Almost exactly 1 month ago today I found myself on a video call with Joel Spolsky. It feels insane to write that, even now, as it was a banner moment in my career. For me it was the equivalent of meeting a movie star who I had idolized since I was old enough to know what movies were. There had always been this Joel Spolsky guy throughout my career that I regularly read about and whose opinions on software development agreed with mine, and suddenly I was talking with him face to face. It was awesome.
Reaching this conversation was not the easiest thing I’ve done in my life. It took a few weeks and in all honesty it was a bit trying to find time to have so many interviews. How many interviews, you ask? Prior to Joel I talked with 5 or 6 other amazing people (Marc Gravell and Nicholas Larsen included). Somehow I managed to impress each of them enough to reach the end boss: Joel Spolsky.
The conversation lasted about an hour. It felt like 5 minutes to me, probably because of the excitement. Joel and I discussed the pros and cons of various software methodologies, mistakes each of us had made in our careers, some of the challenges of Dache (my open source software), and a few other topics. Then he said something awesome: “We’d love for you to come and work with us at Stack Exchange!” So much adrenaline hit me at this moment that I could have lifted a car with my bare hands. It was surreal.
A few days from now I officially start working with Stack Exchange. I feel very fortunate and excited for the opportunity. So far the Stack Exchange team have proven themselves an insanely skilled and professional organization that treat employees as human beings instead of expendable resources. I’m already loving the culture and interactions with my coworkers.
First and foremost, the commentary here consists of my views alone and not those of Stack Exchange or any other entity. This post is merely to reflect upon the interview process and discuss the aspects and traits of my career and knowledge which I feel helped me get the job. This is not a tell-all or any sort of shortcut or easy way out. If you want a job at Stack Exchange, you will have to endure the same technical and soft skills challenges that I did – the details of which I will NOT be disclosing. 🙂
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, here are my thoughts on how I got a job at Stack Exchange, and how you can too:
Ego Can Kill
Ego is the mind killer, so kill the ego. Most developers that I’ve met (including some prior versions of myself) have massive egos. Egos so big that the room can barely hold them. Egos that even put the illustrious Kanye West’s attitude to shame. This is natural given that we spend all day creating things from scratch (which is a god-like quality) that often generate significant revenue for companies. We start to feel very powerful and even fawned over. We learn the entirety of the software and hardware vertical of our current job’s domain, and then make a Superman-like flying leap to conclude that we know EVERYTHING about ALL software and hardware.
Thinking you know everything is the easiest way to suck as a programmer. If you believe that you know everything, you stop trying to learn new things (since you already know them, duh). So, while you’ve mastered ASP.NET MVC 3 at your current gig, 4 and 5 came out… the catch is that your company never upgraded because it’s too risky, and so you never learned them (or cared to). Now a year or two later you’re so far behind the current development stack that you can’t even see it with binoculars. And did I mention those little things called Ruby and PHP and even Java that you’ve never written a single line of? And how about MongoDB, Couchbase, Azure, EC2, and the literally thousands of other platforms and programming languages? I should hope that by now you realize that you know a little bit about a handful of languages and hardware configurations amidst a sea of thousands… By percentage, you’ve conquered maybe 0.1% of all that there is to know about development. So have I, and that’s OK.
Don’t Be A Rock Star
Don’t be a rock star developer. This is something that I did for a few years and it only hurt my career. Many companies employ a strategy of intentionally furthering the developer ego in order to make them feel valuable (often without handing out appropriate compensation). Being a rock star sounds cool, but really it’s a nasty strategy that can cultivate incredibly destructive developer attitudes. Companies seek out and hire rock stars, and rock stars have a sense of entitlement. They develop huge egos and run their mouths at meetings, interrupting and talking over others. They seem to love circular logic (they’re right because you’re wrong because they’re right). They feel that all other team members exist simply to serve their every whim… and everyone loathes working with them.
The thing is – while you may actually be a 1 in 1 million bona fide rock star developer – nobody cares. Talk is cheap and in my experience people will say nearly anything and everything to portray an image of who they want you to believe they are. If you are really good at what you do, telling people doesn’t do anything other than make them despise you… Hearing about how amazing your proprietary code is gets annoying – especially when it’s the 5th time this week you’ve said it. A good developer doesn’t need to brag about how good they are: their work speaks louder than any boastful words could. People around them will naturally do the bragging for them. Hallway conversations to the tune of “wow, he’s really smart” or “she knocked that out in hours when we thought it’d take days” will be fostered, and that isn’t a bad thing. Let people talk about you all they’d like, but maintain a sense of humility and reality. You might be the best developer on your team or even at your company, but you are still a human being and this is still a job. Nobody has been hired to serve your ego (even if their job is to serve you). Being a good developer doesn’t make you better than anyone as a person; it just makes you successful in your career. Never lose sight of the fact that thousands of other developers are great at their jobs too. What separates you from the pack is being a great developer AND modest. It is a very rare combination in my experience, and the complete package that many companies are striving to hire. So, while it’s cool that you’re the very best developer that there ever was, stop believing your own hype and telling everyone who will listen. They don’t care, and you shouldn’t either.
Can’t Know Everything
Know that you know enough to know that you don’t know enough. Know what you do know, and know what you don’t know, and never be afraid to say “I don’t know” when it’s the truth. A developer who isn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” in front of a room full of people is a rare gem. By being honest you create trust and credibility. You also foster positive relationships with your peers and company. Nobody will remember that you’ve never heard of Angular.js or Couchbase, though they’ll always appreciate that you didn’t waste their time or money by pretending that you did. You can’t trust a developer who doesn’t know what they don’t know.
The “Basics” Count
Know your data structures and algorithms. High level programming languages such as C# abstract so much away from the modern developer that many of us have no idea what’s actually happening “under the hood” when it executes. It’s cool that you can sling LINQ everywhere, but do you know the computational complexity of what you’ve done? Do you know what a hash table is and why it is useful? Could you sort a list of things efficiently? Can you think of a scenario where a stack is the best option? Note that you don’t need to memorize things like sorting algorithms (hell, I couldn’t if I tried), but a working knowledge of data structures such as trees, hash buckets, lists, queues, and stacks combined with the rudimentary knowledge of things like sorting, searching, and caching is a very valuable skillset. It’s the difference between a good programmer and a great one. Anyone can write C#, but only those who understand even the low level operations of each deliberate method call will write good, clean, efficient code. You owe yourself a fundamental understanding of how data structures like stacks and heaps work, as well as by-value vs by-reference memory addressing. These core concepts apply to ALL programming languages. Too many developers ignore the complexity of their algorithms and just call pre-made methods without understanding the implications. Educate yourself on data structures and algorithms and suddenly you’ll be ahead of the pack.
Know why your code works and why your code doesn’t work. Have you seen this image circulating on sites like Reddit?
Despite being funny, the popularity of this image pisses me off. It claims that the essence of programming is having no freaking clue why your code does or does not run. I feel that this is unacceptable. A great developer strives for the WHY in every single thing that they do, not just HOW to quick-fix it. Code doesn’t compile? WHY? Race condition across threads? WHY? In asking “why” you further your knowledge and expand your skillset with the functional, rational “how” which allows you to become a better programmer. Most great programmers don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over, though they of course make mistakes… They just make new and interesting ones!
I remember the days of slinging shoddy code and then copy-pasting lines from blogs and sites like Stack Overflow until my code seemed to work (though I wasn’t sure if or why it did). Those days are long behind me. When my code doesn’t compile, 99% of the time I immediately know how to fix the issue. When my code has a bug, I usually know exactly how to track it down and resolve it, and in doing so I often learn how to avoid it in the future. Having no idea why your code works is like being a lawyer who has no idea why their client is not guilty: fairly useless, overpaid, and an amusing spectacle at times. Make sure that you know why your code works and why it doesn’t. In my opinion this is a basic competency of being a professional developer. It’s OK to create bugs and make mistakes – it’s not OK to make the same mistakes repeatedly.
Wrapping It Up
At this point I feel that I’ve done a reasonable job of representing my skillset and core competencies. These are the things I showed to the Stack Exchange team in my interviews. I didn’t necessarily have the exact answer (or even most efficient answer) to each of their technical questions, but I was modest and never afraid to ask for help or say “I don’t know” when I got stuck. My answers involved efficient data structures and algorithms, and I was able to explain why the data structure was the best choice in solving the problem. When I created bugs I was mostly able to identify them and indicate how to fix them. In doing all of this, I demonstrated competency and confidence as a developer and fortunately ended up with my dream job.