On The Name Change

In August 2011, the Office of Student Affairs requested a writeup for the name change from linuxNUS to NUS Hackers. For the sake of transparency, this is that writeup:

The name change from linuxNUS to NUS Hackers took six months of debate to decide. We took into account the fact that the word ‘hacker’ has negative connotations in mainstream media, but we still felt that the name change made sense, given the following reasons:

1) linuxNUS no longer reflects what we do. The group was originally started as a Linux user group/Open Source Software advocate. However, as time passed, we began to be involved in events that had little to do with both. Instead we began doing events that promoted and supported the more general topic of ‘hacking’: that is, playful building (and programming). In the first semester last year, we ran a series of IDA-sponsored workshops called the ‘Hack Workshop Series’, and invited external speakers to talk about the various aspects of building software for fun (‘hacking’).

2) Hacking best describes what we do.  The terms ‘hacking’ and ‘hacker’ that we refer to does not mean ‘unauthorized breaking-in of a computer system’. (In fact, this definition only appeared in the 1980s, and even then only in the press). We refer instead to the original usage of the word – i.e., the computer programmer subculture that originated in the 1960s at MIT, that currently powers most open source movements. The proper term for the malicious attackers one reads about in the newspaper is ‘cracker’.

The simplest definition of hacking is: ‘playful cleverness’ [1]. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg has described himself as a hacker, and more importantly has described Facebook as a ‘hacker-friendly’ company. By this he means people who program for fun, in the same way that he built Facebook for fun, as a University student. As there is no other word in the English language to describe this philosophy of  ‘playful cleverness in terms of building things’, we decided that the name NUS Hackers was our best option, as opposed to other alternatives.

It is worth noting here that amongst programmers – hacking and hackers has had a long and illustrious history. Linux, the web browser Firefox, and nearly all popular programming languages in use today were created by people who identified themselves under the ‘hacker’ subculture. If you hear a programmer say ‘I hacked on my project last night’, he does not mean he broke into his own software. It instead means that he ‘worked on it for fun’.

3) ‘Hackers’, as used in NUS Hackers, has done more good than harm for the organization (and therefore the school). We are affiliated with the Singaporean Hackerspace, and occasionally call upon them to help out at NUS-specific events (such as teaching workshops to School of Computing students). Two of the four founders of Hackerspace.sg were NUS alumni and founders of linuxNUS. We included them in our decision making process for this name change, and they approved of it.

The monicker has helped us in several other ways:

  • Silicon Valley startups that have just moved to Singapore frequently contact us for access to programming talent, from searches for ‘Hackers in Singapore’. They are used to the term ‘hacker’ to mean ‘good programmer’.  Examples of these include Federico Folcia, co-founder of Roomorama, and Vinnie Laura, creator of SuperHappyDevHouse. We have always been happy to point them to our student-members, or direct them to the programmer community outside the school.
  • Members of the NUS Hackers coreteam were invited to participate in and assist with the promotion of Startup Roots – an internship program for startups that originated from Silicon Valley. As a result of this event, we have a working relationship with James Chan of Neoteny Labs (an incubator based in Singapore, headed by Joi Ito, current head of the MIT media lab). The Startup Roots program explicitly looked for ‘student hackers’.
  • We have had funding from IDA for the Hack Workshop Series two semesters ago. Last semester (after the name change), we were given a hackspace at the Garag3 incubator. Our working relationship with e27 is orthogonal to our working relationship with Hackerspace: we will be assisting at the upcoming Developer Camp, as well as passing on code competition opportunities organized by them to our student-members.
  • NUS Hackers was called upon to facilitate at LadyPy, a not-for-profit programming course for women by the Singapore Python User group. Again, looking for us was a logical decision – the organizers assumed that the most likely place to find Python-proficient programmers was at a hacker organization – something which might not have happened if our name was ‘linuxNUS’. As a result of this workshop, we are now planning to work with the Singapore Python User group to bring the same set of workshops to NUS.

One worry that we had was that public perception would not match industry perception of the word ‘Hacker’. However, we felt that this was balanced out by the increasing centrality of the Singaporean Hackerspace. To date, companies as diverse as Nokia, Amazon, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have held events or organized joint-events at the Hackerspace. These companies, and the acceptance of the word ‘hacker’ amongst the local professional developer crowd, lead us to conclude that our naming would send the right signals to the right people in the industry. Indeed, as the above examples have shown, this has turned out to be largely true. The net result is more opportunities – learning and commercial – for both students and industry alike.

I hope these reasons are clear enough to explain why we decided, after 6 months of debate, to change our name to NUS Hackers. We hope to spread the same programmer subculture that made MIT the hub of computing innovation in the US, and we hope to be the best support system possible for all hackers building things for the good of NUS.

[1] From Richard Stallman, creator of the GNU operating system, and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. http://stallman.org/articles/on-hacking.html