Bob on Development

December 22, 2006

Playing a Game of Twenty Questions

Filed under: Managment — Bob Grommes @ 1:56 pm

In recent years it’s become fashionable to attempt to quantify the technical competence of developers using systems like exams (certification exams, basic competence exams, and so forth), gang interviewing techniques, and other formulaic methods. I ran across yet another list of interview questions today, and while it’s not a bad list by any means (and the author’s disclaimer that it’s more food for thought than an ironclad litmus test is also excellent), it does make me wonder if there isn’t a better system than this.

Most interviewers seem either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that development has become a vast ocean of ever-churning platforms, components, libraries, add-ons, fashions and fancies. As such, it is virtually impossible for anyone to have an in-depth knowledge of every nook and cranny of even a single language much less a single platform.

So when someone wants to know what ports need to be open over a firewall for DCOM or to regurgitate, say, a variable locking pattern for thread-safe access, my reaction is, “I don’t know, and you shouldn’t care”. In the work I happen to do from day to day, I very seldom need those things, so I don’t clutter my brain with them. If I need them, I can Google them up in about 20 seconds and woof out a proof of concept in a few minutes.

What’s core to a good developer’s ability is not how many rote facts he can parrot on demand, but his analysis and problem-solving skills. Any developer thus equipped can suss out most any unfamiliar territory in very short order.

Yes, if your shop does a lot of work with, say, DCOM, then it’s a nice plus if a prospective new developer has deep experience with the technology. At the very least you ought to establish that the developer doesn’t fear it and has done work of similar difficulty and character before. But I would much rather have a developer with analytical common sense and seasoned general experience who doesn’t know much about DCOM beyond what the acronym stands for, than some wet behind the ears kid who happens to have cramed for the “exam” and knows some disconnected facts about it.

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