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Ralsina.Me — Roberto Alsina's website

Finding a programmer that can program.

If you haven't read Jeff At­wood's Why Can't Pro­gram­mer­s.. Pro­gram? go ahead, then come back.

Now, are you scared enough? Don't be, the prob­lem there is with the hir­ing process.

Yes, there are lots of peo­ple who show up for pro­gram­ming po­si­tions and can't pro­gram. That's not un­usu­al!

It's re­lat­ed to some­thing I read by Joel Spol­sky (a­maz­ing­ly, Jeff At­wood's part­ner in stack­over­flow.­com).

Sup­pose you are a com­pa­ny that tries to hire in the top 1% of pro­gram­mer­s, and have an open po­si­tion.

You get 100 ap­pli­cants. Of those, 99 can't pro­gram. 1 can. You hire him.

Then the com­pa­ny next door needs to do the same thing. They may get 100 ap­pli­can­t. 99 can't pro­gram ... and prob­a­bly 80 of them are the same the pre­vi­ous com­pa­ny re­ject­ed be­fore!

So no, hir­ing the best 1 out of 100 is not a way to get a pro­gram­mer in the top 1% at al­l, that's just sta­tis­tics in­tu­ition get­ting the worse of you.

You don't want to hire in the top 1% of ap­pli­cants, you want to hire in the top 1% of pro­gram­mers. Dif­fer­ent uni­vers­es.

These two things are the two sides of the same coin. 99% of ap­pli­cants are use­less, that's why they are ap­pli­cants, be­cause they can't get a job and they can't get a job be­cause they are use­less as pro­gram­mers.

So, judg­ing pro­gram­mers by the stan­dard of the ap­pli­cants you get is like judg­ing qual­i­ty of a restau­rant by lick­ing its dump­ster.

But now, hav­ing tak­en care of this, how do you find a pro­gram­mer that can ac­tu­al­ly pro­gram?

Easy! Find one that has pro­grams he can show you!

I would nev­er hire a pro­gram­mer that can't show me code. There must be some­thing wrong with him, be­cause pro­gram­mers write pro­grams.

That's just what we do. If we did­n't what kind of pro­gram­mers would we be?

Let's see some ob­vi­ous ob­jec­tions to my ar­gu­men­t:

  1. He wrote code for his pre­vi­ous em­­ploy­er and can't show it.

    So, he did. What else has he writ­ten? Some open source code? Maybe snip­pets in a blog? An­swers in stack­­over­flow?

    Noth­ing? He has writ­ten noth­ing he was not paid to write? He is not who I wan­t. He on­­ly pro­­grams for mon­ey, he lacks pas­­sion for pro­­gram­ming, he does­n't en­joy it. He is prob­a­bly not very good at it.

  2. He is just fin­ish­ing col­lege, he has not writ­ten much code yet!

    Why? What stopped him? He has been learn­ing to pro­­gram for years, what has he done with the knowl­­edge he has been re­­ceiv­ing? Sav­ing it for his 25th brth­­day par­­ty? He has not prac­ticed his craft? Not the pro­­gram­mer I need.

But hav­ing him show you code is not enough, of course. It al­so has to be good code, if you are se­ri­ous about hir­ing ex­cel­lent pro­gram­mer­s.

So here's some bonus cri­te­ri­a:

  1. Check the lan­guages he us­es. If he codes COBOL for plea­­sure, he may or may not be what you wan­t.

  2. Open source == bonus points: it means he is not ashamed of his code, plus it makes his cre­­den­­tials triv­ial to ver­i­­fy.

  3. If he leads a project with mul­ti­­ple con­trib­u­­tors and does a good job he is half way to be­­com­ing a pro­­gram­mer/­­man­ager, so huge bonus points.

  4. Projects with long com­mit his­­to­ries show re­spon­s­a­bil­i­­ty and a lev­­el head.

  5. De­vel­op­­ment mail­ing lists let you gauge his per­­son­al­i­­ty. Is he abra­­sive? Is he thin-skinned? Is he an­noy­ing?

Then there's the ob­vi­ous stuff, ref­er­ences from pre­vi­ous em­ploy­er­s, in­ter­views, ex­er­cis­es, an such. But those are the least im­por­tant fil­ter­s, the most im­por­tant thing is that he must be able to code. And show­ing you his code is the way to do it.


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