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The Origin of “Hacker” April 1, 2008

Posted by Imran Ghory in Computer Security, etymology.

Everytime the media carries a sensationalist story about “hackers” committing cybercrimes there’s always an uproar among geeks about the misappropriation of the word “hacker”. Sadly it’s the geeks who are mistaken and not for once the media.

A few years ago Fred Shapiro tracked down the earliest known reference to computer hackers:

1963 The Tech (MIT student newspaper) 20 Nov. 1 Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof. Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system. … The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation. One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found. … Because of the “hacking,” the majority of the MIT phones are “trapped.”

This is the earliest know usage of hacker in the modern sense, the TMRC Dictionary has it a few years earlier but not in the computer sense. The earliest computer related uses of the term (through anecdotal evidence) were also malicious (although the term wasn’t originally intended maliciously – in practice it was) in the sense that they involved gaining unauthorized access to computers to play on.

The New Hacker's DictionaryThe modern “geek” definition of the term hacker to reflect a skilled programmer didn’t originate until the late seventies when the term ended up in the later famous Jargon File.

Intelligent Design for IdiotsThat doesn’t mean to say we should all stop using the word “hacker” in it’s positive sense, but as evidence advocating geeks we should at least stop claiming a false history to support our cause. As we all know where that ends up.

In response to those who disagree with me: If you think I’m wrong then show me the evidence, if you can find earlier records showing hack(er)s being used in a computer context in a non-“black hat” manner I’d be happy to retract my post and put the evidence up here.


Studying for Job Interviews isn’t cheating April 1, 2008

Posted by Imran Ghory in job interviews.

Teacher: Does anyone know why breaking mirrors is bad luck ?
Boy 1: [long boring in-depth explanation]
Teacher: Well done that’s exactly right have some merit points
Boy 2: That’s not fair, he’s cheating, he’s been reading up on it.
Teacher: That’s not cheating, that’s the point of school

Some of the respondants to my earlier posts on interviewing seem to be of the opinion that studying books which teach you to do interviews is a form of “cheating”, that reaction caused me to remember the above scene from my childhood.

Interviews are just like any other test, studying up is expected and necessary. Sure if you’re good you can just breeze into a test without preparation and get an ok mark. But interviewers mark to a curve.

If you’re not on the top you’re not going to get in with an “ok” mark. A quick look at Amazon reveals a staggering 1152 books on interviewing – improving interview skills obviously isn’t a small market.

It’s arguable that interviewers should take into account how good the person genuinely is and not how well they perform in an interview. That’s actually very hard. You can tell if a candidate is reciting an earlier memorized answer, but a lot of the time you can’t tell if the candidate has just practiced a lot of interview questions.

The other solution to equalizing the impact of studying beforehand is to tell everyone to study up and let that balance everyone out, and that in part is what I’m trying to do here.

When I was a student and looking for my first job I interviewed with a number of software development companies, in most of the interviews 70-80% of the questions asked were straight out of one of the interview books I had read. I can only imagine how the other candidates who went into the interviews unprepared coped.

Of course improvement doesn’t occur in a void, if a candidate practices it won’t just improve their interview skills it will also improve their underlying skills which is what the interviewer is trying to measure.

Most companies wouldn’t hesitate to reject an interview candidate who hadn’t read up on the company beforehand. Shouldn’t that extend to interviewing skills in general ?

After all learning to interview well shows motivation, self-study skills and preparation. Three things which are notoriously hard to measure in interviews. Even if I could easily identify candidates who’ve practiced for the interview, I’m not sure I wouldn’t consider it a plus rather than a negative.

A bad candidate with good interview skills isn’t going to seem like a good candidate in interview (at least in technical interviews where “all-talk” candidates typically fall down, regardless of how much they’ve tried to memorize). It might however make an average candidate seem good – but then I think I might prefer an average candidate who’s motivated, self-studying and well-prepared over a good candidate who survives on pure talent alone. It would certainly be a close call.

So if you’ve got an interview coming up, then take a moment to go down your local bookstore or browse through Amazon and pick up a book to brush up your interview skills.

Because if you don’t you may lose the job to someone who did.

Who (Doesn’t) Recruit the Best Computer Science graduates? March 26, 2008

Posted by Imran Ghory in Computer Science, recruitment.

While doing some research on how software companies recruit new graduates I came up with a strategy to break firms into separate categories depending on which universities they targeted for recruitment. The results of this research threw up an interesting anomaly – while in general it followed the pattern one might expect (“high-prestige” technical firms going after the best unis, defence and consultancy firms after the next tier, misc business apps the next tier, and so on).

However there was one notable exception to this pattern. Microsoft.

Despite the firms bad reputation among “geeks” Microsoft is still a prestigious technical firm to work for, one which has a number of notable researchers and developers in a number of fields. Yet when it comes to recruiting students Microsoft seems to have given up believing in itself and is now targeting “average” computer science students rather than the best and the brightest.

But before I go further I’d like to explain my methodology. I built up a database recording which universities are targeted by software companies and used the The Times League Table for Computer Science as a benchmark to rank computer science departments.

The actual information about where firms hire most of their graduates is unfortunately not available to the public, however we do have a good proxy measures. We can see the universities that firms target (i.e universities where they run recruitment talks, events, etc.), which due to these activities very nature is public information. Using this information we can cluster firms together based upon the ranks of the universities they target.

To show by example:

Here we show the universities target by three “prestigious” technical firms (Microsoft, Google and Data Connection).

Google is obviously a “hot” destination for Computer Science graduates and is well known for wanting to hire the smartest people. Data Connection is a telecoms software firm with a very strong reputation in the UK for software development excellence, they’re frequently ranked as one of the most desirable firms to work for in the UK.

The average ranking for a Computer Science department targeted by Google is 5.5, for Data Connection a slightly higher 9.6. For Microsoft it’s 36.2. The difference is staggering.

Google and Data Connection are targeting the top-tier of universities, Microsoft are targeting third/fourth/fifth tier unis, it’s as if they’ve given up on getting the best and have settled for the “average” in-order to avoid having to compete at the high-end.

That’s not to say Microsoft don’t recruit students from the top-tier, but I’d be willing to bet they recruit a lot more from the middling unis. And it’s not to say that there aren’t good computer science students at the middling universities, there are. But there are a lot more (possibly a majority of) “top” computer science students in the top-tier than the middle-tiers.

There was a time not that long ago when a number of very smart people came through the graduate recruitment of Microsoft, many of them are prominent in the field today, but it seems now that Microsoft has given up trying to hire the best and develop them into superstars. And I think that’s a shame for both Microsoft and the industry as a whole.

[Incidently if any of the Google recruitment team read this – please sort out your recruitment events calendar – it’s incredibly poorly designed and nearly impossible to use]