Saturday, January 12, 2008

How do you pick good programmers if you’re not a programmer?

How do you recognise good programmers if you’re a business guy?

It’s not as easy as it sounds. CV experience is only of limited use here, because great programmers don’t always have the “official” experience to demonstrate that they’re great. In fact, a lot of that CV experience can be misleading. Yet there are a number of subtle cues that you can get, even from the CV, to figure out whether someone’s a great programmer.

I consider myself to be a pretty good programmer. At the same time, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the business side of the fence, filtering technical CVs for projects, interviewing people, etc. Thanks to this, I think I have a bit of experience in recognising good programmers, and I want to share it in this article, in the hope that it may help other “business guys” to recognise good programmers. And, who knows, perhaps some programmers who have the potential to be good but haven’t really exploited this can also read this and realise what they need to do to become good (although, as I’ll argue, that’s definitely not accessible to all programmers!).

In his article The 18 mistakes that kill startups, Paul Graham makes the following point:

“… what killed most of the startups in the e-commerce business back in the 90s, it was bad programmers. A lot of those companies were started by business guys who thought the way startups worked was that you had some clever idea and then hired programmers to implement it. That’s actually much harder than it sounds—almost impossibly hard in fact—because business guys can’t tell which are the good programmers. They don’t even get a shot at the best ones, because no one really good wants a job implementing the vision of a business guy.

In practice what happens is that the business guys choose people they think are good programmers (it says here on his resume that he’s a Microsoft Certified Developer) but who aren’t. Then they’re mystified to find that their startup lumbers along like a World War II bomber while their competitors scream past like jet fighters. This kind of startup is in the same position as a big company, but without the advantages.

So how do you pick good programmers if you’re not a programmer? I don’t think there’s an answer. I was about to say you’d have to find a good programmer to help you hire people. But if you can’t recognize good programmers, how would you even do that?”

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