To most people in the technology community "hacker" is a dirty word. Say hacker and most people instantly think of bad guys spreading viruses or breaking into corporate systems and stealing data.
Of course this is completely wrong. In fact, hacker should be a term of respect. But even more importantly, you should be careful about badmouthing hackers. That's because there is a very good chance that you yourself are a hacker.
I know what you're going to say: "Jim, I can't code to save my life. And anytime I take equipment apart I end up breaking it. There is no way that I'm a hacker."
To which I would reply: "Guess again. Hacking skills can extend well beyond the world of technology."
What got me thinking about this was the recent release of a book to which I contributed an essay. "Jack Bauer for President: Terrorism and Politics in 24" is a collection of essays that looks at the television show "24" through a real-world prism. And the essay I contributed was essentially an argument that the character of Jack Bauer is a classic hacker even though his computer technology skills are relatively modest.
And the more I've thought about this topic, the more I've realized that it applies to lots of people and not just fictional characters on TV shows.
Don't believe that you have the skills of a hacker? How about that series of back roads you use to avoid traffic jams during your commute? When you do that you are essentially hacking the highway system.
Or what about all of the experience and skills you've built up in shopping for items at the best prices and knowing how to talk salespeople into giving discounts? This is clearly an example of hacking the retail system.
A pretty good definition of a hacker is someone who knows or learns how things work and is able to come up with creative solutions to tough problems. When hacking is looked at in this way, it becomes pretty easy to see how people essentially become hackers in a wide variety of real world situations.
And once you realize that you have the skills of a hacker, you can start to apply it to other areas of your like, especially in your job and the management of technology.
Have a core piece of software that isn't delivering on its initial promises? The standard solutions might be to just put up with the limitations or start looking for new software. But if you approach it from a hacker perspective, you may be able to find that the application can be customized or integrated with another program, in a way that fixes the limitations.
Have corporate policies that are making it difficult to get things done in the most effective way? Some creative thinking along with research with others within the company could lead to new and still acceptable processes that circumvent the bottleneck and make it possible to get things done.
When you get down to it, while specific types of hacking do require specialized skill sets, for the most part being a hacker is a state of mind. It's having the mind set that every problem has a solution if one has the knowledge and the drive to find it.
So to all of you, whether you use or manage technology, embrace your inner hacker.