How to become a hacker

How to become a hacker

Summary: Becoming a hacker is a worthwhile pursuit. Do you have what it takes to become a hacker?

TOPICS: Security

You've read about the exploits of groups such as LulzSec, Anonymous and AntiSec. You've read my Kevin Mitnick interview with great interest. You've followed such famous programmers as Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Marc Andreesen and Dennis Ritchie. And, now you want to become a hacker. But, how does one become a hacker? Is there some secret society with blood rites that tests your willingness to exploit and deliver malicious payloads to unsuspecting computer users? Or, do you have to sell your soul and pledge allegiance to an organized crime boss to break into this mysterious field?

It's much easier than that, but it isn't an overnight process.

It takes dedication, intelligence and an analytic mind. You must have a desire to solve problems, a knack for verbal and written communication and a persistence to try new approaches when solutions don't come easily.

To become a hacker, you first must have a keen interest in computers, how they work, their components and how computers communicate at the lowest level. If you aren't a programmer, you need programming skills.

Eric Raymond suggests that you learn Python first. After becoming comfortable with Python, you should learn C/C++, Java, Perl and LISP. Python, Java and Perl are all C-based languages but Python is an easier first language to grasp. LISP is an ancient language (in computer terms) but its approach will give you a different perspective on programming and will make you a better programmer and hacker.

You also need to obtain an open source operating system such as Linux, FreeBSD or OpenSolaris to use to hone your skills. Using existing code as a guide helps you learn to program.

Other than programming, what other skills do you need as a hacker?

Look back at the list of attributes given earlier: dedication, intelligence, analytic, problem-solving, communications and persistence.

These are less tangible points but no less important.

You'll need dedication because becoming a competent hacker doesn't happen quickly. Like any job, you need to start small, grow and set personal goals. You need to have at least average intelligence.

You do not have to have a genius-level IQ or be a MENSA member. You should possess a natural curiosity for solving problems and have an analytic or logical mind. You'll look at taking programs apart as often as you will look at how to build them so the ability to analyze a situation or a program is a very valuable skill.

Believe it or not, the ability to communicate verbally and in writing is extremely valuable and is an essential tool in your skillset. And, Eric Raymond further suggests that you need at least a functional grasp of English, the language of hacking.

Have you ever heard that "Persistence pays off"? It does. Especially in dealing with computers and programming. You'll learn more if you can be persistent with your work. A bit of an obsessive personality is actually a positive trait for hackers.

To become known in the field, you need to get involved.

Get involved in an open source project. Help with debugging code, assist with documentation and contribute to the project in positive ways. Project managers actively solicit assistance, so you won't have any trouble finding a project that needs your help. Start with SourceForge and search for projects for which you have an interest. You'll find developer contact information on the Summary page.

Having your name associated with a project gives you the street cred that you'll need going forward in your career.

You also should get some formal training. Yes, training is available. You can often find courses at community colleges, universities or online for ethical hacking or security.

Get involved with a local 2600 chapter or other hacking enthusiast group. Check online in your area or ask around at other user groups. It took me about ten minutes to find all the meetings and groups in my city and state. Remember to be respectful, humble and silent at the meetings. If you come on too strong or self-aggrandize, you'll not make any friends or allies and you could alienate yourself for a long time. You're a newbie. Listen and learn.

Now, for the difficult issues associated with becoming a hacker.

Don't enter into this field if your purpose or desire is to illegally hack or compromise computer systems. You'll get caught and possibly serve prison time for it or have to pay damages to your target. Can you really afford either one? Make positive choices for yourself. Becoming a hacker or security expert can bring financial rewards instead of negativity and problems. Use your powers for good.

And, don't be discouraged if your results aren't immediate. Learning any skill takes a long time--years perhaps. Don't try to rush things. Remember the fate of Anakin Skywalker who wanted to gain power and prominence too quickly.

It doesn't matter how old you are when you decide to discover hacking and programming. There's no minimum or maximum age for entering the field. Many hackers start out at a very young age (teen or even preteen) and progress through their lifetimes. Gray hair isn't shunned, it's revered as experience. So, don't worry about appearances.

Finally, read all that you can about computer security, hacking and programming.

And, as Richard Stallman would say, "Happy Hacking!"

If you have any resources that you'd like to share for newbies trying to learn the art, please post them in the Comments.

See Also:

What is a hacker?

Lives of others - two aspects of social engineering

Hire hackers to catch other hackers?

Topic: Security


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • The Hacker term is not a perjorative

    when used in this story's context:

    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
    • By the way, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was hacker, too

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate
  • Revised

    I'm going to edit this post again. I'm standing by my original stance that this article is simply useless. I don't know why authors write these type of articles that provide nothing new or have any substance, maybe it is just to get their names out there.

    The material in this article is pretty much a rehash/ripoff of Eric Raymond's "How to become a hacker" ( which is a document referring to the definition of hacker as software developer/open-source software contributor which is not a problem in itself but the author of this article is ripping the info and trying to weave it into a guide for the definition of hacker as someone who aims to audit the security of information systems. The author of this article is either confused, lazy, or both. Let's be honest here, this article is a fluff piece.
    • That was unkind. Do you have bile?

      Consult a Physician.
      Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
      • RE: How to become a hacker

        @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate

        You're right where are my manners indeed.
      • RE: How to become a hacker

        @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate

        We need a new rating system. I'm convinced that 99% of all internet content is crap. The other 1% is probably useful. Using the 100 scale with 1 being the crappiest and 100 being the goodiest, I rate this article about 28. I rate the mundane comment a "1" and your comment also a "1". This reply is also a "1".
      • RE: How to become a hacker

        @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate,
        Unkind? I don't think so. Of all participants here, I'm likely to be the least skilled. The article appealed to me because I haven't yet earned my junior novice decoder ring. For a person with more experience, 'mundane' seems appropriate.
        • You are reading his 2nd revision.

          The first reply was entirely different and was quite unkind.
          He did the right thing. Corrected it.
          Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
      • RE: How to become a hacker

        @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate
        Yes. I do believe that any Hacker-wannabe really should either be a genius if they don't want to get busted by a better, faster and stronger Hacker, or otherwise just check themselves before they wikikity-wreck themselves.
    • RE: How to become a hacker

      @tdyz I agree. Total fluff piece.
  • RE: How to become a hacker

    Excellent article. Too many times in today's press we see the term "hacker" used when it should be either "black-hat hacker" or "cracker". It's time the press learned...


    [originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]
    1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
    2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
    3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.
    4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
    5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a UNIX hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
    6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
    7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
    8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence "password hacker", "network hacker". The correct term is cracker.
    • RE: How to become a hacker

      @benched42 I prefer not to add a positive or negative morality to the term hacker. It is very simply someone who wants to live with a deeper understanding of how the world around them works. The hacker mentality is as old as man himself - fire and the wheel being two of the earliest hacks we knew. Hackers take the existing rule set and find ways to manipulate it and do things that aren't in the manual (and often void warranties.) The only place, in my humble opinion, the terms hacker and cracker belong are in the corporate world. It's like trying to differentiate between the Jedi and Sith - at the end of the day both use the force to try and mold the galaxy into their vision of what it should be - but the Force itself is about balance and requires both sides of the coin. Also depending on the cirlce a cracker is simply a hacker that specializes in cracking encryption and that is not always malacious. At the end of the day all knowledge can be used for good or evil, it is up to the wielder, a hacker is simply someone who lives on the bleeding edge seeking that which is yet unknown regardless of the topic. How they use that knowledge is a moot point.
      • RE: How to become a hacker

        @ITSamurai Of course, I'm going to presume that in terms of defining what a hacker is/does, what they do with that knowledge is moot.

        I think we both know, that beyond the definition, what one does with the knowledge is certainly not moot. That while one may prefer not to apply a morality to something, does not mean one does not/should not exist with that something.

        I believe that it's appropriate that everyone of all skill levels actually learn to identify precisely what they're doing, and just as well, what side of the law and 'morality', they may wish to end up on during that on-going process.
      • RE: How to become a hacker

        You'r description about hacker's term is perfect. Thank you!
  • Don't forget about Hackerspaces...

    Don't forget about Hackerspaces in various cities throughout the country. These are great resources to pick up skills and ask questions of fellow hackers. Many of them are free, and may even include community hardware such as soldering irons, CAMs, prototype printers, and various electronic equipment for your various hacking needs. :)

    Also, many cities have a Maker Faire where you can see exhibits of other peoples' hacking projects (software and hardware) and see what other people in your community are up to.
  • And the point is.... ???

    Aspiring to be a hacker is exactly like wanting to live in your mom's basement, eating Cheeto's, and living in a fantasy world where you think you are actually doing something worthwhile. You are not. It's sad really... all that effort to produce exactly nothing. Why not use your programming skills to make an app everyone would want that helps someone or some thing? That too much to ask? But it's a free world, so go waste your life. But know that if you fuck with ME and my own I will rain down upon you like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Loser.
  • How about CEH classes?

    For instance, you can get a Certified Ethical Hacker cert by taking a course like this:
    • CEH = joke

  • I would not have taken this seriously...

    ...if he hadn't thrown the Anakin Skywalker reference in there at the end. Strong with the hacking, this one is.
  • RE: How to become a hacker

    I am old enough to remember when the term "hacker" simply meant "good programmer", and the term "cracker" hadn't been invented yet, because security wasn't so much an issue because computers didn't talk to each other. I am also old enough to remember that C is itself based on Fortran. But I do keep up in my field. I can't stop doing what I love, even if it's pure freelance.

    Because, I do object to your characterization that gray hair doesn't matter. Take a look at the people sitting around you. Nothing matters ~more~ in this field, as far as regular corporate hiring.

    How's that for good clear English!