Tag Archive | credentialism

On Credentialism In Software Development

We’re just two days from a brand new year and yet the primary measurement of a developer’s skill seems to be the same as it was 20 years ago. The most important classification to most companies is job title, as I talked about in great detail in my last post. The job title is acquired via working for a veritable slough of credentialist companies whose HR departments break it down very simply:

  • You’re a Junior Developer if you have 0-2 years of professional experience
  • You’re a Developer if you have 2-5 years of professional experience
  • You’re a Senior Developer if you have 5+ years of professional experience
  • You’re a Team Lead, Architect, or Manager once someone promotes you from Senior Developer

The problem with this sort of classification is obvious. The truth is that one person has 10 years of development experience, and the person standing next to her has 1 year of development experience repeated 10 times. The people that end up in the latter category tend to be “company [wo]men” – the ones who stick with a job forever and never try something new.

I am not one to believe that rockstar developers are valuable. As Scott Hanselman writes, rockstar developers do much more harm than good. I do, however, believe that the proper classification of developer skill lies in my paraphrasing of Nate Waddoups’ description:

  • A Junior Developer creates complex solutions to simple problems. You see these people across all companies and in all kinds of positions: from Junior Developer to CIO. They take a one-off batch service that processes requests and make it into a 40 class, 2000 line monster that involves a ServiceFactoryFactory and a ServiceDecorator.
  • A Developer creates simple solutions to simple problems. They’ve gotten past the pattern-itis and realize (for the most part) when to use design patterns, and when to just write simple code that works. These people tend to write the batch service in 100 lines and it works correctly 99% of the time (and is easy to maintain too).
  • A Senior Developer creates simple solutions to complex problems. These people have begun to truly master the art of software development and can whip up a highly scalable e-commerce app in fewer assemblies, classes, and lines than most of us would have used to create “Hello World” as a Junior Developer. They would be incredible role models if only they’d drop the ego.
  • A Truly Exceptional Developer is a rare thing. They don’t just make complex problems simple – they make complex problems disappear entirely. These people wield code like I imagine ancient Samurai wielded the blade: with great precision and skill. They dropped their ego years ago. In doing so, they empowered themselves to continue to learn from others which ultimately caused them to excel far beyond their Senior Developer peers. They are incredible role models and all around must-haves on any high performance team. They love to teach as much as they love to learn.

Notice that I never gave a time frame to any of these levels of skill. I don’t believe that 1 Truly Exceptional Developer can be faster than 10 Senior Developers. I do believe that in the long run they save you 10x your time and money. They write extremely maintainable code which has few bugs and even fewer scaling issues. They can quickly learn and do anything asked of them. They are truly versatile and efficient.

What would be required for companies to finally start hiring based on skill as opposed to credentialism? The reality is that some already do. To hire skill takes nothing more than ignoring the number of years of experience written on paper and simply administering a few code tests to a candidate that appears to have the desired personality traits. These tests should be moderately difficult and focus on a problem that has many answers – only a few of which are good.

A great example (though well known at this point) is the FizzBuzz test:

Write a program that counts from 1 to 100. If the current count is evenly divisible by 3, output “Fizz”. If the current count is evenly divisible by 5, output “Buzz”. If the current count is evenly divisible by both 3 and 5, output “FizzBuzz”. Otherwise, just output the current count.

This task is fairly simple but has many solutions – only a few of which are good. In tasking a candidate to complete FizzBuzz, their skill (or lack thereof) will show itself immediately:

  • The Junior Developer will write a whole ton of if statements, possibly even hard-coding all of the multiples. This section of code is probably in its own class, injected via the constructor and provided by the DivisorCounterFactory. Also, there will be as many lines of comments as there are code.
    // Count to 100
    for (int i = 1; i <= 100; i++)
    {
        if (i == 15 || i == 30 
            || i == 45 || i == 60...)
        {
            // Write "FizzBuzz" to the console
            Console.WriteLine("FizzBuzz");
        }
        else if (i == 3 || i == 6 
            || i == 9 || i == 12...)
        {
            // Write "Fizz" to the console
            Console.WriteLine("Fizz");
        }
        else if (i == 5 || i == 10 
            || i == 15 || i == 20...)
        {
            // Write "Buzz" to the console
            Console.WriteLine("Buzz");
        }
        else
        {
            // Write current count to the console
            Console.WriteLine(i);
        }
    }
    

    This is not a very scalable way to solve the problem.

  • The Developer will whip together a few if statements using modulus to solve the problem.
    for (int i = 1; i <= 100; i++)
    {
        if (i % 3 == 0 && i % 5 ==0)
        {
            Console.WriteLine("FizzBuzz");
        }
        else if (i % 3 == 0)
        {
            Console.WriteLine("Fizz");
        }
        else if (i % 5 == 0)
        {
            Console.WriteLine("Buzz");
        }
        else
        {
            Console.WriteLine(i);
        }
    }
    

    Decent solution, fairly simple and by-the-book answer.

  • The Senior Developer will realize that they can combine the statements.
    for (int i = 1; i <= 100; i++)
    {
        string result = "";
        if (i % 3 == 0)
        {
            result += "Fizz";
        }
        if (i % 5 == 0)
        {
            result += "Buzz";
        }
    
        Console.WriteLine(result.Length > 0 ? result : i.ToString());
    }
    

    Clean, simple code that takes up maybe 10 lines when you get rid of my Allman style code indentation. Then, if the ego remains, they’ll ask you why you make developers jump through interview hoops, and possibly berate you for wasting their precious time and skills on such a remedial task.

  • The Truly Exceptional Developer, having never before heard of the FizzBuzz problem, will write the Senior Developer solution in a matter of 2 or 3 minutes. They’ll then discuss the ways in which it could possibly be improved. Things like how a case statement might technically be faster than an if statement in some cases due to omitting an op code at the assembly level, or how to optimize appending immutable strings together in order to avoid creating additional objects which would later have to be garbage collected. They’ll thoroughly enjoy the problem and be enthusiastic in the discussion.

A 30 minute code test immediately gives you more insight into the candidate’s skill than a whole day of discussions ever could. You can proceed to hiring with confidence (perhaps after a few more code tests administered by different people in order to observe the candidate’s ability to work with others). You can also reject a candidate with confidence. No matter how good of a salesperson they are, they will not be able to talk their way past the code test.

In summary, my unsolicited advice to you is this: if you want to work with good developers, just reject any interview process or job offer that doesn’t involve a code test. A lack of code testing means that all manners of developer will slip through that company’s hiring process (including those at the very low end of the bell curve) and that they will be your coworkers.

Via this hiring approach, you’ll meet Junior Developers with 25 years of experience, and Truly Exceptional Developers fresh out of school – and everything else in between.

Doesn’t it seem obvious that we should be tested on our coding skills, given that coding is literally the primary task that we are hired to do for 40+ hours a week? Do you think that a hospital would hire a surgeon without testing their skills? Would the NFL or NHL recruit a player without testing their skills (or at least seeing their skills in action)?

In all professions, the top tiers test their candidates for practical skills. This filters out the unskilled, resulting in awesome teams of incredibly skilled people. These are the teams we want to be on. These are the companies we want to work for. These are the environments in which we learn and become Truly Exceptional Developers.

PS – I hope that you had a terrific Christmas and will have a Happy New Year!

The Trouble With Job Titles

I’ve had a good career so far. I began working full-time as a programmer in 2008. At that time my title was Junior Developer. I had a decent boss and cool co-workers, and I cut my teeth on Java and .NET. It was a good experience. After 2 years at that gig, I felt that it was time to move on.

I contacted recruiters, and one eventually found me a promotion: Systems Analyst. It came with a decent pay bump and so forth, as well as the luxury of dropping “Junior” from my job title. As this was a good deal all around, I took the offer.

A few more years went by and I found myself once again looking for “the next step” in my career. Lo-and-behold my current company had appreciated my skill as a Systems Analyst and wanted to bring me on as a Developer. Before I knew it I was a .NET Developer which, as my other job changes had previously, came with a pay raise and better perks. Things were going great.

I did 3 years total with this company, during which I was promoted to .NET Development Team Lead – a terrific title in the realm of programming. I ran a small team of 4-5 people and things were going pretty well.

Eventually, having maxed out my skills and knowledge at this company, I moved on. I became a .NET Architect with appropriate pay and benefits. It was a reasonable gig.

This is where I’ll introduce a sideline fact: during my entire career to this point, recruiters (both in-house and third-party) had been cold-calling and contacting me with jobs that matched my current title (with more contact as I got further in my career). As a .NET Development Team Lead, I was offered jobs that ranged from Senior Developer to Team Lead to Architect. As a .NET Architect, I was offered titles from Team Lead to Architect to Manager. So far things made sense.

About 5 months ago I took a job with a company that I love, Stack Exchange. Things are going great so far, and I’ve never been treated better in my entire development career. My pay and benefits are top-notch, my job perks are incredible, and my boss is a genuinely competent, solid human being – as are all of my co-workers. It is the current high-bar of my career track record.

Where it becomes interesting is in my job title. At Stack Exchange I am a Web Developer. That’s the whole title. Not Manager, or Team Lead, or Architect, but Web Developer. The reason for this is that Stack Exchange is not a company that cares for credentialism. We hire smart people who gets things done (their words, not mine) and developers here handle projects from start to finish. This means that we sometimes act as a Manager of others, sometimes a Team Lead of others, and often an Architect as we discuss and debate the best way to solve a particular problem or design a particular system.

It was not until I got this job that I realized how broken the current recruiting industry is. Just 6 months ago I was receiving cold calls and offers to interview for Team Lead, Architect, and Manager jobs (with expected pay). Can you guess what jobs they contact me with these days?

Junior Developer and Intermediate Developer. Complete with massive pay and benefits cut. Offering these positions to me is a complete waste of both my time and the recruiter’s.

It’s pretty obvious why this happens: recruiters are usually not contacting me personally based on researching my career and goals. They are contacting me as 1 of 10-50 others that they will contact via cold-call or e-mail on any given day. A shotgun approach of “fire it off and see what hits” as it were.

I am certainly not egotistical enough to be offended by being offered titles and pay well below my current skill set. What does bother me, however, is the fact that I cannot convince most recruiters of anything otherwise. I took it upon myself to explain to one recruiter that Web Developer at Stack Exchange is about the equivalent (in my opinion) of a Team Lead or Architect at many other companies. Their response was that if that were true, it would be my title here. I was dumbfounded.

Given that there are no current standards for developer titles, it is plain to see that a Developer at Company A could be anything from a Junior Developer to CIO at Company B. It’s a crap shoot. Especially when you consider the fact that some companies inflate the titles of their employees as a “free” form of making them feel valued (as opposed to, say, paying them properly).

I don’t know what the solution is to the recruiting industry’s problem, but it does make me realize the value of Stack Overflow Careers. We match candidates with jobs based on experience, interests, and open source projects, not via titles and credentialism. We explicitly ban companies that spam candidates with a job offering. This means that every single message written to you as a candidate is personalized and written by hand by the recruiter. Very few recruiting companies can claim similarly. We continue to evolve this product, and I hope that one day it sets a new standard for recruiting where people don’t blindly call you up with jobs that match your current title.

This lack of standards is a difficult problem to solve. I don’t pretend that I have the answers. It does show me precisely how you end up working with incompetent people though.

John Doe is an incompetent developer who works for a small dev shop that gives him low pay but a big title such as Senior Developer. A recruiter eventually offers this developer jobs of a similar title but that have the appropriate pay. John jumps at the giant raise and heads to the next company. What happens next is something we’ve surely all seen a few times… John can’t hack it, John gets 3-6 months in and gets let go. John was cheated by the system of credentialism. Who can blame him directly for grabbing the highest value offering he can get? We all would.

This broken system wastes time, tons of money, and screws up company culture. Nobody likes working with John as a peer when he knows 1/10th of what they do, does even less work, and gets paid the same or better. That causes your good developers to run for the hills, and your workplace culture to suck as another John fills the now open role of a good dev.

The current state of the recruiting industry is fairly toxic. Most recruiters will put anyone anywhere to make a buck and meet their draw or quota.

The question becomes: how do we, with Stack Overflow Careers, completely dismantle this system and rebuild it properly? Time will tell, and I’m excited to see the results.