Hacking Work, a new book by Bill Jensen and Josh Klein

Josh Klein -- the fellow who trained crows to collect quarters and wrote an article for MAKE on how to toilet train your cat -- and Bill Jensen wrote a new book called Hacking Work -- an "instruction manual for getting your work done faster, more efficiently, and with more fun no matter what your company manual says." It came out last week and Josh and Bill wrote the following essay for Boing Boing:
201009281549 Rules are made to be broken. But these days it seems like rules are made to prevent good work from being done. As a result, happy mutants everywhere are busting the crap out of them just to do their jobs. To wit:

• One guy we interviewed sat in the lobby of a potential client and emailed the CEO a list of his customer records - including credit card #'s - from the CEO's own email account to demonstrate how insecure his technology was. He got the account.

• A woman who was ordered not to bring up unhappy customer reports snuck filmed testimonials on to YouTube. The public outcry was huge, and the problems got fixed.

• Someone working at Apple couldn't get anyone to own up to changing faulty product documentation, so he cc'd Steve Jobs. Within minutes there was a stampede of people rushing to correct the error.

• A recent college graduate working for a yacht company starting providing free problem-solving on a public message board to their clients. When he was forced to stop or lose his job, those same clients held their contracts ransom until the company agreed to employ him as their head of customer service.

These are all examples of what we're calling Work Hacks - messing with corporate systems and breaking the rules to get good work done. For hundreds of years we've needed bureaucracies to gather, process, and disseminate information and provide us with the tools we need to do our jobs. But nowadays information can be gathered, processed, and disseminated at scale by anyone with a net connection, and the tools we can get for free online often outstrip those our companies provide for us by a huge margin.

The result? Employees are more partners than serfs, and increasingly they know it. Companies need to start treating them as such and support them in building innovative solutions to the company's problems before they out-produce, out-maneuver, and out-innovate them at their own markets.

The examples above show you don't have to be a computer wiz to hack work; anyone can do it if you know which rules are really bendable and which ones to break. Hacking Work describes an attitude towards owning your own career -- it's taking the hacker ethos of the joy of learning and applying it to whatever systems your employment is mired in to make things better.

We recognize that this book is a big thumb in the eye of most corporate cultures -- which is completely fine with us. It's broken. Let's start fixing it.

Hacking Work site | Buy on Amazon


  1. On the heels of the shittiest day at work in a while, this is wonderful. Already ordered it.

    > • Someone working at Apple couldn’t get anyone to own up to changing faulty product documentation, so he cc’d Steve Jobs. Within minutes there was a stampede of people rushing to correct the error.

    Having spent some time at the Fruit Company, I can appreciate the panic that triggered. Most excellent.

  2. Meanwhile, back in reality, neither I nor any of the 20 out-of-work Java programmers willing to take my job in a second are stupid enough to try ANY of those ridiculous stunts.

    1. There’s no reason for someone who has a job to fear being fired, unless their boss or the company stands to gain from their loss. If you’re causing your boss hell, you just have to make sure you’re delivering the goods for their boss or higher-ups, its not too hard to keep yourself secure.

      BTW, If you only know Java, you might want to do some studying while you’ve got the free time.

      1. I am very tired of gurus pontificating “I like my team to stand up for what they think is best”. Yeah, right.

        (And the only gap in my resume is Java, thank you!;)

    2. Please tell us your company’s name and where you work. If you are posting here from work you clearly aren’t working hard enough. We are hungry and willing to work for peanut butter and crackers.

      Signed: 20 out-of-work Java programmers

      P.S. Remember your comment the next time you hear a programmer praises the “miracle of the ‘free’ market” or why worker unions aren’t necessary for “knowledge workers”

      1. Speaking as someone who was a Teamster and ASMFE member for a total of 6 years, yeah, just what I want, for the only thing that matters about me is how long I have been with my current employer. Switch jobs, start over at the bottom, lovely. Just as an airline pilot who’s airline went under how well that work out.

        Unions could be a great thing, but not in anything like their current form. Perhaps like a trade union (carpenter, plumber, etc).

    3. Sounds like you need to get out of Java programming. Honestly, there is better work and work conditions out there then using that platform…

  3. All well and good! The book looks interesting but the post a little pollyannaish! But how many people who break the rules find themselves out of a job or in serious trouble (it could easily have happened to the woman who posted on YouTube!).

  4. so being a total ass is a “hack” now? Cool, now i have a defense for when I’m fired, sued and unemployable.

    1. Yup. You sacrificed yourself for the greater good of the company.

      (Heck, maybe Steve Balmer will even throw a chair at you!)

      1. Well if Balmer did do that, and it made it on Youtube, then he’d have a job in about a day.

        Sometimes any advertising is good advertising.

        I have to agree, most of the ones posted show that the boss is someone who is rational and logical. What are the odds in that?

        The guy who emailed the customer’s CC #’s to the CEO from his own account is lucky he didn’t end up at a table with the FBI on the other side.

        1. The guy who emailed the customer’s CC #’s to the CEO from his own account is lucky he didn’t end up at a table with the FBI on the other side

          “It seems that you’ve been living two lives. One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you… help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias “Neo” and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.”

    2. Hacks have always been, more or less, exactly about “being a total ass,” at least to some. Hacks have also always been risky. They’ve never been a defense.

  5. Two questions:

    1. Would General McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview count as a hack?

    2. What has happened to those people since?

  6. I’m not officially allowed to create icons where I work. I can’t blame them for their policies. I’m the only one in my department that knows what a registry is. Well, one guy there does know how to change wallpaper. Not long ago, that guy thought he was helping when he tried to make some changes on his own. He had no idea how those changes would’ve brought us down. He’s the star character who could’ve made it into the alternative version of this book, “Screwing Work: Stupid People Breaking Smart Rules.”

    IT seems comfortable enough with what I do that as long as I don’t tell, they won’t act.

  7. Per Vineet Nayar of HCL Technologies: managers are there to serve the people who do the work and are expected to be more responsive to employee reviews of their own performance than the other way around.

    At http://techonomy.com/videos/ — Look for the video introduced as “Vineet Nayar, Jeff Weiner, Ra…Managing the Unmanageable.”

    This management strategy/structure seems to work phenomenally well for his company.

  8. This book is useless without a control group. What about all the people who tried hacks who ended up on the street or in jail or sued? What’s the ratio of success to failure? What’s the cost-benefit analysis? Sure, if you succeed, your job becomes more pleasant, and maybe you get a small raise. The company and its shareholders reap most of the benefits. If you fail, you’ll likely face quite larger personal repercussions.

    Do you really want to take a massive personal risk for the benefit of an organization that did not solicit your help and in fact actively opposes it?

    If you have the skill to successfully and reliably hack an organization, wouldn’t your time be better spent taking it somewhere it’s appreciated to begin with?

  9. I knew a fellow who tried the equivalent of that first example, and it didn’t end well. Even if you think you know when it’s safe to commit a felony to get a job… I really don’t recommend betting your career on it.

  10. I wonder how many of those people have been fired. It’s a cool book and I like hearing stories of folks behaving in contrary ways to the status quo, but I doubt it’s gonna help much.

  11. As someone who has hacked many a job out of sheer frustration at the stupidity of administration, bureaucracy and management, I approve.

    When I start my company, I will gladly hire hackers who can show me a cool hack that’s not a waste of time. People willing to spend months making signs and sending emails to everyone in the building reminding them to “pull the door shut behind them so it latches” and “someone yet again left the door unlatched” and are unwilling to grab a screwdriver and just adjust the shutting force of the door need not apply.

    Hackers ask questions. Hackers try stuff out. Hackers start with “That database call seems pretty slow – I wonder if…” and end up speeding up things 100x with a simpler database change.

    Hackers are allowed to do kludges sometimes, but they better put a giant note on their fix that says “THIS IS A KLUDGE” and admit it. People who think kludges are hacks are not hackers.

  12. This should be called Hacking Your Career (to pieces with a blunt axe). I tried this last month – our organisation has a systemwide contamination problem that could be solved by a) admitting the problem, and b) applying a moronically simple solution. I got carpeted for daring to speak to someone at the board. Great idea… not.

  13. I like the idea of hacking work, but in most large corporations, it’s not feasible or even wise. This is doubly true if your company is successful. In that case, executives / managers are making their big bucks and big bonuses on the backs of the peons, and they have no need to change any process and no need for a snot-nosed underling to “hack” anything. They are content with Six Sigma-ing their work-force to death and retiring fat and happy.

  14. I like the spirit of this, but keep in mind some of these ideas may have a “less than desirable” outcome if, for example, one works in defense aerospace. Hacking records and emailing them to your boss is NOT a good idea. :-)

    There’s no reason for someone who has a job to fear being fired, unless their boss or the company stands to gain from their loss. If you’re causing your boss hell, you just have to make sure you’re delivering the goods for their boss or higher-ups, its not too hard to keep yourself secure.

    Well, on that topic: You’re making the “people are rational and act in their self-interest” assumption. And companies are made out of people. I think a company has a better shot at being rationally self-interested than a random person, because most companies have checks and balances. But you can still have people making poorly reasoned HR decisions, or HR decisions based on bad data, or the like.

  15. You’ve stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest here Mark. Those with all hope, initiative and independence purged from their souls resent those who have some left, it seems.

  16. Sometimes, someone (else’s) income or position or identity depends on the status quo. Usually, if they’re short-sighted and/or devious enough to be milking the cow when it could be done simpler, easier, and more elegantly with a near-obvious solution, they’re also short-sighted and/or devious enough to have already put their hand on the lever that opens the trapdoor underneath you, who comes along ready to deprive them of their cow. The stupid rule exists for their benefit and not yours — and they have far more practice at underhandedly throwing others under the bus than you have at figuring out the metaphorical bus route. Honest people don’t expect others to be villains.

    Having been victim to such people more than once, having successfully jettisoned such a person more than once, and having outlived such a person more than once, I’ve determined the following rule of thumb:

    If someone rests their personal or professional identity on being a victim/persecutor/rescuer, avoid dealing with them as much as possible. That way, when (not IF, when — the world revolves around such people and when it doesn’t, they make it) they become an obstacle or begin imploding under the weight of their deceptions, you will be the last person they target (and they will, inevitably, target someone).

    Also, oftentimes, for sane management, it is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission —– but don’t do it to production systems unless they absolutely will not continue without the fix.

    And BE COOL. Do not insist, demand, press the issue, or do it anyway if told not to do it directly by someone who can get you fired. You’re not the hero of this story. You’re the Fool, and you get away with things (and get things done) because you made people feel good about you and your actions, not because you were right.

    1. bardfinn, you gotta break out of the victim role. You’re talking about a life spent being dependent on another. Don’t let others pull the strings

  17. Speaking as someone who has constantly hacked work, I have to say that some caveats need to be applied. If you have no idea what the button you push actually does, don’t try a hack. For god’s sake, just don’t do it. I have also been the guy who was forced to clean up other people’s “hacks”. The trouble was, they weren’t really hacks. The people were lazy, arrogant, ignorant, and didn’t feel the need to find out what their job was before applying a “shortcut”.

  18. personal advice: if someone has rigged up a gratuitous “press any key to continue” for job security, think twice before decompiling the app and removing this. and if you do, think thrice before redistributing it.

    it was a lot of fun though.

  19. My company web user account doesnt permit some of the action I should do for perform my tasks, so I normally should ask to a “senior”. I usually do the things directly on the db. Faster.

  20. +1 on the union thing, especially for freelancers and designers/coders.

    I tried some of these ‘hacks’ when I worked for a consultancy, inspired by Cluetrain. I nearly got fired and made loads of enemies. Sadly in the UK, showing iniative without joining the old-school-tie club or doffing enough caps even if you’re right (and I was – they were doing stupid things like forcing The Register and The Vault to delete articles and comments for example – and I gave the CEO a copy of Cluetrain and went for a chat and got seriously canned for it because a bunch of senior partners were basically controlling all access and creating a career around manipulating him by controlling what he knew – I didn’t know that).

    Over 10 years later books like this prove the Cluetrain wasn’t heeded.

    So think before you hack, unless you want to screw up your career…I was persona non grata after that, and was really being youthful and trying to inject ideas I thought they really needed to know about. That didn’t last long.

  21. And if you think apply American ‘go get em!’ ideas to other cultures is good, and that people who raise the red flag are zombie corporate drones and thus not worth listening to…well like what happened in Iraq/Afghanistan, good luck with that…

  22. The main problem with the given examples is that they are not actually hacks.

    A “job hack” would be more akin to the trick builders sometimes use: to prevent a client or supervisor from nit-picking a job to death, do as good a job as possible, but leave one obviously wrong thing for the client to point out and fix.

    That’s a hack: a counter-intuitive way to get things done without brute force. What this book seems to focus on is hardball negotiation, which feels like a kludge to me.

  23. My wife loves to watch House. I hate it. It’s not because the situation is unrealistic—a hospital with no nurses, radiologists, or lab techs, for starters. I hate the show because of the central fantasy, that a guy who Gets Results will remain employed, in a big complex bureaucratic institution, even if he acts like an antisocial ass. It’s offensively stupid. People don’t react that way to assholes, whether they are talented or not.

    Frightening the boss, going over the supervisor’s head, pulling stunts, these are not going to get people to say, Oh, wow, he was right all along. Not, at least, in a time frame that will matter. It would be cold comfort to be vindicated as a business genius AFTER foreclosure.

    I have a job now, after 10 months out of work. I’m lucky. I’m also married and have a house, but neither of those things will be true if I pull some adolescent prank on my employer.

  24. The good: you’ve managed to do something of which you can be proud despite your company’s best efforts.

    The bad: your employer is not happy about it.

    Policies are in place because, right or wrong, people more powerful than you think they’re right. Not to test your creativity or provide an interesting challenge. It’s good to subvert stupid rules to make the world a better place but be aware that the only thing a stupid person likes more than being in control is punishing people for revealing his stupidity.

  25. In the 80s Roland Moreno, the smart card inventor, wanted the chip to be on visa card. During a meeting with French Bankers he cloned and hacked the visa card of the CEO and took money out of it in an ATM. the bankers were so impressed… they refused and Moreno went bankrupt, the chip was on Visa card in France only 10 years later.

  26. Utne Reader’s classic definition of a Stupid person is…

    – someone who hurts himself and you at the same time

    – there’s one in every bunch, even Nobel laureates

    Breaking the cycle of stupidity, and testing your boss’s limits, is an exercise best left for those with “Freedom”, which just another word for “nothing left to lose”.

  27. I would second the comment about “heros.” Be very leery of people who feel a regular need to hack their work like this. Chances are they aren’t doing it to make things better…they’re doing it to make themselves look better. People who regularly play the hero are death to any large organization, as they require someone else to come in behind them and clean up.

    If your work “hacks” are a rare exception, rather than a regular occurrence, then you have some credibility about just wanting get things done. If you disregard the rules because you’re too lazy to do things right, or because you’re constantly playing “hero”, then you’re a liability and should be fired.

  28. The retail grocery where I used to work had a CoinStar machine that locked up at least once a day. Store policy was to hang an “out of order” sign, call a techie and wait 3 days for him to show up. I took the manager over, showed him that all you had to do was unplug it and cold-boot XP. He was amazed. God save us all.

  29. Meanwhile, in a Japanese (re Deming) automobile plant, if a worker discovers a defect or mismatch, they are REQUIRED to stop the line. Then everyone works on a fix.

    In a pre-bailout GM plant, a worker discovering a defect is required to tag it (or the entire car it’s mounted on) and throw it on a scrap heap for rework. Among other major problems this causes, it throws away the knowledge base of workers catching problems as close as possible to where they occurred.

    I don’t know how post-bailout GM works. Among the forces opposing the Deming model in US plants were our auto workers UNION, because they smacked of time-and-motion studies. Which are the complete opposite of worker empowerment…

  30. Seems like some here are missing the point. True enough, “hack” is a bit of an ambiguous term, but I think the essential meaning is “work around”, be it technical work-around or not.

    So in that sense it’s about breaking out of convention to find a better way. This doesn’t require being an asshole, or putting your company in jeopardy; it simply requires thinking a bit differently, and being willing to actually try something in a slightly different way. Some of the examples may come off as being a little “cowboy”, but for really hacking work, no cowboy is necessary. Just recognition that a particular method sucks, and that there’s a better way, then proving it by doing it.

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