Lessons of Failure
Humans + Software Development = Always Interesting

TAG | hiring



Why You Can’t Trust Recruiters

The recruiter's glorious promise...Have you ever tried going through a recruiter to get hired?  Or even worse, have you had to use one to hire other people?  If you did, you’ve been subject to what I call the Lack-Of-Value Middleman*.

Before you write this off as being too harsh on recruiters in general, consider the following math problem about buying real estate.

Suppose you’re trying to sell your house and you hire a real estate agent to broker the transaction.  They tell you they’ll take 3% of the transaction for their efforts and you agree.  After a grueling inspection, the agent tells you your house is worth $100,000 in this market climate.  The agent suggests pricing the house right at the suggested market value for a quick sale.  You, of course, would prefer to price the house at $115,000, because after all, you did that neat stereo upgrade in the basement, your hardwood floors are hand-installed cherry, and your flower garden is the envy of the neighborhood.  And you’d like a little price negotiating room so you can actually get the “market value” out of it, right?

So let’s consider three scenarios, your profit and the relative commission generated for the real estate agent.  For the sake of argument, let’s say you bought the house for $10,000 so we can factor net profit into the (highly oversimplified**) equation.

Scenario 1:  Sell at the Agent’s price

  • Sale Price:  $100,000
  • Agent commission:  $3,000
  • Your Profit:  $87,000 ($100K – $10K -$3K)

Scenario 2:  Sell at your price, minus negotiation

  • Sale Price:  $110,000 (after a $5K negotiation with the buyer)
  • Agent commission:  $3,300
  • Your profit:  $96,700 ($110K – $10K – $3.3K)

Scenario 3:  Price is too high for market

  • Sale Price:  $0
  • Agent commission:  $0
  • Your profit:  $-10,000

The difference between these three scenarios highlights why real estate agents aren’t motivated to get you the best price, but only to sell your house at any price.  If the agent pushes the house out at a “highly desirable price”, they get $3,000.  If they push it at a less desirable price and it never sells, they get $0.  If they push it at a slightly higher price, they get a measly $300 more than if they just got rid of it at a lower price, at the same amount of work.  But your profit margin is HUGELY different, depending on the outcome.

This, my friends, is why you can’t trust real estate agents or recruiters.  Because recruiters are under exactly the same set of motivations as real estate agents, but with far less to add into the deal.

Recruiters never quit...A recruiter’s main job is to put you in front of any employer who will hire you.  Not necessarily the best employer.  Or the best company.  Or even the right job.  Any job will do, as long as the recruiter gets paid.

Your salary negotiation with a recruiter follows the same path as the house pricing scenario–the recruiter wants to make the deal happen at a reasonable price, but without upsetting the potential employer (scenario 3 is bad for everyone, so the recruiter will claim to be “on your side”).  The reality is that anything that seals a deal between you and the employer is “good enough” for the recruiter. But good enough for the recruiter may be not be the best deal for you.  This is why you can’t trust recruiters.

A good real estate agent can actually add some value to the house-buying transaction.  They can suggest ways to help you dress up a house to get the best deal, negotiate tricky points of a contract when issues arise, and generally smooth the transaction over when things get rough.  Bad real estate agents merely shove your house on the market to get it sold and ignore you (I’ve had both).

Recruiters–good or bad, on the other hand, rarely offer more value than the introduction itself.  They play buzzword bingo with your resumes and the employers job description in an attempt to pawn you off quickly.  They will almost never suggest any way to write your resume more “attractively” and will offer few, if any, tips for interviewing.

As a hiring manager, I can’t tell you how much sewage in the form of badly matched resumes crossed my desk (and continue to do so).  As a contractor, I can’t name a single instance of a contract I ever got through a recruiter.  Not for lack of trying, because they hound me and most of my developer friends via LinkedIn contact information or our marketing websites.

My message to recruiters is simple:  The Dot Com days are long gone, so why are you still using the same tired tactics?  Shoving resumes under people’s noses after playing buzzword bingo isn’t working and no one likes it.  Why don’t you try to add some real value to the transaction?  The hiring managers and contractors of the world are not buying it anymore.


* In all fairness, I get harassed by as many female recruiters as I do male.  But Middleperson sounds like someone who might sell to Hobbits.

** If you’ve ever bought a house, you know my model is gratuitously oversimplified, but it serves as a reasonable example, even if it doesn’t take into account all the useless fees charged by the bank, the agents, and everyone in between.

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Hiring Ren and Stimpy

Since we’re on the topic of hiring and interviewing, let me regale you with a story about two developers.  This is an entirely fictional tale, but drawn from real-world observation and experience over 17 years of employment.

Suppose you had two new junior developers at your company:  Ren and Stimpy.  Both have similar backgrounds, education and experience.  Both passed the interview process and were inducted into your team.  Both are bright, ambitious and self-starting.  Any resemblance to the long-running popular cartoon is purely coincidental.  Stay on target, Red Five.

Your New Star Developers: Ren & Stimpy

Ren started out on the first day setting up his computer, checking out the code and understanding what his first assignment was.  Within a week, he mastered it and went to his managers for more work.  After a few more assignments, he started to get bored and whine about how menial his tasks were, even though he was a junior developer.  He started to sulk to his manager about how he could “do so much more” than just writing unit tests for some “barely used modules.”

Ren would often interrupt have impromptu meetings with other senior developers and managers hoping to get more interesting and challenging tasks.  Often times, he’d get more of the same kind of work from them.  Instead of taking lunch and wasting valuable time, he would often work through lunch and stay late to get these tasks done.

Stimpy started much the same way.  He setup his machine, checked out the code and worked on his first assignments.  He too, asked for more work when it was finished, but he started recognizing a pattern to the work he was given.  The billing system testing he was doing involved some similar functions and classes that could easily be scripted.  He worked on this side project and then let his manager know that all future tests were now written.  This made the manager’s job even easier, since the senior developers could now use this script to auto-test things as they came out with new requirements and designs without further delay.  He spent his lunch hours socializing with members from other teams to get to know them better.

Stimpy also started looking around at other things going on with the team.  He found the SVN repository was a complete mess.  He started asking other developers how it ended up that way and got a broad perspective on how the company organized code over time.  He spent extra hours creating a new repository that completely reorganized the code in the current taxonomy which made everyone’s lives better.

Stimpy noticed that the company’s development document files were just sitting around on a shared directory.  He decided to create a wiki (after first talking with the network admins to see if one already existed, and finding the ideal machine on which to install it) and upload all the docs by project.  He published this to his manager, who in turn shared it for the very first time with Marketing and Sales, so they could see the progress on engineering projects.

Stimpy was asked to sit in on several design meetings to get his input because he was able to grasp the historical significance of past development based on his repository migration (with the benefit of hindsight, he had a unique perspective that even the original developers lacked), so they wanted to know what could be salvaged from old projects and what needed to be rewritten.  Ren was still working on his unit tests and complaining to his manager about it.

It’s pretty obvious which of these developers is going to make a positive, lasting contribution to the team and which might be more of a drag on productivity.  Five things really separate these two individuals:

  1. Understanding how things work in an organization. Stimpy took it upon himself to learn about the “other infrastructure” besides his tiny module of code.  He got the bigger picture, which made it easier to understand the importance of little things and which things are more critical than others.
  2. Knowing the roles of others and how/why they do their jobs. By interacting with others (like the network admin and the other developers outside of his immediate scope), Stimpy understood how all the parts fit together to make a unified machine.  And he saw where things in that machine needed maintenance.
  3. Finding where gaps exist, and taking the initiative to fix them. How many times have you heard, “Well, we don’t have time to do that right now.”  (Sounds a little like Habit 5:  Fix It Later, don’t you think?) Doesn’t matter what the question is, you’ll get that answer a lot from most people in any company.  If you’re the one person that is willing to do extra stuff (with a smile, of course) and still gets your own job done, you’ve already risen above the pack.
  4. Have no fear of repetitive, monotonous, or boring “dirty work”-be willing to get it done. Of course no one likes this kind of work.  It would be called something different if that were the case.  But honestly, what do you remember more vividly?  The guy who fixes the annoying SVN problems the entire team suffered with for 3 months, or the guy that created an awesome rainbow table for his code from scratch in a weekend?
  5. Stepping up and taking responsibility for things outside of your job description. Arguably, they both did this, but Ren was looking for the sexy, resume-filling work, where Stimpy was just getting things done, no matter what they were.  Never did he say, “It’s not my responsibility…”  If you want to get ahead, actively find things outside of your job description that you can do and that would have a beneficial impact on the company and do them.  Don’t whine about not being challenged by your managers (or teachers).  There’s only one person in control of your life:  youDon’t give that power up, ever.

No matter whether you’re starting your first job, or your 10th, always ask yourself:  What kind of  developer do I want to be? Ren or Stimpy?  And if you can sing the Happy Happy Joy Joy song to the delight of your team, so much the better.

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With the Holiday Dead Zone coming to an end and the global economy picking up, I’d like to talk a little about interviewing software developers since hiring season is now upon us.  Ever been to an interview where they ask some whopper like this?

“Can you ever write code in C++ where you say “delete this;“?”**

Or maybe one of these doozies from “Google’s Interview Questions to Make You Feel Stupid” (which, BTW, aren’t all from Google…but from Microsoft as well)

  • How many piano tuners are there in the world?
  • How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
  • Why are manhole covers round?
  • How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?

I’ll be the first to admit that I went straight for this Stump-the-Chump mentality.  Along with the goofy questions above, developer interview articles abound with the kind of information you can ask about language trivia even the very authors of the language would probably be hard pressed to recall under pressure.


Uh, why are manhole covers round?

If you’ve never been subjected to such a grueling event, I commend you.  You must know some really awesome people to get past those kind of interviews.  But most developers know what I mean.  The kind of interview where someone just throws out obscure or impossible questions one at a time until the candidate softly whimpers for mercy, turns into a puddle of tears, and runs screaming out of the door.  Preferably with brown stains in their pants.

I started out as that kind of manager and interviewer.  My favorite question was the Microsoft classic of the Four People, a flashlight and a Bridge question, except I used a variant where the four Beatles were stuck at Red Rocks Amphitheater here in Colorado.  Inevitably, I asked that question to everyone I interviewed…project managers, developers, QA–I may have even tossed it out to a marketing guy once.  My reputation at that company was “bastard interviewer” (a direct quote from my friends, and not altogether undeserved).  Anyone who survived the ordeal always had a great collective story with a lot of the other employees to share at happy hour.  My interview tactics actually influenced other managers at the company to ask easier questions because they felt sorry for the candidates having been through “my interview”.

Years later, I realize not only how mean that was, it was also useless. Of the mix of people I interviewed back then, we hired great developers, mediocre developers and a couple bad apples.  These questions are supposed to be some sort of impeccable bozo filter–yet they all passed it.  Our team was not filled with little Bill Gateses and Linus Torvaldses.  While we were productive, we also didn’t launch our product either, so what went wrong?

When you attack someone’s encyclopedia of knowledge, these kind of questions barely touch on the darkest corners of experience if you’re lucky.  It’s somewhat like the SAT admission test here in the US for college admission.  But like the SAT fails to capture real knowledge and performance potential at a university level, the interview questions we use today are equally inept.

What you really want to know apriori is how this person will work on your team–do they share credit, steal it, or hide until the project ends?  You’d like to know what kind of code they write–is it atrocious, beautiful, disorganized, or anal-retentive?  You’d like to know how the interact with people–are they sociopaths, leeches, primadonnas or Mother Teresa?  You want to know if they’re Smart and Get Things Done, to quote Joel Spolsky.  Checking whether they know esoterica about C++ isn’t helpful when they’ll spend 90% of their time on Java.  Or hammering someone about parameters and exceptions to methods for a particular framework (Seriously, I saw this on several blogs asking people detailed questions about methods in Spring or Hibernate) when the answer is one Google search away.  All of this kind of interviewing is useless.

Now that we’re at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I’d like to boldly propose that we do away with Stump-the-Chump interviewing.  Instead, why don’t we try this, adapted from this post about entrepreneurs where a VC has specific criteria for successful entrepreneurs:

  • Tenacity:  Is this the kind of developer who has really been through the ringer of a hard problem and crawled out of the sewer pipe with the answer raised in his or her hand, triumphant?  Or do they sit back and wait for others to answer questions for them?
  • Street Smarts:  No, I don’t mean do they know how to make a shiv out of the plastic pepper shaker in the break rooms.  I mean, do they know the rules and when to break them?  Are they creative in their solutions, or more conventional and straight forward?
  • Ability to Pivot:  Is this person going to whine or moan when the project suddenly needs to change direction and rewrite in Ruby?  Or do they take things in stride, take your instructions and start grabbing links for the entire team to bone up on the finer points of Rails, Grails and JRuby too?
  • Resiliency:  When the project reaches a point of just grinding out some mindless junk, are they the kind that complains about it or someone that finds ways to get past that with scripts they share or tricks from another job?  If things head south on the design meeting, do they bash the marketing team for the changes, or just take a deep breath and sink their teeth into getting past this setback?
  • Inspiration:  Does this developer constantly strive for new information?  Do they like to share blogs or resources that get them excited about their job?  Are they the kind of person who finds a new way to write a framework and creates a proof of concept just to show how interesting it might be for the next revision?

I’m not going to tell you which questions to ask, because really, that’s no different than another stump-the-chump session using my blog as the source.  Use their resume, ask leading, open-ended questions that get the person to tell you about their previous projects.  Listen to what they have to say, probe deeper into it, get a feeling for their experience.  Get past the bullshit, because we all know there’s a whole lot of training that we go through to “pass the interview”.  Call their references and get references from their references, because those people will actually give you honest answers about this person.  Find someone you know that worked with them.  Ask them if they’d work on the same team with them again.  Really, that’s the one question you need to ask.

And those are the kind of answers we’re looking for anyhow.

* UPDATE:  A great site popped up that allows you to perform remote coding interviews to help weed out the wheat from the chaff:  Try See[Mike]Code. They write, you watch. Live. Get some feedback before you even start the interviewing process.

* UPDATE (part 2):  An article from Monster.com about Google’s ineffective hiring practices.

**Incidentally, for those uninterested or unwilling to look it up, the answer is yes, you can.  And there are some valid reasons to do so, but the question definitely shows just how much or how little you understand the underlying memory model and code execution of C++.  But I still think it sucks as an interview question for C++ developers.

*** Nothing new under the sun:  If you liked this post, try this gem from 2007 that mentions many of the same points but in a different way.  I found it AFTER I wrote this.  🙂

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