I'm wondering if the term Hacker means different things to different people. When most people hear the word hacker what are the first things that come to mind?

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    I thought this question was answered most definitively by ESR's article, and anyone without a substantially different idea is simply mistaken.
    – MAK
    Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 13:29
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    Similar Question: programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/9922/…
    – Rachel
    Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 13:49
  • @MAK: Link please. Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 16:25
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    @Robert Harvey: Here: catb.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html . I don't really like that guy, but a lot of what he says and its general message rings true.
    – MAK
    Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 19:13
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    @Macneil: The colloquial meaning of the word hacker is different, agreed. It is understandable if the term takes on the manin assigned to it by Hollywood and popular culture. But does that mean we, as students and practitioners of computing/programming, should forget what the term originally meant and follow the herd? I am not offended or surprised when some non-tech person uses the term hacker in the pop-culture sense, and I don't try to correct him. But if he were a programmer, I would consider him ignorant. The article I linked to is not and edict, just a summary of what it really means.
    – MAK
    Commented Nov 26, 2010 at 5:39

15 Answers 15


Someone who has the ability to change the functionality of a program, device, or methodology to perform a task or function that is different than it's original design in the effort to improve the program, device, or methodology, or to solve a problem with what is available.

  • Probably the best possible definition. +1 Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 13:45
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    Unnecessarily verbose. Consider "A person who solves a problem by ingenious use of something in a way different to its original purpose", or similar? Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 14:39
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    @Peter Boughton: a person who finds useful misuses?
    – mojuba
    Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 19:34
  • i would post this as def con moto. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 11:47
  • @mojuba: I would upvote that if it were an answer. Commented Jan 22, 2011 at 19:53

Someone who is considered hacker by other hackers.

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    +1. Very interesting. At first it seems very symmetrical or even like a tautology. OTOH it wouldn't work for idiots, so there's more to it :)
    – back2dos
    Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 14:11
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    This is a very cliquey approach/definition, which seems at odds with the meritocratic side of hacker culture? Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 14:29
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    If taken literally by this definition no hackers could ever exist.
    – Nicole
    Commented Jan 19, 2011 at 20:21
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    Not a tautology at all; it's recursion. Commented Jan 19, 2011 at 20:38
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    @Jon Hopkins, it would not be a tautology anyway. Maybe you mean paradox - a tautology is defining X trough the quality of being X; so, "An hacker is an hacker". Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 15:49

In the programming sense, someone who is willing to go deep into the complexity of the system that they use to gain a greater understanding.

In the life sense, someone who approaches life from an unexpected and usually creative angle to achieve their objectives.

In the spiritual sense, someone who is taking a practical approach to enlightenment.


To programmers, it means "writes ninja code to get the thing to work", a positive connotation to someone whose code is awe-inspiring if a little scary. The project may be some open-source community project or just hobby code.

To the media, it means "subverts security mechanisms to infiltrate large organisations and steals money/data/Google source code", as can be seen from any web search, or even an article in today's online news: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/08/royal_navy_website_hack/

Here's what Wikipedia thinks.


Paul Graham is the creator of Hacker News and has written several articles on his take on hackers. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned his definition:

To the popular press, "hacker" means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, "hacker" connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants—whether the computer wants to or not.

Further along, regarding hack:

To add to the confusion, the noun "hack" also has two senses. It can be either a compliment or an insult. It's called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that's also called a hack. The word is used more often in the former than the latter sense, probably because ugly solutions are more common than brilliant ones.

Believe it or not, the two senses of "hack" are also connected. Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break the rules.

From The Word "Hacker"

And, hackers are makers:

What hackers and painters have in common is that they're both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things. They're not doing research per se, though if in the course of trying to make good things they discover some new technique, so much the better.

From Hackers and Painters

  • yes yes, go to the dictionary and find an explanation this long, i dare you. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 11:47
  • I hope you're not suggesting that it's inappropriate to use more than the space of a dictionary entry to explain and backup an answer to a subjective question...
    – Nicole
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 16:42

For me it's the attitude.

The yearning to learn more. The openness to help others. And being passionate about what they love.

He/She doesn't need to be a guru yet. But we are sure with the above attitude soon they would be attaining that status.

  • That would make most decent primary school teachers hackers - they have a passion for what they do, a desire to learn and are open to helping others. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 9:30
  • In that case. they too are hackers. What they hack is different though :-) Commented Jan 24, 2011 at 4:41

The glider and thereifixedit. It's people who're playing the actual game of life in any possible way except by the book :)

  • I wouldn't necessarily say "...except by the book" - probably "...irrespective of the book" would be better? Or maybe just ending it with "in any possible way." ? Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 14:23
  • @Peter Boughton: I - as a total outsider - personally associate the hacker culture with a touch of rebellion. I think of people who are consciously not doing things by the book, taking a fare share of joy and even pride from it. So "except" is of course a little too tought, but "irrespective" of the book is not entirely true either :)
    – back2dos
    Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 14:47
  • Paul Graham seems to agree a bit with both of you, he says they are rule-breakers - see my answer below.
    – Nicole
    Commented Jan 19, 2011 at 23:44

A professional computer programmer who can bend the code to his fiery will. As a child a hacker found a way to put the square block in the round hole. Although at times he is proud of a great hack, he is never satisfied with his code.


How To Become A Hacker by Eric S. Raymond says it for me. The essay deals with basic skills a prospective hacker should develop, along with attitude he should foster, common misconceptions of what a hacker is and even what the author calls "points of style", where he suggests what you could do while not being in a computer to help you nourish your hacking skills. I specially like the part that says:

Develop an analytical ear for music. Learn to appreciate peculiar kinds of music. Learn to play some musical instrument well, or how to sing.

It makes it all sound more like a lifestyle and less like a skill—in my opinion, way much more interesting.

  • Answers that are basically just links aren't that useful. If you could explain why this book "says it" for you then your answer will become more useful and possibly even up-voted. As votes give points and points give privileges you'll be able to participate in the site even more.
    – ChrisF
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 9:56

My definition of the term "hacker" is simply one who loves programming and programs for fun. A hacker wants to know how things work, not just that they work.


Hacker is a person ( yes ! ) who has knowledge about the code more than creator itself.

  • This implies all programming teachers are hackers. Far from true.
    – jweyrich
    Commented Jan 19, 2011 at 20:46

A Locksmith is a hacker...

Let me expand what I mean by this: a hacker in my mind is more general than specific to computers.

My Definition:

"A hacker is a person who looks at any system in an attempt to understand it by breaking the system down, as a result new methods, techniques and or tools are formed."

So using the above, a locksmith is someone who "hacks" a lock, and as a result creates a master key and or skeleton key, or gains new insight into a new key system.


There's an RFC for that. RFC1392 states:

hacker A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular. The term is often misused in a pejorative context, where "cracker" would be the correct term. See also: cracker.


I think the meaning of hacker is constantly changing. As an experienced programmer I would call a hacker someone who threw some code there just to make it work. Someone that knows what he/she is doing, but that is too lazy to write proper documentation and tests for it.

It's simply a programmer that isn't bounded by a company that wants things done under a certain specification.

In the office we say that we "hacked" a new feature in the sense that it will likely need to be reviewed and modified if it wants to be commited to our main repository.

If a fellow programmer would call me a hacker, I would feel insulted. If a person working in another field would call me a hacker, I would feel like I was doing something illegal.

So I don't think being a hacker these days has anything positive related to it. But this is just my opinion on how the meaning of the word evolved... it might technically mean something else (like a locksmith), but today its meaning is only related to negative things.


I prefer the (original) Jargon file definition:

hacker: n.

[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]

Anyone who uses another definition probably has a (not necessarily malevolent) agenda.

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