Book Review: Smart & Gets Things Done, by Joel Spolsky

Joel Spolsky is a bit of an internet cause célèbre, the founder of Fog Creek Software and writer of joelonsoftware.com, an influential programming Web site.

The book is about technical recruiting and retention, and even though it’s a small format, under 200 page book, it covers a lot of different topics.  His focus is on hiring programmers but I think a lot of the same principles apply to hiring for systems admin/Web systems positions.  Hiring has been one of the hardest parts of being a Web systems manager, so I got a lot out of the book and tried putting it into practice.  Results detailed below!

The Book

The first chapter talks about the relative effectiveness of programmers.  We often hire programmers and pay the good ones 10% more than the bad ones.  But he has actual data, drawn from a Yale professor who repeatedly teaches the same CS class and assigns the same projects, which shows something that those of us who have been in the field for a long time know – which is that the gap in achievement between the best programmers and the worst ones is a factor of ten.  That’s right.  In a highly controlled environment, the best programmers completed projects 3-4 times faster than the average and 10x faster than the slowest ones.  (And this same relationship holds when adjusting for quality of results.)  I’ve been in IT for 15 years and I can guarantee this is true.  You can give the same programming task to a bunch of different programmers and get results from “Here, I did it last night” to “Oh, that’ll take three months.”  He goes on to note other ways in which you can get 10 mediocre programmers that cannot achieve the same “high notes” as one good programmer.  This goes to reinforce how important the programmer, as human capital, is to an organization.

Next, he delves into how you find good developers.  Unfortunately, the easy answers don’t work.  Posting on monster.com or craigslist gets lots of hits but few keeps.  Employee referrals don’t always get the best people either.  How do you find people, then?  He has three suggestions.

  1. Go to the mountain
  2. Internships
  3. Build your own community

“Go to the mountain” means to figure out where the smart people are that you want to hire, and go hang out there.  Conferences.  Organizations.  Web sites.  General job sites are zoos, you need venues that are more specifically spot on.  Want a security guy?  Post on OWASP or ISSA forums, not monster.com.

We do pretty well with internships, even enhancing that with company sponsored student sourcing/class projects and a large campus recruiting program.  He has some good sub-points however – like make your offers early.  If you liked them as an intern, offer them a full-time job at that point for when they graduate, don’t wait.  Waiting puts you into more of a competitive situation.  And interns should be paid, given great work to do, and courted for the perm job during the internship.

Building a community – he acknowledges that’s hard.  Our company has external communities but not really for IT.  For a lot of positions we should be on our our forums like fricking scavengers trying to hire people that post there.

Chapter 3 is interesting; it’s a “Field Guide to Developers.”  It seems obvious, but to get the best developers working for you, you need to be showing that you’re the kind of place they want to work.  What does the wily developer like?

First, there’s the physical workspace.  Does it look cool or awful?  You have to turn around and take a look at yourself as an outsider would.  A big monochrome cube farm, with crappy chairs and computers, and a lobby with wilting plants in it is a warning sign to developers to stay away.   Private offices with Aeron chairs and dual monitors say “no really, we do consider our people more than interchangeable parts.”  You can consider these kinds of things luxuries, but good programmers can go a hundred other places that have them.  We only bat about .500 on this, and that’s mostly due to our beautiful campus.

Side note – we had one guy interview here, who when asked what he found important about a job, replied “a comfy chair and nice monitor.”  It’s OK for that to be important to you but when it’s first thing out of your mouth in an interview, it makes you seem like you are an entitlement fan and don’t really care about your work – we passed on that guy.  Right?  Wrong?  Chime in with a comment.

Next, there’s the interpersonal environment.  Are programmers treated well in the organization, or are they typists given orders from on high?  What are their colleagues like – when they meet people during the interviews, they are always asking themselves “do I want to work with this person?”  Grumpy, bedraggled, unprepared, or distracted says “no.”  He notes at Fog Creek they started with the old Microsoft hiring maxim of “Smart, and gets things done” but soon learned that they (unlike Microsoft) needed to add a third clause, “Not a jerk.”  Does it look like they’ll be given responsibility and autonomy?  Is the environment rife with politics?  Will they be working with cool new technology, on something interesting?   Can they identify with the company or otherwise be attracted by its goals?  Even “side” goals like a wellness program or recycling drive count here.  For anyone who hasn’t noticed, this is the “me” generation.  Will I like working there, will it be happy and beneficial for me day in, day out?

He also notes another truism that too many people don’t believe, which is what programmers don’t care about – money.  (Within reason of course.)  It’s very low on the list and usually only comes up when the other factors are seen as undesirable.

“Sorting Resumes” is the topic of Chapter 4.  He acknowledges how terrible a tool the average resume and cover letter are in terms of conveying anything you really want to know about a candidate.  You can’t hire from them, you can only screen out people you clearly don’t want to hire from them.

Joel’s criteria for sorting resumes are:

  • Passion – evidence that they love programming, based on a variety of factors – into computers from an early age, extracurricular computer activities (like working on open source projects), interest in new technologies.
  • Pickiness – I call this “fit” – is the applicant looking to work for you?  Did they bother to customize the cover letter?  Remember it’s not all about whether you like them; if you extend an offer you want to have a high probability that they’ll accept.
  • English – if your communication skills are so poor that you can’t even get a resume right, when you have an infinite amount of time to craft it and get other people to proofread it, you’re trouble.
  • Brains – anything indicating they’re just flat smart.
  • Selectivity – if they went through a highly selective process in the past (getting into an Ivy League school, hired by Google) then someone else has pre-vetted them for you.
  • Hard-core – certain technologies are harder than others.  If someone’s done C++ programming, they are in general going to have more chops than someone who’s only programmed JavaScript, even if you’re looking for a JavaScript programmer.
  • Diversity – not gratuitous diversity, but you want to make sure and have different types of people on your teams.  If your team is all old fogeys (like me), hire someone right out of school so that you can benefit from a different viewpoint.

He also talks about what not to do.  He’s all about making them show some programming chops during an interview, but putting an additional hoop of a technical test into the prequalification process just loses you people who think that’s lame and they can get a good job without being your trained monkey.  He also notes it’s important not to look too much for experience with specific technologies.  The “keyword matching” school of programmer selection is awful.  A good programmer that knows 3 languages can pick up whatever language number 4 you use without any problem, whereas some goon who only knows language 4 will, after about two weeks, be less productive than the other guy forever.  Every once in a while you are specifically looking for an expert, in which case that’s fine – if you want a Java architect for the department then you do want in depth expertise in it.

Chapter 4 covers the phone screen.  He recommends starting with a phone screen, because it actually allows you to do a first cut more “fairly” without seeing the candidate.  And it’s less expensive than an in-person.  His phone interviews have three parts.  The first is the ”tell me about yourself” part.  In this he listens for signs of passion and being a problem solver, and drills down into technology and politics.  By technology, he means establishing exactly what role they played with the technologies on their resume and in their story, to find their real level of technical skill.  And by politics, he really means drive and persistence – how they handle challenges and get things done.

Next, he poses an open-ended technical question to get in tune with their thought processes.  Not looking for pseudocode as an output, but for their ability to make tradeoffs, understand subtleties, etc.  He gives examples like “How would you design a program that lets people play Monopoly with each other over the Internet?”   Something they’d be familiar with but not have implemented.  The key premise here is that smart people can tell other smart people by having an in depth discussion with them over a problem at hand.  Again, having the same problem posed to all candidates allows for quality compare/contrast.

The third and final part of his phone screens are letting the candidate interview him, to aggressively sell them on the position and also to see if they’ve done any basic research into the company, which reveals how serious they are.  Remember, it’s all about closing the deal, so whether you want them is only half of the equation ; are they seriously looking as well and do they want you.

Ernest’s Conclusion: This book is the God’s honest truth and you would do well to read it and follow it.  Sure, he has a couple specific hang-ups that can safely be ignored – how cool iPods are, how important private offices are, and that programmers should fly first class – but every core idea here is sound and proven over and over again in practice.

Let’s Use What We’ve Learned

So let’s go through his process as a test case.  I need a Web Systems engineer for my team.  The spot’s been open for a while and interviews from ni.com and monster have come up empty.  I had to fill the last two open slots on my team by using a headhunter – expensive.  So I went to Craigslist and posted this under “jobs – internet engineering”:

Web Systems Engineer Wanted For Night Out and Cuddling

It linked to a ‘straight’ job posting on our corporate site.   Too edgy you say?  Well, it got picked up and blogged about and dugg immediately; people were actively forwarding it around to their friends and emailing me about how cool it was and how cool our company must be as a result.  I could explain why this ad was good but this blogger dude explains it well, so click away.

I used craigslist because it was more expeditious than a full ‘go to the mountain” approach, but I started working on that too, figuring out for conferences I was attending if there was a good place to post help wanted where attendees could see them.  I got ten applicants, eight of which were worthy of a phone screen, within two weeks off the craigslist ad.  That’s more phone screens than I’ve ever gotten in a cycle – when I posted this same job in the fall, I got 17 Monster hits, none of which were screenable, and one screenable off a dozen submissions on our corporate site – my other 2 screens were personal referrals.  None passed and one withdrew.  That made my previous ratio of resumes to phone screens to interviews to offers to accepts 30:3:0:0:0.  Which sucks, in case you’re not good at math.

Then I conducted phone screens, using the format Spolsky preferred, with one generic problem question that’s not as vague as a brain teaser and not as specific as “code or command X.”  I thought for a while about the question and asked my team for ideas.  Spolsky’s ideas for questions were more programmer-focused and I wanted one that would tap the systems side more.  My “script” is as follows.

  1. “Tell me about yourself”
    1. Listen: Passion – ask about exciting trends
    2. Listen: Problem solver
    3. Delve: Technology – get deep about what they do hands on
    4. Delve: Drive – ask about stuff they personally spearheaded
  2. Technical Question:  How would you implement an infrastructure to support an iTunes-like media sales and download site?
    1. Sub-question – “When someone calls and says ‘the site is down’ where do you go from there?”
    2. Sub-question – What, given your experience, will probably be the top 3 problems that come up post go live?
  3. Their Questions
    1. Listen: Preparation
    2. Sell them!  Company, Austin, the team.

After each phone screen I felt that I had a really good idea of their expertise.  The technical question helped – and it’s not a “sit back and let them answer” kind of thing, you conduct it as if the two of you were planning this system together (or more on point, that they’re an employee of yours proposing this design for a system and you’re making sure they know what’s up).

To make a long story short, we got some really good candidates and hires from that round of recruiting.  We got one superstar who was moving back to the States from Germany, but sadly lost him to a competitive offer from a local startup.  Alas.  But on the whole, I think the advice in Joel’s book made our recruiting more successful.  It was also helpful justification for the approach – when someone was like “Oh that job post is too freaky” or “You should ask them 100 lame multiple choice questions about what kind of a tree they would be instead of the iTunes thing” I could hand them the book and say “this isn’t just me being freaky, it’s a best practices tech hiring approach.  Simmer down.”

2 Comments

Filed under General

2 responses to “Book Review: Smart & Gets Things Done, by Joel Spolsky

  1. RC

    Great summary of the book Ernest. It was a great reminder of some of those core skills necessary in landing top talents.

    Thanks especially for the “case study” and sharing your results with the world.

  2. Sure, thanks. I’m not bitter that we lost the superstar to YOUUUUUU!!!!!!!! 🙂

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