Skip navigation



Hackers and Painters

Upon feeling the fatigue of reading numerous .NET introductory texts, I was pleasantly surprised when O'Reilly sent me Paul Graham's Hackers and Painters book for review. Paul is one of the shining stars of the Internet gold rush who had cashed out at that most opportune time. He has written a book about his views on programming and how technology mingles with business and society in general. After reading the enthusiastic quotes of industry luminaries on the back cover wrap praising Paul's work, I had high expectations that the title contained a treasure trove of great ideas and a roadmap to success. Besides Paul's assertion that hacking, like painting, is more art than science, his book reiterates two main points: work harder than your competitor, and program in Lisp.


The book is essentially a collection of essays that have been reprinted from Paul's Web site ( with a few that were written exclusively for the book. Visit his Web site to get an idea of what his writing style and motivations are, and you will see that a majority of his reference circles around his success at growing and selling his company, Viaweb, to Yahoo. Although that's fine on the surface, I wish Paul could have gone deeper into what really happened. Does he believe that he could have had just as much success in 2004 compared to the free-flowing cash during the dot com heyday? If not, what are more realistic expectations, given his experience having lived through The Bubble? What impact did the overt dedication to his company have on his personal life? Keep in mind that this is Paul's book; as such, it's very opinionated, political at times, and intentionally agitating. Little space is given to debate or counterpoint his position. Essentially, this book is Paul's printed blog. As such, he has some sweet analogies and definitions suitable for quoting, such as, "A startup is like a mosquito," and the term 'industry practice' roughly means "don't do anything weird."


Beyond these critiques, the book is entertaining from the standpoint of relating to its contents. The first chapter, "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" will stir up memories and associations with many of the book's intended audience. "The Other Road Ahead" argues why server-based software and Application Service Providers (ASPs) will overcome client-side packages as the dominant way to make money in the software business. The second half of the book leads up to why the Lisp programming language trumps all others, and why Paul is spending his time creating a language superior to Lisp that he calls Arc. Besides the name, not much else is disclosed about Arc, and there are no bits to play with as of yet. Interested parties can request to be notified when something's ready to be shown by sending an e-mail to mailto:[email protected].


Overall, the book was a nice temporary diversion from the technical books I normally review. Although I don't agree with some of the views that Paul presents, that's the nature of diverse opinion and a welcome change from the mass media packaging of press release markitecture found in other technical essays and white papers these days.


- Mike Riley



Title: Hackers and Painters

Authors: Paul Graham

Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates

ISBN: 0-596-00662-4

Book Web Site:

Price: US$22.95

Page Count: 271 pages




Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.