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February 2013 - Posts

The burden of hiring software developers

(I wrote this for my personal blog, but it’s obviously an important topic here.)

I've had the unusual opportunity to hire and manage people on and off starting with my first real job after college. I think it's one of the hardest things to do because it's time consuming and expensive to make mistakes. When I first had to assemble a team in a consulting gig (I think it was 2005, for context), I found out it's even harder to hire software developers.

First off, check out my former boss, Jonathan, and the talk he did with another guy about how not to do technical interviewing. The irony to people who have had bad experiences interviewing at Microsoft is not lost on me, but Jonathan gets it. Obviously, since he hired me. :) Go rate up his video!

The problem in hiring starts with the fact that resumes don't mean much. You look for the key word matches for what you're looking for, and from there look at the depth and breadth of the experience. If it doesn't smell like bullshit, you move on to a phone screen. From there you further dismiss the fakers. By the time you bring someone in, I would guess that 90% of the time you can already be pretty sure they would be a good fit, and you can have your choice of candidates provided they like you and your offer.

But it's the screening part that is such a huge burden. The resume part isn't that big of a deal. I can get through a stack of resumes pretty fast and figure out who I want to follow up with. It's the next stage of the screening that takes too damn long and sucks the life out of you.

My typical phone screen is more about the gauging the person's knowledge. I don't ask them to identify acronyms like SOLID or DRY (I can never remember what the former stands for), but I can walk them through questions about language and object-oriented patterns and get a pretty good feel for where they are. But even if you're trying to get a faker off of the phone, these still take a half-hour at least, and that's not counting the overhead in agreeing to a time to talk.

If I bring someone in for real interviews, that's going to take at least three hours, including some time working on a real software problem with, you know a computer. I don't complain about that part, it's the screening process that is a huge burden.

Hiring people, even for something as technical as a software development position, is still largely a problem with human beings. Expectations are set, social contracts have to be followed and of course people have to get along. It just doesn't feel like it should be so inefficient.

First off, job boards are nearly useless. They're just keyword matching devices. The quality of candidates varies by board, but it's still not a great value prop. Staffing agencies add even less value, especially now that it's common for a person sitting in India or China to just roll through a database, making keyword matches, spamming people.

I've been talking with people a lot lately about how to make the discovery and vetting process more efficient. The use cases for smaller to medium sized businesses in particular interest me, since they might not even have someone who is technically proficient enough to make that first critical hire.

I'm open to suggestions. How do you make the discovery and vetting easier? Is there a technical process that could help?

SignalR really changes everything

I think I started to mess with HTML in 1995, and the Internets became the focus of my profession in 1999. The fun thing about this is that I’ve watched the tools and development technology evolve most of the way, and it has been an awesome ride.

That said, the Web has only had what I would consider a small number of “wow” moments in terms of development technology. AJAX as a concept was a game changer, but it wasn’t really until jQuery came along that it became stupid easy to perform AJAX tasks. The ASP.NET MVC framework was another great moment, but as it was clearly inspired by other platforms, I don’t know that it’s a big deal outside of my little world. Beyond that, dev tech has been slow and evolutionary.

Until now. SignalR, as far as I’m concerned, is a huge deal. It really does change everything. It lifts the constraint inherent to standard HTTP exchanges, in that we call the server, get something back, and we’re done. Now the client and server can talk to each other, and do so on a potentially massive scale.

At first it sounds like we should credit WebSockets for this, but by itself, that technology is only slightly useful. I say that because browser implementation is not always consistent, and SignalR compensates by gracefully falling back to long “open” connections, or polling, if necessary. It’s also not entirely useful without the backend portion, which handles the registration of clients and the ability to remotely call code at the client end.

There are a great many things that I’m thinking about using it for, not the least of which is POP Forums, my open source project. I’m wrapping up real-time updating right now, in fact, for various forum and topic lists. The amount of code to do it has been trivial. It’s a big deal.

Go try it. You won’t regret it.

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