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I disagree. If you can’t tell the difference between a smooth talker and strong technical competence you are probably interested in the wrong qualities. I have interviewed enough now to see why some companies cannot figure it out. Ask yourself if you really actually want a senior or a strong junior.

It comes down to interest. A good senior got that way because they like solving challenging problems. They are not interested in trendy framework bullshit. In other words talk about the problems and potential solutions. Are things in place to make the job easier? Seniors don’t need easier and this is a huge turnoff.

When I hear companies try to sell me with frameworks and process I know they are blowing smoke. At the very least they are boring and at worst you will be working with incompetent people who are as self-diluted as the company. I agree that filtering candidates is a good idea though.

The reason why some companies cannot figure this out is because they don’t value the problems at hand. They need bodies to put fingers on keyboards and are willing to pay more for people who don’t completely suck. Experience and competence are not the same as excellence but considering the candidate pool I can see why companies compromise on quality.




I hear what you're saying, but I think you're maybe creating a straw man argument here. A smooth talking engineer isn't one who sounds like a used car salesperson or is just hyped about the latest trendy framework.

There are people who can talk through challenging problems at their former companies and how the problems were solved. They can tell you everything you'd want to hear because it's true. Except…they didn't implement it. Maybe they are best friends with the person who did and understand in detail about the tradeoffs and the neat hacks and the insights learned along the way, but couldn't build it themselves.

Those are the "smooth talkers" of the engineering world. Those are the people you can't catch just through a verbal interview.

On a related note:

> If you can’t tell the difference between a smooth talker and strong technical competence you are probably interested in the wrong qualities. I have interviewed enough now to see why some companies cannot figure it out. Ask yourself if you really actually want a senior or a strong junior.

My dude.

Look at who you're replying to.


> Those are the "smooth talkers" of the engineering world. Those are the people you can't catch just through a verbal interview.

I agree with this. I was a hiring manager, and there are those that can really talk technical, in detail. You really think they know what they are doing, how to solve complex problems, how to come up with solutions. You put a keyboard in front of them (or pencil and paper), and they go "uhh, errr, ummm." and fail miserably.

I think until you have interviewed a LOT of people, it can be hard to quickly spot this. Some people are masters at telling you how someone else solved the problem as if they solved it, but they can not solve it themselves.


and don’t forget the reverse problem mentioned originally: false negatives.

you can have someone who is a whiz at practical and specific solutions, who thinks critically and analytically and just gets an enormous amount done WELL. And empowers those around them to boot!

they have the reverse problem to speaking about other peolle’s work as their own. instead, they speak of their own work as teamwork.

this effects many great people. also women and poc are particularly likely to do this because they have been socialized to not speak too highly of themselves. “model minority” etc.

if you as an interviewer are already skeptical of what someone says, you will increase false negatives with people who you are asking to verbally “prove” their work and yet have cultural memories of being penalized for “bragging”. they’ll describe a solution and downplay it as challenging or hard because women aren’t likes le when they’re the smartest person in the room, etc.

an interview process should seek to understand many skills: practical, implementation, execution, problem solving, design, high level, communication skills.

a varied process that focuses on a few specific skills, one at a time, is likely to convey the most accurate signal.


The problem with hiring is that a false positive is much more damaging than a false negative. Getting the group of people together to vet a candidate is expensive; recruiters are expensive; for the candidates, taking the time off is typically pulling from a very limited bucket of just a few weeks every year; flying people in to interview is expensive; and ultimately, to go through all that and hire someone bad makes you go through the whole process again. If it takes you a few months to figure out it's not going to work, it's unlikely anyone desirable from your original candidate pool is still available.

False negatives are expected, and honestly probably good overall and in aggregate, because it decreases the odds of a false positive. One of my first bosses that involved me in the hiring process told me one day that the point of interviewing is not to find reasons to say yes, it's to find a reason to say no.


The "find a reason to say no" can be very damaging as well if taken to the extreme.

I've seen people that were entirely qualified for the position be rejected at the company I work for because they made some totally understandable mistake - I'm talking about people that took the time off to take a 5-hour on-site coding assignment, and made a mistake but would have had a passing (and possibly good) grade on an academic evaluation.

And now we have 5 open positions and nobody hired for them.


> I think until you have interviewed a LOT of people, it can be hard to quickly spot this.

What is your threshold for "a lot"? I have given a few dozen interviews. I always ask at least a couple background questions. The number who even have a polished delivery for that part at all are a minority, and the couple that tried to bullshit me we're painfully transparent. Maybe I just haven't done enough yet.


These problems are very simple to solve. Get them to go into detail. Get them to explain their thought process while looking to solve the issue.

If you feel that they're talking about a problem someone else solved, ask them that directly. (Did you work with others? etc) If they're lacking on the technical details either it's been a long time ago or they didn't do it.


> explain their thought process while looking to solve the issue

I would think they and their colleagues discussed alternatives together, collaboratively in for example a Slack chat — so an interviewee can give you good replies about the thought process and alternative solutions that were considered and discarded. I would assume. Or maybe the interviewee him/herself came up with ideas, that his/her colleagues realized weren't going to work, and explained why, for him/her. Then s/he might be really good at describing the thought process.


If they understand their friend's work deeply, doesn't that imply they've done something comparable themselves?


No, let me give a specific example. Imagine you're interviewing a candidate and they're talking through how to design an analytics service. They begin talking about e.g. database architecture, and how this type of data is most appropriate for a star schema. They start talking about the tradeoffs of row versus column orientation. They mention they'll need to do indexing for performance and talk about the index space versus query speed tradeoff. They say they'll do joins on the x and y tables.

Basically, they volunteer technical challenges they're aware of while simultaneously telling you what the high level solution is. But then you put a terminal in front of them and ask them to set up Postgres in a star schema with some dummy data, and then to write a query joining the two tables they were talking about before. Despite Postgres being on their resume, they'll completely flounder and not even know they need semicolons to terminate commands. Their joins won't just be wildly inefficient, they'll be syntactically incorrect and refuse to run. They won't be able to create, insert, select, truncate, drop, etc. They don't know how to create an index and can't mention any of the options for indexing, let alone the default provided by Postgres.

Keep in mind this example is just meant to be illustrative. Thinking through how to fix the scenario might not generalize to all the ways this can manifest. The kernel of how this arises is a person like so:

1. They read a lot about technical solutions at a high level. They can follow that if you have problem A then you need, roughly, solution B.

2. They have no contextual flexibility or practical foundation for understanding their solutions. They might have read Designing Data Intensive Applications, but they can't actually code and have never administered a database. To the extent they understood the book, they only internalized low hanging fruit.

3. They are charismatic, or ar least comfortable talking about technical topics. They will try to lead the conversation as much as possible, which is where you see them volunteering technical challenges and then offering solutions. But if you force them to answer heavy technical questions which drill deep into a specific area, they'll probably try to zoom back out.


I may be miss-characterizing your point but there have been many times that I’ve sat down at a terminal and not been able to remember how I did something a few months ago. On the job the important thing is knowing the high level goal and the fundamentals of what you’re doing. The syntax can be easily googled.

edit: yeah upon re-reading you’re talking about completely obvious lack of practical experience... fair point


I came multiple times across similar individuals as you have just described. They are very good at talking in details about a tech subject, charismatic, defensive and argumentative all day long over their solution even though it does have lots of holes. But when it comes to actually implementing a task. They usually fall short. They will quickly grap an existing/similar solution from ie github., spend many hours trying to understand it, Then copy-pasted and present it as their work (half-baked solution)

Even though the whole thing could be very simple. Another thing is, they will come up with reasons that the issues with the user story/task for code/solution is due to environment or some other reasons like tools, framework, scalability and "bs".


Wow, I feel like I'm the sort of person this comment is calling out. What advice would you give me so I can be the real McCoy? The only solution I can think of is to keep writing as much code as I can, so I can get real experience instead of just hot air.


Turn off your internet when doing work. Buy a stack of Postgre books. Memorize them. Never, ever, ever use stack overflow. EVER. Don't use google. Memorize everything.

That's what that asshole is looking for. :)

Though to be fair, if you come up with that strategy and can't do -anything- at a sql console, I'm going to ask how you normally interface with the database, because that's like a Linux expert not knowing how to use tar or ls or something.


Most humans use a GUI when they can(with their connections stored and autocomplete and a few other nice-ities. Of course if you only ever use MySql or Postgres through command line, congrats - you know how to do basic connections(I assume using -h makes you an imposter)

As for the Linux/tar piece, I've used Linux on desktop for a few years(both Ubuntu & Fedora) & have used Suse and CentOS for servers for much longer.

I can tell you tar means tape archive. I can tell you I mostly use it with gunzip to compress it. I still google/reverse terminal search what flags to use with it both when archiving it and unarchiving it. I could probably remember some flags if I spent enough time thinking - why would my brain waste that much effort though?

I don't work as a backup administrator. I have better things to worry about knowing/having present at the forefront of my (admittedly human sized) memory.


> That's what that asshole is looking for. :)

Do you suppose you could have made this point without calling me a name?


I don't really intend to call out anyone, so please don't feel that way. Keep in mind what I'm trying to construe is someone who has a lot of broad (not deep) book knowledge, but who can't do even basic practical implementation.

If you can explain how to design a system and you can do it, but don't know the exact commands off the top of your head, my comment isn't describing you. I don't expect people to e.g. know awk like the back of their hand, or to write perfectly compiling code on their first try.

But even if you don't have perfect recall of the commands, it should be pretty clear whether or not you've ever opened an editor and done basic implementation. If the GUI is your thing that's fine. But your knowledge must have some practical foundation which demonstrates you can actually walk the walk.


Writing more code is, indeed, the solution. This may feel challenging or even impossible because it takes away time from doing the research of actually understanding why everything works. Ie, due to time constraints, you may need to implement things more often without understanding how they work. This might make you less good at talking about solutions, but on the other hand better at actually providing them.


> If they understand their friend's work deeply, doesn't that imply they've done something comparable themselves?

Imagine you're interviewing a candidate and they're talking through how to design an analytics service. They begin talking about e.g. database architecture, and how this type of data is most appropriate for a star schema. They start talking about the tradeoffs of row versus column orientation. They mention they'll need to do indexing for performance and talk about the index space versus query speed tradeoff. They say they'll do joins on the x and y tables.

Is this demonstrating deep understanding though?


Well, do you think my comment demonstrates deep understanding of database design? I don't feel I have deep understanding of databases, but I can certainly talk to you about very basic things like indices and joins.

Basically it's like someone else said. They read a book and know a lot of answers, but they can't do the most basic implementation of a solution.


Well, do you think my comment demonstrates deep understanding of database design?

No, it seems about on about the same level as being able to paraphrase the abstract of a paper about the system. I would not take it as showing that someone has read past the first page. A high-level overview just isn't enough for that. You have to ask your own probing questions too. Limiting the conversation to the particular problems they bring up is essentially taking them at their word when they claim to be skilled. I've seen lots of occasions where trying to drill down for a bit more detail on some part of what they talked about consistently came up empty (without going anywhere near sitting down at a computer to write a fizzbuzz equivalent).


How do you suggest getting into designing and working with distributed systems without job experience? Maybe virtualizing a data center on a home server?


There is a huge gulf between being able to follow a thought path and being able to find it oneself. I couldn't do the same work in the same timescale as them, I wouldn't make the same decisions or spot the same pitfalls. I am simply not as good. But I spent a bunch of pub/work time discussing it and could project an aura of authority on the projects if I wished.

Look at it this way. I was able to understand all of the maths proofs taught at my degree, but I could not have come up with them myself.


Yeah, that's a great analogy for the core problem.

Imagine putting a math problem in front of someone and asking them to solve it. They correctly identify it as a system of linear equations. They volunteer that they would solve it using x algorithm which has a time complexity of y.

Then you ask them to actually solve it, and they can't even make the first movement towards doing so. They mentioned LU decomposition, but they can't even do Gaussian elimination on paper. They don't know what elementary row operations are. They can't obtain an augmented matrix or put it into (reduced) row echelon form. They don't know anything about linear independence or the rank of a matrix. You put an inconsistent system in front of them and they keep banging away at it, determined to find a solution...etc.

That's what it's like interviewing one of these senior engineers. It's surreal - they confidently pattern match the problem using limited heuristics, and they toss away low hanging fruit to demonstrate knowledge. But when you ask them to do something practical and specific, they either refuse and zoom out into abstract-land again, or they hopelessly fail.


so for data scientists I guess you could ask them to hand calculate the variance and standard deviation for a sample and see how they do on that


Unless they were pair programming through that problem. They can't and won't. They won't have the hard lessons that it brought.


"Principal engineer"? Do you actually have an engineering degree? Have you formal education in engineering?

What is system engineering?

It's not just you; the entire IT industry is suffering from systemic curriculum vitae bloat. That's why the working conditions are so bad in the professional sense.


The subject of what constitutes an engineer or what entitles a professional to the "engineer" title has been discussed ad nauseum here on HN.

Spoiler: "engineer" as a title for someone who does computer programming and software development without a license is perfectly fine and acceptable in the USA. In Canada, however, it's probably not.


You say the USA as a whole, but IIRC there are a couple states that do require it to be able to use the title "Software Engineer".


Those states you mention do require it, but what I was getting at is that in general terms Americans don't blink when someone refers to an engineer without reference to licensing.


[flagged]


On what basis are you claiming software engineers are not engineers? What constitutes being an "engineer"?

For the record, the National Counsel of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, which is the US body that regulates engineering licensure and "Professional Engineering", recognizes Software Engineering as a branch of the engineering disciplines:

https://ncees.org/engineering/pe/software/

"Professional (Licensed) Engineer" is not typically used in software development, but if you care about having this credential, you can become a credentialed Professional Engineer in Software Engineering.

Google defines engineering as "the branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures". An engineer is "a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or public works". Software engineers certainly fit that definition from my perspective, because software is a type of virtual or abstract machine.

Software engineering certainly qualitatively feels like other branches of engineering to practice, such as electrical engineering or computer (hardware) engineering. I've never designed a structure, but I imagine the principles are the same: understand the requirements of the customer or sponsor; devise a design that accomplishes those goals within the constraints of the medium you're working with, using principles of scientific reasoning to evaluate what is possible and whether a design will meet your needs.

Last but not least, software can be just as critical to human life and safety as the artifacts designed in other kinds of engineering. (But being critical to health or safety is not a prerequisite for something to be engineering. It's still engineering if you're building a rocket that only robots will fly on, after all)

There may be people whose work on computers does not constitute software engineering. Running some calculations in Excel is probably not engineering. But I think there are plenty of us who build large scale systems that need to operate with high availability under demanding requirements, the properties of which need to be painstakingly planned and analyzed and sometimes mathematically proven -- we who are trained as scientists and engineers, and who apply these principles in our work -- many of us consider our work to be engineering, and consider ourselves engineers. I certainly do.


An engineer gathers requirements through a formally defined process and writes a formal engineering specification which translates those requirements into actionable norms. For example: "server operating temperature shall be between -40 and +70 Celsius at 400 m above sea level and the power supply shall operate at Voltage between 110 to 240 Volts at either 50 or 60 Hz with peak load of 35 Amperes". Or: "the program shall support following options", with a detailed specification on what those options do and how they will do it. Or: "the software shall respond within 25 ms of receiving the request on port 4096. The protocol used shall be TCP". RFC documents are often good examples of system engineering and architecture.

Simply knocking in a program as a code monkey or hacking haphazardly on a program until it works in some way which isn't formally defined isn't an application of scientific theories in computer science into a practical product, which is what defines engineering.


Most programmers I know aren’t simple code mnkeys, they solve actual problems based on the constraints of the problem domain. They model the data and devise algorithms to best process it. Sure, sometimes you haphazardly hack on a program to get it to do what you want, but a lot of the time you have to think critically about it, what you are trying to accomplish and how to do it within the constraints you are given. That sounds like engineering to me and sinse “engineer” isn’t a regulated concept where I am, I have no problem calling myself an engineer. I don’t see how its lying.

You have a very narrow definition of the term.


That's why? So if we merely fixed job titles we wouldn't have this problem of fraudsters?


It would be a good first step measure. There is lots to clean up in the IT industry.


Hate to break it to you I worked for a well known civil engineering consultancy and some of our pitch's where economical with the actuality about our engineers experience :-)


> "Look at who you're replying to."

> "Principal engineer"

"Look at who you're replying to." meant "tptacek" or "tyre"? Or both - a general advice?


I do, in my home country it is not legal to sign off projects as engineer if not certified by the Engineering Order as such.

A certain level of quality is expected, not labeling one selfs as engineers after 1 month bootcamp.


I have no idea if there are rules in my country about calling yourself an "engineer", but you can only use the title 'ir' or 'ing', both of which mean ingenieur, which translates to engineer, if you've graduated from a technical university or high-level technical school (technical college? higher trade school? 'ing' is from a level lower than a university degree).


> What is system engineering?

https://www.incose.org/systems-engineering


I know what it is as I am an actual system engineer; the question was for our self-proclaimed "principal engineer" to see if he has a clue.


> Have you formal education in engineering?

Good point. In many countries getting a degree in engineering takes way, way more effort than in computer science.

Then it takes 10-15 years of work to be called "senior engineer".


And from family experience (uk) its more a case of who you know not what you know.


This is a good post. Have been in the UK startup environment it was crazy how many companies got funding but didn't had a strong senior in their software department.

Because of this their hiring process was aimed to hire more "strong juniors" even tho they didn't realize it. A strong senior is a person who completely changes how you are even approaching the problem or someone who shows you problems you hadn't seen before. They often see tech in the context of business as well.

As you said, usually, they can't be bothered about learning the new framework of the month or new backend language of the month, but, they have a set of battle proven tools to solve tech problems for businesses.

P.S: I do find it hard to distinguish between bullshit talkers and people who actually get stuff done in the interview process.


There's times when i think i'm coming across as the bullshitter. "Tell me of an accomplishment you're proud of". I struggle with this one, but I've given this example years ago.

Worked at a company which did nightly data imports. Things worked until 'companyx' became a cEient, and the imports were huge. They would take 18-20 hours. Then longer. eventually they were touching the 24 hour mark - unacceptable. Client's data would be more than a day behind. Granted it was a moderate amount of data, but shouldn't take that long.

I was 'new' there - only started a month before - and the rest of the team who'd put this together had been there a year or more. I reviewed what was in place, took a couple of days, and got it down to an hour. Then worked with the existing team and we got it down to under 30 minutes with some tweaking.

I do see some eyes rolling when I tell that, as I know it can sound terribly self-aggrandizing. However, I had a decade of experience at this point, and the rest of the team was just out of college; they'd never faced this problem before. I basically just took the data and imported in small chunks in to in-memory tables (to avoid hitting the disk), and copied those to disk every X rows, and dropped indexes until everything was done. It wasn't rocket science, but did take someone who had a deeper understanding of DB mechanics.

As I'm telling this, I always realize they have no way of verifying this, and essentially I'm just another bullshitter. The more believable I sound, there's an equally high chance I'm either really good, or just a really good bullshitter, and nearly every time, the person I'm talking to has no idea how to tell the difference. It's worse as you get older, because the younger folks just think you're waxing nostaligic about the 'good old days'.


It doesn't help that in our field the context for many of these past achievements is quickly lost and forgotten.

You can't just say "I did X in Y by using Z": you need to begin by explaining that once upon a time there used to be a thing called Y, and on that thing it used to be very hard to achieve X, but in those ancient days there was also a tool called Z, etc.


This could be an example of the start of a competency based interviewing question. These questions usually start similar to "tell me about a time when". You ask for an example of them displaying some trait you care about, and then dig in to the details of what happened, why they did what they did etc.

CBI is a fairly effective technique for general interviewing, because you uncover how people actually behave rather than how they like to think they behave. Most of the gold is in the follow up digging questions, which should separate the bullshit answer from a real one.


I think it's also important for seniors to look at new ideas at a regular basis. People who don't, tend to overrate the "good old [insert language/framework here]". You should not stop improving yourself, just because you are already able to get stuff done. (Example: Java introduced lambda functions in Java 8 and many Java seniors are still not using them)


I think the difference a senior person can make is to see what things the new language/framework/paradigm still doesn't solve and think of ways to evaluate their risk to a particular project's requirements and how to mitigate that risk. Things like downtime for upgrades or migrations, handling dependencies on ecosystems of community developed libraries without quality and feature change controls, the ability to update the system when it's been in production for 3 years and see few changes have been made and the original developers have all moved on, etc.


> A strong senior is a person who completely changes how you are even approaching the problem or someone who shows you problems you hadn't seen before.

I think this is overstated. Disruption for the sake of it is often not that helpful in the context of the business (although, in fairness, you do go on to state they often see tech in that context).

I much prefer people who are delivery focused to those who are overly idealistic or want to change everything out of the gate: a good senior understands priorities and knows when to make a trade-off to live with a sub-optimal situation or solution in one area in order to deliver greater value elsewhere.


> I much prefer people who are delivery focused to those who are overly idealistic or want to change everything out of the gate

Do you have problems to solve or not? Often the problem isn't really a problem, except that your current 'solution' is making it so.

I've untied a lot of gordian knots in my career. It really is a thing.

And if you don't have big problems to solve, why do you want a senior developer then? Just hire a junior and keep on going as usual.

Delivery focus is good, till you realise that it's often just delivering status quo for years on end.


Great post


The higher you go the more compromises you have to make.

That said, nobody is talking about disruption, just wisdom.

It just so happens, sometimes that wisdom will tell you that shipping shit out the door in the name of delivery focus is going to cost you more than its worth in the long run. Calling them overly idealistic to justify your laziness just makes you look bad.

I'd say a truly good senior can tell the difference between a startup and a mature company and adapt accordingly. It takes one set of skills to ship shit out the door as quick as possible and an entirely different set of skills to come in and clean up the mess the kids left behind.

This is why you are selling. Not buying. Because nobody wants to clean up your delivery focused mess.


or... nobody wants to pay to clean up the mess. i know people who will do it. I will do it, but I can't clean it up, and delivery loads of shiny new features, and do it all while trying to justify every 30 minute block of time and asking if xyz is 'really' necessary. oh, and you also need to be able to answer some real questions about your own business process, because often your existing practices are just 3000 lines of crap in a function file. when you say "it's broken" and I ask "what's the correct behaviour?" and you don't answer... it'll never get 'fixed'.


I think this falls under the why are you hiring a senior?

Because hiring a senior to ignore the problem is a good way to waste a lot of cash.


Who's talking about shipping "shit"? You are overreading by a very wide margin.

I also don't appreciate being called lazy, and especially by somebody who knows nothing about my business or my team.

Please try to keep your tone civil in future.


I'm not overreading, you said you prefer shipping sub optimal solutions. Sounds like to me.

I didn't call you lazy, I said that shipping in the name of delivery focus was lazy, or at least your argument about idealism was.

Fact is, shipping quality is the far more optimal solution and always will be. Making the trade off and adding technical debt is never a worthy trade long term. The only people who gain from it are you and your team. The rest of the company eventually grinds to a halt and begins taking more and more shortcuts around the code which just reinforces everything in a viscous cycle.

You might find this useful: https://youtu.be/DngAZyWMGR0


> I'm not overreading, you said you prefer shipping sub optimal solutions. Sounds like to me.

I was talking about prioritisation. I am very wary (or perhaps jaded) with people who want to fix everything all at once with no regard to the wider effects on the business of doing so.

I didn't mention anything about quality with respect to what we do choose to deliver, although I can assure you that user experience - of which quality is a key facet - is our utmost concern.

I thought my intent was clear, but sorry if not, and hence my comment about overreading. I wrote very little from which you (and you're not the only one) appear to have extrapolated quite a long way.


No. The difference between talking (very intelligently) and doing is huge, and a sports analogy might be illustrative. If you ask detailed questions about football to hire a NFL quarterback, your most intelligent responses will probably be from a coach. “How should you change the position of your right shoulder if you see that a fast edge rusher is approaching you from the left side and you have two open receivers?” A coach like Bill Belichick might have a fantastic, detailed answer demonstrating a thorough understanding of every aspect of football past and present, but he could never make the throw himself.


> hire a NFL quarterback

That analogy highlights what’s irritating me about this post and this entire thread discussion - there are 1,696 players in the NFL, each with an average salary of $1.9 million. When people talk about hiring “senior engineers”, they behave as thought they’re auditioning an NFL quarterback - the 1 out of 100,000,000 people who can actually perform at that level. For a salary of, on average, about $100,000. When you start out - offering comparatively little but looking for Tom Brady, you’ll pass over pretty much everybody, because the person you’re looking for won’t just not interview with you, they probably don’t exist. After a few months, you’ll relax your standards, and after a few more, you’ll relax them even more and end up hiring a comparative retard like myself - somebody with only a mere 25 years of hands-on development experience and a bachelor’s and master’s degree in CS along with a couple of publications. But if I presented in the first few rounds of interviews, back when you were looking for the guy who could derive the tortoise and the hare algorithm in 30 seconds in front of five people in a boardroom, you would have passed.


> The difference between talking (very intelligently) and doing is huge

To be fair it is environment dependent more than anything else. Forget competence, charisma, intelligence, and everything else about the candidate that could bias their selection and instead look at processes and code already in place the new candidate is jumping into. Does the environment strongly favor original ideas/solutions or does it dictate the narrow acceptance in the most narrow of boundaries?

I have been on both ends of this as well. It is common in software for shops to define success in extraordinarily shallow terms such as whether you are using spaces versus tabs and indenting properly. Another example I experienced last year is whether you should write a giant monster configuration or a small function that receives a single argument. The reasons why shops coat themselves in blankets of code style and configuration is because they typically don't trust their developers and instead strive for a normalized baseline. They are looking for wonderful solutions, but rather task completion.

The lack of conformance isn't necessarily an indication of lower capability, but it is an indication of incompatibility. Competence and conformance are wildly out of sync when the candidate is misjudged relative to the work available. That is completely an assignment failure opposed to a candidate failure. Having gone through this myself it has taught me to ask very probing questions, as a candidate, during the interview. If, as a senior, I can determine I will not be a good fit I will happily disqualify myself.

> A coach like Bill Belichick might have a fantastic, detailed answer demonstrating a thorough understanding of every aspect of football past and present, but he could never make the throw himself.

Would you really hire a coach to be your quarterback? Is that a thought you would really entertain? Even if that coach could do that job he/she would be more valuable doing other work. I would consider this a solid example of interviewer/assignment failure.


> Having gone through this myself it has taught me to ask very probing questions, as a candidate, during the interview.

Like what questions? I'm assuming the work you're looking for is more along the lines of "wonderful solutions" as opposed to "task completion" - is it as simple as asking, "How anal are you guys about code syntax and whatnot?" and, "How hard are your problems actually?"

Or is it more subtle than that?


Here are some I thought of off the top of my head. These are based upon things I actually encountered.

What if I were to provide a solution that executes much faster, requires less documentation, passes test automation, and is a quarter of the code but ignores the framework or standard code style?

The standard DOM methods perform thousands of times faster than other options for interacting with markup. I can prove this with numbers. Code like that is not popular. Will I be allowed to write unpopular objectively superior code?

If I can reduce the application build from 5 minutes to 5 seconds will you let me rewrite the build from Java to Typescript?

A/B testing is a powerful way to determine preferential user behavior and a measured increase in conversion. Will I be allowed to write inward facing experiments to test developer behavior?

What if I provide a function as a solution the makes use of scope and nested functions but offers no support for inheritance?

Is it better to complete a task in 1 hour with original code plus tests or extend existing components with risk of regression and 4 days of effort?


A couple of these questions would be at least yellow flags for me as an interviewer or hiring manager, as they indicate a strong bias for throwing away existing systems ("ignores the framework", "rewrite the build", "original code").

There's a great quote from Lou Montulli[1]:

> I laughed heartily as I got questions from one of my former employees about FTP code the he was rewriting. It had taken 3 years of tuning to get code that could read the 60 different types of FTP servers, those 5000 lines of code may have looked ugly, but at least they worked.

Those frameworks and existing components most likely have a lot of hard-won experience embedded in them, and I would be uncomfortable hiring someone who did not appear to understand or appreciate that.

See also: Chesterton's fence[2].

[1]: https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2000/05/26/20000526/

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Chesterton%27s_fence


That is why I would ask those questions... to excuse myself out of your organization. I have found it painful to be at organizations who repeatedly and intentionally make really bad decisions so that their developers deliberately don't have to solve problems (invented here syndrome). If that is what I were looking for I wouldn't have developed the skills that I have.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invented_here


Perhaps it is better to leave the menial tasks to the machines. They're far better at it - "on file save, reformat code to this template."


Maybe this is unique to sports? Do other fields exist where a BB-esque expert is totally incapable of practicing? The greatest movie critics probably can't direct or write for crap, but they're not commenting on how the movie was produced, just its output


Could Albert Einstien have actually built a particle accelerator or an atomic bomb?


From what I have seen, most of the academic research principals in computer science are not actually practitioners anymore. They are more like coaches. The actual code is written by graduate students, and most of it isn't even very good because the code isn't the point in most cases.


Not unique. One could convincingly argue that this effect exists in many fields. Art (ie art history major vs artist). Music (ie violin player vs film score composer). Restaurant reviewing (ie critic vs chef). I'm sure there are many more.


You obviously haven't seen Mark Kermodes series on the BBC where he covers exactly this.


Why talk to someone so condescendingly? I mean, what percentage of people do you epxpect to HAVE seen this bit of obscure media you seem to hold as seminal?


If the parent makes the unjustified statement that all cinema reviewers no know nothing about how film is made why not.

And I was not being condescending BTW.


Parent made no such statement. Read it again:

> The greatest movie critics probably can't direct or write for crap

They may know a lot about how a film is made. It does not follow that they could sit in the director's chair, or write a decent screenplay. (And yet, they could still be great at critiquing films!)

This is a valid point. Just knowing how something is made doesn't necessarily mean you know how to make it. It's the difference between a designer and an implementer. Or architect and builder.


I have been amazed at how many "data science" interview questions can be answered with "look it up in the hash table" or "look it up in the literature".

That last one is a real problem-solving strategy, I can't tell you exactly how to balance a Red-Black tree but I know what a Red-Black tree is and where to look up the algorithm for balancing it and I think that's good enough.

One of the master skills for interviewing is "don't choke." Often good people will make mistakes under the pressure of interviewing and will drop out.

When it comes to a practical session there is the same issue that some good people will choke. Just the sample of who chokes in which environment when is different.

Issues like this turn up in all cases where people try to measure merit. For instance, it is known that some low-SES (socioeconomic status) people will choke on standardized tests like the SAT or IQ tests. It is also known that some high-SES people are as dumb as posts and will have that revealed by standardized tests which are harder to bribe or bullshit.

The hostility towards testing is explained by the combination of those two groups: primarily the Emperor doesn't want you to see they have no clothes, but people have sympathy for poor people.


> The reason why some companies cannot figure this out is because they don’t value the problems at hand. They need bodies to put fingers on keyboards

Exactly this.

Too many companies are availability focused instead of ability focused.

The reason? When your processes and engineering are weak, you need people available 24/7 to put out fires.

When I interview for a position, I'm interviewing them as much as they are me.

One of the biggest asymmetries in the whole hiring process, is that of course every company will tell you they have the best development processes, frameworks and code to work on. They may even believe it because they don't know better.

Then you take the job and are stuck fighting fires on a big ball of mud codebase that takes over your life.

If you want to standout as a candidate, try and probe and really find out how good their 'culture is.' Interview them back.

One of the best questions for getting to the real answer is: "What are your expectations for availability?" If they expect availability from you after hours, then their stack is likely unstable because the need availability to keep it running.

If you are lucky enough when you are senior and good at what you do, you don't have to put up with that.

I often tell them about a the third of the way through the interview: "I'm not an availability guy, I'm an ability guy." They often are surprised by the statement. And the discussion that follows it usually tells me whether I want to work for them or not.


> Are things in place to make the job easier? Seniors don’t need easier and this is a huge turnoff.

What? It requires a special craft to design simpler components. Most of the people don't even see it. This is where your senior skills will shine when you'll make it work like a charm as compared to the previous state.

If you don't see the friction or can't reduce it then please take the first exit out.


I think you are conflating simple and easy. They aren't the same. Simple suggests less code, fewer pieces, and a shorter path between code and solution. Easier suggests least effort and less to look at. Simple isn't easy.

The primary difference between simple and easy are decisions. A good senior will spend more energy on considerations for appropriate decisions than the actual work.


One of the best engineering talks is about this notion that simple!=easy : https://www.infoq.com/presentations/Simple-Made-Easy

This is surprisingly often not understood, even by people I showed the video. And I am not sure why. But I do think it's necessary in out field to start understanding this much more deeply, especially for senior engineers.


Good definition of 'Simple'. Simple and easy may not be the same but there are situations where they are similar.

For e.g. - for production deployment, I could either put the entire office upside down. Fires across the departments. Broken applications. Rollbacks. Or, I can automate all of our QA test cases and have a one-click deployment. No huss or fuss. I'm sure after having this experience, someone will definitely say - well, this was easy.

Anyway, good discussion.


> I think you are conflating simple and easy.

I like to state it as complex vs. difficult.

Finding a bug in ten thousand lines of crappy VB code code is 'difficult', but not fun.

Writing an space/time efficient implementation of level set topology optimization is complex.

Senior developers usually love complex problems, but hate merely difficult problems.


Are things in place to make the job easier? Seniors don’t need easier and this is a huge turnoff.

What? I feel like you have a very narrow-minded idea of what sr engineers want.


Well, unambitious seniors are a good bet on who not to hire. They’ll only work what you pay them for, those lazy bastards!


I think I've read in quite a few places that most great programmers are essentially lazy.


"We will encourage you to develop the three great virtues of a programmer: laziness, impatience, and hubris." -- LarryWall

Laziness: The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful and document what you wrote so you don't have to answer so many questions about it.

Impatience: The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don't just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to.

Hubris: The quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won't want to say bad things about.

(That quoite's originally from Programming Perl 1st edition in 1991, the explanations I think didn't show up until edition 2 in '96 or so...)


A special kind of lazy where they will spend inordinate amounts of effort not to do the same routine task again.


I differentiate between simple and easy. They aren't the same.


He does and he is correct.


I agree with your comments, but let me share my 2c on "trendy framework bs".

Most of interviews I've done to candidates ended up in discussing technology trends and googling around for cool open source projects, libraries and so. This, to me, is a good indicator - as long as you bring them up when discussing relevant problems, this means you thought about a problem and researched prior art to avoid re-inventing the wheel.

Also we tend to end up discussing pro and cons of any given technology and so on. This at the end is a key indicator you're talking to a passionate developer. And passion usually makes someone good at programming.

When it comes to soft skills, usually having such a kind of discussion you can figure out also someones behaviour in most work scenarios (to me, having a good "discussion" mode means you're likely to be fit for team work).


Reinventing the wheel is a cliche I have grown to detest. I have found that cliche is abused 9 times out of 10 to avoid the deep dive into a problem. On the other hand, approaching the problem again allows the developer to consider the precision of current solutions or consider a simpler solution. Good seniors aren’t afraid of making decisions.


I don't know how much experience you have as a professional developer but I can barely remember the problems I solved last week let only any interesting ones I've solved in the past 10 years.


I have maybe half a dozen really interesting stories, and maybe a dozen or two interesting but only to the right crowd stories - from a career spanning a bit over 24 years. And a bunch of war stories about why we shouldn't do things that way, because of the problems we discovered trying that in 1998 or 2003... (And occasionally the "we should try that again because it didn't work back when our colocated production servers had 486's and 320Mb disks - but it'll probably work just fine as a mobile app now"...)


The question to ask is "why" they did something a particular way. If they start rattling off something that sounds like the marketing page of shiny new tech, the they are probably doing resume driven development rather than actually solving the problem in the best way that they can. But then some people seem to value that - I don't.


You recognize good senior by not being interested in new technologies and things that makes the job easier? That is a bit dubious.




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