep the infrastructure working.

The hacker culture (and the engineering development of the Internet,
for that matter) is run by volunteers.  There's a lot of necessary but
unglamorous work that needs done to keep it going -- administering
mailing lists, moderating newsgroups, maintaining large software
archive sites, developing RFCs and other technical standards.

People who do this sort of thing well get a lot of respect, because
everybody knows these jobs are huge time sinks and not as much fun as
playing with code.  Doing them shows dedication.

5. Serve the hacker culture itself.

Finally, you can serve and propagate the culture itself (by, for
example, writing an accurate primer on how to become a hacker :-)).
This is not something you'll be positioned to do until you've been
around for while and become well-known for one of the first four

The hacker culture doesn't have leaders, exactly, but it does have
culture heroes and tribal elders and historians and spokespeople.
When you've been in the trenches long enough, you may grow into one of
these.  Beware: hackers distrust blatant ego in their tribal elders,
so visibly reaching for this kind of fame is dangerous.  Rather than
striving for it, you have to sort of position yourself so it drops in
your 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 a hacker.
It does help, however, and many hackers are in fact nerds.  Being a social
outcast helps you stay concentrated on the really important things, like
thinking and hacking.

For this reason, many hackers have adopted the label `nerd' and even
use the harsher term `geek' as a badge of pride -- it's a way of
declaring their independence from normal social A
extensive discussion.

If you can manage to concentrate enough on hacking to be good at it
and still have a life, that's fine.  This is a lot easier today than
it was when I was a newbie in the 1970s; mainstream culture is much
friendlier to techno-nerds now.  There are even growing numbers of
people who realize that hackers are often high-quality lover and
spouse 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. Maybe you'll
get one later.

Points For Style

Again, to be a hacker, you have to enter the hacker mindset.  There
are some things you can do when you're not at a computer that seem to
help.  They're not substitutes for hacking (nothing is) but many
hackers do them, and feel that they connect in some basic way
with the essence of hacking.

 Read science fiction.  Go to science fiction conventions
     (a good way to meet hackers and proto-hackers).
 Study Zen, and/or take up martial arts.  (The mental discipline
     seems similar in important ways.)
 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.
 Learn to write your native language well.  (A surprising number of
     hackers, including all the best ones I know of, are able writers.)

The more of these things you already do, the more likely it is that you
are natural hacker material.   Why these things in particular is not
completely clear, but they're connected with a mix of left- and
right-brain skills that seems to be important (hackers need to
be able to both reason logically and step outside the apparent
logic of a problem at a moment's notice).

Finally, a few things not to do.

 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 a
twit.  Hackers have long memories -- it could take you years to live
your early blunders down enough to be accepted.

The problem with screen names or handles deserves some amplification.
Concealing your identity behind a handle is a juvenile and silly
behavior characteristic of crackers, warez d00dz, and other lower life
forms.  Hackers don't do this; they're proud of what they do and want
it associated with their real names.  So if you have a
handle, drop it.  In the hacker culture it will only mark you as a

Other Resources

Peter Seebach maintains an excellent
Hacker FAQ
for managers who don't understand how to deal with hackers.  If
Peter's site doesn't respond, the following
search should find a copy.

The Loginataka has some things to say
about the proper training and attitude of a Unix hacker.

I have also written
HREF="../writings/haA Brief History Of

I have written a paper,
The Cathedral and the Bazaar,
which explains a lot about how the Linux and open-source cultures
work.  I have addressed this topic even more directly in its sequel
the Noosphere.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Will you teach me how to hack?

Since first publishing this page, I've gotten several requests a week
(often several a day) from people to "teach me all about hacking".
Unfortunately, I don't have the time or energy to do this; my own
hacking projects take up 110% of my time.

Even if I did, hacking is an attitude and skill you basically have to
teach 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 they

Learn a few things first.  Show that you're trying, that you're
capable of learning on your own.  Then go to the hackers you meet with
specific questions.

How can I get started, then?

The best way for you to get started would probably be to go to a LUG
(Linux user group) meeting.  You can find sua
Information Page; there is probably one near you, possibly
associated with a college or university.  LUG members will probably
give you a Linux if you ask, and will certainly help you install one
and get started.

When do you have to start?  Is it too late for me to learn?

Any age at which you are motivated to start is a good age. Most people
seem to get interested between ages 15 and 20, but I know of
exceptions in both directions.

How long will it take me to learn to hack?

The depends on how talented you are and how hard you work at it.  Most
people can acquire a respectable skill set in eighteen months to two
years, if they concentrate.  Don't think it ends there, though; 
if you are a real hacker, you will spend the rest of your life
learning and perfecting your craft.

Are Visual Basic or Delphi good languages to start with?

No, because they're not portable.  There are no open-source
implementations of these languages, so you'd be locked into only those
platforms the vendor chooses to support. Accepting that kind
of monopoly situation is not the hacker way.

Visual Basic is especially awful.  The fact that it's a proprietary
Microsoft langage is enough to disqualify it, and like other Basics
it's a poorly-designed language that will teach you bad programming

Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?

No.  Anyone who can still ask such a question after reading this FAQ
is 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 or
answered with extreme rudeness.

I've been cracked.  Will you help me fend off further attacks?

No.  Every time I've been asked this question so far, it's been from
somebody running Windows.  It is not possible to effectively secure
Windows systems against crack attacks; the code and architecture
simply have too many flaws, it's like trying to bail out a boat with a
sieve.  The only reliable prevention is to switch to Linux or some
other operating system with real security.

Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?

The best way is to find a Unix or Linux user's group local to you and
go to their meetings (you can find links to several lists of user
groups on the  LDP site at

(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 real
hacker communities, attached to things like GIMP and Perl, have IRC
channels now.)

Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?

I maintain a 

Linux Reading List HOWTO that you may find helpful.  The
Loginataka may also be interesting.

What language should I learn first?

HTML, if you don't already know it.  There are a lot of glossy,
hype-intensive bad HTML books out there, and distressingly
few good ones.  The one I like best is
href="http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/htHTML: The Definitive Guide.

But HTML is not a full programming language.  When you're ready to
start programming, I would ra
href="http://www.python.org"ear a lot of
people recommending Perl, and Perl is still more popular than Python,
but it's harder to learn and (in my opinion) less well designed.
There are
for programming beginners using Python in the Web.

C is really important, but it's also much more difficult than either
Python or Perl. Don't try to learn it first.

Windows users, do not settle for Visual Basic.  It will teach
you bad habits, and it's not portable off Windows.  Avoid.

Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?

No, you don't.  Not that Microsoft isn't loathsome, but there was a
hacker culture long before Microsoft and there will still be one when
Microsoft is history.  Any energy you spend hating Microsoft would
be better spent on loving your craft.  Write good code -- that will
bash Microsoft quite sufficiently without polluting your karma.

But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?

This seems unlikely -- so far, the open-source software industry seems
to be creating jobs rather than taking them away.  If having a program
written is a net economic gain over not having it written, a
programmer will get paid whether or not the program is going to be
free after it's done.  And, no matter how much "free" software gets
written, there always seems to be more demand for new and customized
applications.  I've written morea

How can I get started?  Where can I get a free Unix?

Elsewhere on this page I include pointers to where to get the most
commonly used free Unix.  To be a hacker you need motivation and
initiative and the ability to educate yourself. Start now...

Back to Eric's FAQ Page
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$Date: 2000/03/24 21:01:28 $

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>

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