The idea of elite technomasters is pretty well ingrained into American pop culture. Geeks can be legendary. Although highly overdramatized it's worth mention of a few of the characters which writers brought to life. But first allow me to clear up how I perceive hacker in this context.
Peter Christensen does a good job of contrasting hackers and engineers. But my variant is a spin off of well known hacker/founder/investor (he's multiclass) Paul Graham. Here's Mr. Graham's working definition for hacker:
To the popular press, "hacker" means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, "hacker" connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants—whether the computer wants to or not.
I'd like to extend Paul's definition. Hacker describes someone who can make technology do what he or she wants it to. It might be far from the most elegant solution, but they make things work. Functionality trumps style, although when hacking there is room for both. We revere those few that combine style and rapid functional implementation. These are the artists.
- Scotty hacked the warp reactor to the Enterprise 6 ways to Sunday. Yes, he was an engineer but he was even more of a hacker. Stress and deadlines were fuel to Scotty, as he saved the ship and crew members time and time again.
- Macgyver was infamous for taking pencils, glue, and tape and creating improvised weapons, hand gliders and other gadgets. I'm surprised how many variations the writers of the show concocted for Richard Dean Anderson to exploit a principle of chemistry to save the day.
- The recent Doctor(s) Who is infamous for deus ex machina, wielding a sonic screwdriver like Voltron's blazing episode ender. But despite this plot device we are reminded of the Doctor's brilliant creativity at averting catastrophes with his leverage of science and technology.
The common trait all these characters share is one of passion. All of them were driven to create functional solutions to nigh impossible problems. They needed to succeed, and had "skin in the game". This is an integral part of the process.
Complimentary Hacking Styles
My cofounder, and Chief Tech of Victus Media, Tyler Gillies is certainly a hacker, and he pushes to understand whatever technology he's using. I rely on his ever growing web programming and technology background (this morning he cleared up my careless belief that https used a form of pgp).
Although my background is engineering, I have rebelled against technology for technolgy's sake. Now I seek to understand as little as possible about a specific technology to get it to do my bidding. As I use tech, I pick up details about its structure, data handling, and design patterns but those are low on my priority list.
It's a rare moment when we both completely agree on something. We have fairly orthogonal styles, but together we're capable of piecing together highly functional tools. Tyler's almost succeeded in changing my default coding habit. I'm learning about the advantages of reading documentation in addition to my favorite method of learning: blindy poking about working examples ;).