19 Tips for Recruiting Great Developers

1. The big job boards like Monster and Dice have become practically useless for hiring top tier talent.

It is easy to quickly obtain a pile of resumes using these services. However, this approach will have you shucking a heck of a lot of oysters to find a truly great Perl programmer. Several professional recruiters I know have given up on these boards except for staffing entry level positions like help-desk and phone support jobs. The odds of finding the proverbial rock star programmer on Monster are growing increasingly slim.

2. Niche job boards will get you qualified leads, but not very many of them.

High-end job boards like TheLadders charge a fee to the candidates and are as much a den of recruiters as the mainstream sites.  I find it hard to believe that top-tier talent is likely to pay to be listed on a job board.

Caveat: I have not personally used TheLadders as part of my recruiting efforts, but did briefly have a subscription as a candidate.

The really niche job boards like the one at JoelOnSoftware do a good job at pre-qualifying the candidates through self-selection, but maybe too much so.  I’ve listed a few jobs on this site for opportunities in Austin that generated almost no response. I suspect this is a better tool if you are in a bigger market like NYC or the silicon valley.

Actually Joel’s board does have a compelling strategy to draw higher quality candidates:

  • Trim back recruiter nonsense by forcing the advertiser to disclose in the ad who the candidate would actually be working for.
  • Asking advertisers to post their Joel’s Test score. Candidates who care about this are more likely to be passionate about their craft.

Despite my limited success with it, I’d still recommend the site given that there really is no financial risk.  I can personally attest to Joel’s “If it doesn’t work, you don’t pay” guarantee. We got our money back promptly with no hassle when the listing didn’t net any interview-worthy candidates.

3. Use LinkedIn Strategically

I have it on good authority that LinkedIn is a pretty strong source of candidates who are only passively looking and currently employed, which are generally traits of the better candidates. However, programmers don’t seem to frequent the job board on this site  as much as sales and management types.

That said, I  can’t really vouch for its job board when looking for developers based on my experience. However,  never before have you had such unprecedented access to the innards of another company’s org chart as LinkedIn provides. A few quick searches containing the name of  other companies in your industry will usually reveal developers with relevant experience in your industry.  This site is also used as a stealth way of looking for another job for people who don’t want their employer to catch them on a job board.

I was just NETWORKING, I promise!

4. The best candidates aren’t going to come to you.

There are exceptions to this, but I’m betting that you wouldn’t have read this far if you are recruiting within a company that the best programmers already yearn to work for. This advice is for the rest of us who don’t have the luxury of offering a job that would be a showstopper on a resume or turn heads at RenFest / Comic-Con.

Some managers, especially new ones, whose only experience with recruiting has been as a candidate desperately seeking an audience with a choice company, have the impression that their role as a hiring manager is akin to sitting atop a throne as candidates compete for their favor.  Not exactly.

There is a pool of candidates who are going to come to you, and their names will quickly become familiar because they will apply to every job posting you open even over several years. In most cases, there is a reason that someone else hasn’t snapped up these people and absent evidence to the contrary you probably don’t want to hire them either. If you aren’t willing to be proactive in your search and sometimes take on a more subservient posture when dealing with candidates, you are eventually going to force yourself to choose from this pool.

The top guns may only hit the open job market once in their careers, and from that point forward get subsequent jobs through networking, which brings me to my next point.

5. Networking is as essential for you as it is for the candidate.

Networking as a job-hunting strategy is a no-brainer, right? So what are you doing to make sure you are on the other end of that network for the right candidate?

Your existing team of developers is often a great entry point into a pretty substantial network of developers. Referral bonuses are the tried and true way to enlist employee help with the recruiting process, but often the prospect of working with a favored peer is a more powerful motivator.

Other benefits of this approach include:

  • The person who made the referral will to be invested in the success of the employee and likely will take an active role in bringing the new person up to speed.
  • Barriers to acceptance into the team will be reduced because the new person already has a relationship with at least one person.
  • You are more likely to get a true picture of what you are getting with the candidate without as much puffery as you might get interviewing strangers.

Warning: This doesn’t work so well with the mediocre programmers. The best developers try to hang with people smarter than themselves. Mediocre ones will seek out people to make them feel smarter. Don’t hire the wing-men.

6. Focus your search on finding developers, not job hunters.

Employers are going to hang on to their best people and keep them away from recruiters, recruiting events, and by extension you.

I’m not trying to imply that their bosses are actively prohibiting them from these types of contacts, but rather that they work hard to keep them happy and busy enough to not even try.

Developer conferences and user groups are a great way to contact engaged developers who may not be actively looking for work. They even triage themselves into sessions so you can more readily identify them by their area of expertise.

The best emissary to send to such an event is a development manager or supervisor. HR types are going to scare away the fish by being too sales-y and saying things like “Do you know Sea Pound?” and many programmers tend to be too introverted to make a lot of contacts.

I’ve a friend who recounted a tactic that had worked well at these events for him. He wore a t-shirt to the conference that read: “I’m hiring developers.”

7. Programming competitions

If you need a lot of developers and want them to triage themselves by skill AND aptitude, you might try sponsoring a programming competition. I’ve no personal experience with this approach, but I’ve seen a number of companies try it.

It definitely sounds good, but be careful to understand what you are looking for. These competitions seem to appeal to people who love puzzles, and those are types of programmers can often exhibit a pathology where they like tinkering and optimizing at the expense of getting a good-enough solution out the door.

8. Don’t expect to pay median salaries for top talent.

Often I see companies that claim to hire only the best, but their HR people argue that they should only have to pay the median salary as determined by salary surveys. Try that argument at a jeweler or sports car dealership and let me know how that works out.

How can you charge $200K for that diamond necklace when I can prove that the average piece of jewelry retails for $150?

If you want the top 10% of developers, you should expect to pay at least in the top 25 percentile, and you are only going to get off that cheap if you bring something else to the table like a cool product to work on,   good benefits, private offices, or some other perk.

9. Get the muggles out of the process as early as possible.

If at all possible, don’t force the candidates to endure even a phone interview with a non-technical person. If you can’t avoid it, at least strip out any technical questions from the interview script that the person performing the interview doesn’t understand well enough to talk about competently.

Let HR/Recruiters manage the scheduling, resume screening, benefits discussions, etc. , but don’t give them a phone interview script with technical questions and let them lose on the candidate.

10. Be flexible with your requirements.

If you need a .NET developer, don’t be a stickler for C# or VB.NET. The best programmers can become quickly proficient in just about any language, make sure that the person screening resumes understands what keywords are acceptable substitutes for the ones in the job description.

11. Branding is not just for cattle and marketing.

Branding is the act of creating and maintaining a positive image to grease the skids for selling people on your team or company. It is often confused with advertising, but it is a distinctly different animal. Branding is about managing your reputation and advertising is just one means to that end.

Creating an identity for your team that is attractive to potential recruits not only helps with sourcing candidates, but also adds ballast to your side of salary negotiations.

Brand characteristics that resonate with developers:

  • We have and hire the best developers – Top developers want to work with other top developers.
  • We work on cool products that your friends and family will be familiar with.
  • Our company is a meritocracy that values technical know-how above politics.
  • Our team keeps up with the latest technology and invests in training for developers.

Some techniques for advertising and reinforcing your brand:

  • Sponsoring developer conferences and events
  • Developer Oriented User Groups – Often you can get a plug on the cheap by buying the pizza or contributing a few give-away items like t-shirts or books.
  • Support Open Source Projects under the name of the company.
  • Offer unusual perks that appeal to programmers and then submit a press release about it to local media outlets.

12. Understand your needs and recruit for that.

This seems too obvious to mention, but is probably the easiest mistake to make. Clearly define what you expect the new hire to do every day and hire someone that can do that job every day and enjoy it.

Some guidance in this area:

  • Don’t hire based on interviewing skills unless you need a sales guy.
  • Don’t hire based on management skills unless there is potential for them to lead or manage in the near term.
  • Don’t hire a clone of yourself or your best employee, you already have that. Hire someone that complements what you already have.
  • Hire for what you need NOW, not what you think you will need later.

13. Ignore your instincts during the interview

Your tendency during an interview is to form an opinion quickly at the start. Your mind is wired to preserve its own worldview and will often fight against all evidence to protect that initial judgment.

To remain objective and overcome jumping to conclusions, consciously decide to go harder on the people you like and easier on the ones you don’t. Otherwise you will be inclined to do the opposite and just reinforce a your initial impressions and waste a chance to learn more about the person in front of you.

14. Trust your instincts when making the final hiring decision

Trust your gut whenever you are the slightest bit uneasy.  At my own peril I have several times learned the hard way that losing a good candidate is far preferable to hiring a bad one. For the dozens of people I have hired in my career, there have been a number of people I was sure would be great and turned out to be just so-so, but  I have never hired someone that I was unsure about that turned out to be a great employee.

At each step of the process separate your candidates into two piles:

Yes: From what I know so far, I could hire this person without reservation.

No: Everyone that doesn’t pass the criteria for the yes pile. Includes anyone who is a “Maybe” or a “Yes, but…”

15. Just say no to puzzle problems.

First, see item 7  about the problem with logic puzzles.

Second, these things tend to annoy really good programmers who don’t like make-work or meta problems.

Don’t kid yourself that “you just want to see how they think.” Knowing that someone can come up with a clever way to estimate the number of boat trips required to determine which switch turns off Mt. Fuji is fun conversation, but a waste of everyone’s time.

Alternative approaches to evaluating a candidate:

  • Rough-out an application architecture on the white-board for this scenario.
  • Role-play with them a troubleshooting scenario for a challenging problem you have worked through.
  • Get code samples.
  • Ask them to describe an application they have built and ask probing questions to make sure you understand their level of contribution to that project.

16. Write an interview script and test it on your current team

Write interview scripts (for each job title/level) and keep your notes for each candidate.

Good reasons to use standardized interview script

  • Less room for ad-hoc questions helps you avoid favoritism (see #13).
  • Documentation of  equal treatment of candidates to defend against potential hiring discrimination claims.
  • Easier apples-to-apples comparison of candidates..

Tips for refining your interview script

  • Test it on current employees – Did it draw out the important positive and negative aspects of that employee? Tweak it until it does.
  • Get current employee feedback on the script – Any offensive/insulting questions? Do they think it would help or hurt the perception of the company for the interviewee?
  • Review your interview notes one year after the hire. Were there any surprises? Tweak the script to prevent similar surprises next time.
  • Review your script for and remove questions that require  specialized knowledge that only a current employee would have.

17. Don’t leave people hanging.

If your company’s recruiting process is interminably slow and out of your control, take it upon yourself to call your short-list candidates and frequently re-assure them that things are progressing. The best developers are going to be highly recruited. Don’t assume that just because someone submits a resume that they are somehow locked-in and will be forced to give you first right of refusal.

I’ve heard and been part of stories of companies calling back EIGHT MONTHS after a resume was submitted to ask for an interview. This is crazy. Even if by some miracle that person was still on the market after that long, clearly they have been passed over by just about everyone else in the interim. Why would you even want them after so much time has passed?

18. Recruit former employees

Face it, your top people get recruited heavily and eventually will jump ship to see if the grass is greener, even if it isn’t.

Good employees that have left your team in are a great source of new hires for several reasons:

  • You know what you are getting and so do they.
  • Previous employees can become productive much more quickly.
  • You can recoup some of your previous training investment.

Even if you can’t convince them to come back, the fact that you want them back is an ego boost for them and will often create some goodwill and improve your branding by creating an advocate that works with a lot of other developers who you might be interested in recruiting.

Some preemptive steps to increase your  odds of re-hiring a good employee later:

  • Give them a final chance to give honest feedback about the aspects of the job they didn’t like and communicate your desire to fix those things for the rest of the team.
  • Organize a happy hour and give them a great send-off.
  • Give them a souvenir of their employment to take with them that will remind them of their friends at the job.
  • Keep in touch, and not just when you need something.
  • Call to ask how their new job is going and solicit advice on things they like about the new job that you could try.
  • Continue to make sure they are invited to happy hours to keep the ties with their former co-workers strong.

I have re-hired several employees during my career as a software development manager who have turned out to be some of the best programmers on the team.

19. Mind your karma and don’t make enemies

Don’t be an ass when developers leave the company, whatever the circumstances. It doesn’t matter if you never want to see this person darken your doorstep again. Also, treat every candidate who took the time to apply with respect, even if they were completely unqualified. Word of mouth is a powerful thing and this industry isn’t as big as you might think. Chances are that these people will talk to someone about your company that you one day will want as an employee or customer.

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The Programmer’s Guide to Getting Hired: Cover Letters

The good news for job seekers, at least if you trust this poll, is that the requirement of a cover letter appears to be waning somewhat. This most likely has a lot to do with the shift towards sourcing by querying resume databases in lieu of the traditional correspondence directly with a hiring manager approach.

Here is some advice from my perspective as a technical hiring manager regarding cover letters.  Understand that this advice is completely based on my own experience and perspective and may not apply in all situations. Hiring managers and HR people are unique individuals each with their own preferences and biases that may differ from my own.

Send a cover letter when…

  • The job posting specifically requests it.
  • You have names to drop: Someone referred you, or you have a connection at the company that can vouch for you.
  • You are a really good persuasive writer and showcasing your writing skills in a document other than a highly formatted resume will help your chances.
  • You want to call out something specific on your resume.

Things to avoid:

  • Never apologize for things or call out negatives.

“The 2 your gap in my career was because…” – Bad

“I don’t have this skill you were asking for, but…” – Bad

  • Don’t write a thesis. Hiring managers have enough to read. Have a point and get to it quickly.
  • Don’t bother saying you are a perfect fit for the position, everyone says that and it just wastes space. Demonstrate it by mapping the job requirements to your experience.
  • Never send a cover letter than looks like a template or form letter. It should look like you wrote it in response to the specific job you are applying for. Those templating tools for cover letters on Monster.com and Dice where you can apply to a job with one click are the Devil.
  • Never address them to “To whom it may concern.” Do some digging and find out who the hiring manager is. In the age of LinkedIn it isn’t all that hard.

Things to consider:

  • If you feel you must include a cover letter, but don’t have any value to add in it, keep it very short (transmittal letter style).

“I would like to be considered for the XYZ position that I saw posted on Monster.com. Attached is my resume. You can contact me at…”

  • Have someone proofread your cover letter, not just your resume.
  • Getting a proofreader is doubly important if the cover letter isn’t in a language that you are extremely proficient in. Broken English resumes do untold harm to candidates.

Further Reading

This article is part of  a the  “Programmer’s Guide to Getting Hired” series.  If you enjoyed it, you might also like these:

Why “I’d just Google it” is not an acceptable interview answer

Going out on a limb

In my previous article, The Code Sample, I ruffled the feathers of a few readers who objected to my implication that  “I’d just Google it” is not an acceptable answer during the technical part of an interview. To be fair, the derisive sentiment in that post was directed specifically at interviewees who abusively name drop about Google to dodge answering any technical questions.

…candidate that thinks “I’d just Google it.” is an acceptable answer to any technical interview question…

Still, I am going to tempt fate and take it one step further by and say that it is almost never a good idea to use this “phone-a-friend” lifeline in a real interview.

Let me explain by addressing the obvious objections to the premise.

Objection: I’ll be able to Google things on the job. It’s unrealistic to test me in a hypothetical Google-free universe.

It’s true that everyone expects that you will need to look things up to do your job, and  that it completely unreasonable to expect a programmer to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of even their best tool.

Here’s the rub. You are at an interview, not working at the job. On the job, the goal is to solve problems and get things done using any tool at your disposal. At the interview, the goal is to demonstrate why they should hire you instead of one of the other candidates who also have access to Google.

A job interview is a competition, not a pass-fail test.

The REAL hypothetical universe is the one where a job is filled by an interviewer talking to single candidate then making a decision based on whether that person can do the job or not.

Objection: What about Interviewers who ask hyper-specific technical questions?

Look, we all hate these types of questions. I’d even argue that many interviewers use them more to prove how smart they are rather than to evaluate the candidate (even though they probably Googled both the question AND answer).

As an early weed-out tactic, I really hate these types of questions. Sometimes, however, an interviewer faced with 20 candidates of which 15 could competently perform the duties of the job just needs a final jeopardy tie-breaker round when the race is too close to call.

I know this may spark a debate about how unfair  these questions are, but try to be pragmatic. The only agenda you should bring to the interview is closing the deal, not changing the way the interviewer thinks or conducts their business.

If you are really determined to make a difference, discuss the interviewing tactics with them AFTER  you have secured the job and have been working there a while. They are more likely to be open to your input when you aren’t in a position to directly benefit from them accepting it.

Sometimes “I’d Google it” is an immediate fail.

There are times when this response is going to pretty much end the interview as demonstrated in this example lifted from TheDailyWTF.Com.

Q:  What is a class?
A: I do not know, but I would look it up.

Q: Okaaay,  moving on to another question. What is a SQL join?
A: I do not know, but I would look it up.

Almost every question we asked yielded the same response.

This is a funny example, but I have heard very similar responses from  real candidates who actually proposed in response to situational questions that they’d Google things like “How to optimize code” and “how to normalize a database.”  I could probably be convinced to soften my position on technical trivia, but never-ever-ever invoke Google on a situational or general approach type question.

In fact, it is arguably better to wing it than admit ignorance on a question like this. You are probably dead meat if you can’t answer the situational questions anyway,  so you might as well go down fighting.

 

If you ignore my advice, at least understand this

I’ll concede that invoking Google in an interview is rarely a deal-killer on technical questions when I do interviews, especially if several candidates can’t answer the same question and lead me to suspect the question might be too trivial to be fair game. It is also very uncommon for me to make a decision on a candidate based on a single technical question.

That said, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you actually answered the question when you appeal to Google.  Whether you like it or not, the the interviewer is thinking one of two things:

“I’d Just Google it.” == “I don’t Know.”

Or worse…

“I’d Just Google it.” == “I don’t Know, and I’m not willing to admit it.”

The second inference is much more damaging to your chances.  It is probably safer just to say “I don’t know,” because you are in effect saying it anyway. That is, unless you imagine the interviewer doesn’t think you are aware of Google. If that is the case you’ve got bigger problems.

 

Resume Critique #1 (Subject: HJS)

In my previous article, Your Resume, It’s the little things that hurt, I extended an offer to provide feedback on programmer resumes for anyone brave enough to take some criticism in a public forum as a pedagogical tool.  The first victim will be known as HJS for the purpose of this analysis in an admittedly feeble attempt to provide him with a shred of anonymity despite his insistence that it was not necessary.

Disclaimer: My critique will consist of my raw, uncensored opinion and thought process as I read through the resume from the perspective of a technical hiring manager looking for a programmer. In some cases, I may make comments that indicate bias or other things that it is illegal to consider when screening candidates, at least in the US.  I want to clarify that in the execution of my duties as a manager, I make every effort to make hiring decisions based on objective facts, endeavor to treat all candidates equally, and follow affirmative action principles as part of our recruiting methodology. 

As I discussed recently in “Age Discrimination and Programming Jobs,” it is my strong belief, however that acknowledgement of our bias and that of others is critical to combat unfair recruiting practices.  As such, I am going to call out things in my analysis that the candidate could proactively do to minimize the potential for discriminatory practices by unscrupulous managers. None of the material in this article represents the policies or practices of my current or previous employers.


 

Candidate “HJS”

Address

<Censored>

Phone: <Censored>

email: <Censored>

The multi-line address at the top of the resume in a giant font is taking up hugely valuable real estate. Put it in a single line on the footer to reduce the vertical real-estate.
Re-purpose the top of this resume to succinctly create a branding statement that shows my job is the one he is looking for “Experienced Web Developer” or something like that.

Summary of Qualifications

  • § Experienced Software Team Leader. How experienced? Quantify it with a number of years and maybe a title 
  • § Fourteen years of software engineering experience. Good start. Experience is a key differentiator, I like how you get to this quickly. 
  • § Master of Science in Information Systems. Normally I wouldn’t feature a degree so prominently, but in this case it is a powerful selling point, because it is an advanced degree and relevant to the job.
  • § Languages: C, C++, Java, Python, Javascript, Erlang, HTML, XML, SQL, Unix shell, Perl.
  • § Web applications, Communication Protocols, Linux, Client/Server, Distributed Systems, Parallelism and Concurrency, J2EE, EJB, TCP/IP, RPC, SNMP, Network Management, Element Management, Multi-threaded. Too specific, doubly so for summary section.
  • § Development Tools: Eclipse, make, ant, Apache, Subversion, XML-RPC, RPM, Installshield. These are not enough of a selling point to feature them in this section. Move to separate “Skills” section.
  • § Experience in an organization certified at SEI level 5 and ISO 9001. “Experience in an organization”… emphasises your employer, not you. re-word “organization” out of it.
  • § Software engineering techniques: Requirements, design, OOD, OOP, UML, project planning, Fagan inspections, configuration management, change control.
  • § Native English, good spoken and written Hebrew. If you are applying for a job in the US, they are going to assume English, mentioning makes me want to doubt you speak it well. Unless the job desires/requires Hebrew, dump this fact.
  • § Enthusiastic, innovative, organized, motivated, adaptable and a quick learner equipped with broad technical knowledge and excellent people skills. I skim past statements like this that are subjective and on every single resume.  This just wastes space.

Experience

Giant Steps NETWORKS                                                                                     2003-Present

Software Team Leader, NMS Division

  • § Currently leading a team of 2 engineers working on Apache module in C++. Don’t be specific about the number of engineers if it isn’t impressive.
  • § Currently developing J2EE distributed application deployed in Amazon Elastic Cloud. Sneak in some keywords/acronyms here to enhance search-ability (EC2, AWS, Cloud computing)
  • § Multiplatform NMS (embedded Linux, Windows 2003 Server). Web-based using C, C++, Python, Openlaszlo (Flash), Java, SQL. Using SNAP protocol over RS232/RS485, HTTP, PPP, Modem control. Move these to skills section and reference them more generally here.
  • § Managed and developed a 3 person project to develop a three-tier management system for Fiber-Channel SCSI switches. Technologies: Java, C, ant, XML-PRC, RPC, rpcgen, make.  Move to skills section, too detailed for this section.
  • § Developed a document processing engine in C# and Managed C++.NET (Microsoft .NET). Analyzed, designed and implemented the software. Planned and managed the project teamincluding activities of other team member.
  • § Developed and deployed a Client-Server Element Management System in Java(J2SE, Swing), XML-RPC and SNMP.
  • § Designed and Implemented CSP-SMS protocol layer, SMS application layer for a Java(J2ME, MIDP) Instant Messaging application. Reduced code size by 25% while improving performance by refactoring the design. Was your original design that bloated and slow? Might not want to claim you invented it and then stress how much room you had for improvement.
  • § Deployed (and continuing to administer) company wiki (Moinmoin). I wasn’t familiar with this Wiki software, you might want to be more specific what Moinmoin is. Also, emphasize your role in implementing a wiki. The wording makes it sound like it was someone else’s idea that you just implemented.

 

Motorola                                                                                                                     2000-2003

Test Lead, Vancouver PCS System Test Team (2002 – 2003)

  • § Molded the Vancouver PCS System Test team by creating test plans, mentoring and training junior team members and resolving technical and project management issues. Molded?
  • § Increased customer satisfaction by completing test cycles 20% ahead of schedule by estimating work packages, re-planning activities and optimizing test procedures.  I don’t get the connection to customer satisfaction, it stands fine without that prefix.
  • § Reduced escaped defects while reducing cycle time by 50% by establishing and then optimizing an Integration Test Plan. What is an escaped defect? Also, once again you created something (the plan) then had to go back and optimize it. You are creating subtext that you don’t get things right the first time through.
  • § Created a System Test team in Turin, Italy by identifying and training a team lead, developing initial test plans and training team members. Created is probably the wrong word unless you gave birth to them.

Software Engineer, GPRS SGSN (2.5G) Core Platform and Availability Team (2000 – 2002)

  • § Reduced software defects by representing the Platform team on Change Control Board for problem reports and design changes. Analyzed, assigned and tracked problem reports.
  • § Resolved system stability and availability problems with high customer impact. Traveled to Europe on two different occasions to successfully resolve major availability problems.
  • § Supervised and mentored co-op students. Assigned tasks, monitored progress, evaluated performance.
  • § Received three “Bravo” awards for exceptional performance. Tell me more about the circumstances of the award.

Forward Software                                                                                                  1996-2000

Contract Programmer/Analyst                                                                                                        

  • § Developed ERP software using Progress 4GL and RDBMS. May be true, but it feels like an exaggeration. You did this single handedly?
  • § Worked on payroll, accounting, manufacturing and “data mining” software packages. Turn this into an accomplishment. I don’t want people that “work on” stuff, I want people that get stuff done!

Placer Dome                                                                                                               1993-1996

Systems Administrator, Campbell Mine (1995 – 1996)

  • § Administered a mixed UNIX and Novell PC network. Any accomplishments to note other than filling a chair?

Programmer, Vancouver (1993 – 1995)

  • § Implemented database (what platform?) inventory system from design documents. Too specific, remember that the little things hurt when you call too much attention to the obvious.
  • § Tested third-party software. Say what? This seems vague and doesn’t indicate an accomplishment. Anyone can do, you need to show excellence.

Education

2008            M.Sc in Information Systems at Athabasca University. Essay Project titled “Concurrent Programming – A Case Study on Dual Core Computers.”. Completed courses include Distributed Systems, Project Management, Human Computer Interaction, Enterprise-wide Network Architecture, Data Structures, Systems Analysis and Design. (Separate degree onto separate line from details to highlight it)

1991            B.Math in Pure Mathematics from University of Waterloo, after 2 years study in Electrical Engineering.  Graduated on Dean’s Honours List.  Received Engineering Entrance Scholarship, Descartes Fellowship. (Separate degree onto separate line from details to highlight it)

Training

5NINES training – Sounds promising, give more detail!

PowerPC programming – Is this programming on a particular type of computer? Is this relevant to the job you want?

LynxOS device drivers – What about them?

Inspections training Fluff – This is meaningless outside your current firm.

Inspection Moderator training  Fluff – This training helps someone at another company, how?

 

Disposition: Promote candidate to phone interview stage.
Initial Impression of Candidate: B+

Age Discrimination and Programming Jobs

As my personal odometer clicks over to 38 today, I’m thinking about the very real concern of age discrimination in the technology field where many would consider a person wizened at 40. The legal and political considerations associated with this issue make it a very touchy subject that encourages many to tread lightly or avoid discussing it entirely. This is unfortunate, because for both the job-seeker and hiring manager, passive acknowledgement that age-bias is a factor does little to remedy the situation. This Tauran is going to stampede through that china shop and confront the issue head on with in a frank discussion about older programmers and the recruiting process. Along the way I’ll provide advice to both managers and job hunters for overcoming bias that can result in unfair and illegal discrimination.

Let’s start with what I admit is an unabashedly controversial opinion. It is my belief that, for programmers, age discrimination is more pervasive than either racial or gender discrimination during the hiring process. The basis of this sentiment is rooted in the demographics of the software development community which is predominantly comprised of male employees that are on average younger than the labor force in general (McConnell).

I suspect that hiring decisions made and influenced by younger managers who were raised during a period of increased emphasis on achieving racial equality in the wake of the civil rights movement are less likely to reflect race based bias than those of their elders. Further, it is likely not uncommon for the typical young, socially awkward, male software engineer to sometimes give an edge to qualified female candidates if only for some respite from the homogeny of his peers. That said, I also think that older female candidates are victims of more discrimination than older male candidates.

Do you feel me on this? If so, we are both guilty of exposing a personal bias that younger workers are less likely to discriminate in their hiring practices and men as a group are generally prone to using their status as a hiring manager as a personal dating service. While it is certain that both of these preconceptions must be true for some element of the workforce, it is equally true that they are not universal, and it is ambiguous about whether these characterizations are even widespread. The important consideration here is that each of us harbors at least a few innate personal prejudices, and there is a good chance that some of them are going to be inaccurate.

The Two Question Technology Bias Test

Even if you didn’t take the bait on that first point, consider the assumptions at play in the following two question quiz.

(1) What Operating system does the man in this photo prefer?
Guess my favorite OS!

(2) What makes the following image humorous?
Unix Girls on the Beach

Despite what the guilt mongers would have you believe, prejudice, discrimination, and bias are not fundamental human failings that are uniquely modern and need to be worked out of the system. Instead, instead they are shortcuts wired into our primitive brains that allow us to apply a probabilistic model based on our own experience.

In a survival sense, it provided competitive advantage for our ancestors to assume that a particular lion is prone to violence based on their experience with a completely different lion eating a cousin’s face. The types who argued that maybe this new lion seems nice and deserves a fair shake probably didn’t fare as well as the lion-ist jerk who didn’t trust anything with six inch incisors. Given the eons it took to condition this into us, I don’t think it is feasible to eliminate it from our nature.

Although you can argue that the lion-prejudice pattern is outdated and no longer applicable. Consider the more modern practical applications of bias for programmers in the refactoring movement. Code Smells are little more than prescribed bias against certain coding elements that may or may not indicate real problems. I am not going to go all Gordon Gekko on you and declare that “Bias is Good.” I am just trying to say that in the appropriate context bias can be beneficial.

Conscious acknowledgement of preconceived notions and being vigilantly objective despite experience is critical, however, for managers making recruiting decisions. For the candidate, who is unlikely to suspend the well-shorn biases of society for the duration of an interview, mitigation strategies are in order.

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Your resume. It’s the little things that hurt. (The Programmer’s Guide to Getting Hired)

A skill that emerges naturally for managers after conducting a relatively small number of recruiting efforts is the ability to recognize common anti-patterns in resumes that are contra-indicators of good developers. I’m not talking about the major faux pas that have been repeatedly covered in generic articles about job hunting, but rather the nuanced messages that are communicated to a technical hiring manager who has learned to  read between the lines. This article is intended as cautionary advice to help prospective developers avoid the most common and damaging mistakes beyond simple typos and grammar considerations.

Risk Level: For senior candidates, most of the mistakes described below are fatal to your candidacy. For more entry level technical positions I am more likely to let these types of issues slide, but do use them to differentiate candidates that are otherwise equally qualified, so it still makes sense to be mindful of them.

 

Tip #1: Don’t be hyper-specific

One of the most effective ways to portray yourself as a novice or one-trick-pony is to pile on the trivial details when describing past jobs or projects. I understand that you are proud of your accomplishments, and know how easy it is to get wordy when drafting the Book of Moi, but remember that a resume is a brochure, not a biography. The prime objective of a resume is to get you booked for an interview, not to close the sale. The interview is a much better forum to brag about the implementation specifics of the “Monolith 3.0 Infrastructure Upgrade Project” because it allows you to adjust the message as you deliver it to hone in on whatever aspects resonate with the interviewer.

The key problem with being too specific arises from the undesirable subtext it creates. I think this is demonstrated well in the following excerpt from a real resume submitted for a Web developer job that I was trying to fill.

“Created stored procedures to fetch query results from the database for higher performance. Involved in writing complex SQL queries that required data from multiple tables using inner and outer joins.”

Gems of this type are hardly rare. I see variants of this exact statement so often in developer resumes that I can now spot them as quickly as if they were marked with a yellow highlighter pen. My mind automatically drifts to the same questions every time I see something like this…

Question 1:  Why is this person making such a big deal about menial tasks like writing a stored procedure and using specific join types?
Option A: They find writing SQL/Stored Procs very difficult and consider it a major accomplishment to have done so.
Option B: They didn’t have much to talk about in the resume and are padding it with trivialities to seem more qualified.
Option C: They just learned about joins and are proud of that accomplishment.

Question 2:  Why call out that they wrote the procedure specifically to query data?
Option A: Maybe they have never written a query that modifies data, are they that inexperienced?
Option B: Are they trying to educate me about what a stored procedure is? Do they think this isn’t common knowledge? Perhaps it isn’t to them.

Another example from the same resume:

“Designed online store by using ASP.Net. This system allowed user to order the products from the store and user can accept the order or cancel the order. “

Question 3: Did this person do substantial work on the project or just write the code for the “Accept” and “Cancel” buttons?

My advice to the author of this resume would be to take Vince Lombardi’s advice and “Act like you’ve been there before.” By assuming the details, it conveys a tone that the candidate considers the specifics of optimizing queries as routine and not worth bragging about. The discussion about the specifics of the clever optimization technique are best saved for the interview. Here is a reworked version that generalizes the same sentiment without dwelling on the trivia.

“Substantially improved performance of company’s core accounting package by profiling and optimizing database access code.”

Another major problem with getting too far into the weeds on a resume is that it implies that the resume is a comprehensive. By being asymmetrically specific about experience with various technologies, it has the effect of implying that the applicant is less competent in skills that are described more generally and not skilled in those that are not explicitly mentioned. In the above example, by specifically calling out experience with SELECT queries, it leads the reader to the conclude that the candidate might not be able to form other types of queries.Be mindful that what you do say often speaks volumes about what you don’t.

Tip #2: Don’t egregiously add keywords in the narrative sections

It could be argued that being specific in a resume gives you an opportunity to get all the buzzwords in, and this is true. The gatekeepers to most jobs are recruiters and HR people who use keywords from the job requisition to locate candiates on sites like monster.com and internal recruiting databases often without understanding their meaning. For this reason, I like the idea of separating out the keywords in to a separate “skills” section on the resume. This makes it easy for recruiters to scan your list of competencies by grouping them together, and makes the narrative parts easier to read for the hiring manager who doesn’t need to be prejudiced by that level of detail.

Here are a couple of examples from resumes that work a little too hard to jam keywords into the job history.

“Debugged and fixed the bugs which reported in TestTrack Pro by Seapine Software, Inc. according to SDLC.”

“Designed the database in SQL Server using database normal forms to prevent data redundancy and ER (Entity Relationship) diagrams.”

Although it is amusing, I’ll forgo a discussion on whether using normal forms actually “prevent ER diagrams.” If only…

The Code Sample (The Programmer’s Guide to Getting Hired)

Why you are being asked for a code sample and what it says about the employer.

At some point during the developer recruiting process, any hiring manager with the remotest concept of due diligence is going to attempt to get a preview of what to expect from the applicant either by requesting a code sample or asking them to write some code during an interview. In furtherance of my ambition to minimize my resemblance to a jackass and to do my part to optimize useless effort out of the universe, I tend to forestall asking for code samples until I have arrived at the short-list of candidates that I would seriously considering hiring. Unless I have more than five or six really solid candidates (very rare), I’ll generally ask for the code sample at the end of the phone interview if it has gone well, and ask the candidate to e-mail it or bring it with them to the in-person interview.

Although management styles differ, I think it is a safe bet that a code sample request is a strong indicator that you are progressing well through the recruitment process and so far have made a favorable impression. I base this on the assertion that few managers are going to be willing to wade through dozens of code samples from marginal candidates in hopes of finding a diamond in the rough unless they are having a really hard time finding candidates because they have a lot of positions to fill quickly or need someone competent in a niche technology.

It’s a good thing, I promise!

I definitely understand that competency tests like this during the recruiting process are stress inducing for the candidate, but take heart that a request for a code sample can be a very positive sign for the candidate. Not only is it a sign of interest, but it also shows that the company is the type of place that carefully vets their technical people. Believe me, you do not want to work somewhere with lax recruiting standards. There are a number of reasons that companies hire without scrutinizing candidates thoroughly and almost all of them are bad news the person who ultimately gets the job.

  • They have a backlog on recruiting due to high turnover as they desperately try to replace people who are running out the door.
  • Lazy hiring managers who would rather over-hire and then weed people out on the job.
  • Supervisors that don’t understand technology and are afraid to ask questions because they wouldn’t be able to interpret the answers.
  • Lots of under qualified co-workers who are a continuing source of bad code that you’ll have to debug, and no mentors in sight.

Dissenting opinions and my rebuttal

If you have spent any time in message forums that focus on job-hunting for techies, you have no doubt come across a certain vociferous element that despises employers who request code samples and/or certain types of interview questions. While I empathize on the abuse of puzzle questions, extremely obscure technical questions, and extreme pressure interviewing techniques; the arrogance exhibited by some of these people frankly amazes me. In a separate article I discuss to the type of candidate that thinks “I’d just Google it.” is an acceptable answer to any technical interview question, but for now I’ll to address the fallacy of arguments like the following:

“Can you believe they asked me for a code sample? I have 10 years of development experience on my resume and four certifications. I’ve earned my stripes and shouldn’t need to prove myself to anyone. They are probably just trying to trick me into doing work for free. I’m not a monkey who is going to dance for their amusement!”

Unless this guy is Bjarne Strousup, John Carmack, or some other luminary of technology, he is wrong. Professional programming is the type of gig that has very few celebrities. If I could identify the most skilled programmer alive today, chances are that you wouldn’t recognize him or her. Even for those few programmers that you might recognize either their name or work, it will often be only because of the high profile projects they worked on and not necessarily their code-fu. The simple truth is this, most programmers are anonymous, even the really good ones. Before you start commiserating with complainers such as the one in my example, be sure to read some of his other posts about how there are simply no jobs out there evidenced by the fact that, despite his obvious skill, he has been out of work for 8 months already. Recruiters can spot attitude problems like this a mile away and know enough to put a second mile between themselves and these head-cases for good measure.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t take efforts to validate your qualifications personally. Hiring managers have just learned through hard experience that they can’t blindly trust anything on a resume. There are simply too many people applying for jobs with puffed up resumes full of certifications yet they couldn’t code their way out of class PaperBag:Bag. It’s just the process, not an impeachment of your abilities. If you are still not convinced, consider what you would assume about a supposed “rock star programmer” who was so hesitant to show off his code. It smells fishy, and managers don’t want fishy when making decisions that will cost 5-6 figures per year plus benefits.

Code sample requests encourage “failing-early” in the recruiting process

Before I even look at the code sample provided by a candidate, I have effectively screened out three types of undesirable candidates that won’t submit the requested sample.

  1. The angry egoist described above.
  2. The resume padding exaggerator with no programming skill who has just realized that I have called their bluff.
  3. The tire kicker, who isn’t really interested in the position, but is applying on the off-chance that I might be able to give them a $50K salary bump.

The hidden agenda

The request for a code sample has a side benefit, in that it lets me test something beyond programming skill without being completely overt about it. In many cases I’ll add some special requirements on the code sample request, for example specific languages, length limitations, or submission instructions. This is an excellent way to detect candidates who refuse to follow directions or jump into solving problems before attempting to understand the requirements. Closely reading the instructions presented by a prospective employer, asking relevant questions as needed, and re-checking against those instructions before submitting will get you further than at least 25% of the candidates that make it to this stage.

 

No excuses – give up the sample

There are a number of reasons people give for providing a code sample. In my opinion, none of them are acceptable. I’ll address the two most common here.

“All my work related code is proprietary. I can’t betray my current/former employer’s trust by showing it to you.”
Good for you. I definitely respect your dedication towards protecting your employer’s intellectual property. In fact, it would probably color my opinion negatively of you as a candidate if you submitted a code sample that looked like it might contain trade secrets. However, that doesn’t get you off the hook. Many candidates mistakenly presume an implicit requirement that the code sample must come from your professional work experience. Unless you were specifically told this, this assumption is usually not valid. Whether it is fair or not, I interpret these responses as “I can’t send you any of my existing code, and I’m not interested in the job enough to bother writing anything new.” Do I really want to hire someone with the attitude, “I have to write code? Bummer!”

“I am a student and only have code from academic work.”
Again, I don’t care why you wrote it as long as it is your own work and it meets any requirements I specify.

 

Even if you do have some previous professional work that you are not restricted from sharing, I’d strongly advise you to take the time to write something fresh to use while you are interviewing for a programming job for a number of reasons:

  • Your coding skills should be improving over time, thus your newest code should be the best you have ever written.
  • The code you have already written was probably created under constraints that won’t be apparent to the hiring manager. You don’t want to submit code that requires an explanation or apology.
  • In most cases, you are free to write code to do whatever you want for the sample. You rarely get a chance to choose a problem that you are good at solving, take advantage of it.
  • Your existing code was written to solve a work problem not sell your skills. Different objectives require different approaches.
  • You have a chance to write code that matches the technologies/tasks that match the job description.

That last point is important and applies to other areas of the recruiting process. Anything makes you seem more familiar to them will help your chances because it encourages them to start thinking of you as an insider. Unfortunately, I also think this tendency is also the source of a lot of unintentional and illegal discrimination during the hiring process, but good managers have learned to recognize their own natural biases and find ways to remain objective about candidates.

Code sample ideas

For the truly stumped, here are a few ideas for programming tasks that can be solved in just about the right amount of code that works for a code sample, yet aren’t so trivial that they undermine your credibility.

  • A utility class for logging events and errors either to a file or the system event logs with a configurable level of verbosity.
  • A set of stored procedures for maintaining and searching data in a hierarchical tree structure.
  • An implementation of the singleton design pattern to serialize access to a resource file.
  • A calculator function that takes a single string of input that includes numbers and operators and returns the numeric result of the equation. Don’t forget input validation, error handling (divide by zero), and operator precedence concerns!
  • A method that takes a URL to a web site and a local path and downloads all image files based on <IMG> tags.
  • Create a method that takes a keyword, message, and login credentials and uses the Twitter API to respond to post the message as response to any friends of the account specified.

 

Best practices for preparing a code sample

A request for a code sample is like a take home exam, and there is no excuse to not ace it. Although code samples are more frequently used to identify potential problems than recognize programming skill, there is still some opportunity to score points with your submission. Making sure the code is highly readable is one of the best things you can do to improve your standing through the code sample. Although some of these items should not be considered a best practice for actual programming work and many of them are not even practical when you don’t have total control of the problem you are trying to solve, they are great ways to increase the readability of code sample submissions:

  • Separate logical blocks of the code with extra blank line. Whitespace is your friend.
  • Avoid line-wrapping as much as possible.
  • Method and variable names need to be meaningful at face value without reading the code that calls or implements it.
  • Reduce the number of parameters to functions you write, and avoid passing in optional parameters as much as possible.
  • Variables should be single use only.

Before
Dim loopCounter as integer
For loopCounter = 1 to maxPages
‘do something with pages
Next

For loopCounter = 1 to maxDucks
    ‘do something with ducks
Next

After
Dim PageCounter as integer
For PageCounter = 1 to maxPages
    ‘do something with pages
Next

Dim DuckCounter as integer
For DuckCounter = 1 to maxDucks
    ‘do something with ducks
Next

  • Use variables instead of inline function calls

Before
fooResult = foo(subfoo());

After
subFooResult=subfoo();
fooResult = foo(subFooResult);

  • Put in at least a few comments to show that you know that you are supposed to. However, follow best practices and don’t overdo it.
  • Show the code to another programmer and ask them to tell you what it does and how as quickly as they can. If you get even the slightest urge to explain while they are reading or they ask questions, rework it to make it self explanatory.

Don’t forget the quality control

You did have five of your best friends QC your resume and cover letter before you submitted it, right? Isn’t the code sample worth the same scrutiny? Understand that the code sample is used more often as a NEGATIVE differentiator than a positive one. In case you don’t speak marketing, this means that the person reading your code sample is using it to weed out bad candidates not find good ones. Here are some suggestions to keep your resume out of the trash-bin:

  • Compile the code – It is just plain lazy to give them code with mistakes that are so easily caught.
  • Spell check your comments and identifier names – Yes it is silly, but don’t give them chances to take cheap shots at you.
  • Unit test the code thoroughly to make absolutely sure it does what it is supposed to. If the job posting lists TDD you might even consider submitting the unit tests for extra credit, but be sure to confirm before doing this if it forces you over the code size they asked for.
  • Check for and eliminate any code that is borrowed or even looks like it might be. Hiring managers sometimes Google unusual identifiers and method names to make sure exact matches don’t come up for your code. You might want to do this too to see what comes up.
  • Find the smartest programmer(s) you know and ask them to tell you 5 problems, no matter how nitpicky. This prevents them from trying to be polite or lazy and not looking too closely. Getting the job is more important here than protecting your ego.

Other tips on preparing a code sample

 

  • Keep it short and simple. They are looking for ammo to filter you out. Don’t give them a lot of code to find fault in.
  • Don’t use clever coding tricks. They decrease readability and rarely impress anyone.
  • Use the code sample to demonstrate your knowledge of technique (Design patterns, generics, OOP, TDD) and specific technologies (AJAX, Web Services, XSLT, SQL DMO). Use the job description for cues for what things you might want to include.
  • Avoid controversial approaches such as Hungarian notation whenever possible. You don’t want to be forced into a confrontational posture with a zealot from a different camp that has pull on whether you get the job.
  • Don’t use comments to plead your case or apologize to the hiring manager as shown in the following counter-examples:
    /* I am really good with OOP as shown in this class! */
    /* Normally I would add error handling here if this were production code, but since I’m not taking this seriously… */

Your code sample and the interview

Even if you get a callback for an in-person interview after submitting your code sample, don’t rest on your laurels yet. For managers that work with a system similar to my own, there isn’t usually a round of cuts between receiving the code sample and the formal interview. Usually I just briefly scan the code sample for obvious deal-killers and don’t really read them carefully until the day of the interview so the candidate has a chance to defend it, if necessary. You can and should expect the code sample to be a topic during the interview, so be prepared.

Know thy code: You should know the code you submitted backwards and forwards, have some ideas about other approaches you could have taken, be ready to optimize it, and talk intelligently about all of the technologies you used. The code sample is fodder for under-prepared interviewers who are digging for something to ask about. “Interesting, you used the Fizbah protocol here. Would that work over IP too?”

Defend thy code: A lot of interviewers like to use a technique that involves contradicting the candidate in some way, such as questioning the approach in a code sample. You absolutely must defend your approach unless the interviewer has pointed out an indisputably better or more correct approach. Do not concede the point unless you understand the counterpoint thoroughly. A common trap is for an interviewer to play devil’s advocate just to see if you will fold under pressure. For example you are sunk if you bite when the interviewer makes a claim he knows is false, like “You shouldn’t have used the StringBuilder class here, it doesn’t work with Unicode.”

…but not dogmatically: When defending your code, however, you have to be careful to not give the impression that you are closed-minded or that you think you know everything. For example, if you got the StringBuilder/Unicode question and weren’t sure if the interviewer had a good point, you might say something like “Are you sure about that? I am pretty sure that isn’t the case, but it is a very valid concern. I’ll double check the documentation and follow-up with you in an e-mail later this afternoon.” This answer helps dissuade the notion that you might be a pushover, shows that you care enough in your craft to dig a little deeper, and that you are the type who likes to share knowledge of new discoveries.

…, and show that you know how to listen: When an interviewer criticizes a code sample or an answer to a technical question, many candidates turn off their ears as soon as they get detect a negative tone and start to cogitate on their rebuttal. Unfortunately this often causes them to completely miss the subtle clues that interviewers drop to help the candidate navigate the objection. It is critical that you practice active listening skills during an interview for this very reason. It looks bad when you make mistakes in an interview, but it is far worse to continue to flounder on a technical issue when the interviewer has thrown you a lifeline and you didn’t recognize it.