How to Participate in Hacker News

I recently received an inquiry from a Hacker News newcomer on how to best participate in the community. I was ready to reply, "Just follow the guidelines and be yourself." Then I realized that it was actually a very good question that deserved a much better answer.

So here is my more detailed answer, based upon many years of hard knocks.

First of all, follow the guidelines! This is a necessary, but not sufficient condition.

There are literally hundreds of discussions about Hacker News participation just a search away, with much to learn. Hopefully, I can add something new here:

1. Be yourself.

I know that sounds lame, but think about it for a moment. Who else are you going to be? I see no need for "personas". Just be yourself. Talk to others just as if you were in the room with them. Let others see you as your genuine self, full of strengths and areas primed for learning. We can all grow together. Many of us will meet our future in this community.

2. Participate!

I never understood why people lurked so long. No need to be shy here. If you have something to say, say it. If not, then just lurk and learn. But everybody has something of value to share. This is one of the best places to do it.

3. Be positive.

This can really be hard when smart people debate, but try it anyway. Notice the difference between:

  Person A: Water is dry.

  Person B: No it's not. You're full of shit.


  Person C: Water is dry.

  Person D: Not in my experience. What data have you encountered to cause you to arrive at that conclusion?

I realize that this is an extreme trivial example, but try to be more like Person D than Person B.

4. Make friends.

Harness the power of the internet! You are not restricted by geography, circumstances, or time period (to some degree). There are many incredible people here who you would likely never meet most other places. Take advantage to the opportunity to meet them, in Hacker News discussion threads, off-line via email, and even in person. Put your contact info in the "about" section of your profile (the "email" is private). Organize and participate in local Hacker News get-togethers. Who knows, your next co-founder, investor, or friend for life may be one or two clicks away.

5. Have something to add.

Again, this may sound obvious and lame, but think about it for a minute. Which comments do you like the most? The ones that add data (which very oftens translate into value). The key words are "add", "data", and "value". If you have something interesting to add, the please add it. It's not just your right, it's your responsibility! Everyone wins when you do this: the community gets richer, someone gets value, and you get a bit of a following as an expert in something.

6. Know when to talk and when to listen.

If you have experience doing something being discussed, then by all means, share it! If not then read, listen, and learn. If you have a theory about something but aren't too sure, fine. Just say so. Shocking, but just because you read something on the internets doesn't necessarily mean it's true. And most of all, please never start a sentence with, "It seems to me...". Many of us already get too much of that from our PHBs.

7. The articles may be valuable, but the real gold is in the comments.

If an interesting article posted on Hacker News fell in the forest and no one commented, did it make an impact? Sometimes I post something interesting just to see what you guys will say about it.


  Good umpire: I call 'em as I see 'em.

  Better umpire: I call 'em as they are.

  Best umpire: They aren't anything until I call 'em.


  Good article: I write 'em as I see 'em.

  Better article: I write 'em as they are.

  Best article: I'm nothing until until the Hacker News community comments on me.

8. Try to focus on your work.

I know this is controversial, but our work is what makes this community what it is. There are debates about all kinds of things here and elsewhere, but remember, our work is our common thread. Frankly, I'm much more interested in what you built, what you encountered when you built it, and what you learned than your opinion about SOPA.

Another old story:

  Husband: I am the head of the household! I make all of our family's critical policy decisions on the world's major economic, political, and industrial issues!

  Wife: I decide the little things like where we'll live, what we'll eat, and where the kids go to school.


  Commenter 1: This major issue can have profound impact on our technological future.

  Commenter 2: I don't know much about that, but here's how it took me 9 tries to get my app just right for my audience.

Notice that everyone is right, but I still prefer reading the comments of the second person in each example.

9. Be nice.

Life's too short for anything less. There are many other places any of us could be, but we're here. When people aren't nice to me, I just close my browser and come back another day. I know that sounds silly, but it dealing with not nice people is just a big waste of time and everybody loses. Please don't be that person.

Patrick Swayze's character in "Roadhouse" says it much better than me:

10. No list is ever exhaustive, on Hacker News or anywhere else. Anyone have any other suggestions?

What’s your greatest life lesson?

In the past year or two, I have learned my greatest life lesson. As a lifelong high achiever, it was extremely counter-intuitive yet it was right in front of me all along. First, a little background… 

In the past couple of years:

- My father died. 

- My aunt (and best friend) died. 

- My cousin (who was really like my brother) died. 

- My 19 year old cat died. 

- We had our first ever family reunion.

- My mother's dementia has turned her back into a child. 

Sure we all have great memories and are busy working at building even better futures, but ultimately it all boils down to: 

All we have is now. 

My pets have been trying to teach me this for years, if only I had listened. And now my mother is teaching me. They don’t really remember yesterday. They don’t care about tomorrow. But they really care about the moment. Intensely. 

I have had to really slow down and let this sink in. When I visit my mother in her nursing home, we have a great time laughing, talking, visiting others, and of course, playing Jeopardy. We can’t have the conversations we used to, so we just have new experiences, one time only, in the moment, and only for those who are there. We never talk about the past and she simply doesn’t understand, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

I haven’t stopped building my future, but I no longer sacrifice the present in order to get there. I have learned that the process must be as enjoyable as the outcome. After all, the process is “now” and the outcome is just an instant in time. 

It may sound cliche, but everyone should take inventory of all the good stuff in their lives (especially other people) and make the most of it “now”. You’ll be surprised how quickly it’ll be gone. Don’t wait half your life to learn my most valuable counter-intuitive lesson. 

The Disconnect Between Us and Them

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but lots of us sure are in a bubble. There seems to be a real disconnect between what people want to build/invest in and what people in the real world actually need and want to pay for. Just as sample of what I’ve witnessed in the past few years:

Ask HN: How do you like my file sharing app? 

Ask HN: How do you like my social app for niche ? 

Ask HN: How do you like my twitter app? 

Ask HN: How do you like my facebook app? 

Ask HN: How do you like my iphone app? 

Ask HN: How do you like my facebook app that writes twitter apps? 

Ask HN: How do you like my game? 

Ask HN: How do you like my photo sharing app? 

Ask HN: How do you like my video sharing app? 

Ask HN: How do I monetize my free flashcard app? 

Ask HN: How do you like my app that helps other hackers to do ? 

Ask HN: How do I get traffic to my freemium app? 

Ask HN: How do I get angels/VCs interested? 

Ask HN: Look what I wrote this weekend! 

Ask HN: Look what I wrote in one night! 

Ask HN: Look what I wrote in 7 seconds!

Customer 1: How can we sell through 

Customer 2: How can we reduce inventory by $300 million? 

Customer 3: How can we increase conversion from 2% to 4%? 

Customer 4: How can we use software to reduce energy costs? 

Customer 5: How can we migrate one app into another? 

Customer 6: How can we get our phones to talk to our legacy apps? 

Customer 7: How can we take orders through the internet? 

Customer 8: How can we get our software package to do ? 

Customer 9: How can we reduce credit card fraud? 

Customer 10: How can we increase SEO effectiveness? 

Customer 11: How can we connect fulfillment and ecommerce? 

Customer 12: How can we increase revenue? 

Customers 13-200: How can we increase profitability? 

It Can’t Be Done

“And in my experience when enough people are saying that ‘you can’t do that’ there is an opportunity waiting for you that is proportional in pay-off to the number of people asserting that it can’t be done.” 

Great thought. 

Most of my most memorable successes were when others said that something couldn’t be done. First you think, “Why not?” Then you think, “What would it take?” Then you figure that you’ll never find out for sure unless you try. The reward is compounded by the initial skeptism. 

Just a few silly examples (any of these sound familiar?):

Manager: Shop Floor Control is impossible. 

Me: Why? 

Manager: Because the base data is so inaccurate. 

Me: So? 

Manager: It would take years to fix all the data. 

Me: What if we turned in on anyway? 

Manager: The output would be worthless. 

Me: Wouldn't it show where the base data was inaccurate? 

Manager: Yes. 

Me: Then you could fix the biggest culprits? 

Manager: I suppose. 

Me: So turning it on would expedite data fixing? 

Manager: Yes. 

Me: So it's not really impossible? 

Manager: Well...

Manager: Bug free software is impossible. 

Me: What would it take to make is possible? 

Manager: Nothing. Can't be done. 

Me: What if we added systems testing to unit testing? 

Me: And then built rigorous test plans covering almost everything? 

Me: And then enforced User Acceptance Testing? 

Me: And allowed nothing into production without passing? 

Me: Would it be better? 

Manager: Yes, but we can't afford to do all of that. 

Me: So, bug-free software isn't impossible, just expensive? 

Manager: No, it's impossible. Get back to work. 

Me: Sigh.

Manager: A web app is impossible. 

Me: Why? 

Manager: Because it depends upon data entered by regular people. 

Me: So? 

Manager: People are idiots. They enter wrong data all the time. 

Me: What if we trained them? 

Manager: Impossible. They don't work for us. 

Me: What if we made the software smarter? 

Manager: What do you mean? 

Me: Data validation. 

Me: Data reasonableness based upon rules or history. 

Me: Crowdsourcing data validation. 

Manager: The data would still be bad. 

Me: What would it take to make the data good? 

Manager: Nothing. Impossible. 

Me: Sigh. 

It’s Never Too Late

Teen years - flipped burgers & partied 

Age 21 - graduated college, flipped burgers, & partied

Age 24 - touched my first computer 

Age 25 - wrote my first program 

Age 27 - touched my first PC 

Age 31 - wrote my first low level code 

Age 32 - started my first business 

Age 39 - started my second business 

Age 41 - accessed the internet for the first time 

Age 44 - wrote my first browser-based app 

Age 51 - found Hacker News 

Now - having more fun than ever 

It’s never too late, you’re never too old, and it’s not whether the glass is half full or half empty. 

It’s about getting up off your butt and filling the glass the rest of the way. 

How does one turn out the way they do?

The old town drunk died. His two sons, the bank president and the new town drunk were at his funeral. An onlooker, surprised at how different the two sons were, asked each one how he turned out the way he did. 

The bank president responded, “With a father like that, how else could I turn out?” 

The new town drunk responded, “With a father like that, how else could I turn out?” 

For what it’s worth, I am like the bank president. I have no idea why. All I know is that no matter whatever anyone ever did to me, it didn’t matter. I have no idea if someone who turned out like the new town drunk can change (although I imagine it happens all the time). All I do know is that “it is possible” for a victim to succeed and overcome all of his “darkness”. 


I try to approach not to change the world, not to build cool stuff (well maybe just a little), but to genuinely help people. For a business person, this thinking is difficult and counter-intuitive. 

Why do I do this? Because of my first mentor (and co-founder). 

He was relentless in everything he did. I learned to stay up all night, keep calling on customers, and stay with tasks until we got somewhere with them. I remember many nights with thousands of invoices spread across the carpet, watching the graveyard shift run their machines, or scanning reports on-line, looking for clues. He wouldn’t quit and the reason was always the same, “These people need help and we can help them. So we do. Don’t worry about how hard it is or how much time we spend, it’ll all work out in the end.” 

Sometimes I think that this is the attitude very successful people must have. It’s too easy to give up when it’s for ourselves, but much harder when we know that someone else needs us to get the thing done. 

How to Never Say “No”

I never say “No”. 

I just say, “Yes. And this is what it will cost you to do it right:” 

- Projects X, Y, Z will all be pushed back 2 weeks. 

- Prerequisite Project will have to come first. 

- weeks overtime for people = $z. 

- Joe and Mary will have to be pulled away for 3 weeks. 

- Interim solution will only take 1 week, but won't work. 

- We will need your top supervisor full-time next week. 

or, best of all: 

- We don't know. We need a project to find out. 

Note that “doing it wrong” or “doing it quick & dirty” are not options. 

People understand “this is what it will take” a lot better than “no”. They also understand the trade-offs and sacrifices needed. Then they will work with you to make the best decision for everybody. 

Who are the real heroes of programming?

My customers. 

My customers do great things. They often need my software, built and functioning properly for years to do these things. I love building stuff, but they are the real heroes. Just some of the things that they do:

- get the right drugs get to the right people 

- get the ambulance to the right address 

- get the right materials purchased and delivered 

- get the right product built, on time and budget 

- get the right product shipped accurately and on time 

- make sure the parts going into that airplane are certified 

- make sure your insurance claim gets processed properly 

- make sure they make enough $, so they can keep doing it 

I can go on and on, but you kinda get the idea. I love to learn, to optimize and refactor, and to build beautiful things. But what I do pales in comparison to what they need to do. I never forget that. 

What’s the big deal with startups?

1. I write software: business applications. I love what I do. I love getting something to work right the first time. I love seeing people use the software I wrote to do their jobs and run their businesses. I can’t imagine doing anything else. 

2. The software I have inherited in all 88 companies I have worked at has sucked. I mean really sucked. Nothing to be proud of. Nothing to want to work on. I think it’s because business software is now where medicine was 100 years ago. 

So I have a choice. Work on other people’s crap or write my own. I have done both, but I have to write my own to be happy in this industry. If I could only work on other people’s software, I think I’d rather work in a grocery store. 

Starting a software business is the most direct way to do what I “really” want to do.

I realize that other people have different reasons; this is just one answer to your question.