How to reward skilled coders with something other than people management

You have awesome engineers, and they want to advance in their career. Their team is growing because of advancements they've made, and you want to recognize the work they've done with something. The obvious answer is to put them in charge of the team they've built, especially as they're the de-facto leader of the team already. But is this what they want? Or just what they believe they're supposed to want? 

People Management Is A Different Skill

It's well known in the engineering world that engineers often will reach a technical peak, only to be asked to learn an entirely new set of skills, revolving around social and soft skills that they've spent the past chunk of their career probably ignoring. Building these skills involves a lot of trial and error, and above all, most of their time. Their time is now spent not coding, which is what they were originally rewarded for. Suddenly, they go from being good at their job to bad at it, which destroys confidence and job satisfaction. 

The problem here is that people management is a different skill than technical leadership. What you want is to reward someone with recognition that they are a thought leader, an exceptional performer- to make them an example of what others should strive to be. Everyone can't strive to be a manager, who would do the work? Additionally, you don't want to send the message that management, as a career, is somehow "better" than coding or anything else in the company, for that matter. 

What Is Technical Leadership?

Technical Leadership is composed of several aspects of purview over parts of job responsibility. Think about the day of a typical engineer- many decisions have to be made, problems have to be prioritized, solutions need to be found. Those are the fun parts of any engineer's job, and indeed all engineers must exercise some degree of technical leadership.

The rest of the job involves answering questions about how a thing you made works or doesn't work. Bugs need to be found and fixed. Documentation has to be written. Code has to be reviewed. Estimations must be made. Most of all, the longer an engineer remains at a company, the harder it is to find a few hours of isolation, free from interruption, to get work done. These parts, they are the worst parts of the job.

All of the fun work happens in these uninterrupted times, and these uninterrupted times happen only when your disappearance doesn't materially slow down someone else's work. Innovation happens when you have the bandwidth to hold the entire problem in your head- most of the time that takes a great deal of "load time" - research and contemplation about the problem. For introverts this means quiet, for extroverts this means dedicated time in a room of other people you work well with, thinking about the problem. 

So what gets in the way? Why can't exceptional engineers have more fun work, and have someone who is yet to be recognized do more of the less fun things? The key is in empowerment, and an engineer's ability to say "No". This isn't a function of courage, it's a function of empowerment - most exceptional engineers can't just let problems go unsolved, and if they feel responsible for a product or service, they end up chained to the project forever. Engineers often feel responsible for a project for the rest of its life, and this is exacerbated by the tendency for information to "silo" in one person, rather than distributing across a team.

How To Empower Your Technical Leaders

As a project grows, a technical leader might naturally accrue team members, and accidentally transform into a people manager. This is the biggest risk. The way to empower your technical leaders is to set expectations early and often, encouraging them to be clear about their ultimate goals, without sending the message that they will be less respected if they don't transition into people management. If their goal is to be the best programmer imaginable, or to create a system that scales to 10 million users, or to understand deep processes in the operating system, then finding ways to help them reach their goals is rewarding for everyone. 

Technical goals are easy to meet - there will be plenty of opportunities as a company grows to reward engineers with "fun" projects, and the ability to learn and grow as an engineer. Identify when someone will have to learn a lot for a role, these roles are rewarding and coveted. Also find opportunities to allow for professional development outside of your company, such as encouraging engineers to go to conferences and give talks, and become thought leaders in their field. Most engineers don't have an actionable plan for their own professional development, and so can benefit from advice on how to celebrate their accomplishments by putting them in a favorable position. This also will help you make the case for raises and bonuses, and will increase the esteem of your engineering department in general, which in turn attracts more talent. Seeing someone speak on something that interests them is the number one reason why mid-to-senior level engineers seek employment in an organization, rather than being recruited. Developing a strategy for positioning your technical thought leaders as the technical thought leaders is empowering, and it helps them empower themselves. 

The ability to say "No" is the second component of a technical leader - develop a strategy around handoffs. The objective here is to reward innovators by not chaining them to their innovations forever - it encourages those who create to continue creating. Junior developers are perfect to hand off smaller creations to, it helps them develop a sense of ownership without having to understand deeply the best practices that created the idea. Handoffs create opportunities in both directions- both for the person with more time, as well as the person accepting the responsibility. The incentives align well, but make sure there are expectations for the person receiving the responsibility- be honest about what it means for their career, and set up a strategy around them getting help with the project.


I came up with these ideas by helping Simple activate and reward their talent with things they actually want, rather than taking the obvious-but-wrong path. If you need help developing strategies for creating opportunities for your technical leaders, email me. I'm a consultant and I'm also an engineer myself, so I can provide insights into how to keep engineers happy and productive.

How 'The I to We Ratio' provides quick cultural insight

I'm doing some consulting for Simple in Portland, and I'm struck by how cohesive their culture seems to be. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, where this impression was coming from. I figured it out after attending a few meetings and watching team interaction, and I have a theory. I call it the "I to We" ratio - basically, how many times in a meeting, or a gathering, does someone say "I", vs how many times they say "We". 

This is a good barometer of how connected to the company an employee feels, and how they perceive their level of integration in the team. It also indicates feelings of ownership, empowerment, and how an organization treats the idea of blame. Simple's We to I ratio is about 10:1, which I think describes how connected to each other they seem. It creates the feeling of warmth I notice, that they have each other's backs. Work being done is the focus, over "root cause analysis", which all too often turns into a witch hunt.

Think about when you use the word "I". Often at work, it's to talk about something you did, or didn't do. It might be about how you feel. In an integrated, healthy organization its usually something like "I filed a pull request" or "I updated that documentation". In an unhealthy one, it's "I didn't know I needed to handle that" or "I'm taking longer than I thought to get done, I'm trying." "I" is more often used defensively, whether to defend your actions or to defensively self promote - "I made a tool that handles that", "I fixed the certificates problem."

The word "I" isn't the problem in and of itself - it's when it's concordant with defensive tones. This is a difficult thing to notice, but an easier metric to test for is the absence of the word "We", alongside "I". "We" sounds like collaboration, and it evokes the sentiment that We Are In This Together. "We need to handle that 2-factor auth bug", "We just deployed to prod", "We don't know why this error happens", "We got the batch processor up again". The word We is powerful, and it helps make a team feel a sense of ownership, instead of burden. 

You can listen in on a few conversations, status meetings, boardwalks or scrums, and get a feel for this metric. I've noticed that Kanban as a productivity management technique is more conducive to a high We to I ratio than Agile/Scrum, because the focus is on the work that needs to be done over the individual doing it. 

If you use Slack, Hipchat or IRC, you can run a quick analysis on your per-team channels. Check how many times people say We, and how often they say I. Check the concordance of "We" and "I" with Python's NLTK library(http://www.nltk.org/book/ch01.html), which will show you the words that appear around the words you search for. Notice how often you see defensiveness around the word I, rather than empowerment. 

All in all, this is a trailing indicator of how your team interacts, and how healthy your culture is. It's a subtle distinction to notice, but once you know it's there you can't un-see it. It's a great indicator for per-team cohesiveness, and if you do periodic checks, you can proactively address breakdowns in communication before they occur. 



I do consulting for engineering process, management, and culture. I mostly work with companies in the process of growing from startup to mid-size company, and help keep them from losing their soul in the process. I also help with issues around diversity, including neurodiversity. Email me if you want to know more.


Coding School Graduates and Market Saturation

Coding schools abound these days, and there are now a proliferation of schools designed to handle many backgrounds, aspirations, and cost models. Most people who aspire to be a software engineer today can find a place to learn, and with some work, can find a job. But what happens as the market becomes more and more saturated with coding school graduates?

Differentiation for a Naïve Market

Today, coding schools attempt to differentiate themselves for the sake of their graduates ability to get positions, or choose to opt out of that metric entirely. Everyone wants to be the "Harvard of Hack Schools", or the main supplier of diversity candidates. These methods of differentiation are a bandaid that addresses the question "will our graduates be able to get jobs" with the answer "of course, because they are different than other schools' graduates".

The market for new, junior software engineers today has a cap. As junior engineers mature into mid and higher level developers, leave the industry, found companies and make lateral moves, turnover keeps positions for junior developers open. However, junior engineers are (locally, in silicon valley at least) being produced at a faster rate than those positions are being created. No amount of amazing programs or creative, inspiring teachers can produce candidates that can enter a senior position without the experience they need. So what do we do? Turn down the throttle on junior developer production? We can't very well do that, as we're in a "baby boom" period in software - this happened in the last bubble, and when it burst we had homeless engineers and a mass exodus towards the midwest, where smaller, less well paid, semi-stable jobs awaited.

The market for junior engineers looks a lot like the western logging and mining efforts that ravaged our natural resources last century. There's wealth out there, and the market is going to reach for it. Asking people to produce less, strive less, and leave opportunity on the table is unrealistic and unfair. Fortunately, "replanting" and "conservation" efforts need not be as slow coming, nor as painful for the industry.

An Educated Market Is Bigger

I believe the answer is in preparing the market to receive and contribute to the rapid growth, and success, of candidates produced by coding schools. Recently I wrote about onboarding junior developers, and efforts to this end will help companies capitalize on a talent pipeline that will only grow larger and more sophisticated as time wears on, as well as stabilize the exit point of this pipeline for junior talent. 

However, the onus is not solely on companies to provide stellar onboarding experiences. It lies on both the community, in providing stable, encouraging mentorship, and on the coding schools themselves. Coding schools can offer many things to graduates, from career counseling services to ongoing education in order to make their skills not just broad, but relevant to their specific employer. The biggest thing they can do is spend time educating companies on how to best use their graduates. 

Coding schools teach widely different things, which create a thousand different vocabularies around what junior developers have learned. Some teach the Twelve Factor App, some teach MVC religiously as though it is the only programming paradigm that works. Some teach as agnostically as possible, leaving students to navigate and assert the usefulness of different technologies on their own. These different ideas and paradigms produce diverse candidates that can navigate the spectrum of the market's needs, but what they don't often realize is that their messaging around their curriculum is often the entry point of understanding that companies have about a candidate. You can say "we taught them Python, and how MVC webapps are built", and that sets a company up with both expectations, and explains what still needs to be taught. 

Schools should standardize not their curriculum, but the language that describes the approaches they take, as well as what students can say that they know upon leaving. This doesn't need to be controlled by a committee or ruled by bureaucracy, but can simply be defined by communicating clearly what "they know Javascript" means. does it mean they can manipulate the DOM? Do they understand prototypal inheritance? A good breakdown of what exercises were done, what concepts are covered, and what proficiency means to the school itself can prepare a company for a candidate on the interview side, and once they've begun working. 

Most coding schools have "partner companies", with which they enter both a monetary, but also a trust arrangement. This arrangement means usually that schools receive a recruiting fee, and get first access to graduates, improving chances of a match. The arrangement benefits the school and often is the reason they can keep their doors open. The arrangement only marginally benefits the company, however, and often does not benefit the candidate other than by doing a mass of introductions, and gives them an idea about what kind of company they might like to work for.

I encourage coding schools to prepare material that can help the onboarding process easier for candidates. Sharing the broad curriculum with partner companies, and educationally-minded suggestions about on the job training based on how their students are prepared during the program will help graduates be more successful, helps partner companies hire more and more effectively, and further solidifies the ideals encapsulated in the term "partner".


I'm available for consulting work in this area, and the next few months of my life I'm going to be collecting a series of case studies to test the point that an educated market is better for everyone. If you're interested in providing a case study, or interested in consulting, drop me a line at lizTheDeveloper@gmail.com. 

Onboarding Junior Developers

3 months after leaving Hackbright, and I'm still running triage for many of my students who've been hired in the past 6 months. Not that partner companies are mistreating them, or that their skills aren't up to snuff. Most of my triage stems from a lack of real mentorship. Everyone knows that "time-to-useful" with any engineering hire is usually around 2-3 months, but no one really understands what is happening during that time that takes so long, and why some people don't really make it. 

So I'm going to write a book about it.

In this book, I'm going to discuss some of the programs I've seen work, ways they could be better, and most importantly, how to make junior developers useful, quickly, while making sure they understand how their performance actually is throughout the entire process. There will be case studies, research, fun charts and graphs and instructions on how to cost-and-time-effectively hire and onboard junior developers.

But this is a blog post, not a product announcement, so I'm going to drop some insights on you before that. 

A culture of teaching

Mentorship

How many mid-to-senior level developers reading this right now feel like they know everything they need to know to do their job? That they could functionally program without any reference materials, or debug without Google? Anyone who raised their hands probably doesn't work well with junior developers. 

Everyone who didn't raise their hands understands that knowing isn't the important part, reasoning is. Mentorship makes up the space between a productive jr. developer, and an unproductive one. Mentorship mostly consists of style guidance, help in navigating the typically awful reference materials for a given language, and institutional knowledge about the codebase and it's quirks. Junior developers need this, and it's a people skill to be a good mentor. Not everyone is suited to mentorship, but those that are can multiply the output of a junior developer by their own, and end up with much more than either would have produced alone.

Mentors should plan to spend at least 8 hours a week with a junior developer for the first month of their employment, and 5-6 hours for the next two. That's at least an hour a day, preferably in the morning. This should mostly be spent pair programming, or doing an overview of what you expect them to be able to do, and how they might go about doing it. Usually, an honest end-of-day check in is also important, but this can be done over email. Encouraging honesty about what they are having difficulty with is imperative, so that you can give further reading, or explain concepts that might not yet have solidified.

Workshops

Fostering a culture of learning doesn't end with mentorship, however. Everyone on the engineering team is a learner, and everyone has the capacity to share knowledge. Having workshops and lunch sessions taught by your engineering staff helps encourage senior staff that sharing their knowledge is important, and helps set expectations that it's not just up to them to handle the hard stuff. Teach a mix of beginner and advanced topics, such as explaining how the complex recommendation engine you use works, as well as a primer on your front-end JS framework. This prevents siloing, and also helps jr. developers to feel they can be honest about their actual skill level. You want to foster the idea that you don't expect them to just know, but that you expect them to ask. Junior developers should also be expected to teach, and asking them to explain in depth things you know they will have had to learn on the job will help them with both their credibility and confidence. 

Re-teaching language fundamentals is a good idea- most developers have to learn a new language for their first job, and going over both basic and advanced techniques will help new developers become more effective, faster. You can lean on your existing talent to do this, over lunches and in afternoon sessions, but you may be able to bootstrap it by inviting user groups to put on classes in your office in the evenings. Asking your junior talent to teach things they don't yet have confidence in causes them to investigate deeper, think more critically, and helps others. Having junior talent do a series of short talks that other junior staff is required to attend allows you to parallelize the effort they're individually putting in, as well as give them expectations to measure up to.

Hiring In Groups

Junior developers work best together, in pairs. Hiring a group of 2-6 (or more, if you have the budget and inclination to take on "classes") can be many times more effective. When working together, two jr. developers can more easily ascertain if they need help, learn faster, and have twice the working memory space. When hired together, most jr. developers are net positive twice as fast than when hired alone. 

New developers need someone who they can realistically compare their knowledge against, and who they can freely toss ideas around with. Many jr. developers don't feel comfortable or feel intimidated by other members on their team, out of a feeling that they are wasting time, or their ideas are primitive and too obvious. Most developers probably can remember a time they didn't speak up because they thought their idea was too obvious (and obviously wrong) and so hadn't been covered by the team, only to bring it up later and be told they could have saved everyone a lot of time.

Setting (real) Expectations

Honestly discussing and setting productivity milestones within the first few weeks are extremely important. Understanding what is expected of them in terms of productivity is important, because most new developers will spend most of their time learning the skills they need to accomplish what is expected of them, and they need to know if (for instance) they need to spend more hours at work getting things done, or if they can go home and learn more about the skills their job demands, or if they can rest their brains. 

Realistic milestones are important - if you feel like your junior developers should be blowing away your milestones, then your expectations aren't real, they're just a minimum that you'll ultimately be disappointed in. 

Hiring a consultant

Ultimately, these things are hard to implement. It's tough to look at your existing team, and know who will make a fantastic mentor, what your junior talent should be learning (and teaching themselves). It's hard to know what they'll be capable of 2 months from now, based on where they are now. Hiring an engineering onboarding consultant, or an educational consultant, can be a fantastic option for those running teams strapped for time, or whose teams lack the empathy capital to spend on hours of mentorship. 

Fortunately, consultants exist who can do this kind of thing. I'm one of them (shameless plug) and can help you design an onboarding process, or help your existing onboarding process accommodate developers from a more diverse set of backgrounds than it currently does. These processes can help your existing team save time, identify stars (and bad apples) faster, and help foster the growth of your entire engineering team. 

If I can help, shoot me an email at lizTheDeveloper@gmail.com.

Talking to kids about conspiracy theories

When I was a kid, I loved conspiracy theories. When you're growing up you learn just how inconsistent the world is, and it's very comforting to have an explanation other than "well, it's complicated." 

Thing is, kids are best equipped to handle the "it's complicated"s of the world. They don't have a framework for thinking about how things should be, and so while explaining the behaviors of adults in a "child-safe" way is very difficult, it's actually much easier to just talk to them about things as though they're an adult, but an adult who isn't very well-read and didn't go through many history or government classes. Talk to them as though they'll understand, but be prepared to take detours. Rambling long conversations that start with "why do I have to go to school" will naturally end up covering topics like economics, education, forces of government, maybe even how governments come to be in the first place. Don't worry about circling back around, or talking in a straight line. My dad used to do this, but the best part was that it always did circle back, and the circling back was always a crazy conspiracy theory. 

Not to say that they weren't true conspiracy theories - explanations of how the country got started, how companies got founded, the founding of religions, basically anything having to do with schedule 1 substances, and of course the crazy idea that the government listens to our phone conversations and reads our email. These were some of the more down-to-earth, realistic theories. As a hippie, he did occasionally tend to attribute to malice what could easily be attributed to incompetence, but those instances are far too many to list here (or anywhere.)

What this did for me as a kid was to give me a healthy dose of skepticism. First, I believed everything my dad said, but because that was often inconsistent with what I learned in school (my favorite was that we were teaching The Bhor Model in the 4th grade when it was so clearly didn't explain fine structure I mean what the hell) I started to realize that the narrative being sold by my school miiiiight not exactly be the cold, honest truth. I grew older, and after realizing that not absolutely everything my dad says is true  but that most of his ideas were based on what he had learned and experienced in his lifetime, I began to accept that everyone might be like that. In fact, it might be that most people can only speak to what they have actually experienced, and everything else is just hearsay. This was a big thing for me, and it's what allowed me to summarily brush off people when they said I couldn't do things. This lesson is hard to teach, and it requires you being comfortable that your kid might form their own opinion, and that you might have to be the example when it comes to being wrong. I think my dad wasn't really afraid of that.

I will say, it has made me a good student of history. For a large portion of my life, I couldn't really study history to save my life (or grades.) After realizing that history is full of conspiracies I started to pay attention - the revolutionaries, the shady back-room deals, the murders, the lies, and best of all the successful cover-ups that we're only just now uncovering. Kids love that stuff - the more complicated, the more twists in the story, the more drama you can tell them, the better. They love, and can follow drama. Children are better at following drama than most adults, even if they don't have the reading comprehension skills they need to have. Telling them a story about the JFK assassination, or the Louisiana Purchase is riveting. Planet Money has amazing podcasts that explain the recent banking crises, which will easily get kids into current events. Explaining the reasoning (and maybe some of the action) of the Civil War will awaken the political scientist in your 10-year old. 

I for one, tell my 10-year old all about conspiracy theories. Hopefully, he'll pick up the same skepticism I did. He frequently proudly announces when he's come to a conclusion opposite mine, and I'm proud of him for it (and then we get to argue.) I'll let you know if I catch him with a Dan Brown novel.

The educational implications of Swift

Apple announced a new programming language today, one that has massive implications for iOS developers around the world. 

Overlooked so far (I know, it hasn't been that long) are the educational implications of Swift. Swift playgrounds are an amazing innovation in introducing new developers to concepts of programming that are often overlooked, and not well understood by new developers.

Take for instance, the instant feedback, in-line feature of playgrounds. Knowing what a string interprets to is a big deal. Visualizing how code executes is a skill that new developers often have trouble developing. The idea that they should even attempt to visualize the execution of code given input is a new, difficult concept. Having something do that for you as part of the normal course of development is incredibly important, it reinforces habits that are ultimately the difference between someone who continues to code, or someone who looks on from the sidelines.

Knowing what a variable's value is at an arbitrary point in the code is huge- debuggers have been with us for some time, but are often too cumbersome to drop on a junior developer who is just learning how to do something as simple as file I/O. They're important, and developers learn to use them eventually, but having them right there with you at the start is an immense head start. 

Playgrounds reframe the notion of debuggers and interpreters, from "engineering tool" to "experimentation sandbox". Something new developers often have trouble with is the idea that they should absolutely play with the interpreter all day. Too many new developers try writing a line of code, running the entire program to see if it works. Why have interpreted languages at all? Reinforcing that the computer can think as fast, or faster than you, is a huge idea. Similarly, isolating small parts of the program you'd like to test becomes very apparent in the sandbox, and from that flows functional programming, unit tests, and general architecture. Being able to see the next step in the design of your program comes from understanding these ideas, and Playground puts them right there alongside the program you're writing.

Similarly, math and programming for developers who aren't computer science graduates seem hardly connected. Later, the math becomes apparent, but in the beginnings of your career you can get stuck where you don't understand the math and it becomes a barrier for you. Mathematics involved in programming are highly visual and intuitive, but stripped of their programming context they are dry to some, and do not seem useful. Being able to bring that into the context of seeing what happens to a variable's value over time, and seeing a graph of that information is incredible. Since programs result in something visual, why isn't the math that is crucial to understanding higher level concepts more closely interwoven into the development process? 


Swift is also amazing because iOS development, and Objective-C are Hard. Hard with a capital H. There is so much going on, that most developers can't get something usable up without several weeks of instruction. Because Swift can be written alongside Obj-C, junior developers can contribute to large-scale projects without needing months of bootstrapping, and new developers can get their projects out faster. This has ramifications that will echo down the line for some number of years, affecting new developers and the structure of teams alike. More iOS engineers means more coverage of apps that are needed by those not necessarily in the middle class. Apps will have shorter development timelines, meaning less apparent commercial viability is required to get your app to market. Diversification will thrive, and I think we'll see more children able to start making apps. 

Currently we'll have to wait all summer for this to come out to the general public. This sucks, because kids have ample time to get started on things in the summer. However, adults will have some time over this next year to develop some expertise in the language, and some curricula that is targeted at Swift. My advice is to get started now on developing these programs, have them ready by next summer. Similarly, programs for adults should target a Fall date to begin classes in Swift. Creating a developer community that is suffuse with programmers at all levels will help the community surrounding Swift to be as accessible as Python and Ruby. 

Python has playgrounds at the moment, they're similar but not quite as intuitive as an apple product. Check them out here: http://ipython.org/notebook.html

Live-coding in lecture

One of the many teaching methodologies we employ at Hackbright came up in some reading I was doing today. Something we experiment with is the Worked Examples style of lecture. Essentially, this has us do live-coding in class, as we work through example problems using some of the tools that will be demonstrated in the exercise. Although students report back that they find live code to be more difficult to follow, and the lectures more confusing in general, during the exercise I've noticed fewer questions that require me to go over material that was covered in lecture, and more clarifying questions. Furthermore, as students have more clarifying questions, they're more apt to experiment with the interpreter rather than ask the questions of instructors.

I believe this is because the way information is presented leads us to retain it, or discard it. When someone is learning new information, the amount of "effort" put forth during the absorption of knowledge is proportional to how much of it is retained. When individuals display a high proficiency in typing, but a low proficiency in writing, they also usually report that they "remember more" when taking hand-written notes. I think this is due to the degree of struggle, or "effort", being proportionate to the reward. 

How to hire a lady to do software engineering

I'm guessing you're reading this post because you've got a problem. Your problem is, you can't seem to hire any women. No matter how many events for women in tech you have, no matter how many women you get into the pipeline, you never end up with as many as you want getting through. You might be aware of other problems with your hiring process, maybe a friend you know wasn't able to make it through, despite being smart and capable. Maybe you give out a lot of offers, but despite them being generous offers, few are taken. Maybe you're interested in a candidate with a non-traditional background, but you know your interview process will grill them on things they are weakest at, robbing you of the talent you need. Maybe you just hate whiteboarding, which sounds like an enhanced interrogation technique. 

So what is there to do? After all, there's a shortage of talent, but no shortage of pretenders to software engineering. Candidates that can't code fizz buzz are rampant, and new grads from nearby colleges are whisked away quickly by Facebook or the Department Of Defense. You don't want to waste your company's resources on someone who proves down the line to be incapable of doing the work, 2 months of salary and a bunch of onboarding time down the drain. The question is, how can you tell the difference?

First, let's talk about the information you're actually after. What kind of information do you actually need to know, in order to know you want to hire someone?

What do you actually need?

For me, I need to know someone can learn fast (ie, is smart) and communicate well. No one starts a job knowing the whole tech stack, and many people start without the requisite language experience. Really just being able to pick things up without being told over and over again is a good indicator. I also need to know that they'll communicate well, and tell me when they don't know something. Pairing with someone can show me both of these things, and can give me another insight as well. I typically expect a developer to be able to research things and learn things by themselves, not just when I'm sitting there spoon-feeding them. So, giving the interviewee advance notice that you'll be pairing, and what technologies you'll be using gives them a chance to prepare. As a senior developer who mentors a lot of junior developers, it's much simpler for me to show up to help them if they have already prepared, and can demonstrate to me where they're stuck. 

An example:

I'm in contact with a potential developer named Jane. She's been developing in Python but mostly in Javascript for about a year. She's used Django before, as well as Flask. She's never worked on a super complex webapp, because she's mostly been in the front-end for awhile. I need someone to do some work in the back-end, so I don't know if Jane will be a good fit, but she's expressed strong interest in doing more server-side work. I've brought her in for a culture interview, and she gets along famously with the team. I've decided to bring her in for a pairing interview. 
The main things I want to test are her knowledge of server-side web development. In particular, we have a lot of asynchronous processes that run to integrate our application with other services. The nitty-gritty details aren't important, I want to test Jane's thinking style, and know whether or not she'll be able to understand and work on these kinds of problems.
I'll send Jane this email:

Hi Jane,

I wanted to drop you a line and see if you'd be interested in coming in to do a pairing interview. You got along so well with our team, they wanted me to bring you in for a second round. 

Because you've been mostly a front-end developer for awhile, I'd like to focus on your back-end skills. We'll be creating a small Flask app that serves JSON, but we'll also be using Celery to schedule data processing tasks. We'll be creating an app that allows a user to sign up with Facebook or Twitter. That user will then be put in a queue of users to be processed. We're going to try to find people they're connected with that also use our app, and then notify them that they have friends using the application. It will probably take us all day to get this done, so plan on a full day of coding with me. Also, take a look at Flask, Celery, the python-twitter module, and the python-fb module. Let me know if you have a preferred editor or any tools that will make you more effective.

I'd like to give you some time to prepare, so does a week from now sound good? I have Wednesday and Thursday next week available for this, or the week following on Tuesday.

Thanks, and let me know if you have any questions before then.

In this email, I made sure to do a number of things. First, I made sure she understood we were interested in her. Many candidates, especially women, have serious problems with impostor syndrome. They might be sure of their code, but aren't sure of themselves. They don't know where they stand, and this weakens their resolve. Starting from a place where they can feel confident will help them perform at their best.

Second, I was clear about what we'd be doing, and why. Many candidates that complete coding challenges or whiteboarding problems don't know what you're looking for. Other interviews with other companies, friends and colleagues are giving this person advice about what to accentuate and show you - this advice may or may not be correct. You might be looking for a front-end developer but not care about their UX skills, what you want to see is performant code. When they lay on thick with the transitions and sparkly colors but don't bother to optimize, you'll pass on someone who is normally good, but just got out of a process with another company who wanted clean lines, not clean code. In a normal workplace situation, you'd be able to give feedback and get what you want. Why not do it in an interview?

Third, I told her what to familiarize with, and I made it clear I expected her to prepare. Too many times we've been judged because we didn't know a command-line tool, a common module, or something someone has decided we absolutely need to know in order to program properly. Given the diversity of applications of a given language, how could we possibly have a canonical set of tools or modules? 

Preparation isn't something that will cause you to receive fake signals. In an actual job situation, you'd have time to prepare and research any given solution before you begin programming. This doesn't mean you never have to think on your feet, and during my 4-to-8 hour session with Jane, there will be many opportunities for me to make her think on her feet, and show me her just-in-time learning and problem-solving skills. Doing the search of the graph, for instance, or intelligently processing a queue of users will be great examples of her having to learn a new way of doing things. There are also enough things for her to learn that she probably won't end up finishing them all by the time we pair. It will give me a chance to know if she's a preparer or a procrastinator, and it allows me to do it in a friendly setting. 

Other Tactics

This example is one of many tactics to use. Contracting is also a valuable and useful solution to not knowing whether or not someone will fit in with the team, or be able to do the work. Depending on your company, you might have a backlog of bugfixes, support emails that require doing research in your codebase, or a mystery to solve due to an intermittent error. Exposing someone to your actual code, or watching someone solve a problem on a computer rather than an arbitrary environment will help you know whether they're a problem-solver, not a syntax-memorizer. If you want to use contracting as a means to interview someone, keep a developer environment set up for this purpose. Having something ready decreases that day-long setup process that most developer environments take to setup, and you don't want to pay someone to watch things install.

The main thing here is removal of as much intimidation as possible. You want a working environment where people trust one another, where we feel we can ask questions, both because we don't know, or because we've found a better solution. Fear, and problem-solving in the face of fear isn't a useful metric to judge any person by - how does it help to know how someone does under the worst possible circumstances? 

On Attracting Talent

Hiring is often approached at the 50,000 foot view. "Smart and scrappy" is great at that height, but in order to actually hire you have to connect on a human level. You have to zoom down 48,994 feet. Once you've said "I need the smartest people in the industry", you've applied a filter, and it's not the filter you believe you've applied. Most of the best programmers are humble. The more you understand about software engineering, the less likely you believe you're the "best". Overconfident engineers move fast and break things, yes, but they tend to break the build too. Women, as everyone's brought up, tend to have impostor syndrome. We don't think of ourselves as the best in the industry, nearly ever, despite the reality of the situation. If you'd like to attract more "A" level talent, be clear about what constitutes "A" level. Qualities, over qualifications. Ability over identity. Be clear about what kind of person you'd actually want to hire, and how much growth you'll want while they're in that role. Focus on what they'll do, not a checklist of skills. Being clear about what you'll actually accept is going to get you people who are honest about their talents. 

Another example

An example job posting for a mid-level web developer at a python shop that would appeal to most women I know is this:

We're looking for an engineer with 2 or more years of experience to draw on. This person needs to have the learning mindset, someone who wants to pick up new skills and research new ways of doing things often. 

You're expected to know these things:

  • What happens when you type "www.example.com" into a web browser.
  • Any scripting language, though some experience with Python would be good.
  • Enough Javascript to manipulate the DOM
  • Know the box model with respect to CSS, and understand HTML to the point where you could knock together a reasonable bootstrapped site.
  • Understand how to build a basic API with any web framework
  • Understand how to schedule tasks to do data processing, in any language.
  • Know some SQL, and know how to use any ORM. Know what an ORM is.


If you know at least 80% of that list, go ahead and apply. Our office is in San Francisco, on Market street. We use Python, Django, RabbitMQ, NGINX, Redis, Postgres, some Node.js, and a smattering of other technologies. Our team is comprised of a lot of young entrepreneurial types, as well as industry veterans. We have a lot of fun at work, and our culture runs heavy on the nerdy side. A picture of our office:

[put a picture here.]

Perks:

  • Market Salaries / Standard benefits
  • Catered Lunch *
  • Commuter stipend *
  • Equity
  • Bike parking on-site *
  • Gym memberships *
  • Lots of beer in the fridge
  • Tech talks / continuing education incentives *
  • Travel if you want to / Don't if you don't *
  • Work from home whenever *
  • Bring your dog to work on M / W / F *
  • Wellness stipend *
  • 2 months maternity / paternity leave *
  • Childcare subsidy *

That's a lot of perks, I marked the ones that women and married men tend to prioritize more than young bachelors. This posting talks about what you actually need to know and the proficiency level, rather than a laundry list of buzzwords. This will also get you fewer emails from recruiters, who tend to only be able to produce laundry-list candidates. Focusing on what it would actually be like to work there helps candidates that would fit in well actually be able to imagine themselves working there, which increases the chances they'll be able to do well in the interview. 

What you actually want is more people, who feel more empowered, to do more work. You want to output the best product or service you can, and so enabling someone from the very first time you talk to them is crucial. Hiring itself is emotional labor, because what you're doing is seeking to understand someone, not testing them. You're trying to bring someone into the fold, not put them through a trial by fire and then expect them to be able to trust you. Software engineering is probably 60% learning, and 40% problem solving. Learning requires vulnerability - don't force your talent to do 60% of their job away from you, because they can't be vulnerable around you. They won't learn what you need them to, and they won't ever really feel appreciated in their job. Having a process that begins by taking candidates and their time seriously sets a tone that the right candidates will match. Fits will be more obvious than ever, and your culture will improve. You'll also end up with the right mix of diversity that will help you innovate.

Contact me if you're in need of consulting on this. Hackbright Academy and Ashe Dryden (and her book) can also help you fill your pipeline with smart, scrappy ladies, and explain how to hire properly. 


Create a community the hard way

At Hackbright, we have a strong community. Our students, mentors, partner companies, even applicants we regretfully turn away are very involved, and contribute in a positive way. I've been asked, how did we get here? I've actually been thinking about it myself recently, and I've figured out how we did it. We used one guiding principle that maybe we weren't strictly aware of, but we've followed faithfully and over time, we've built an awesome group of people that continually surprise me.

Love is all you need

I'll get into details, so follow me here. 

Our main guiding principle is that we love them. Love them really, honestly, like they are family. 

It turns out, you can't actually get anything worthwhile without caring about it. Think back to every job you've had where you didn't care, where the seconds ticked by like minutes, and the minutes were hours. You probably found yourself resenting your boss, your customers, which in turn feeds the cycle of resentment.

Now think of a place you've been, some organization, where you cared. Maybe this was a school, or a church, or a volunteer organization. Maybe you were lucky enough to have been part of a company that cared about you, and you in turn cared about those around you. However, excepting perhaps in the case of a church, you probably wouldn't describe that feeling as "love". You might say, "I love my job" or "I love this company", but what you likely meant by that is "I really like this job".

This is a step further - this takes something from you, but gives immeasurably back. Being a part of a community with the right stuff, the stuff people will pour their hearts into, that requires actual love. 

This is not to say, happy-go-lucky hippy flower power time prevails all the time. This past class, "Hackbright" became a verb, which means "to cry on the floor of the bathroom". Emotions don't run that strong when you don't love something. Familial love doesn't come easy most of the time - think about the screaming fights you've had, and times when you've had to cut a family member off because that was the only way they could get better. Sometimes, you have to say something difficult to someone, and then they don't understand, and they hate you for it, and you have to wait until they come to an understanding on their own. 

But think about this - you'd do pretty much anything for your family. Anything to ensure they have a happy, healthy life. Anything to make them more comfortable, their lives easier, to make them better than they are. These actions are how you tell them you love them, not by saying "I love you", although verbal affirmation is an important action to take. 

So, how to create a community? Love them. Honestly, deeply love and care that they are able to do whatever it is they have their heart set on, and help them to do that. They will love you back, and they will love each other the same way. Do the love thing in your own way, we each have our own special-snowflake way of showing it.

The Business Case for Love

This totally works, by the way. We're not the only ones doing this. I can name some companies offhand that love their customers in an authentic way. Zappos, Rackspace, Keen.io. There are many more, but those are companies I can especially call out. They range from large to small. Famous to startup. The common factor is authenticity, and success. You can't fake this kind of thing, and if you try your customers will know. 

When your customers know you love them, they don't switch brands at the slightest slip-up. They don't leave because you're not perfect, because you're not the cheapest option. It's no longer a race to the bottom line with your customers when you have an actual relationship with them. Much like a real relationship, the other person doesn't leave because someone is slightly more attractive, or makes slightly more money than you. These things are superficial compared to the relationship you've built, and your competitors can't make a dent in that. 

They also are typically prepared to pay more - when you create a relationship, your customers see your product as unique, even if it's not. You're probably not the only person out there doing what you're doing, but relationships are unique. Your customers pay for a relationship, not a brand, not a product. 

Roadmap to Love

1. Understand that your customers are the reason you exist. You might be a startup or a global brand, but because these people like what you do, you get to keep doing it. Be thankful, be awed.

2. Internalize this message, and spread it around the organization. This is easiest if you're a startup, because you can be selective with who you hire. Look to Zappos if you're not a startup.

3. Show your customers you love them. Think about what you'd have to do to prove to someone that you love them, without saying it out loud. Show them with actions. Prove to them they're your favorite customer. 

Human support agents, email response times, caring that issues are resolved, following up. Selling things at a reasonable price. Ad campaigns that take your customer seriously, as though they are smart, human, and have dignity. Messaging that talks about who you actually are as a company, as a group, instead of pandering. Compassion when your customer messes things up. These things and more come out of that simple principle, so prove you love your customers, and they'll love you back.