Engineering News
February 10, 2003 Vol.73, no. 4S
BORN TO PROGRAM: The members of the eXperimental Computer Facility (XCF) have a history of elitism and competition. While a passion for programming has replaced a high skill level as criteria for membership, the group says that the spirit of competition is still dominant. Photo by Angela Privin.

eXperimental Computer Facility’s proud present and impressive past

While the term “hacker” has earned an unsavory connotation (thanks in part to its depiction in movies and all the bad press), the real definition of the term is quite innocuous, say members of the eXperimental Computer Facility (XCF) at Berkeley.

“Hacker used to just mean someone who was good with computers,” says EECS senior and XCF member Walter Rader.

While some hackers have wrought their share of destruction by hacking into important and highly secure computer systems, others have helped protect the same systems from being broken into.

Just 17 years ago, while still a student at Berkeley, the co-founder of XCF, Phil Lapsley, was instrumental in diagnosing and curing the Internet Worm, a virus that nearly crippled the Net.

Since then XCF has helped expand the Internet by directly or indirectly contributing open-source software such as one of the first-ever Web browsers. The group also developed two free software heavy- weights, the GTK tool kit (useful for creating graphical user interfaces), and the GIMP, a Photoshop clone.

In the past, such achievements have led to excessive pride, an elitist culture and stringent admission requirements, say members. But the current XCF is a different animal. “We had our glory days and then membership dwindled. Now we are trying to revive the organization. We welcome anyone who is interested and motivated. We are looking for people with heart, because skill is something we can teach,” says club president Jeff Myung.

Teaching is nothing new to XCF members, who traditionally hold Unix-based help seminars for more advanced students.
XCF members also have a lot to teach each other. The group was founded on the premise that many cooks will sweeten the pot. In programming the ability to bounce ideas off each other will also produce better ideas and results, say members.
At XCF, people choose a project they are passionate about, then meet with the group to get feedback and advice. While members serve as mentors for each other, the climate is anything but nurturing.

Through competition and brutally honest peer review members hope to push one another to do their best. “It’s like Darwinism: If you’ve got a bad idea, you get flack for it and the idea dies,” says Rader.

Members say the competitive vibe inspires them to be better than the next person.

The 10-member group is currently working on projects like a video game, an Internet-broadcast radio show, media player plug-ins to be distributed on a wide digital network, and a program that allows instructors with minimal computer skills to create a course Web site.

Each semester the group recruits new people interested in initiating their own projects or helping out with existing projects.

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