Are you confused by the terms hacker and software engineerYou’re not alone.

If your mind gets a little fuzzy when you try to sort out the differences between them, then this article is for you. Let’s first explore what things hackers and software engineers do. Then we’ll dive deep into the personality characteristics of both so you can form a solid mental picture of them. They are very different, probably way more different than you might think. A friend of mine, Jeff Walker, who happens to be a software engineer had this to say about hackers and software engineers:

“We enjoy solving problems and writing clever code, and we’re often very motivated by money. The difference is largely in how we go about it. A computer hacker’s focus is exploitation of software and hardware, be it illegal or not, and profit-driven or not. A software engineer’s focus is on building and maintaining software, with an aim of quality and customer satisfaction.”

What Hackers Do

The word, hacker, has become very popular today. It’s used to describe a lot of different people, but for this article, we are only using it to describe people who are involved in computer security. Hackers seek and exploit weaknesses in a computer or computer network. Hackers are motivated to hack for a wide variety of reasons: profit, protest, challenge, enjoyment or the revealing of vulnerabilities in computer systems. There are two types of hackers: computer criminals known as black hats and computer security experts known as white hats. White hat hackers break into protected systems and networks to test and assess their security before black hat hackers can get in. So, some white hat hackers are actually employed by companies. Black hat hackers violate computer security systems for malicious purposes or personal gain. Black hat hackers are also known as crackers or dark-side hackers. They represent the stereotypical criminal hacker who has deep and thorough computer knowledge and who uses that knowledge for destructive purposes.

What Software Engineers Do

Software engineers build and maintain software solutions and systems for corporations, non-profit organizations, small businesses and government agencies. They are either employees or contractors. They are socially-integrated people who develop robust computer solutions using various computer programming languages. They are primarily concerned with building systems and projects that solve problems in an efficient way. They are easily angered by sloppy code and are constantly searching for ways to avoid system failures. The saying goes, No one anticipates a catastrophic system failure by looking on the bright side.”

How And When Do Hackers Work?

Hackers work alone. They also work whenever they want to and for as long as they want. The majority of hackers work in an obsessional style and view their hacking as solving a giant riddle. They don’t divide their day into “work” and “leisure” hours. They are driven by their hacking impulses and don’t adhere to any type of rigid daily schedule. Hackers are not employees, generally speaking and they have no bosses. The only exception to this is white hat hackers who are sometimes hired by a company to find security weaknesses.

How And When Do Software Engineers Work?

Software engineers work in teams. Even though they spend a fair amount of time working alone writing code, they regularly meet with their colleagues to discuss projects and issues. The vast majority of software engineers work for companies, so they work regular daytime hours at an organization and rarely bring their work home with them. They enjoy fairly high-paying salaries and view their job as just a part of their life, not the entire thing.

Personality Traits of Hackers

This is a generalization, but it seems most hackers possess above-normal intelligence, an all-consuming curiosity, and a capacity for mental abstractions. Also, they are stimulated by intellectual novelty and are relatively individualistic and anti-conformist. If they are criminals, then they are also anti-social to an extreme degree. They are not motivated by social approval or other conventional rewards. They tend to be self-absorbed and consider themselves to be intellectually superior to others. These character traits make them socially awkward and unable to relate well to other people. They tend to ignore boring life tasks. Some hackers do work in groups, but most tend to work alone.

Personality Traits of Software Engineers

Again, I’m using generalizations, but the following list of traits seem to describe software engineers fairly well. For the most part, software engineers are extremely detail-oriented, highly intelligent and they possess good communication and advanced problem-solving skills. Their activities are dictated by someone else so it’s in their best interest to conform to rules and schedules. Software engineers view their jobs as encompassing different kinds of work, so they will perform maintenance and other mundane tasks in order to improve the overall efficiency of a project. They think in terms of the big picture and most are good team players. There are always exceptions, however, and I was recently told by a friend that some software engineers are definitely weak where social skills are concerned.

What Animal Is Like A Hacker?

For this metaphor, we are only talking about black hat hackers. Hackers are like lone wolves, constantly searching for their next meal by themselves. Wolves hunt and kill. Some lone wolves are driven out of their pack and others will be lone wolves for a short time only. It seems the majority of hackers work alone, but there exists hacking groups, too. Pride is a big part of the hacker identity.

What Animal Is Like A Software Engineer?

Software engineers are like highly intelligent, synchronized Clydesdale horses who work together in a team. A driver directs the horses’ motions and activities. Each Clydesdale horse is super efficient and strong and has advanced social and cognitive skills that make working within a team easy. Excessive pride is not a major component of software engineering culture.

If you need a quick visual to solidify the differences, look at the infographic: 


The abstractions contained in the infographic are only generalizations and were not derived from hard data. Information about hacker personality traits came from The Jargon File, an extensive resource on hacker culture.