Stories about Software


Is Unlimited PTO a Good Deal for Me?

True to my promise from last week, I am making a more concerted effort to bun down the queue of reader questions on my blog topics Trello board.  Thus, today brings you another answer to a reader question (one of these days, I may get around to doing video answers).  I am actually obfuscating this question somewhat, as the verbatim question could potentially be specific enough to identify the parties involved.  But here’s the thrust of it.

I recently received a job offer from a company that I’d been interviewing with, and it made no mention of PTO/vacation or time off in any form.  Assuming it must have been an oversight, I asked about it on the phone when discussing the offer, and they said they don’t track time off — it’s unlimited.  As long as various stakeholders are happy with their work, they don’t care how much time people take.  Is this a red flag for my prospects of working for this company?

My gut reaction to this, upon reading, was, “no, that’s awesome!”  In a corporate world whose defining feature may be treating adults like children (I have this slated in my backlog as a future post), this seems refreshingly adult.  Get your stuff done and we’re not going to bean-count how you spend your days.  It reminded me of something I once said to a person reporting to me when she asked if it’d be alright to duck out an hour early if she worked an extra hour the next day: “I don’t care how many hours you work in a day if you’re doing good work, so please don’t make when you come and go from the office something I have to care about.”

My secondary reaction was to start and think, “get that language written into the offer letter; have them amend it to state explicitly that they offer a discretionary amount of time off.”  That was the core of the message that I conveyed privately to the submitter, without going too far into detail.  So, over and done with, I suppose.

But this got me to ruminating a bit more on the topic in general and about the strange nature of the corporate vacation concept.  Does this nameless company have it right, following orgs like Netflix that famously buck the convention of tracking PTO?  Is this a good way to reward awesome, trustworthy folks with appropriate trust?  Or is this a trick to seem generous, or even to sneakily save money while knowing that social pressure will actually prevent employees from taking all that much time?


Unlimited?  Really?

Before anything else, let’s get a little more precise about terminology.  Unlimited vacation sounds like just the kind of thing that they’d offer at a Shangri La organization far too selective for the likes of you, thus creating a Catch-22.  If you’re good enough to work somewhere that “adequate performance gets a generous severance package,” then you’re not the kind of slacker that would take advantage of unlimited vacation, anyway.

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We’re Not Beasts, So Let’s Not Act Like It

If I were in the kind of blogger that sought readers via click gimmicks, I might title this post, “In Business, You’re Either a Partner or an Asset.”  Actually, on reading that, it still wouldn’t exactly be juicy click bait, but it’d at least be less nuanced and more provocative than my actual point here.  Maybe.

On Cats and Humans

Rather than get to the point, I’ll lead with a parable of sorts.  Let’s say that I were an aspiring entrepreneur in the death market, and that I were interested in “niche-ing down.”  I wanted to start an extermination business, and, specifically, a mouse extermination business.  You’ve got mice?  Call Erik — the mouse-killer.

Toward this end, I establish two distinct service products.  The first is that I’ll dispatch a mouse-removal expert to your house to take a more-or-less scientific approach to mouse removal.  This person will wander around your house, doing whatever it is that exterminators normally do, dispatching poison and such.  This will cost you $100 per hour.  The second service product is that I’ll rent you a cat for $15 per day.  The cat will wander around your house, doing whatever it is that cats normally do, which presumably includes chasing and sometimes killing mice.

The difference in price is significant, but it also makes sense.  The exterminator, while onsite, will focus in laser fashion on your mouse problem.  He’s basically a consultant, dedicated to helping you with your mouse problem.  His time is valuable.

The cat, on the other hand, will do whatever it wants.  It will arrive onsite and most likely take a nap.  It will then wake up, meow for food, wander around the house, purr and put its anus near your face, spend a weird amount of time sniffing a couch cushion, and then, maybe, take an interest in the scrabbling sound in your wall that represents the mouse problem.  Or, maybe it won’t.  Maybe you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow or the next day.  Eventually, the cat will be sufficiently interested to do something about the mice, but that’s clearly going to proceed according to the cat’s calendar and not yours.


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How to Detect Sucker Culture while Interviewing

I had a reader question come in that was a bit sensitive and specific, so I won’t post it here.  It pertained to receiving a job offer that had some peculiarities around the “paid time off” (PTO) situation.  Given the time-sensitive nature of such a thing, rather than add it to my Trello backlog of post topics, I shot him an email offering a few quick thoughts.  This led to a brief discussion of hiring and PTO in general, and a more general question.

The problem is, I don’t know a way to figure out [whether they have a heavy overtime culture] before you join a company.  How do you ask ‘How many hours will I be working?’

This is a classic conundrum.  Job interviewing advice 101 says, “don’t talk about pay or vacation — impress them, secure the offer, and then negotiate once they like you.”  If you ask about hours or vacation during the interview, you might create the impression that you’re a loafer, causing the employer to pass on you.

In my popular post about “sucker culture” I suggested that you shouldn’t feel guilty for not pouring in extra hours for free.  I then offered a follow up post with ideas for escaping that culture when you’re in it.  But it occurs to me that I haven’t talked about avoiding it altogether.  And that’s really what’s being asked here: how do you avoid sucker culture in the first place, without torpedoing your chances during an interview?


The advice I’m going to offer here is, for the most part, advice that errs on the side of caution and not hurting your chances during the interview process.  So, as you examine the following strategies, bear in mind that they may result in false negatives for exposing a sucker culture.

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The Best Way to Hire Developers

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the Infragistics blog.  You can find the original here, at their site.  There’s a lot of good stuff over there, so go give it a look.

The other night, I was remembering what might have been my most impressive performance in the interview process.  What makes this performance particularly interesting, however, is not how well I did, but rather how I did well.  And the how left me feeling unsatisfied with myself and with the process.

I was interviewing for a software development position, and this particular organization’s interview process was (1) phone interview, (2) programming exercise, (3) in-person interview. The phone interview went pretty well, and the recruiter had told me that the company was excited about me – a mildly good sign, for whatever it was worth.

However accurate the recruiter’s assessment may or may not have been, the company’s feelings were positive enough to give me the programming exercise.  This all occurred back when I was in grad school, and, at the time of this particular interview, I was in a class called “Advanced Database Design,” in which we explored persistence options beyond the traditional, relational database.  This was a bit of an avant garde class, at the time, because the NoSQL movement had yet to gain a ton of steam.

When they handed me the programming exercise, I had just, in this very class, wrapped up a chapter in which we’d studied using R-Trees to store geographical information.  This unit of study included what they were, how they were used, and a bit of pseudocode to really drive the point home.  As fate would have it, the R-Tree happened to be an extremely elegant solution to the programming exercise for this interview.


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Our Job Titles: Developer, Programmer or Software Engineer?

If I look at the desired length of blog posts across the sites of customers for whom I’d write, it’s around 1,000 words.  Given the length of Monday’s wildly popular post, that means I’ve got about 500 words left for the week.  So today’s will be relatively short and sweet, lest I deplete the world’s word reserves.  This is a reader question about what I think the difference is between “programmer,” “software engineer” and “software developer.”  (I won’t block quote because that was pretty much all there was to the question).

My take is simple: the difference is a Rorschach test of what the terms mean to you.  If you google around a bit, you’ll find articles like this one, that’s pretty well written or this one, by Scott Hanselman, with an awesome Venn Diagram.  But all such posts that I’ve seen and conversations that I’ve heard seem to make the a priori assumption that since there are different words, they must have distinct meanings.  After all, we try to keep things DRY in this line of work; if they weren’t different things, why would there be different words?  There are then quests to establish a taxonomy that seems to vary for everyone establishing it.

I was once responsible for creating a software department’s org chart, both in terms of titles and reporting responsibility.  This meant that I had an utterly blank slate from which to choose.  Anything was in play, and the folks working there could thus have become developers, programmers, software engineers, or code magicians at my whim.  I made the base position title “software engineer,” and do you want to know why?  I didn’t do a careful assessment of their exact roles and responsibilities and create a taxonomy.  Instead, I researched which title commanded the highest average market pay in the area at the time, and gave them that advantage, hoping that it would bring them a little compound salary interest throughout their careers.


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