How I Hire Programmers

Posted in: Software Development Team Leadership

There are three questions you have when you’re hiring a programmer (or anyone, for that matter): Are they smart? Can they get stuff done? Can you work with them?

Aaron Swartz

Should You Use Recruiters?

Posted in: Consulting & Entrepreneurship, Software Development Team Leadership

There has been a good debate on the Los Angeles Java Users Group mailing list this week about working with recruiters, both from the job seeker side and also from the employer side.

In my career I have worked with recruiters on both sides of the fence and I think the argument boils down to the same issue no matter which side you are on – working with good recruiters is a good idea and working with bad recruiters is a bad idea. Apologies if you were expecting something more earth shattering!

Many recruiting houses are simply glorified keyword matching services and they all function almost identically. If you visit their offices you will find a large room with two large tables, one designated for “Hardware” and one for “Software”. All the folks around the Hardware table are working to fill Hardware related positions and the Software folks are doing the same for Software positions. There will be 4 to 8 folks at each table, each with a computer and a phone permanently strapped to their head. At the end of each table will be a large white board with the “Hot Jobs” listed with the keywords to try and match, plus salary and commission rate (not surprisingly the higher the salary and commission rate, the hotter the job miraculously becomes). The main purpose of the folks at the table is to process the highest number of resumes as is humanly possible (from active job board postings, from their DB of past resumes etc.) and bring the resumes with the best keyword match to the top of the pile, then do a bare bones phone screening interview (ie. does the person actually exist) and then pass the pile of resumes off to the employer. The employer then has to process the resumes all over again, screen out 80% of them because while the keywords are there, there is an obvious problem elsewhere and then interview the other 20% to find out if any are even close. Most of the time you can achieve the same results as an employer by paying the fees to and doing the search yourself – it might even be quicker.

But as a job seeker you do need to be in contact with recruiters because many positions are never posted widely/publicly (at the request of the employer). In this scenario the employer is engaging the recruiter to get at their pool of contacts that are hopefully pre-screened etc., some of which may not even be in the active job market, but are known to the recruiter. This becomes increasingly true if the position being filled is higher up the corporate ladder (manger, director, VP etc). However, a bad recruiter will waste a lot of your time if you are not careful.

As a manager, these keyword matching recruiters are the bane of my existence and 50% of the reason I never answer my phone at work (the other 50% of the reason is software sales guys, but that is another post). The endless cold calls just trying to present me “a really exceptional candidate” they have found or “just wanting to know” if I have any open positions. These guys are really the sleazy used car salesmen of the IT industry.

As a job seeker it will be pretty obvious if you are working with one of these houses. Firstly if you ever get a phone call in response to a resume you submitted and it sounds like the person on the other end is sitting in a room full of people talking loudly, then they probably are. I have even been asked to hold the line when talking to one of these guys and while I was waiting I could hear another recruiter at the table talking to another candidate on their phone about the exact some position!

One of the other classic traits of these organizations is their incessant need to keep the job seeker and the employer at arms length from each other – the theory being that they need to control the communication stream so as the employer and the job seeker don’t reach their own agreement and the recruiter misses out on a commission. This is a symptom of the fact that the recruiter and the employer are not closely engaged with each other and do not have a strong working relationship. This also just hurts your ability to present the best of yourself to the employer. You are the person who knows your skill set and experience the best, and yet you are letting a recent high school graduate with 2-days in house training represent you. Another tactic is for these houses to take your resume and rebrand it with their logo and add their contact information and remove all of your own contact information. This involves a cut-and-paste from the resume you submitted and invariably ends up in a less than professional looking document. Just wait until one of these guys takes it upon themselves to actually edit the content of your resume “on your behalf” without asking you and you will very quickly realize that these guys are probably hurting rather than helping your job search.

Also, just be a little wary about the employer if they are using these kinds of companies. Its probably not a deal killer for you as the job seeker, but just pay close attention to what else your employer might not be paying close attention too.

But! There are good recruiters too, they are just a little harder to find.

I have worked with good recruiters on both sides of the fence as well. From an employer perspective a good recruiter who knows your industry and knows the local talent pool can be invaluable. They can help you shape the job description and salary of an open position to align it with what is happening in the rest of the industry and so attract the type of candidates you want. They can find candidates that are not in the active job market because they have built up a high quality contact list of candidates they have placed in the past or have met during prior searches etc.

These recruiters are usually smaller shops with a smaller focused recurring client base. Many work on a mix of retainer and actual placement fees, so they are not all about placing as many people as possible, they have an incentive to establish and keep long term relationships with employers by providing exceptional candidates.

From the job seeker side you will have to do your research to find these kinds of good recruiters. They probably won’t be posting hundreds of jobs on because they simply are not filling that many positions at one time. All of the ones I have dealt with in my job searches have found me, not the other way around. When they call you, the background of their side of the conversation will be quiet, because they are not working in the bull pen, they actually have an office! They will likely want to talk to you for a while and have an actual conversation. They will want to determine if you are an all around good candidate, not just a good keyword match.

If you are presented to an employer by one of these trusted recruiters, you are going to be going into that interview with a lot of credibility already on your side. Plus you already know you are one of just a few folks that are going to be interviewed, because that is what the employer is paying for – to not have to do hundreds of interviews.

So in the end, a good recruiter is someone you want to be in contact with, no matter if you are an employer or a job seeker. A bad recruiter on the other hand can waste a lot of your time and also actually hurt your chances of finding a job or filling your position.

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.


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!

What Drives Successful Technology CEOs?

Posted in: Software Development Team Leadership

What Drives Successful Technology CEOs? An Informal SYS-CON Survey
— What drives a technology CEO or CTO to success in today’s constantly changing technology ecosystem? We look at the question through the lens of the many interviews and articles we have published at which deal, sometimes only in passing, with exactly this issue. Executives quoted include Appcelerator CEO Jeff Haynie, Nexaweb Co-Founder & CTO Coach Wei, the founder of Alan Meckler, and the Chairman & CEO of Parasoft Dr Adam Kolawa.