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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.


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:


"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?


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.

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