How To Become A Hacker

Revision History
Revision 1.1511 Oct 2002esr
Added FAQ on how to pick a project to work on. Corrected some stale links. Spanish translation link.
Revision 1.1422 Sep 2002esr
Updated Russian translation. Typo fixes. Recomend XHTML.
Revision 1.1315 Aug 2002esr
Some words about OS/X and the virtues of not specializing.
Revision 1.1222 June 2002esr
More translations.
Revision 1.1125 February 2001esr
More translations. Removed Delphi from language shitlist, added C#.
Revision 1.104 February 2002esr
More links to useful documents.
Revision 1.927 November 2001esr
Why programming C is good to avoid. Why to learn English. Revised LISP link.
Revision 1.86 September 2001esr
Point at the new section of Python tutorials at python.org.
Revision 1.723 March 2001esr
More questions and answers added to the FAQ.
Revision 1.613 March 2001esr
Link fixes and Rick Moen's HOWTO.
Revision 1.52 March 2001esr
Added the Zen poem under "attitude".
Revision 1.41 March 2001esr
Added "Do I need to know math?" to FAQ list, and a link to a basic HTML tutorial.
Revision 1.36 February 2001esr
Restored translation list, added reference to Unix and Internet Fundamentals HOWTO.
Revision 1.211 September 2000esr
First DocBook version.
Revision 1.116 October 1996esr
Initial version.

Table of Contents

Why This Document?
What Is a Hacker?
The Hacker Attitude
1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
4. Freedom is good.
5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.
Basic Hacking Skills
1. Learn how to program.
2. Get one of the open-source Unixes and learn to use and run it.
3. Learn how to use the World Wide Web and write HTML.
4. If you don't have functional English, learn it.
Status in the Hacker Culture
1. Write open-source software
2. Help test and debug open-source software
3. Publish useful information
4. Help keep the infrastructure working
5. Serve the hacker culture itself
The Hacker/Nerd Connection
Points For Style
Other Resources
Frequently Asked Questions

As editor of the Jargon File and author of a few other well-known documents of similar nature, I often get email requests from enthusiastic network newbies asking (in effect) "how can I learn to be a wizardly hacker?". Oddly enough there don't seem to be any other 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 http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html.

Note: there is a list of Frequently Asked Questions at the end of this document. Please read these—twice—before mailing me any questions about this document.

Numerous translations of this document are available: Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (Brazilian), Portuguese (European), Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. Note that since this document changes occasionally, they may be out of date to varying degrees.

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 hacker.

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 `hacker'.

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 crackers.

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 attitude.

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 well.

Or, as the following modern Zen poem has it:

So, if you want to be a hacker, repeat the following things until you believe them:

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:

This, of course, is the fundamental hacking skill. If you don't know any computer languages, I recommend starting with Python. It is cleanly designed, 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. I have written a more detailed evaluation of Python. Good tutorials are available at the Python web site.

Java is also a good language for learning to program in. It is more difficult than Python, but produces faster code than Python. I think it makes an excellent second language.

But be aware that you won't reach the skill level of a hacker or even merely a programmer if you only know one or two languages -- 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 get 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. C++ is very closely related to C; if you know one, learning the other will not be difficult. Neither language is a good one to try learning as your first, however. And, actually, the more you can avoid programming in C the more productive you will be.

C is very efficient, and very sparing of your machine's resources. Unfortunately, C gets that efficiency by requiring you to do a lot of low-level management of resources (like memory) by hand. All that low-level code is complex and bug-prone, and will soak up huge amounts of your time on debugging. With today's machines as powerful as they are, this is usually a bad tradeoff -- it's smarter to use a language that uses the machine's time less efficiently, but your time much more efficiently. Thus, Python.

Other languages of particular importance to hackers include Perl and LISP. 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. Many people use Perl in the way I suggest you should use Python, to avoid C programming on jobs that don't require C's machine efficiency. You will need to be able to understand their code.

LISP is worth learning for a different reason — 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. (You can get some beginning experience with LISP fairly easily by writing and modifying editing modes for the Emacs text editor.)

It's best, actually, to learn all five of these (Python, Java, C/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). You can learn language features -- bits of knowledge -- from books, but the mind-set that makes that knowledge into living skill can be learned only by practice and apprenticeship. What will do it is (a) reading code and (b) writing code.

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...

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 toward 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 cast.

Under OS/X it's possible, but only part of the system is open source — you're likely to hit a lot of walls, and you have to be careful not to develop the bad habit of depending on Apple's proprietary code. If you concentrate on the Unix under the hood you can learn some useful things.

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 hosting, 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 The Loginataka.

To get your hands on a Linux, see the Where can I get Linux.

You can find BSD Unix help and resources at www.bsd.org.

I have written a primer on the basics of Unix and the Internet.

(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 contact the Open Projects Network. LISC maintains IRC channels where you can get help.)

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 skill.

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

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 expectations. See The Geek Page for 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 a life later on.

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.

  • Learn to write your native language well. Though it's a common stereotype that programmers can't write, a surprising number of hackers (including all the most accomplished ones I know of) are very able writers.

  • 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.

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.

Work as intensely as you play and play as intensely as you work. For true hackers, the boundaries between "play", "work", "science" and "art" all tend to disappear, or to merge into a high-level creative playfulness. Also, don't be content with a narrow range of skills. Though most hackers self-describe as programmers, they are very likely to be more than competent in several related skills — system administration, web design, and PC hardware troubleshooting are common ones. A hacker who's a system administrator, on the other hand, is likely to be quite skilled at script programming and web design. Hackers don't do things by halves; if they invest in a skill at all, they tend to get very good at it.

Finally, a few things not to do.

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 loser.

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 Excite search should find a copy.

I have also written A Brief History Of Hackerdom.

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 Homesteading the Noosphere.

Rick Moen has written an excellent document on how to run a Linux user group.

Rick Moen and I have collaborated on another document on How To Ask Smart Questions. This will help you seek assistance in a way that makes it more likely that you will actually get it.

If you need instruction in the basics of how personal computers, Unix, and the Internet work, see The Unix and Internet Fundamentals HOWTO.

When you release software or write patches for software, try to follow the guidelines in the Software Release Practice HOWTO.

Q:. Will you teach me how to hack?
Q:. How can I get started, then?
Q:. When do you have to start? Is it too late for me to learn?
Q:. How long will it take me to learn to hack?
Q:. Are Visual Basic or C# good languages to start with?
Q:. Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?
Q:. How can I get the password for someone else's account?
Q:. How can I break into/read/monitor someone else's email?
Q:. How can I steal channel op privileges on IRC?
Q:. I've been cracked. Will you help me fend off further attacks?
Q:. I'm having problems with my Windows software. Will you help me?
Q:. Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?
Q:. Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?
Q:. Do I need to be good at math to become a hacker?
Q:. What language should I learn first?
Q:. What kind of hardware do I need?
Q:. I want to contribute. Can you help me pick a problem to work on?
Q:. Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?
Q:. But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?
Q:. How can I get started? Where can I get a free Unix?
Q:.

Will you teach me how to hack?

A:.

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, and traveling as an open-source advocate, 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 know.

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.

If you do email a hacker asking for advice, here are two things to know up front. First, we've found that people who are lazy or careless in their writing are usually too lazy and careless in their thinking to make good hackers -- so take care to spell correctly, and use good grammar and punctuation, otherwise you'll probably be ignored. Secondly, don't dare ask for a reply to an ISP account that's different from the account you're sending from; we find people who do that are usually thieves using stolen accounts, and we have no interest in rewarding or assisting thievery.

Q:.

How can I get started, then?

A:.

The best way for you to get started would probably be to go to a LUG (Linux user group) meeting. You can find such groups on the LDP General Linux 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.

Q:.

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

A:.

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.

Q:.

How long will it take me to learn to hack?

A:.

That 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.

Q:.

Are Visual Basic or C# good languages to start with?

A:.

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 language is enough to disqualify it, and like other Basics it's a poorly-designed language that will teach you bad programming habits.

One of those bad habits is becoming dependent on a single vendor's libraries, widgets, and development tools. In general, any language that isn't supported under at least Linux or one of the BSDs, and/or at least three different vendors' operating systems, is a poor one to learn to hack in.

Q:.

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

A:.

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.

Q:.

How can I get the password for someone else's account?

A:.

This is cracking. Go away, idiot.

Q:.

How can I break into/read/monitor someone else's email?

A:.

This is cracking. Get lost, moron.

Q:.

How can I steal channel op privileges on IRC?

A:.

This is cracking. Begone, cretin.

Q:.

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

A:.

No. Every time I've been asked this question so far, it's been from some poor sap running Microsoft Windows. It is not possible to effectively secure Windows systems against crack attacks; the code and architecture simply have too many flaws, which makes securing Windows like trying to bail out a boat with a sieve. The only reliable prevention starts with switching to Linux or some other operating system that is designed to at least be capable of security.

Q:.

I'm having problems with my Windows software. Will you help me?

A:.

Yes. Go to a DOS prompt and type "format c:". Any problems you are experiencing will cease within a few minutes.

Q:.

Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?

A:.

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 Metalab).

(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.)

Q:.

Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?

A:.

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

For an introduction to Python, see the introductory materials on the Python site.

Q:.

Do I need to be good at math to become a hacker?

A:.

No. While you do need to be able to think logically and follow chains of exact reasoning, hacking uses very little formal mathematics or arithmetic.

In particular, you won't need trigonometry, calculus or analysis (we leave that stuff to the electrical engineers :-)). Some grounding in finite mathematics (including Boolean algebra, finite-set theory, combinatorics, and graph theory) can be helpful.

Q:.

What language should I learn first?

A:.

XHTML (the latest dialect of 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 HTML: The Definitive Guide.

But HTML is not a full programming language. When you're ready to start programming, I would recommend starting with Python. You will hear 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.

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.

Q:.

What kind of hardware do I need?

A:.

It used to be that personal computers were rather underpowered and memory-poor, enough so that they placed artificial limits on a hacker's learning process. This stopped being true some time ago; any machine from an Intel 486DX50 up is more than powerful enough for development work, X, and Internet communications, and the smallest disks you can buy today are plenty big enough.

The important thing in choosing a machine on which to learn is whether its hardware is Linux-compatible (or BSD-compatible, should you choose to go that route). Again, this will be true for most modern machines. The only real sticky area is modems; some machines have Windows-specific hardware that won't work with Linux.

There's a FAQ on hardware compatibility; the latest version is here.

Q:.

I want to contribute. Can you help me pick a problem to work on?

A:.

No, because I don't know your talents or interests. You have to be self-motivated or you won't stick, which is why having other people choose your direction almost never works.

Try this. Watch the project announcements scroll by on Freshmeat for a few days, When you see one that makes you think "Cool! I'd like tto work on that!", join it.

Q:.

Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?

A:.

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 long after 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.

Q:.

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

A:.

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 open-source 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 more about this at the Open Source pages.

Q:.

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

A:.

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...