Stu Bradley makes it along to his first ever Hacker News meetup. It isn’t quite as he’d imagined.
If, like me, you’re under the age of 25, there’s a good chance you first heard the word hacker used to describe Boris Grishenko in GoldenEye. Anyone who owned an N64 and a copy of the video game adaptation will remember taking great pleasure in shooting Boris, only to be chastised by Natalya and fail the mission. Boris is socially awkward, arrogant, motivated by ill-gotten profit and an all round bad egg. Fortunately, he gets the Han Solo treatment and is frozen by a vat of nitrogen exploding.
But in the past few years, the figure of the hacker has undergone something of a metamorphosis. Certainly, a rehabilitation. While the hacker maintains an air of transgression (see: the rise of hacktivism, Anonymous, Wikileaks), he has increasingly been portrayed as an anti-heroic force for good and has even, dare I say it, become cool. Put simply, people are starting to realise that not all hackers are evil. Unless they work at stock photography websites or for certain national newspapers.
Readers of this magazine are likely to be familiar with Hacker News, formerly known as Startup News, run by start-up accelerator Y Combinator. If not, it’s like Reddit but without the cats. Well, fewer cats. The site holds occasional meet-ups in London, to which I had, shockingly, never been until now. I have chalked this up to a subconscious fear that everyone there would be very technical and dry, and perhaps malevolent. Blame Bond.
On arriving at the latest one, I found that I should not have worried about people being dry. With free beer and pizza on tap, it was like Geeks Gone Wild, if that is not too much of an emetic. Oh, and a number of attendees do look like Boris Grishenko, though brief inspection suggested that they are not evil. The event was extremely male dominated, probably 95 per cent male to 5 per cent female. I found a female community manager hiding in the corner because she didn’t think she’d have anything in common with the other attendees.
First up was someone from Twilio doing a talk, and a live coding display. [Editor's Note: Twilio is a launch sponsor of The Kernel.] Well, actually, first up was about twenty minutes of panicking that no-one had a flash drive, and trying to get the presumably outdated school tech (yes, the event was held in a school hall, on which point more in a moment) to co-operate.
Fortunately, everything came together and the display did a good job of showing how easily Twilio can be set up, fielding rapid fire questions and using the service to gather phone numbers from people in the room. These numbers were then projected onto a forty foot wall. It’s been a few days now and it doesn’t look like anyone’s signed me up to a premium rate sexting service yet, so all is well.
At any event that requires people to sit still for an hour or more, the content of the talks is key. Recently, there has been a tendency to bring in flashy speakers who talk about nightlife in the Valley, how much fun it is managing their multi-million pound business empire or how they once had a successful viral video that they’ve not managed to replicate since. This is a great way to make start-ups seem glamorous and exciting, which means it’s also a great way to send out totally the wrong impression.
Start-ups mean hard work, long hours and (often) low rates of pay. At least at first. By contrast, some of the speakers at the Hacker News event spoke, albeit with varying degrees of success and interest levels, about things that are useful and practical. True, the person who spoke about how to avoid terrible pitching failed to establish who he was. A talk on the importance of finding a good fit with team-mates was also a sales pitch for their start-up. And there was another talk about the importance of being a lean start-up, prepared, presumably, before the speaker knew about Eric Ries’s tour.
But there was an overwhelming impression that people were talking about “the important stuff”. Andreas Klinger’s speech, talk of the night, explained why avoiding vanity metrics is a good thing, how marketing stunts can hurt your numbers, how competitions usually just create “dataschmutz” and argued that you should always be embarrassed by your metrics.
As such, the night stands for everything that the tech scene probably should be about: chief executives and co-founders like Klinger who seem to care more about customer development and engagement are a foil to the Apples and Facebooks of the world, who are only too eager to tell us about their next step towards world domination. Yes, billion dollar valuations and parties with Snoop Dogg are fine, but they shouldn’t be the core of a business.
The core should be lean, about which there’s hardly a shortage of discussion around on the scene right now, tightly focused, have an effective revenue model in place, and all that sort of stuff. London is starting to get it. Even the choice of venue spoke to this philosophy: a school hall is far from glamorous, but it’s affordable and it encourages learning, conversation and enquiry. More so than venture capital-funded parties at Bungalow 8 ever did, anyway.