The Hacker Mentality: How We Evaluate Talent

Believe it or not, if you are a student at the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment and Technology Center, one of your requirements is a course on improvisational acting. It doesn’t matter if you’re an engineer or a writer, you’re going to be doing improv.

This might seem a little odd, but it actually makes a great deal of sense. Not because you’ll improve your comedy skills (though that’s a bonus), but because improv forces you to start without knowing where you’ll finish. It teaches you a habit of mind that doesn’t allow for hesitation. Instead, you move forward, even if your best idea at the moment is not all that great.

You might call this a hacker mentality. It simply means that when confronted with a problem, you dive right in and start trying things, rather than waiting for the perfect solution to fall from the sky.

To see why this is so important, let’s think about disruption for a moment. Everyone knows we live in a world that’s being radically altered by technology, often on a daily basis. And those with a hacker mentality, those who by definition move fast, are almost always the ones that turn disruption to their advantage.

For example, Kickstarter (and its various siblings) disrupted fundraising by making it easy to raise money for a business idea. The entrepreneurs who jumped in and rode the first wave of excitement did very well. Nowadays, of course, crowdfunding still works, but if you want to have a successful campaign, it’s a good idea to hire an outside consultant to help.

The food truck revolution provides an analogous if quite different example. Essentially, it compressed the arduous process of opening a brick and mortar restaurant into a few, much easier weeks. Needless to say, the first movers in that field got a lot of traction and built up their brands. Today, it’s still easy to open a food truck, but you have a lot of competition waiting for you when you do.

Of course, you might think these are just outliers, and that generally speaking, starting fast is a recipe for wasted time. But not really, and not today. A hacker mentality can always help.

To see why, let’s take a look at a world that you probably think is set in stone: museum experience design (where I happen to work). For most, museums conjure up a dusty image of staid environments, long term plans, and traditional thinking. But even there, starting fast is essential.

The reason is that museum experiences today typically require new technology, and that technology is nearly always unique to the situation. If you try to dream up a complex new experience out from the beginning, you’re destined for failure. Instead, you need keep an eye on the outcome you want, come to a good hypothesis fast, and then riff on it until you get to a good place.

In fact, when we are looking for new employees, we don’t merely ask about skillsets and experience, we also want to know how they learn. One of the most important questions we as ask them is what is the last thing they taught themselves to do, and how did they do it. Did they take a formal class, or did they hop over to YouTube, where you can learn just about anything fast? Needless to say, we prefer the latter.

Put simply, most businesses today don’t need people who are round pegs to fit in round holes. Instead, we need people who can become round pegs when they need to, and square pegs when they don’t. We need those who can confront an unfamiliar situation and trust in their own process to bring things to a successful conclusion.

In other words, the Carnegie Mellon improv program isn’t an oddity; it’s based on sound thinking. Improv is much more than entertainment or comedy. It’s build a habit of mind that makes you comfortable with uncertainty and confident that you’ll find a solution. And if you can have that, you can easily cope with and even thrive in a disrupted world.