how not to hire a programmer, redux

Tech companies are having a lot of trouble recruiting and keeping skilled coders, and the advice floating around the web is not helping them at all.

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Photo by Jefferson Santos

Hiring people is difficult, no question, and in few places is this more true than in IT because we decided to eschew certifications, don’t require licenses, and our field is so vast that we have to specialize in a way that makes it difficult to evaluate us in casual interviews. With a lawyer, you can see that he or she passed the bar and had good grades. With a doctor, you can see years of experience and a medical license. You don’t have to ask them technical questions because they obviously passed the basic requirements. But software engineers work in such a variety of environments and with such different systems that they’re difficult to objectively evaluate. What makes one coder or architect better than another? Consequently, tech blogs are filled with just about every kind of awful advice for hiring them possible, and this post is the worst offender I’ve seen so far, even more out of touch and self-indulgent than Jeff Atwood’s attempt.

What makes it so bad? It seems to be written by someone who doesn’t seem to know how real programmers outside of Silicon Valley work, urging future employers to demand submissions to open, public code repositories like GitHub and portfolios of finished projects to explore and with all seriousness telling them to dismiss those who won’t publish their code or have the bite-sized portfolio projects for quick review. Even yours truly living and working in the Silicon Beach scene, basically Bay Area Jr., for all intents and purposes, would be fired for posting code from work in an instant. Most programmers do not work on open source projects but closed source software meant for internal use or for sale as a closed source, cloud-based, or on premises product. We have to deal with patents, lawyers, and often regulators and customers before a single method or function becomes public knowledge. But the author, Eric Elliot, ignores this so blithely, it just boggles the mind. It’s as if he’s forgotten that companies actually have trade secrets.

Even worse are Elliot’s suggestions for how to gauge an engineer’s skills. He advocates a real unit of work, straight from the company’s team queue. Not only is this ripe for abuse because it basically gives you free or really discounted highly skilled work, but it’s also going to confuse a candidate because he or she needs to know about the existing codebase to come up with the right solution to the problem all while you’re breathing down his or her neck. And if you pick an issue that really requires no insight into the rest of your product, you’ve done the equivalent of testing a marathoner by how well she does a 100 meter dash. This test can only be too easy to be useful or too hard to actually give you a real insight into someone’s thought process. Should you decide to forgo that, Elliot wants you to give the candidate a real project from your to-do list while paying $100 per hour, introducing everything wrong with the previous suggestion with the added bonus of now spending company money on a terrible, useless, irrelevant test.

Continuing the irrelevant recommendations, Elliot also wants candidates to have blogs and long running accounts on StackOverflow, an industry famous site for programmers to ask questions while advising each other. Now sure, I have a blog, but it’s not usually about software and after long days of designing databases, or writing code, or technical discussions, the last thing I want is to write posts about all of the above and have to promote it so it actually gets read by a real, live human being other than an employer every once in a while, instead of just shouting into the digital darkness to have it seen once every few years when I’m job hunting. Likewise, how fair is it to expect me to do my work and spend every free moment advising other coders for the sake of advising them so it looks good to a future employer? At some point between all the blogging, speaking, freelancing, contributing to open source projects, writing books, giving presentations, and whatever else Elliot expects of me, when the hell am I going to have time to actually do my damn job? If I was good enough to teach code to millions, I wouldn’t need him to hire me.

But despite being mostly bad, Elliot’s post does contain two actually good suggestions for trying to gauge a programmer’s or architect’s worth. One is asking the candidate about a real problem you’re having, and problems and solutions to those problems from their past. You should try to remove the coding requirement so you can just follow pure abstract thought and research skills for which you’re ultimately paying. Syntax is bullshit, you can Google the right way to type some command in a few minutes. The ability to find the root of a problem and ask the right questions to solve it is what makes a good computer scientist you’ll want to hire, and experience with how to diagnose complex issues and weigh solutions to them is what makes a great one who will be an asset to the company. This is how my current employer hired me and their respect for both my time and my experience is what convinced me to work for them, and the same will apply for any experienced coder you’ll be interviewing. We’re busy people in a stressful situation, but we also have a lot of options and are in high demand. Treat us like you care, please.

And treating your candidates with respect is really what it’s all about. So many companies have no qualms about treating those who apply for jobs as non-entities who can be ignored or given ridiculous criteria for asinine compensation. Techies definitely fare better, but we have our own problems to face. Not only do we get pigeonholed into the equivalent of carpenters who should be working only with cherry or oak instead of just the best type of wood for the job, but we are now being told to live, breathe, sleep, and talk our jobs 24/7/365 until we take our last breath at the ripe old age of 45 as far as the industry is concerned. Even for the most passionate coders, at some point, you want to stop working and talk about or do something else. This is why I write about popular science and conspiracy theories. I love what I do, working on distributed big data and business intelligence projects for the enterprise space, but I’m more than my job. And yes, when I get home, I’m not going to spend the rest of my day trying to prove to the world that I’m capable or writing a version of FizzBuzz that compiles, no matter what Elliot thinks of that.

# tech // computer science / hiring / programmer


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