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Yegor Bugayenko
26 October 2014

Are You a Hacker or a Designer?

Twenty years ago, the best programmer was the one capable of fitting an entire application into a 64Kb .COM file. Those who were able to get the most out of that poor Intel 80386 were the icons of programming.

That's because twenty years ago computers were expensive and programmers were cheap. That was the time of the "hacker mentality." That time is over. That mentality is not appreciated any more, because the market situation is completely opposite.

Today, computers are cheap and programmers are expensive. This is the era of the "designer mentality," when the readability of our code is much more important than its performance.

Prices vs Salaries

Look at this graph. It is a comparison of two trends over the last twenty years (1994-2014). The first trend falls down and shows how much cheaper computer memory and HDD storage have become over the last twenty years.

The second trend demonstrates how much software developers' salaries escalated over the same period. More accurately, they tripled. I didn't find an official report about that, but I'm sure it's no secret to anyone that the salaries of programmers keep growing—$200,000 per year for a senior developer is not a dream any more... while twenty years ago $60K was the best offer around. I found this article very interesting about this very subject.

Basically, this means that in order to create a PHP website in 1994 we had to spend 1000 times more on hardware and three times less on programmers than we do now, in 2014. And we're talking about the same stack of technologies here. The same Linux box with an Apache HTTP Server inside.

The difference is that in 1994, if our application had performance problems because of hardware limitations, we paid $35,000 per each additional gigabyte of RAM, while in 2014 we pay $10.

In 1994 it was much more efficient to hire more programmers and ask them to optimize the code or even rewrite it, instead of buying new hardware. In 2014 the situation is exactly the opposite. It is now much cheaper to double the size of the server (especially if the server is a virtual cloud one) instead of paying salaries for optimizing the software.

In 1994 the best engineers had that "hacker mentality," while in 2014 the "designer mentality" is much more appreciated.

Hacker Mentality

Someone with a hacker mentality would call this Fibonacci Java method an "elegant code" (would you?):

public int f(int n) { return n>2?f(n-1)+f(n-2):n; }

I would highlight these qualities of a good hacker:

A hacker is a talented individual. He wants to express his talent in the software he writes. He enjoys coding and does it mostly for fun. I would say, he is married to his code and can't imagine its happy life after an eventual divorce. Code ownership is what a hacker is about—he understands himself as an "owner" of the code.

When I ask one of my hacker friends—"How will someone understand what this code does?" I almost always hear the same answer—"They will ask me!" (usually said very proudly, with a sincere smile).

Designer Mentality

Someone with a designer mentality would refactor the code above to make it easier to read. He would call this Java function an "elegant code" (how about you?):

public int fibo(final int pos) {
  final int num;
  if (pos > 2) {
    num = fibo(pos - 1) + fibo(pos - 2);
  } else {
    num = pos;
  return num;

I think these qualities can be attributed to a good designer:

A designer is a talented team player. He contributes to the team processes, standards, rules, education, and discipline as much as he contributes to the source code. He always makes sure that once he leaves the project his code and his ideas stay and work.

The highest satisfaction for a good designer is to see his code living its own life—being modified, improved, refactored and eventually retired. A designer sees himself as a parent of the code—once it is old enough to walk and talk, it has to live its own life.

The Future

If you consider yourself a hacker, I believe it's time to change. The time of hackers is fading out.

In the near future we will probably even stop thinking in terms of "hardware" and will run our applications in elastic computational platforms with unlimited amounts of memory, CPU power and storage space. We will simply pay for resource utilization and almost any performance issue will just add a few extra dollars to our monthly bills. We won't care about optimization any more.

At the same time, good software engineers will become more and more expensive and will charge $500+ per hour just to check out software and give a diagnosis. Just like good lawyers or dentists.

That's why, while developing a new software product, those who pay for it will care mostly about its maintainability. Project sponsors will understand that the best solution they can get for their money is the one that is the most readable, maintainable, and automated.

Not the fastest.