We tried placing ads for ninjas, rock stars, and so on, but I discovered this was the cultural equivalent of advertising for white males who drink dry martinis. Not that white males who drink dry martinis can’t do the job, but there’s no real difference between advertising for a Ninja and throwing half your resumés away because you don’t like unlucky people. Either way, you end up with fewer resumés.”
This is so true, so important, and so many startups (and even bigger companies!) miss this. Job ads provide cues, conscious and subconscious, to the people reading them. Not everyone reading the ad is identical to the person writing it, and a badly written job ad can easily send the message "this company isn't for you" to a large number of skilled potential applicants. This applies not just to categories like gender or race, but even to personality types and personal interests. Unless you really want a company of only extroverts, for example, don't write a job ad that scares off introverts.
In the canonical example, if you constantly ask for "rock stars", you will turn off people to whom that doesn't appeal, including tons of good programmers. But it goes beyond that: don't assume that all your applicants are any particular kind of person with certain interests. A job ad should focus on what the job actually is, and things that are important to the job.
The best programmers often have a lot of choice in where they work, and as many HNers know from experience, if they see a job ad that turns them off in some fashion, they will probably not even bother reading further: they know they have better options, so yours probably isn't worth their time. If the vast majority of skilled programmers skip over your resume, it's no wonder you only receive resumes from unqualified applicants.
In short, when writing a job ad, you need to think from the perspective of people applying. Use your empathy, put yourself in their shoes, rather than just writing what you think looks cool.
It claims you shouldn't throw out resumes based on simple heuristics and stuff that only correlates with programming ability because there are so few people applying who are any good, but has exactly one sentence to say about how to then actually find those few people: "I grill them, hard, on actual programming and actual software development."
Right. Sure. Every single one of the 500 applicants. Good luck with that. Get back to me in 6 months.
It's nice in theory to be super-inclusive about everything except "actual programming", but almost completely divorced from reality.
It sounds like someone who, hearing about heuristic solutions to the traveling salesman problem responds that "I cannot possibly accept a solution that may not be 100% correct! It's the computer's job to give me a correct answer, and I'm damn well going to wait for it, no matter how long it takes! Exponential, schmexponential!"
Heuristics have their place. Something that strongly correlates with what you're looking for but is much easier to test for can be very, very useful.
The article criticises the unquestioning use of bad heuristics. One needs to think very carefully about how accurate the heuristics employed are at describing the unseen (but directly desired) attribute(s) as well as what un-desirable attributes it may be silently signalling.
As someone who worked at an investment bank, I'd go ballistic when managers would turn away candidates because their resumes weren't properly aligned or formatted. The irony was amplified by the fact that we were not a client-facing trading desk. Here the heuristic used (resume formatting) did not correlate with the desired attribute ([trading skills]) but did correlate well with some undesirable attributes (insecure children more concerned with form than function).
What I was trying to claim is that there’s a relationship between heuristics and the ham/spam ratio of the documents being classified. When there is very little ham and a lot of spam, my claim is that false negatives are extremely expensive. When the benefit of hiring is very high and the cost of interviewing is low, my claim is that false positives are relatively cheap.
Given these two, my claim is that given current market realities, when hiring programmers for a mission-critical role the best strategy is to go light on spam-filtering heuristics and heavy on direct inspection of the ham content.
But obviously, some heuristics have their place. To a certain extent, everything except “Start work on Monday, there will be three month’s probation” is a heuristic.
And “This article is almost complete useless” is also true, given that it says in many paragraphs using a contrived format what I just said in two paragraphs, it obviously contains a lot of redundancy and extraneous noise!
That "extraneous noise" actually stresses your point beautifully. While we don't want to generalize from fictional evidence, fictions can be great at making the reader pay attention to your case (and yours certainly is).
Now that I'm a bit more aware of the gazillion ways my resume can be mistakenly filtered, I can (i) work on defeating those filters, and (ii) not take it personally when it still doesn't pass through. I know it sounds obvious, but I didn't get it on a gut level until your story put me in the shoes of the recruiter, and showed me that one can be both reasonably competent, not evil, and still miss many relevant resumes.
You know what's kind of funny, though? I bet that a not-so-small percentage of people who are nodding their heads up-and-down wildly in response to this essay think nothing of filtering their applicant pool based on github profile.
Like in every skill you need to choose your heuristics carefully and like in most jobs, HR and CTOs often aren't the best. That doesn't mean the whole idea is crap.
The thing about formatting I can't answer if you are right or "most HR people" are right. The argument they bring seems as legitimate as yours: People who care about the looks of their result are more disciplined, probably faster (because they get the content and the formatting in the same time frame) and care more about working in that company. Does that sound unreasonable? Which one is right can only be told with data. And because of that I tend to support the HR guys. It's more likely (of course not 100%) they have more data and experience then you and me.
(So indirectly I also agree that work experience can be a good discriminator concerning future work quality expectations)
> It's more likely (of course not 100%) they have more data and experience than you and me.
Having data does not imply usefully analyzing it, and "experience" is nothing more than a plurality of anecdote. Without actually seeing the data, I think your best guess here should be 50/50, rather than the very biased-toward-the-high-end "more likely (of course not 100%)" that you have. Appeal to authority is especially dangerous when you are making decisions that affect your company's bottom line based on peoples' ability to format text.
I confess, after spending a few years as an inexperienced coder applying for anything I could get, that I take a perverse pleasure in updating my shitty resume only occasionally now, and not giving a wet fish about the formatting. (a) because it's cathartic, (b) because I don't need to suck up to assholes any more, and (c) because one of the smartest, most reliable people I ever hired submitted her CV to me entirely in Comic Sans.
Not to mention the importance of cultural fit, too.
People dismiss cultural fit because it seems superficial. In reality, programming ability is part of cultural fit - who wants to work with an incompetent? A good programmer does not exist in isolation, a good programmer exists in context of the people s/he works with.
So if you find that rockstar/ninja advertising attracts the type of people you want - why not? Personally I think it's tacky, and we make fun of it where I work. But there are plenty of places with no such qualms, and it seems dishonest to not embrace that.
Yes, cultural fit is important. Programmers need to be able to work together ... BUT ...
... I once hired a guy precisely because of his strong stance against some of the norms in the local culture (and he passed the minimum programming threshold and was willing to work for the peanuts we were offering).
I inferred from his political/cultural views—which he was not shy about expressing—that he would have the will to speak up and question my decisions if he felt strongly about it. As a young manager I knew I needed someone working for me who would challenge my thinking on occasion. Whether he knows it or not, he taught me a lot about how I needed to improve as a manager (mostly by giving me opportunity to recognize my flaws).
Maybe that's "cultural fit" ... I had a niche I needed filled, and he filled it. Yet, the role I wanted him for was to be disruptive on occasion. And it was a good thing.
This is the only use-case/meaning of cultural fit that makes sense to me. But, i do think we ought to find a more specific name(http://lesswrong.com/lw/bc3/sotw_be_specific/). Perhaps something along the lines of balancing the team.
Agree, you just need to know which type you're targeting. The opposite of "rockstar" might be mentioning a "family friendly atmosphere". It will appeal to a certain audience which might or might not be your target.
Hiring is one of the most important things for any company, at any stage, that it is worth doing right. If interviewing 100 people instead of 50 will increase overall talent, it's worth bending over backwards to do this. Even if it means sacrificing in other areas.
Ultimately, everyone ends up using heuristics at some level. But it is worth being very careful what heuristics you use, and the article does a great job of demonstrating this. Do you really want to exclude excellent developers who didn't major in CS? Do you really only want to hire engineers who self-identify as rockstars? Maybe - but be conscious about what you're doing.
And now you're using a heuristic even less correlated with programming ability. My list of awesome programmers I would hire again in a heartbeat has, to my knowledge, a combined 0 lines of code on github.
It's one heuristic out of many, and it's a fast one. If you go through all 10-15 github profiles, and you find an awesome programmer, than you're done for that point in time. If you don't find any, you can use a more time-consuming heuristic.
The problem here is that a resume with no spelling errors says nothing about a persons coding ability. The resumes without errors are lacking the negative indicator of poor spelling/formating. A strong Github profile, however, consists of many code samples and is a positive indicator of coding ability, making it a much more useful metric. This doesn't imply a knock against programmers with no Github profile, simple a leg up for those who do.
I'm a semi-introvert graduating with my BS in CS and am looking for jobs right now.
And this is all I ever feel. I read dozens of job ads across the country (I look through all of them because I really want to get out and move some place new, see the world - being fresh out of college is the best time for me to do that and all) and in the process I see only two kinds of jobs for someone like me.
The ads either come across as wanting rock star geniuses that could develop in a month the entirety of the next facebook or google in their sleep, or they come off as grossly incompentant in that they don't know what they want from an employee.
When an ad lists skill sets from assembly to rails to genetic algorithms I just sigh because the company obviously doesn't know what they want, and I want to work some where that I can not only get better at my trade and create great things but also have confidence in the business not going under in a few months.
Simultaneously, the other set of job seekers want 5+ years experience for a startup and they use the rock star vocabulary, and I get turned off on that because I am not the second coming of John Carmack or Bill Gates, I wish I was, but I just am not that smart.
Compound that with the reality that I have a passion for software and as a result I only want to work on things I find interesting and useful myself (eating my own dog food) and I might consider one ad in a hundred. And I'm not even location limited!
It just seems to me like there is no middle ground, either you are a genius rock star or the employer appears clueless about what they are after in a developer. It really grinds my gears with all this job hunting shenanigans.
This is in no way condescending to you, but realize that your options will massively open after 2 years of work experience.
I graduated in 2010, I got 3 job offers out of the 3 companies I applied to. However, none were exactly my dream job and the few companies I really wanted to work for didn't even talk to new grads. Today I can absolutely get those jobs.
My girlfriend went through the exact same evolution. It was brutal finding anything in 2010, and she just got her dream job with 2 years of work experience under her belt.
Those 2 years of work experience really open doors.
It's an enormous mistake to hold out for the 'perfect job'.
One of my roommates was a finance/econ/accounting triple major and wanted a Goldman Sachs job (not our cup of tea, but it's instructive). He didn't get that job, but saw the 'regional' banks as below his level, so he didn't take any job and brushed up his resume and applied again. Meanwhile another classmate with a less stellar but similar resume took a job at the regional bank. Two years later he switched into JPMorgan. My roommate who passed has basically been unable to get any job - even the regional bank jobs he once considered beneath him.
So don't let the frustration make you do something stupid and pass on the dumb job offers. You have to get a job right away. You can switch from that job after 6 months or 1 year or whatever, but do not make yourself unemployed. You only become less employable as your graduation date slips because it signals other employers that some have passed on you.
I see where you're coming from, but software is a lot different from banking.
"You have to get a job right away." definitely isn't true or good advice for a programmer. You can learn a lot more a lot faster and add more impressive pieces to your portfolio by working on your own projects, open source, or contracting than by accepting a bad job at some dysfunctional company.
Getting a programming job at a company that uses the technologies you want to work with will seriously help you move into another role in the near future. Even if the company is crap.
It's nice that some people will care about your personal projects but A LOT of good companies won't see these in the same light as real professional experience dealing with real production, team and stake holder issues.
Also, how can anyone support themselves for months whilst they wait for the perfect job which may never come because it gets harder to find a job the longer you are unemployed?
As for contracting; to land a good contracting role (I'm talking stuff outside of rent-a-coder) is very difficult. Most companies wouldn't even consider you as a contractor unless you have several years of solid experience. I can only assume you mean the kind of 'contracting' that happens at places like rentacoder.com. If you think anyone will care about this then you are mistaken, plus, it's a waste of your time as you'll get paid peanuts and end up providing free support to the idiots that gave you the work in the first place.
If you're fresh out of education and will not be landing a role with Google (or the likes of) and you're struggling to get work at a good company then you should take the first job that comes along that works with the technology you want to specialise in.
Speaking from experience, most of your assumptions are completely wrong. It's much easier to gain valuable skills in personal, open source, and consulting projects, because you can target your work towards sought after languages, tools, and frameworks, and clients you contract with will often let you choose the technologies if you make a good case for them. Bad companies will tend to use bad and outdated technologies, and they won't be open to the suggestions from a new hire.
It's also extremely difficult to build a strong portfolio working at a bad company, because bad companies by their nature rarely get anything done, and even if they do, they'll pigeonhole you into the most monotonous tasks and you'll get 0 experience making architectural decisions or working on anything outside whatever little gutter they throw you in.
On the contrary, doing your own projects or contracting (ideally with startups or small companies) will force you to learn every level of the tech-business stack, from feature planning to architecture to coding to design to deployment to launching and promotion. You can work on many projects in a short timespan, and you'll be left with numerous portfolio pieces that are all your own.
"Most companies wouldn't even consider you as a contractor unless you have several years of solid experience. I can only assume you mean the kind of 'contracting' that happens at places like rentacoder.com."
This simply isn't true. You just need to sell yourself and show that you have good ideas and get things done. I got paid $60 per hour on my first rails project with no experience whatsoever in rails. The client never asked. She just saw that I had several strong pieces of work in my portfolio (half of them personal projects), and told me to use whatever tools I thought best for the job. If you're considering rent-a-coder you're definitely doing it wrong.
Don't settle for mediocrity. Take the initiative and start building a portfolio any way you can. The sky's the limit once you have a solid body of work to point to. You can make good money contracting or you can have your pick of awesome jobs. Having experience in some crappy job isn't what matters, it's showing that you can build great software.
Speaking from experience, most of what you say is wrong.
Most of the contracting positions available in London (where I live) are only available to experienced professionals. There's no way anyone is going to hire a nobody for £500 per day. Good luck finding much work available below this level, I used to contract myself at £200 per day but this only because I personally knew the manager on the project and I had worked with him as an engineer as an intern one year previously.
Showing you have good ideas and that you get things done means NOTHING. The other guy applying for the same job who has 6 years of experience will beat you every time. Maybe things are different where ever you are from but where I am from you don't get to work on anything that anyone cares about unless you have solid experience.
If you want to land a role at some small web dev shop where you will be stuck working on crappy rails or other nonsense things then go make your portfolio out of $60 a day "contracts" and have a great life. This does not exist in the UK and when people say 'contracting' they mean real work earning real money.
The best thing you can do is get an awesome internship then leverage that to get a good perm role somewhere else. This is exactly what I did. I didn't return to the place where I did my internship as I landed a better package elsewhere.
If you can afford to work for $60 a day and you are lucky to live in the Valley or somewhere where these roles are available, then lucky you. I prefer something a little more rigorous where I'm not a slave working on crap.
You're coming across as a really arrogant and unpleasant person. Frankly, you sound like someone who couldn't hack it on your own and is now bitter. I'm sorry it didn't work out, but you shouldn't generalize your own weaknesses onto everyone else. If someone isn't much of a developer or is afraid to talk to others and look for clients, then yeah he should take whatever he can get, but someone who has brains will be selling himself short and possibly destroying his longterm creativity and drive by accepting the corporate coding drone role.
Take a look at the london contracting market. There is no room for anyone who isn't experienced. London doesn't have little cheap contracts were front end devs can come and work for no money. All the contracts are for serious companies paying serious money. You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. You're typical HN. Contracting is seen as something that you enter after years in industry. Not everyone lives in the valley where companies come and go quicker than the local bus. Your attitude towards our industry is that of an inexperienced child.
I once answered a job ad - on HN no less! - asking if I had ever wanted to create a programming language and saying I should contact this company to show them if I had.
Well, I was a PL researcher by the end of undergrad. So of course I sent them my research paper, my senior thesis, and my project link.
Turned out they make a mobile furniture-sale application. They've got really cool guys working on it who've done things like compilers or languages before, but when it came right down to it, they stopped calling me back when they realized I haven't done mobile development before.
<frustration>For fuck's sake, if you wanted an experienced mobile dev, ASK FOR ONE! And if you asked for a PL researcher, WHAT ELSE DID YOU EXPECT? AND WHY ARE YOU EMPLOYING COMPILER EXPERTS TO WORK ON SELLING FURNITURE?!</frustration>
It would be really nice certain companies stopped trying to make themselves sound cool or important, and just let job-seekers know what they are hiring for. Obscuring your intent, in hiring, is equivalent to wanting a bad match.
My advice to you is that a lot of the qualifications and requirements listed in job ads are pulled out of the air, and many of them are absurd. I've seen plenty of job ads listing "5 years of iPad experience" or "3-5 years JSON experience". Obviously those are not very closely related to real job requirements. The thing to do in those cases, I think, is to look at the company, try to get a sense of what the job would be, and apply if you are interested and if it approximately matches your skill level.
The web startups with rockstar job ads may wish they had John Carmack or Bill Gates sending them resumes but I doubt it happens much. Bill Gates doesn't need to work at a little company somewhere -- he made his own company and is now a billionaire. A skilled, motivated recent CS grad is probably a great candidate for most companies.
Consider loosening your requirements for companies you would interview with. Get your foot in the door somewhere - it will open up more opportunities later.
Straight out of college, I got accepted by an outsourcing sweatshop early on, with whom I interviewed because I was bored and not necessarily because I wanted the job. I went ahead and took it anyway, thinking I'll learn do something for 6 months that I can put on my resume and move on.
During my spare time I made minor contributions to a couple of open source projects, then got an offer to hack on open-source software at Novell. I eventually turned it down to go work for a smaller company, which is where I am now, for the last 7 years.
I'm perhaps more of an extrovert in the same situation, but just apply to everything --- sure you'll fail at some stuff but it's always instructive. The key is realising the difference between a judgement of you and a judgement of how you interview :)
Hell, I got an internship last year by cold-emailing someone from the HN Who's Hiring thread and asking what they were running this year. Just put yourself out there and you'll have no problem.
This is wrong. I don't know a single Rails developer (with or without a degree) who doesn't have more work than they can handle available to them. Sometimes the jobs are more concentrated in certain areas than others, but I personally get several cold calls from recruiters every week, and I have no degree, and I am no rockstar.
When I do eventually move to SF / a tech hub, applying for everything is my plan, if I don't find something before moving.
I also don't know rails, and I'm just now getting into web technologies, trying to decide what to really dig into (between node and rails really) . Is rails really that hot? Just starting out with rails now I feel like I'm really late to the party. I'm mostly interested in Clojure, but that's not exactly the hottest job market.
It's nice to hear that it really is that good though, It's hard to really get a feel from it living so far from any tech hubs, without many developer friends.
Indeed. My ad scoring program deducts 5 points and transparently kills off ads that contain terms like "ninja" and "rock star" because to my mind they indicate a propensity for either abuse ("a rock star should be able to code this in three days!!") or fad-following ineptitude ("rock stars are the coolest kind of programmers, I must have them! also, we write EVERYTHING in Ruby, it's like the Mac of programming").
Personally I think those terms indicate feeble attempts at psychological manipulation. I feel like responding to job ads like that would be like admitting you're a gullible fool. They're trying to recruit and stroke egos, not people.
You are on to something here.
If people want o make it a hipster contest don't use the recruiting op and waste it. It simply does not add up unless you are stuck in a mindset that is not conductive to anything productive. Nihilists are us should never be a place one "wants" to work at unless there are no other ops available.
my typical response to ads for rockstars is pointing out that rockstars tend to earn 10 to 100 times more than a great studio musician and generally have to be the prima donna all the time. Then I ask if forcing myself to be the center of attention is part of the job description, and just how much better the position pays compared to the typical valley salary.
I'm going to apply for and get a job at a company advertising for "ninjas," then not let my boss know when I'm taking vacation or a sick day - just so when he calls to ask where I am, I can reply with "Well, you did say you wanted a ninja programmer..."
if you were really a ninja however, you would have stolen that line under cover of night, replacing it with a forgery that looked identical, before using a selection of grappling hooks to make a stealthy escape across the rooftops...
When I was open to new job opportunities, I immediately turned it down if the job description included words like rock starts, ninjas, etc. I am not against the mindset. It is just not a good fit to my personality.
I want to work on products that I consider meaningful and work with good and serious engineers. It is nice to hang out with colleagues, have drinks, saying jokes, etc. I am a big fan of classic rock. But calling engineers as rock stars, ninjas, etc, or engineers labeling themselves as such personalities, really convey a somewhat negative impression to me.
I think another over-abused phrase is "smart and gets things done". Thanks for regurgitating Spolsky in your ad. Tell me do you have individual offices for your engineers? No...it's the standard cube farm? Then you don't get to quote Spolsky.
The more useful data is that any ad that uses such language doesn't actually employ any ninjas or rockstars.
At best it has an HR person who never managed to stop being 17years old, typically it's a bunch of trend following losers, at worst it's a bunch of creeps who think they can under-pay and over-work you in return for having a pinball table in the corner.
Ironically, a job seeker that rejects an ad based on a keyword or two is exactly the shallow reasoning this article criticizes; it's just the other side of the same coin. I'm pretty sure there are actually good startups that put out "cool" (lame) ads just, like good programmers that let a typo slip by.
> Ironically, a job seeker that rejects an ad based on a keyword or two is exactly the shallow reasoning this article criticizes; it's just the other side of the same coin.
Not really. The situations are asymmetric -- an employer seeking a talented programmer needs to be rejecting potential employees on as few arbitrary criteria as possible, to maximize their chance at finding just a single qualified candidate.
A talented programmer, on the other hand, has Berty Wooster's time-management problem; there are far more people desperate to hire than he or she could possibly could ever hope to give attention to. You need to winnow out any opportunity that is even the slightest bit unappealing just to get the flood down to a manageable level.
> You need to winnow out any opportunity that is even the slightest bit unappealing just to get the flood down to a manageable level.
This is precisely what the article was talking about but in reverse, like the GP said. You're implying that job ads that rub you the wrong way on a minor point are ads that are at the bottom of the desirability list -- this is the exactly the correlation/causation fallacy the article discussed.
In other words, that vast list of companies looking to hire the talented programmer is comprised of 1) companies that suck 2) companies that are OK, and 3) companies that rock. The occurrence of the word "ninja" or "rockstar" in their ad isn't an indicator of which group the company falls into. What you're advocating is no more scientific than throwing away unlucky resumes.
> You're implying that job ads that rub you the wrong way on a minor point are ads that are at the bottom of the desirability list -- this is the exactly the correlation/causation fallacy the article discussed.
The employer faces the problem of there being too few really good programmers, and so must do nothing that would prevent them from possibly seeing one in their candidate pool. It's like panning for gold; you need to get as much crap as possible going through your pan to find anything of value.
The good programmer has an entirely different problem. There are a ton of jobs out there that I would find stimulating, engaging, and fun. Finding them isn't hard at all. They show up on HN, they show up in my inbox, they show up in conversations at conferences and events, they show up in unsolicited offers from friends, acquaintances, headhunters, etc. They show up on a weekly basis.
If I'm in the market for a job, I don't need to carefully grovel through every opportunity to find the one good one. I couldn't possibly, even if I wanted to, because my attention isn't infinite. Talking with every potentially interesting employer would take more hours than I have in the day.
Instead I need to, like Berty Wooster, somehow winnow down the 100 equally plausible opportunities to something small enough that I can reasonably give my time and attention to picking between. That the heuristics for doing so are arbitrary is irrelevant; my only concern is grossly reducing the numbers I'm dealing with, because I have no reason to fear I won't find a good one among those that are left.
Honestly, there are a lot of crap jobs posing as dream jobs as well. I remember talking to my (female) cousin once and she said to me "People act like it's only good men that are hard to find. The sword cuts both ways." Just because there's a higher ratio of Women to Men doesn't mean that the ratio of good women to not so good women is higher than it is for men. I didn't get what she was saying until I started dating heavily.
In the same regards just because there are more jobs than candidates doesn't mean there isn't just a high ratio of crap jobs. So the same 100 job ads will likely have 1 or 2 great opportunities and 98-99 posers. The candidate's job is just as tough as the recruiter.
This reminds me of that job advert which specifically asked for programmers with MacBooks only. No way in a million years would I apply there! I have an iMac, but only because I'm interested in different sorts of computer. I mean seriously, not everyone can afford an Mac.
I've had this on my chest since I saw that advert. Just needed to vent :)
Something this article doesn't mention, is identifying the success of an individual in the culture of the organisation they've applying for. Roles and job descriptions change, in startups and MNCs alike. Sure, do technical evaluations, but explicitly, do not assume:
1. An analysis of factors which make someone in your organisation successful, and be critical, an example in being critical may be 'manage explicitly conflicting goals'
2. Map candidates both to the 'now' of what is needed, and the factors of success needed in your organisation short medium and long term.
It is quite easy to find great people through technical questions. It is bad for all when great people don't fit. This is not behavioural interviewing stuff or psychological surveys, simply match proven success and/or evidenced motivation.
I agree with every point Reginald makes but (and I am being nitpicky here) the form of the story - the seeming overtailored parable nature of it, of the kind you'd find in the Reader's Digest or a religious tract - rubs me ever so slightly the wrong way.
I could have done without all the fake (or seemingly fake anyway) dialogue between the Wooster/Oscar etc and would have preferred a straightforward "This is what I(Reginald) think" mode.
Imagine pg writing his essays in the form of "Paul wrote an ecommerce site in Lisp while Peter used C++. When Paul met Peter's wife Rosa in a coffee shop he asked her why Peter was looking so haggard and she said 'he is working through the night fixing bugs and not getting enough sleep. Would you mind talking to him? ..' "
Again, this is a very minor nitpick, just consider this feedback from one reader. I am probably considerably outnumbered by the people who like this "story" form better (and that is perfectly fine). Of course it is completely Reginald's prerogative to pick any style he wants.
I understand your nitpick (and the post could have been a lot shorter had raganwald opted to use a different style).
However, the main benefit of the story format (to me at least) is that the underlying message is so much more memorable. I'll probably forget the names of the characters and some of the detail but I'll certainly remember the point.
More importantly perhaps, is that I'll be able to re-tell the story to others (in some form). Expecially if I'm trying to convince them of this view point.
Stories are easier to remember and share (and it's one reason that telling stories about your products is better than, say, a feature list).
The writing style reminded me a lot of the book "Leadership and self-deception" (http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Self-Deception-Getting-out-...) in which a guy shows up at a new job and gets a day-long welcoming from the CEO, during which they slowly go through the idea of putting people in boxes and what to do about it.
The ending of raganwald's post especially was similar in tone with "You belong here. We'll do great things together".
edit: "they slowly go through the idea of putting people in boxes and what to do about it" Hmm, this sounds kind of odd when you don't know the book I guess :) To clarify: in the book, you put people "in a box" basically when you have prejudices about them and look at things through that angle only. Or something like that.
It seems very common among books targeted at CEO-types ("Be The Hero" being the one I read lately). I don't know what it is about managers that means they like stories more than explication, but it seems to be common perception.
I dislike the story form too, and I can explain why. The style gives the impression that Reginald is claiming "this really happened, and those people used this technique, and they lived happily ever after – so if it worked for them, it will work for you; give this technique a try". But this tale never happened, so that implied argument is a lie. This story forces me to put on my "disbelieve, disbelieve, disbelieve" mental filters as I read, so I can remind myself that the story does not have the grounds in reality it claims, lest I believe it wrongly. This extra effort would not be necessary if Reginald just claimed what he claims straight out, and then perhaps described his grounds for belief in those claims. The unnecessary extra effort of skepticality is why I don't like the story form in this case.
The style gives the impression that Raganwald is claiming "this really happened, and those people used this technique, and they lived happily ever after – so if it worked for them, it will work for you; give this technique a try
Respectfully, no it doesn’t. Try showing the story to one hundred randomly selected people and ask whether they think this really happened. I think you will find that there are a few people who have a certain type of extremely literal brain who don’t take well to parables, to satire, or anything else that isn’t a direct recitation of facts.
The fact that such people are in a minority doesn’t invalidate their (or your) feelings, but it is important to recognize that the feelings you have are not universal, just as I must recognize that not everybody likes the format.
I don't like that we can't question this story because it's fictional. It has legs because of the way it is written, but no one can jab or poke at it without the obvious "well, it's just a story, man" line. I hate outs like that. It's been mentioned that there is an overall religious feel to these articles. I think it's because religion always has an out when it needs to explain something using evidence. Then there is the article title, "I don't hire unlucky people" with "raganwald's posterous" as the header. Not sure how someone could glance at this and determine it was fictional - but I think you know that.
> The fact that such people are in a minority doesn’t invalidate their (or your) feelings
Well, we don't know if they are the minority or not. No one has really taken a poll. I'll say I've found the same lineage in your articles. They tend to play on the emotionally-binding do the right thing narrative - which is fine, but the articles always conclude with this overall "so that's why you have to do it this way" feeling. Morals aside, there's really no validation to these ideas. It's one thing to tell a story and have a happy ending, but the subject matter is often timely and succinct to current events - making it (in perspective of the moment) newsworthy. I understand it is easy to talk around that, so I guess one would have to ask "Why do you write in this way?". If your articles are politically-driven, then why write fiction? If story-telling is your angle, why the call to arms narrative?
This isn't to say your writing isn't good - to the contrary. But if we're talking about whether your articles could be confusing to some – I'd say I agree.
I read a bestselling short story once about two mice, one of whom ventured out into the world to find a new place to live, while the other stayed put. The one who abandoned everything came out of it better in the end, and so the moral of the story was that we should all abandon what works in hopes of stumbling on to something better.
I detested the book, and will instantly have a lower opinion of someone if I see it in their bookshelf. It seems to me that it was written as a short story to avoid arguing for the decisions the characters make. raganwald's story was better, but still vulnerable to the story format, where dei ex machina reign supreme.
That said, story formats have strong advantages as well, such as capturing attention – but they don't come for free.
The author sees his time better spent addressing each comment rather than just do something simple like using the Posterous tagging feature. A 'fiction' tag would be sufficient and no one would be confused. I doubt the author would tolerate end-user confusion in his software, why defend it in this case? His blog is full of non-fictional, fictional, opinion, etc. There is no obvious delineation for those who don't read his material and the fix is easy.
If you want evidence, I think you should look elsewhere besides Hacker News. It’s a nice place full of very smart people, but posts containing empirical evidence gathered under controlled conditions are few and far between.
I've read plenty of articles about political, corporate, structural viewpoints – all with details of recent experience, personal findings and data on HN. I'd say fictional short-stories would be the odd man out at HN.
I found the style grating as well, but not because I thought it might have happened or even that you intended for me to think so. It was more that I found the parable style condescending. Heavy-handed and self-indulgent are a couple of hyphenated terms that might apply to some small extent.
Saying that I think the story really happened is an exaggeration in my case. Obviously I recognized that the story was false strongly enough for me to know that I should put my skepticism filters on. I knew intellectually the story didn't happen soon after starting reading, from the style of writing. But it took extra, conscious effort to ensure that that understanding was shared by my more base word-understanding mind, too. Basically, I read in words as truth, and have to manually tag each thought as "dubious" after reading them. Or perhaps I would still disbelieve what I read even if I didn't consciously attempt to disbelieve it, but consciously disbelieving what I read is a much-practiced habit that I would find hard to stop, so I still prefer straightforwardly-presented arguments to fictional-story arguments.
Apart from that misunderstanding, I do find it plausible that, as you hypothesize, most people need less effort to disbelieve what they read than me.
yes, something like that. I find the style much more natural and less grating. The 'parable' format 'feels' (to me, purely subjectively etc etc) like chalk screeching on blackboard, obscuring the (very valid) substance of the argument.
Or maybe it is just a matter of better technique. There may be a way of telling a story to make the same points without the reader being jerked out of his involvement with the material,and being made aware he is reading a story. I don't know.
I agree with you on the preference, but I'd like to add that sometimes a format preference exists only as a way of allowing the author to express their ideas succinctly.
As much as I may dislike the storyteller format of the article, philosophically speaking, I have a practical inability to read other, drier essays. And then there are essays which have no reasonable usage of paragraphs and sentences to encapsulate or describe ideas, etc. Compared to those, I would pick a storyteller format.
"As much as I may dislike the storyteller format of the article,"
Thinking about it a bit more, there is nothing wrong with the story format. It is just that (I think) it doesn't work in this case.
The story with "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone" in probably better than a bald statement of "don't be a hypocrite" (or whatever the moral of the story is supposed to be). But when you are hearing the story for the first time, you are drawn into it and held there till it ends and then you snap out of it and you are back in the real world.
It is just that in this case, I, the reader, was made aware that he is reading a story while I was reading it (vs being sucked into it) and every time a point came up I felt like I was being bludgeoned with it.
But then again, I thought "Godel, Escher, Bach" was pretentious and wordy, so it is highly probable that I just have weird tastes.
Again, I don't want to harp on this too much. Just offering some feedback which may (or may not ) be useful to Reginald.
I agree with your nitpick, but he almost makes up for it by making me read Ernestine's first sentence in the voice of Ernie from Sesame Street. (I assume that must have been intentional - I'm incapable of not doing that with a sentence that starts with "Bert,")
Stories are powerful and can aid in remembering and understanding the message - but can be taken too far. For example I found the scenes of the lead character's marriage problems in 'The Goal' quite off-putting and unnecessary.