How to herd cats: the art of hacker paradigm leadership


Advances in Project Management Series


By Tim Rayner

UTS Business School

Sydney, NSW, Australia




This article defines six core elements of hacker paradigm leadership – a style of leadership required in agile, lean, and collaborative design environments. Hacker paradigm leaders start with human connection, creating a foundation of trust and ownership in teams. They give people a sense of purpose. They cultivate a tribal mindset, focused on shared potential and rewards. They challenge teams to identify unverified assumptions and resolve unknowns through experiments. They spur teams to create value for customers and to work collaboratively to sustain a generative space where life is good and great things get done.

Hackers have a bad reputation. Thanks to the high profile Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks of hacktivist groups like Anonymous, political hacks like attempts to interfere with voter registration databases in the 2016 US election, and criminal hacks like the Sony cyber-attack of 2014, in which hackers stole over 100 terabytes of data and planted malware to erase content from the company’s servers, many people have a dim view of hacking. Hacking is seen as a subversive, immoral activity. Films like Hackers (1995) and the HBO series Mr Robot portray hackers as lonely outsiders who fight governments and corporations. When hackers appear in the media, the article is typically headed with a shot of a shadowy figure hunched over a keyboard, looking like the Grim Reaper in a hoodie.

While the media’s depiction of hackers is not factually incorrect, it is a partial and misleading view, focused exclusively on ‘black hat hackers’, or file breakers. Steven Levy’s seminal book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), offers a different perspective on hacking that is vital for understanding the broader impact and influence of hacking today. Levy’s account focuses on the True Hackers, a tradition that started at Massachusetts University of Technology (MIT) in the 1960s, where a ragtag band of young electronics engineers volunteered their passion, knowledge, and coding skills to write software for the first generation of user-programmable computers. These hackers created a culture of open, collaborative, exploratory coding (Levy, 2010). In subsequent decades, this tradition fueled the rise of personal computing (and Apple Computers), inspired the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, and contributed massively to the culture and technical infrastructure of the internet. It continues to shape the world of technology today.

In the wake of the dot.com crash of 2001-2002, a new generation of tech entrepreneurs emerged inspired by the practices and principles of hacking. Entrepreneurs like Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey cut their teeth on open source hacking. The success of their companies helped drive a new wave of interest in fast, cheap, exploratory approaches to product design and small business development. This interest subsequently cohered around three methods: agile development, lean startup and design thinking. These methods, used today by developers, entrepreneurs, and designers internationally, are deeply indebted to the positive tradition of hacking that started at MIT (Rayner, 2018).

Today, hacking is a ubiquitous approach to innovation, a way of solving problems through collaborative, iterated sprints. It is not just for programmers. Anyone can be a hacker, assuming an experimental mindset and a willingness to get hands on, build and learn.

Hacker paradigm leadership

Project managers should attend to these developments. They imply new challenges and vast new opportunities. They require a new kind of leader and a new style of leadership.


To read entire article, click here


Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.

How to cite this paper: Rayner, T. (2019). How to herd cats: the art of hacker paradigm leadership, PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue VI, July. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/pmwj83-Jul2019-Rayner-how-to-herd-cats.pdf



About the Author

Dr. Tim Rayner

Sydney, Australia




Dr Tim Rayner teaches ‘Leadership, Teams & Scalability’ in the MBA (Entrepreneurship) at UTS Business School. He is the author of ‘Hacker Culture and the New Rules of Innovation’ (2018) and the award-winning short film ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (2010). Tim works with leaders and teams on entrepreneurial capacity development, cultural alignment, and lean startup best practice. He runs design sprints with Hello Again, a solution design agency in Byron Bay, Australia.