Remembering a Hacker

An old friend of mine, Harris Wulfson, passed away suddenly last week. I hadn’t seen him in years, and we’d only run into each other once since we worked together at Music Boulevard in the 90’s. That running-into happened at a Jazz show in Brooklyn, NY. Harris was a musician and music composition grad student as well as being an excellent software developer.

What I remember most vividly about Harris was the way he developed possibly the most important application in the Music Boulevard platform, a bulletin board system that brought together music fans and generated a lot of unexpected traffic and sales, as a skunkworks project. In fact, he built it when he was supposed to be doing other things — I remember other colleagues of mine complaining that he was dragging his heels updating HTML pages. I’ve never forgotten that. He contributed the most when he was supposed to be doing something else.

Harris is one of the few real-life hackers I’ve ever met. I don’t call him that because he produced a lot of cool software. Music was really his passion. (Although maybe he did — I don’t know because we fell out of touch ten years ago.) I’m thinking of his attitude. He understood that the best use of his time fell outside of doing what he was being told to do. He had an intuition, an itch, and he followed it. Not necessarily the best trait for an employee — it’s more reminiscent of a jazz musician.

Calling Harris a hacker in the days after his death isn’t meant to pay him a compliment. Really, it’s the other way around. Harris improved and expanded my appreciation for improvisation, risk-taking, and, yes, good coding. I don’t think better of my friend because I think of him as a hacker. I think better of hacking because of what I learned from Harris.