BullshitSomething has always struck me as a little bit off, about that “statistic” (or its equally unlikely brothers, 199 out of 200, 19 out of 20 etc.). I remember reading Joel’s post alluding to this back in the day, then Jeff’s a couple of years ago, there were a few others, most recently this one. And as much as I want to just accept it (for reasons of self-aggrandisement), I can’t. I’ve been in this industry for a few years now, in that time, I’ve met some really good developers, a bunch of average ones, even the odd crappy one, but I am yet to meet the veritable army of totally useless non-programming programmers that must surely exist if those numbers are accurate (the “architects” don’t count :P).

Why Should Top Developers Seek You Out?

Whenever I see the latest post about how hard it is to hire good people, because x out of y developers are useless, one question immediately springs to mind. Is that x out of y applicants, or x out of y working developers? There is a massive distinction. Unless you’re a company trying to compile stats by doing an industry-wide study, you can’t really comment on the skill levels of all working programmers in any authoritative fashion. So, we must be talking about x out of y applicants. But once again, it’s not applicants in general it’s applicants to YOUR company. All of a sudden the headline is:

X out of Y Applicants for Positions Advertised By My Company Can’t Program

That’s a whole lot less impressive/sensational and whole lot closer to reality. But, let us dig a little deeper. It’s not just the one company, too many other people/companies have had the same pain. Which is perhaps why these posts receive so much attention. It’s cathartic to have a bit of a whinge along with a bunch of other people who feel your pain :). My question for everyone is this, what makes your company so special? How much time did you spend making sure your ad was sufficiently attractive to the star developers and a sufficient deterrent to the crappy ones? I can tell you right now the fact that you’re the “world’s leading enterprise wodget provider”, the latest “well-funded social startup” or pay “above industry rates”, is not going to bring the coding elite knocking on your door. I guess it comes down to this, if you try to attract talent in a generic fashion you will attract a generic response, meaning that there is a decent chance your 200 applicants were ALL a bunch of discards.

Blame Your Interview Process First

Go back to that article of Joel’s that I mentioned above where he talks about the 199 useless programmers who apply for every job thereby inflating the applicant numbers. I don’t think those 199 wannabe programmers exist, I think the pool is much larger. There is a whole bunch of, let’s call them “aspiring programmers” who are totally crap and either can’t get a job or can’t keep one, which doesn’t stop the from trying. A significant percentage of your applicants are those guys and yeah they can’t program, but then again I wouldn’t really call them “programmers” either. It wouldn’t take long to get discouraged and cynical about the whole industry when dealing with those guys for days on end. But let’s say you can screen all those out via resumes or whatever and only end up with seemingly legitimate applicants, how come so many of those can’t code their way out of a paper bag?

Firstly, you didn’t really screen all the discards out via the resumes, that’s not possible, I’ve seen some highly impressive resumes from some highly unimpressive people. All our stats are already suspect at this point, but let’s plow on anyway. Likely the next course of action is to screen further via phone or face-to-face or both. We ask simple coding questions like the fizzbuzz, but our applicants still fail – even ones that shouldn’t:

“Here is the question that the vast majority of candidates are unable to successfully solve, even in half an hour, even with a lot of nudging in the right direction:

_Write a C function that reverses a singly-linked list.


That’s it. We’ve turned away people with incredibly impressive resumes (including kernel developers, compiler designers, and many a Ph.D. candidate)…“

That’s from the RethinkDB post that I also mentioned above (I am not picking on the RethinkDB guys, it is just conveniently the latest post on the subject that I have read :)). Kernel developers, and Ph.Ds can’t reverse a list? That seems entirely unlikely. Perhaps it is not the people who are to blame but the process. We have learned, especially over the last few years that it is often the process that prevents a software team from being productive. These days most teams would cast a critical eye towards their process when looking for causes of dysfunction, before they start pointing fingers at each other. So, why not cast the same critical eye towards the interview process? Perhaps the objectives of the interview are unclear, or you’re not communicating well enough, or you’re using the wrong medium for what you’re trying to achieve (e.g. coding over the phone), or you didn’t prepare thoroughly enough as an interviewer added to the probable unpreparedness of the interviewee (this chronic unpreparedness is endemic in our industry and deserves a post of it’s own). Sounds like the same kind of issues that cause software projects to go off the rails :). My point is, it is not necessarily the fact that the candidate is crappy it could be that you’re just doing it wrong.

Just Because It Makes Us Feel Good Doesn’t Make It True

As I was thinking about all this stuff I found myself referring to the X out of Y “statistics” as “feel-good numbers” because they make us all feel good about ourselves. I mean, it’s pretty sad for the 99 out of 100 poor schlubs, but not you and me – we are coding ninjas. How does it feel to be special :)? Somehow though I don’t reckon there are 99 working programmers sitting there reading those posts thinking “…yeah I am a bit of a failure, I wish I was one of those 1 in a 100 dudes”. As a decent programmer, look around yourself. Can you really honestly say the vast majority of the developers you’re working with have trouble with loops or basic arithmetic? If you can, I fail to see how your company can produce any kind of working software and why are you hanging around that place anyway, it surely is not healthy for your career not to mention your sanity.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know that I am not one to shy away from a generalisation, but in this case I believe it gives a skewed picture that needlessly makes the whole industry look bad. There is no denying that lack of skill can be a problem in software, but then again this is one of the few professional disciplines where you can read a book and “wham bam thank you ma’am”, you’re a programmer, or at least think that you are (and might even be able to find work if someone is desperate/stupid enough and you’re smooth enough). Try doing the same thing in the medical profession or law, or accounting. This is one of the problems that is unique to IT (other industries have their own), we deal with it to the best of our ability. This issue will always make the hiring process difficult, which makes it doubly as important to think long and hard about how to attract decent people and tweak your interview process to make sure you’re getting what you need out of it. And yes it will be time consuming and difficult and will make you feel like you’re wasting time instead of doing “real work”, but then again you know what the other side of the coin is.

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