Software development is (mostly) a trade, and what to do about it

posted by Jeff | Friday, September 7, 2012, 11:16 AM | comments: 0

I've been sitting on this for a long time, particularly as my opinion has changed dramatically over the last few years. That I've encountered more crappy code than maintainable, quality code in my career as a software developer only reinforces what I'm about to say.

Software development is just a trade for most, and not a huge academic endeavor.

For those of you with computer science degrees readying your pitchforks and collecting your algorithm interview questions, let me explain. This is not an assault on your way of life, and if you've been around, you know I'm right about the quality problem. You also know the HR problem is very real, or we wouldn't be paying top dollar for mediocre developers and importing people from all over the world to fill the jobs we can't fill.

I'm going to try and outline what I see as some of the problems, and hopefully offer my views on how to address them.

The recruiting problem

I think a lot of companies are doing it wrong. Over the years, I've had two kinds of interview experiences. The first, and right, kind of experience involves talking about real life achievements, followed by some variation on white boarding in pseudo-code, drafting some basic system architecture, or even sitting down at a comprooder and pecking out some basic code to tackle a real problem. I can honestly say that I've had a job offer for every interview like this, save for one, because the task was to debug something and they didn't like me asking where to look ("everyone else in the company died in a plane crash").

The other interview experience, the wrong one, involves the classic torture test designed to make the candidate feel stupid and do things they never have, and never will do in their job. First they will question you about obscure academic material you've never seen, or don't care to remember. Then they'll ask you to white board some ridiculous algorithm involving prime numbers or some kind of string manipulation no one would ever do. In fact, if you had to do something like this, you'd Google for a solution instead of waste time on a solved problem.

Some will tell you that the academic gauntlet interview is useful to see how people respond to pressure, how they engage in complex logic, etc. That might be true, unless of course you have someone who brushed up on the solutions to the silly puzzles, and they're playing you.

But here's the real reason why the second experience is wrong: You're evaluating for things that aren't the job. These might have been useful tactics when you had to hire people to write machine language or C++, but in a world dominated by managed code in C#, or Java, people aren't managing memory or trying to be smarter than the compilers. They're using well known design patterns and techniques to deliver software.

More to the point, these puzzle gauntlets don't evaluate things that really matter. They don't get into code design, issues of loose coupling and testability, knowledge of the basics around HTTP, or anything else that relates to building supportable and maintainable software. The first situation, involving real life problems, gives you an immediate idea of how the candidate will work out. One of my favorite experiences as an interviewee was with a guy who literally brought his work from that day and asked me how to deal with his problem. I had to demonstrate how I would design a class, make sure the unit testing coverage was solid, etc. I worked at that company for two years.

So stop looking for algorithm puzzle crunchers, because a guy who can crush a Fibonacci sequence might also be a guy who writes a class with 5,000 lines of untestable code. Fashion your interview process on ways to reveal a developer who can write supportable and maintainable code. I would even go so far as to let them use the Google. If they want to cut-and-paste code, pass on them, but if they're looking for context or straight class references, hire them, because they're going to be life-long learners.

The contractor problem

I doubt anyone has ever worked in a place where contractors weren't used. The use of contractors seems like an obvious way to control costs. You can hire someone for just as long as you need them and then let them go. You can even give them the work that no one else wants to do.

In practice, most places I've worked have retained and budgeted for the contractor year-round, meaning that the $90+ per hour they're paying (of which half goes to the person) would have been better spent on a full-time person with a $100k salary and benefits.

But it's not even the cost that is an issue. It's the quality of work delivered. The accountability of a contractor is totally transient. They only need to deliver for as long as you keep them around, and chances are they'll never again touch the code. There's no incentive for them to get things right, there's little incentive to understand your system or learn anything. At the risk of making an unfair generalization, craftsmanship doesn't matter to most contractors.

The education problem

I don't know what they teach in college CS courses. I've believed for most of my adult life that a college degree was an essential part of being successful. Of course I would hold that bias, since I did it, and have the paper to show for it in a box somewhere in the basement. My first clue that maybe this wasn't a fully qualified opinion comes from the fact that I double-majored in journalism and radio/TV, not computer science. Eventually I worked with people who skipped college entirely, many of them at Microsoft. Then I worked with people who had a masters degree who sucked at writing code, next to the high school diploma types that rock it every day. I still think there's a lot to be said for the social development of someone who has the on-campus experience, but for software developers, college might not matter.

As I mentioned before, most of us are not writing compilers, and we never will. It's actually surprising to find how many people are self-taught in the art of software development, and that should reveal some interesting truths about how we learn. The first truth is that we learn largely out of necessity. There's something that we want to achieve, so we do what I call just-in-time learning to meet those goals. We acquire knowledge when we need it.

So what about the gaps in our knowledge? That's where the most valuable education occurs, via our mentors. They're the people we work next to and the people who write blogs. They are critical to our professional development. They don't need to be an encyclopedia of jargon, but they understand the craft. Even at this stage of my career, I probably can't tell you what SOLID stands for, but you can bet that I practice the principles behind that acronym every day. That comes from experience, augmented by my peers. I'm hell bent on passing that experience to others.

Process issues

If you're a manager type and don't do much in the way of writing code these days (shame on you for not messing around at least), then your job is to isolate your tradespeople from nonsense, while bringing your business into the realm of modern software development. That doesn't mean you slap up a white board with sticky notes and start calling yourself agile, it means getting all of your stakeholders to understand that frequent delivery of quality software is the best way to deal with change and evolving expectations.

It also means that you have to play technical overlord to make sure the education and quality issues are dealt with. That's why I make the crack about sticky notes, because without the right technique being practiced among your code monkeys, you're just a guy with sticky notes. You're asking your business to accept frequent and iterative delivery, now make sure that the folks writing the code can handle the same thing. This means unit testing, the right instrumentation, integration tests, automated builds and deployments... all of the stuff that makes it easy to see when change breaks stuff.

The prognosis

I strongly believe that education is the most important part of what we do. I'm encouraged by things like The Starter League, and it's the kind of thing I'd love to see more of. I would go as far as to say I'd love to start something like this internally at an existing company.

Most of all though, I can't emphasize enough how important it is that we mentor each other and share our knowledge. If you have people on your staff who don't want to learn, fire them. Seriously, get rid of them. A few months working with someone really good, who understands the craftsmanship required to build supportable and maintainable code, will change that person forever and increase their value immeasurably.


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