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The Whiteboard Interview: Adulthood Deferred

I haven’t traveled this week (at least, not for work).  As a result of that, I’ve sat at home, where I tend to have somewhat higher social media consumption.  I therefore couldn’t help but see this post about “confessing coding sins.”

Twitter has, apparently, overflowed with established software developers ‘confessing’ that they would fail Gigantech Inc’s whiteboard/trivia interviews.  I’d like to go on record to point out that I ranted about the foolishness of this practice long before DHH made doing so cool with this tweet.

Here we have legendary techie David Heinemeier Hansson confessing that the Silicon Valley Gigantechs of the world would fail him out of their phone screens.  His tweet offers a compelling symmetry.  After all, when a cranky Thomas Edison invented the ineffective fad known as the “job interview” (that we haven’t bothered to revisit in the last 100 years), his interview would have failed Albert Einstein.

So, when it comes to the humble job interview, we at least know that it’s consistent.  It fails at its only job just as miserably today as it did in the beginning.  All of the MegaTechs out there in The Valley (and emulators around the world) would have passed on hiring meteoric value-creator DHH, thus calling into question the ubiquitous and vacuous claim of every company out there that “we only hire the best and brightest.”

But let’s come back to DHH a little later.  First, to celebrate the coming spring, I want to talk about baseball.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

Even if you don’t enjoy the sport of baseball, you should at least appreciate it for its data.  Unlike many sports out there, baseball happens transactionally.  The pitcher throws a pitch, and then a bunch of easily recorded stuff happens before play stops and this all starts over.  Oh, and we’ve kept logs of this going back 150 years or so.  This property has given rise to an entire discipline of statistics called sabermetrics.  So even if you don’t like home runs and hot dogs, you can at least appreciate the Big Data.

Baseball has a fascinating stat known by industry nerds as “Wins above Replacement (WAR).”  I’ll quote them directly on the meaning.

WAR offers an estimate to answer the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?”

Let me parse out the baseball jargon and simplify.  It asks, “how much value (in wins) does this player provide compared to an unremarkable replacement?”  Modern baseball clubs wager hundreds of millions of dollars answering this question.  A player with WAR above 5 commands that kind of money whereas one with a negative WAR gets a pat on the butt and an imminently unremarkable minor league contract.

WAR ain’t perfect.  But it pretty reasonably approximates player financial value.

What does any of this have to do with the job interview or whiteboard coding algorithms?  Well, the job interview represents the business world’s ludicrous attempt to calculate VAR (value above replacement) of prospective hires.

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Habits that Pay Off for Programmers

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the LogEntries blog.

I would like to clarify something immediately with this post.  Its title does not contain the number 7, nor does it talk about effectiveness.  That was intentional.  I have no interest in trying to piggy-back on Stephen Covey’s book title to earn clicks, which would make this post a dime a dozen.

In fact, a google search of “good habits for programmers” yields just such an appropriation, and it also yields exactly the sorts of articles and posts that you might expect.  They have some number and they talk about what makes programmers good at programming.

But I’d like to focus on a slightly different angle today.  Rather than talk about what makes people better at programming, I’d like to talk about what makes programmers more marketable.  When I say, “habits that pay off,” I mean it literally.

Don’t get me wrong.  Becoming better at programming will certainly correlate with making more money as a programmer.  But this improvement can eventually suffer from diminishing marginal returns.  I’m talking today about practices that will yield the most bang for the buck when it comes time to ask for a raise or seek a new gig.

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Taking the Guild Metaphor Too Far

Today, I’d like to talk about the pervasiveness of the craft guild metaphor in today’s software development landscape.  Specifically, I want to talk about how I think we’ve jumped the shark with this and how it now harms more than helps.  I recognize that I’m probably going to inspire some ire and get myself in trouble here, but please hear me out a bit.

First of all, some words of caveat.  I don’t say this from a place of any hostility or really even criticism.  In other words, I don’t take the position, “you’re all making a mistake with this and being silly.”  Rather, the more I wrote in Developer Hegemony, the more the guild metaphor came to feel wrong to me.  But only during the course of the last few days did I figure out how to articulate why.  So now, I post from the perspective of, “I think we recently took a slight wrong turn and that we should stop to reconnoiter a bit.”

Before I get to building my case, I want to spend some time applauding the guild metaphor for what I believe it has provided us.  I believe it important that I do so because it clarifies my position.  You can’t make a “wrong turn” without having started on the right track.

Also note that I don’t believe anyone has stated what I’m about to say as the reasoning for the metaphor.  What you will read next comes from inferences I have made.

Prequel to the Guild Metaphor: Drilling Holes in Sheet Metal

Corporate software development, by and large, got its start helping organizations capitalize on efficiency opportunities.  Some VP of something, looking at a typed spreadsheet, would say “if we could speed this process up by 25%, we could hit our third quarter numbers!  Poindexter, come in here and do that thing you do with the computer and make it so!”

Poindexter would then leave and come back a few days later.  “I flipped the bits and bypassed the mainframe and transmogrified the capacitor and –“

“In English, Poindexter!”

“Oh, right, sorry Mr. Rearden.  I was able to do a 30% speedup.”

“Good work, Poindexter!”

In this world, you had business people who would create strategy and delegate cost savings to geeks in bite sized morsels.  The geeks would diligently execute their tasks.

Because of this historical and ubiquitous communication deficit, the business people misunderstood the nature of geek work.  Their mental model of software development paralleled it to building construction and manufacturing.  The geeks occupied the role of line level laborers in their particular domain.  And so decades of horribly mismanaged software projects ensued.

“Come on, Poindexter, I need your codes for the next speedup by Friday or we won’t make our numbers!”

“But, Mr. Rearden, you don’t understand – it’s not that simple!  We can’t just – “

“Look, Poindexter, it’s not rocket science.  Just code faster and copy and paste the thing you did last time.  Think of yourself as a guy who drills holes in sheet metal, Poindexter.  Get a stronger drill bit, and lay the last sheet over the new one, using it as a template.  Do I have to think of everything?!”

“But, Mr. Rearden, it doesn’t work that – “

“Shut up Poindexter, or I’ll find a cheaper, offshore Poindexter!”

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The Pyramid Corporation: Your Grade School Teacher for Adults

I can now proudly say that I have finished the initial draft of Developer Hegemony.  Currently, it weighs in at a robust 376 pages that contain my blood, sweat, and tears.  Digitally speaking, anyway.

I haven’t yet published the preview of it because I want to give the people I interviewed a chance to peruse the draft before I make their words available.  But I promise that you’ll have a chance to read in its entirety soon.  I have a lot more coming on that front as well, including the announcement of a launch date, so stay tuned.

I mention completing the book because this should leave me with more time and material to post here on DaedTech.  I’ve mostly cross posted from the other blogs I write for of late, but look for an uptick in posts here.  Alongside that change, I’m going to be shuffling some other things around in my life as well, and changing my focus somewhat in the coming months.  I’ll get to all of this later, but for now, suffice it to say that I plan to post more about the suboptimal current state of the corporate entity and what I believe we can do about it.

And, I’ll start that tonight, with a theme that I wanted to address but didn’t fit particularly well in the book itself.  I’m talking about all of the ways that the corporation has come to simulate a sort of parental/teacher hybrid for adults.

Caveats

Before I go too far, I want to say that I’m not intending to serve up a blistering critique of society, per se.  I feel more philosophical and observational about this.  In other words, think less “this is all so stupid and people are sheep” and more “how and why did we get to this place?”

I understand the how, to some degree.  I think, anyway.  Pyramid shaped corporations (the standard corporate structure) have a knack for becoming less than the sum of their parts.  You can get buy with common sense up to a certain level of scale, and then finally you get some weirdo that likes to clip his fingernails next to the coffee machine no matter how much anyone asks him not to.  Then, bam.  You’ve got a sign next to your coffee machine exhorting people not to clip their fingernails, and your whole company looks ridiculous.

I think that organizational childishness tends to scale more than linearly with the average marginal childishness of individuals hired.  The bigger you get, the more your collective adulthood escapes.  Still, though, it’s amazing we don’t blink more often and scratch our head at the state of things.

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Automate Your Documentation

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SmartBear blog.

Few things, I’d say, strike boredom into the developer heart faster than the subject of documentation.  Does anyone out there really just love wrapping up development on a feature and then cranking out a Word document with a bunch of screen shots and step by step instructions.  Or, perhaps you fancy the excitement of pasting a legal header above a class you’ve just written, and then laboriously documenting all of methods, variables, and function parameters in the class?  If not that, how about the thrill of going back and updating comments that no longer make sense after the code has changed?

I suspect I don’t have a lot of takers at this point.

Documentation is boring, at least for the overwhelming majority of us.  After you’ve built a thing, you want to go build another thing — not rehash in laborious detail what you just did.  And yet, documentation is essential for communicating across time and teams to other people.  Your users will need documentation.  Future maintenance programmers need documentation.  Unless you’re going to be around in perpetuity to handle all that comes, you need to leave some sort of persistent knowledge transfer vehicle.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be tedious, repetitive, or boring.

Repetitive labor offers a certain counter-intuitive appeal, since it creates a “pain is gain” feeling of diligence and accomplishment when complete  But don’t be fooled.  People make many sloppy mistakes when doing repetitive tasks and drudgery is a terrible use of company money when you’re collecting a salary as a knowledge worker.  As people in the software industry, we earn a living automating grunt work out of existence, so let’s take a look at how we can help ourselves when it comes to documentation.

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