Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham.

In short

Hackers & Painters is a collection of essays from Paul Graham covering a variety of topics that are mostly linked to technology and start-ups. A lot of these essays can be found on Graham’s website but there are some new additions as well.

Overall, the essays in Hackers & Painters are good when they deal with technology, start-ups, programming, or computer-related topics, but less so with political and/or philosophical topics.

Book Summary & Notes


“As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.”

“Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so at the time.”

“If you want to make money at some point, remember this, because this is one of the reasons startups win. Big companies want to decrease the standard deviation of design outcomes because they want to avoid disasters. But when you damp oscillations, you lose the high points as well as the low. This is not a problem for big companies, because they don’t win by making great products. Big companies win by sucking less than other big companies.”

“All makers face this problem. Prices are determined by supply and demand, and there is just not as much demand for things that are fun to work on as there is for things that solve the mundane problems of individual customers. Acting in off-Broadway plays doesn’t pay as well as wearing a gorilla suit in someone’s booth at a trade show. Writing novels doesn’t pay as well as writing ad copy for garbage disposals. And hacking programming languages doesn’t pay as well as figuring out how to connect come company’s legacy database to their web server.”

“I think the answer to this problem […] is a concept known to nearly all makers: the day job. The phrase began with musicians, who perform at night. More generally, it means you have one kind of work you do for money, and another for love.”

“The trouble with keeping you thoughts secret, though, is that you lose the advantages of discussion. Talking about an idea leads to more ideas. So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it’s also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know.”

“There are only two things you have to know about business: build something users love, and make more than you spend. If you get these two right, you’ll be ahead of most startups. You can figure out the rest as you go.”

“As for building something users love, here are some general tips. Start by making something clean and simple that you would want to use yourself. Get a version 1.0 out fast, then continue to improve the software, listening closely to users as you do. The customer is always right, but different customers are right about different things; the least sophisticated users show you what you need to simplify and clarify, and the most sophisticated tell you what features you need to add. The best thing software can be is easy, but the way to do this is to get the defaults right, not to limit users’ choices. Don’t get complacent if your competitors’ software is lame; the standard to compare your software to is what it could be, not what your current competitors happen to have. Use your software yourself, all the time. […] Don’t listen to marketing people or designers or product managers just because of their job titles. If they have good ideas, use them, but it’s up to you to decide; software has to be designed by hackers who understand design, not designers who know a little about software. If you can’t design software as well as implement, don’t start a startup.”

“Now let’s talk about competition. What you’re afraid of is not presumably groups of hackers like you, but actual companies, with offices and business plans and salesmen and so on, right? Well, they are more afraid of you than you are of them, and they’re right. It’s a lot easier for a couple of hackers to figure out how to rent office space or hire sales people than it is for a company of any size to get software written. I’ve been on both sides, and I know.”

“I can remember believing, as a child, that if a few rich people had all the money, it left less for everyone else. Many people seem to continue to believe something like this well into adulthood. This fallacy is usually there in the background when you hear someone talking about how x percent of the population have y percent of the wealth. If you plan to start a startup, then whether you realize it or not, you’re planning to disprove the Pie Fallacy.

What leads people astray here is the abstraction of money. Money is not wealth. It’s just something to move wealth around. So although there may be, in certain specific moments (like your family, this month) a fixed amount of money available to trade with other people for things you want, there is not a fixed amount of wealth in this world. You can make more wealth. Wealth has been getting created and destroyed (but on balance, created) for all of human history.”

“If you want to go faster, it’s a problem to have your work tangled together with a large number of other people’s. In a large group, your performance is not separately measurable – and the rest of the group slows you down.”

“To get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things, measurement and leverage. You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you need to have leverage, in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.’ → e.g. CEOs, lead actors, athletes, or: small groups.”

“Number of users may not be the perfect test, but it will be very close. It’s what acquirers care about. It’s what revenues depend on. It’s what makes competitors unhappy. It’s what impresses reporters, and potential new users. Certainly it’s a better test than your a priori notions of what problems are important to solve, no matter how technically adept you are.”

“Among other things, treating a startup as an optimization problem will help you avoid another pitfall that VCs worry about, and rightly – taking a long time to develop a product. Now we can recognize this as something hackers already know to avoid: premature optimization. Get a version 1.0 out there as soon as you can. Until you have some users to measure, you’re optimizing based on guesses.”

“[T]he rate at which technology increases our productive capacity is probably polynomial, rather than linear. So we should expect to see ever-increasing variation in individual productivity as time goes on. Will that increase the gap between the rich and the poor? Depends on which gap you mean.

Technology should increase the gap in income, but it seems to decrease other gaps.”

→ E.g. rich people used to live completely different lives, now they those lives are comparable to the average.

→ Cars are a good example: mass produced cars are usually better designed (e.g. less issues) than super expensive handmade cars.

“The only thing technology can’t cheapen is brand. Which is precisely why we hear ever more about it. Brand is the residue left as the substantive differences between rich and poor evaporate. But what label you have on your stuff is a much smaller matter than having it versus not having it. In 1900, if you kept a carriage, no one asked what year or brand it was. If you had one, you were rich. And if you weren’t rich, you took the omnibus or walked. Now even the poorest Americans drive cars, and it is only because we’re so well trained by advertising that we can even recognize the especially expensive ones.”

Worse is better: “if you’re building something new, you should get a prototype in front of users as soon as possible.”

“What people outside the software world may not realize is that Worse is Better is found throughout the arts. In drawing, for example, the idea was discovered during the Renaissance. Now almost every drawing teacher will tell you that the right way to get an accurate drawing is not to work your way slowly around the contour of an object, because errors will accumulate and you’ll find at the end that the lines don’t meet. Instead you should draw a few quick lines in roughly the right place, and the gradually refine this initial sketch.”


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