Are you hiring a hacker, a coder or an engineer?

Posted in: Software Development Team Leadership

There are many types of developers who work in the IT industry. When it comes time to hire a new developer it can be tough to figure out which kind of developer you are interviewing. When I do an interview I try to place the candidate in one of 3 categories – hacker, coder or engineer.

The Hacker

How to spot one:

  • Has been coding since they were 12, but have no notable credentials (no college degree, no professional certifications etc)
  • Believes all problems can be solved with some kind of “script”
  • Is unable to answer questions related to emerging industry trends
  • Appears uninterested in training opportunities
  • Their answers will be 1 or 2 words in length and no matter how much you coax them, they will not expand on them
  • Has an unhealthy fascination with the game World of Warcraft, to the point it will probably affect their performance as an employee

When to hire one:
Hiring a hacker is always a gamble for a development role. Often they make better sys admins than actual developers, since they are quite comfortable working all-nighters in dark rooms (as long as there is a supply of energy drinks and pop-tarts). They can also thrive in a QA role where automation of repeating tasks is a key skill (hackers also tend to like to break things).

When not to hire one:
A Hacker can become a rogue and distracting element in your development team. If you are looking for a team member that will have a focus on quality and meeting deadlines, a Hacker is not for you. If you want an employee that will work a regular schedule that doesn’t include them showing up at 11am looking like they have had no sleep, then a Hacker is not for you. These are the kinds of employees that you find out have been running a personal ecommerce site piggybacked on one of your corporate servers for the last 6 months.


The Coder

How to spot one:

  • Probably has a degree, but has no professional credentials (no certifications etc.)
  • Can answer common programming questions, maybe even understands Object Oriented principles, but probably struggles to answer big picture architecture questions
  • Probably cannot answer questions related to emerging industry trends
  • Doesn’t have a strong interest in getting training, attending conferences or expanding their skills in general
  • You will have to work to get them to expand on their answers beyond 1 or 2 words
  • Their references are probably positive
  • They like to play World of Warcraft at least a couple of nights a week

When to hire one:
A Coder is usually a good hire if you are simply looking to increase your development bandwidth. They will be able to contribute to a project in terms of pumping out code, but will need a solid design or requirements to follow closely. You will also need to make sure there is an Engineer close by to keep an eye on them.

When not to hire one:
If you are looking for a people leader or a technology leader, a Coder is not for you. Also don’t expect to be able to have a philosophical discussion about the state of the software industry with a Coder.


The Engineer

How to spot one:

  • Has a degree, maybe even an advanced degree, but is not a new graduate. To be an Engineer, some real world exposure is needed to shake off the bad stuff they learned in college and develop their own ideas.
  • Has a strong opinion about industry trends
  • Asks questions about training opportunities and budgets for attending industry conferences
  • Can name some tech authors they like or industry luminaries they agree with
  • Asks questions about what development processes and tools are used at your company
  • May not be able to answer every low level code or syntax question you throw at them (this is not a concern, Engineers are usually thinking at a higher level and know how to quickly find the documentation about the API they want to use if they need to)
  • Is reasonably articulate and their answers are usually more than 1 or 2 words in length
  • The interview will be much more of a conversation than an interrogation
  • Are aware of the game World of Warcraft, but don’t seem to have time to play it because of all of the tech books and journals they are trying to keep up with

When to hire one:
In general, the Engineer is the employee you are looking for. Just like in sports where you have franchise players, a good Engineer or two on your team can make or break a whole company. They are going to push the envelope in terms of the pace of development, introducing new tools, technologies and ideas and also the basic way in which the team operates. If you are working on projects that require novel solutions to be created, you will need an Engineer, as a Coder will not bring this kind of skill to the table. Also if you want to be able to increase the number of tasks you can delegate, the Engineer is for you.

When not to hire one:
Depending on the project you are working on, an Engineer can sometimes be a bit like having a sledgehammer in your hand when all you want to do is tap in a small nail. If you are working on small simple projects, or the work is generally a matter of taking a set of pre-defined requirements and pumping out a solution that requires little thought, then an Engineer may become bored quickly and you will find them moving on soon. Also expect an Engineer to have a solid idea of how things should work to be effective. Do not expect to mold an Engineer – you should be hiring them to help evolve your team, not to persuade them to the way you do things now. Additionally an Engineer will be aware of the going pay rate for someone with their skill set, so do not expect to get them cheap.


Conclusion

Not all developers are created equal. When you have an open requisition for a new developer, be aware of what kind you are truly looking for. If you need an Engineer, but only have the budget for a Coder, you need to take a hard look at what the longer term implications for your team are if you don’t have the Engineer. Once you are in the interview, make sure you have questions set up to help you quickly determine what kind of developer you are talking to. And never forget what an unusual amount of influence the World Of Warcraft will have on your hiring decisions!

Are our tools built for problems most people don’t need to solve?

Posted in: Enterprise Java

Not everyone is working on projects for the Defense Department where milliseconds could mean the loss of thousands of lives.

And not everyone is working on the backend for the stock exchange.

And most people are not writing their own application servers from scratch.

What are most people working on? Well that is a little hard to quantify, but it is a pretty safe bet that it is not a sexy application that they are bragging to their friends about. If you believe the 80/20 rule (and I do), most people are actually working on maintenance activities more than inventing something new from the ground up. Those who are inventing things from the ground up are more likely to be building a .com site for their company to show off their wares – it might even have an element of ecommerce to it, but then again, probably not.

So we are bombarded with hype about new versions of tools (like IDEs), or new libraries (like a new JDK), or a new software package (like a new object-relational mapper). But do we even need them? Can’t we basically create what we need to complete these mundane everyday tasks with the tools we already have? Aren’t most of these new releases just a way to sell new software licenses? Even when it comes to open-source software, upgrading to a new release has an inherent cost that needs to be weighed.

Here is a real world example. I am currently invovled in a project that involves upgrading the code base from JDK 1.4 to JDK 5 as part of the scope. My engineer brain says that this upgrade is not only necessary, but just a plain good idea. There are some new language features in JDK 5 that we can take advantage of, so there is a benefit. But what are the costs? There is definitely a cost involved in doing an audit of the existing code and seeing if there is any code that is incompatible for the new JDK and putting together a plan and effort estimate to address those issues. There is also a optional cost of retrofitting the existing code to take advantage of the new language features (like enums for example). There is a learning curve cost. Perhaps there is a confusion cost for some junior engineers (I am thinking of the autoboxing feature). There is a cascading cost that we now also have to consider upgrading our application server environment to support the JDK 5 code.

So is all of this cost worth it? Will the benefits outweigh the risk and give the company some kind of ROI? I think in most cases, the answer is actually a defiinite yes.

Take the Java 5 upgrade example. Apart from the obvious technical benefits, there are a whole host of trickle down positive benefits. For starters, I think many companies underestimate the importance of keeping the geeks happy. Engineers like to use new tools and stay on the cutting edge. They like to be able to read articles in the latest journals and be able to apply the lessons learned straight away. Happy engineers are good employees. They are more productive. They are more collaborative. They tend to not be looking quite so hard for that next dream job. They tend to be more forgiving of working conditions that might not be ideal. Engineers are creatures who like to learn and keep learning. Working on the same code and project and tools for year after year will be the death of an engineer and you will end up with just mediocre hackers left on your team as the engineers will be long gone.

So before you decide on your next upgrade, think about all of the costs involved, there are many hidden ones you may overlook at first glance. But then make sure you also think about all of the benefits (both short and long term). Not every upgrade will make sense, but I bet that a majority of them will.