Category Archives: Software Career

2014 Developer Learning Guide: Part 2

In Part 1 of this sequence of blog posts, we covered online and print learning. Part 3 is now available as well. This time we will review some of the in-person options for learning and focus in on smaller groups. But first…

An Elaboration On “The Best”

I suggested in 2014 Developer Learning Guide: Part 1 that A-players, top developers, etc. only want to work for companies that have a great learning culture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they already ARE working for these companies. The point is that, given the choice, the best developers know the value of learning and want to be part of groups where everyone is actively engaged in it. If you are already working for a company like this, I congratulate you on your outstanding choice!

The most common argument I’ve heard for choosing or sticking with a company with poor learning policies/funding: “If a company pays well enough, I can afford my own learning/training.”

Money Vortex
Don’t get caught in a money vortex that leads to stagnation.

This is true. The fallacy is that all of the developers will use their “extra money” for this purpose. We all have obligations and sometimes paying off that credit card or taking a family trip might take priority over paying for our own training. When the employer provides budget and opportunity specifically for training, the entire team is far more likely to take advantage of it. This leads to the entire team learning and growing together. You avoid the situation where stragglers are content to stagnate and contribute a steadily degrading quality of work (and contribute steadily degrading quality of feedback on teammates’ work).

TL;DR I stand by my original statement with a few caveats.

This is not to say that everyone should try to learn in the same ways. Some people don’t take much away from certain types of training and learning opportunities. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, in fact, it is the purpose of these posts to provide a comprehensive list of the options that are out there! My hope is that you won’t focus on only one type of training. A rich selection of options awaits. I encourage you to try many and find out which work best for you.

In-Person (Smaller Groups)

Book Clubs

Start or join a book club/group/discussion. If you don’t like the word “club” find something different. Oprah won’t mind… why do you even care what she thinks? oprahAndDubmun Hopefully your company is willing  to sponsor a  book group with lunch provided and books paid. This is a minimal expense and provides a great return on investment. Reading books alone often isn’t enough. Having discussions with peers (who will definitely have takeaways you didn’t consider) is a great way to help maximize learning. In addition, adding coding exercises that pertain to the book topic occasionally really helps to cement the knowledge. More on that later…

One thing I’d like to call out here: if your group is larger than six people, consider breaking out into smaller groups for the majority of your discussion time. This is a neat trick I picked up from Mike Clement at Utah Software Craftsmanship meetups. Large groups tend to lend themselves a couple of antipatterns:

  • At best some participants may not participate because the more dominant voices in the room are taking up too much time.
  • At worst, you may have people napping in the back.

We implemented the breakout approach at my current company with great success. We get back together for an overall discussion for 10-15 minutes at the end of the hour and cover the points each group thought were most important.

Selecting the right kind of book is a very important concern here. Voting as a group is a nice way to get an idea of what people are interested in. Always be sure to select titles that will be good for discussion. Code cookbooks are an outstanding example of what not to read. I tend to prefer books grounded in theory, patterns, practices more than how-to books on specific technologies. If you aren’t sure where to start or don’t have money for books initially, there is a lot of great free material for discussions available online. Many blog post make for excellent discussions (hint, wink, nudge).

Presentations/User Groups/Meetups/Open Space

This section is a little more broad. Intentionally. There is an entire class of in-person interactions that can be extremely valuable learning tools. Many are existing groups and some you’ll have to go out of your way to create.

IPresentToYouTheOceanPresentations – The most formal entry of the section. Presentations are sometimes more valuable for the presenter than they are for the people watching. Nothing cements knowledge in your brain like stressing over sharing it with 5 to 500 other people all at once (for me anyway).

What you will take away from attending a presentation depends on your own personal learning style, the effectiveness of the presenter, and how much attention you actually pay to the presentation. I get nuggets from attending presentations but in general they have moderate value for me. So, “Present, present, present!” becomes my mantra.

“But where can I present?” you ask? The opportunities are out there. Present at work, user groups/meetups, coding dojos, code camps, large conferences, or just record yourself and post it online. Not sure how to get started? Go and watch someone present and ask them how they did it. This is also a topic I may write more on in the future.

User Groups/Meetups – Unfortunately I missed a great one of these (Utah Software Craftsmanship) last night because of pressing matters elsewhere. These groups are somewhat hit and miss, but if you find a few that are a good cultural fit and really match your interests they can be fantastic. User groups/meetups are a great place to learn, practice presentation skills, mingle with fellow techies, and often get free food.

Meetup LogoIf there isn’t a local user group that fits your interests, start your own. The most difficult part is securing a venue but local colleges and businesses are often willing to host your group. In addition, larger groups will attract sponsors who may provide swag for giveaways and/or food.

The best current place to look for a public group (or start one) is on Meetup.com.

Open Space Technology – I’ve only participated in one open space-style of meeting/collaboration unfortunately. It was at an Agile Roots conference back in 2009 and had a fairly profound impact on me. If you have the opportunity to attend an open space, I highly recommend it.

For more info check out OST on Wikipedia.

Coding Exercises/Katas

Coding exercises are a general term for writing code following a format lead by a presenter. There are many different subsets of exercises including design, gamified, and code katas. All of these have value, but I’m going to focus on the latter.

If you aren’t familiar with the term code kata, here is what Wikipedia says:  “code kata is an exercise in programming which helps a programmer hone their skills through practice and repetition.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kata_(programming). I like to compare it to a martial arts kata where we work to develop the equivalent of “muscle memory” for certain coding techniques. Kata Coding dojos are specialized meetups of people who perform code katas as a group. Participating in a coding dojo is something I look forward to every week. I always learn something new and almost always have the opportunity to help others do the same.

I have a future blog post queued up about my experience with starting a coding dojo at HealthEquity over the past year.

Part 3

It turns out I have too much to say for a 2 part post. In the third and final part of this post I will cover more in-person options for learning. It focuses on larger groups and formal training. Find it here: Part 3.

Also, be sure to check out Part 1 if you missed it.

I’d love to see your thoughts and comments below or to @dubmun on Twitter.

So You Think You Want To Write Code?

Intro

I had the opportunity to present a couple of sessions at the inaugural Dev Fest Fam conference today.

I’ll predict your next question: “Is this what has been keeping you from posting  the sequel to 2014 Developer Learning Guide Part 1?” The honest answer is no. I’ve been busy, it’s true, but I want the next installment of this post to be very good so I’ve been particular about publishing it until it is 100% ready.

#DevFestFam

http://devfestfam.com/#sessions

This conference is a fantastic idea! It was put on by a couple of local Google User Groups and hosted at Utah Valley University. For a first time conference, it was great and I have the feeling it will only get better. The beauty of it, was that coders/programmers/developers/engineers were to bring not only their spouse or significant other, but also their kids.

I took 3 of my own and they LOVED IT. My 10-year-old daughter coded all night long until it was time for her to go to bed after we came home! So cool!

My first session, “So You Think You Want To Write Code?” was a big hit and well attended:

session attendance
Almost a full house!

 

The second was at the end of the day and was titled: “Websites for Smarties”. It was a beginners hands-on-session teaching the basics of HTML. I used w3schools and Google Sites  as resources for teaching. I won’t post more on that here.

So You Think You Want To Write Code? Resources

The slides from my session “So You Think You Want to Write Code?” at Dev Fest Fam 2014 for kids age 8 and up.

 

The videos played:

 

I also handed out a flyer with the following information.

Online Resources
Code.org – code.org
Codecademy – codecademy.com
Pluralsight: Free Courses for Kids – http://www.pluralsight.com/training/Kids
Kids Ruby – kidsruby.com

Languages/Platforms
Scratch – scratch.mit.edu
Hopscotch – gethopscotch.com
Alice – alice.org

Other
BOOK: Snake Wrangling for Kids – http://briggs.net.nz/snake-wrangling-for-kids.html
GAME: Hakitzu Elite: Robot Hackers – Google Play and iTunes
MORE RESOURCES: http://happynerds.net/

Interview/Hire Great Devs: Part 1

Hiring great technical people starts and ends with making a great impression on the best people. This means you have to get the best people in the door.  Once you have hired some of “the best”, your team will attract more of the same but starting out can be difficult. This post focuses on what to do once you’ve attracted their initial interest. I’m specifically covering interviewing and hiring awesome developers, but much of this is applicable across technical disciplines and other skilled positions.

Initial Phase: Resume/Profile Screening

Know What You Are Looking For

NYSpyglassStart the process by knowing what kind of great technical people you are looking for. Are you looking for great young talent that is unafraid of making mistakes? Or tried and tested people who account for exceptions before they arise? Are you looking for teachers or learners (or both)? Do they need certain specific skills or only the great desire and ability to learn, grow, and improve? What is the near, mid, and long term composition of your team?

Many questions should be asked and those questions don’t always have a clear answer. Do you need a consultant or full-time hire to help determine what you are looking for?

Be able to narrow your search quickly based on your must-have criteria and let the rest be discussion points during later phases of the hiring process. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes per resume, LinkedIn profile, or StackOverflow Careers profile weeding out the “No Call” people. It should be obvious because you already know what you are looking for.

I recommend creating two Top 5 lists to assist with knowing what you are looking for. The number of items on the list isn’t the focus. Use 3 or 7 or whatever suits you. It’s the exercise that is important. Write down 5 must-have attributes and 5 must-not-have attributes. Use these lists during initial screening. Pass on anyone with less than 4 must haves or more that 1 must-not-have.

Second Phase: Phone/Online

Personality First

Phone screen or Skype/Hangout for personality and team fit first. I prefer to see people face to face but this isn’t always possible. If you are starting a new team, this phase is even more important. The person you are screening should be someone you can see yourself having an interesting conversation with over lunch. You will be spending a lot of time together building a team. Getting along well is vitally important.

Split PersonalityThe personality screen doesn’t need to be long. Maybe 15-30 minutes. If it goes well, move on to the next phase without hesitation. If is doesn’t, this is the end of the road for this candidate regardless of their other credentials. This may seem extreme or harsh but honestly it saves your time and effort as well as the candidate’s.

On the flip side of this is the importance of representing the culture and personality of your group as accurately as possible. Talk about your goals and aspirations as a team and as a company. This gives the candidate an opportunity to self-select out of the hiring process as well. You don’t want to hire people who won’t be happy in your environment. Honesty is definitely the best policy.

If you are looking for a leader (or emerging leader) this is also the time to make a early assessment of the candidate’s ability to fill this role. Confidence and charisma matter more here that they might otherwise.

The Learning/Knowing Equation

A technical (and partly cultural) phone/online screen of the people you think might be a good personality fit is the logical next step. The interview should be performed by a trusted technical member of your team. This phase is going to go back to the first section because you must know what you are looking for. Rank candidates based on that knowledge.

That said, don’t hold out for a “unicorn”. For our purposes, a unicorn is a developer who knows your tech stack inside-out, knows your business, and knows what you need to do to solve all your current and future problems. I believe unicorns can be developed if you hire people with the right potential, but they cannot be found and hired. At some point the mask comes off.

unicornDeveloper

With this in mind, your focus should be on the candidate’s ability to learn and on gauging what they already know and their ability to teach it. These traits are and probably always will be vital for a technology employee. Of course you’d like someone with experience in some of your technology. The point here is not to miss out on someone who is a fantastic learner/teacher and doesn’t check all of the other boxes on your checklist.

teaching LearningI describe this second screening as partly cultural for a reason. Your interviewer should be verifying that the candidate not only can learn and adapt quickly, but also if they enjoy learning and adapting quickly. When going through the things they do know, the interviewer should look for something they are personally less familiar with. They then can encourage the candidate to teach it to them.  Remember to discover if the candidate is not only capable of teaching but also if they enjoy it. The collaboration component is important.

There are great tools to help with this phase. A good screen-sharing app like GoToMeeting, Skype, or Screen Hero is the best way to do some quick pairing on a simple problem. The problem should be something the candidate may not be wholly familiar with so that their capability of dealing with the unknown can be assessed. That said, this should still be fairly short and sweet. 30-45 minutes tops.

If it seems like this is a good possible fit, personally invite the candidate to visit your facility. If you don’t have a facility, invite them to lunch. If you are looking at remote or relocation hires and the position is permanent, you should arrange transportation/lodging. Under no circumstances should you ever make an offer at this point in the process.

The candidate should have a clear and concise understanding of the next steps at this point. If you are unsure if you should move on to in-person contact, the answer is no.

Part 2 Coming Soon

I will cover the particulars of the types of things you should be doing to “Hire Awesome” in the in person interviews. No specific date, but stay tuned. In the meantime, I’d love to see your thoughts and comments here or on Twitter.

2014 Developer Learning Guide: Part 1

Background

This is part 1 of a now complete series of blog posts. Be sure to read 2014 Developer Learning Guide Part 2 and Part 3.

I originally wrote on the subject of developer training in 2010. It was with the idea that I would convince management of the importance of training technical employees. I wrote an internal document for my boss and we implemented a couple of the ideas. My boss was understanding although his boss was less so and that limited some of our options. One year (and one move to Texas) later and I was back in the same boat; I was handing a document off to my boss and trying to convince him of its validity and importance. We eventually started some great traditions at that company and I ended up publishing my Guide To Developer Training For Managers on my blog around the same time. As I started looking into moving back to Utah in late 2012, I was despairing that I would forever have to sell leadership on the value of developer training every time I came to a new company… can you say facepalm?

facepalm

It occurred to me that I might be taking the wrong approach. As I ramped-up  on interviews I noticed that a couple of companies stood out because they already had begun to establish a culture of learning. I’m happy to say that I chose one of those companies and today I enjoy a work environment where leadership not only “gets it” but is an active promoter of learning and training. Ideas that are brought up to improve training are not only appreciated but are also seriously considered. And I don’t even have to write a long and windy proposal first.

What a difference!

I’m still going to talk briefly about a few of the reasons developer and technology employee learning is important. Convincing managers will no longer be the major focus of the article. As you may have noted from the updated title, I’m refocusing to list learning options that are possible, valuable, and current. I’ll also post an updated list each year.

Importance

The anecdote I’ve heard several time goes like this:

Decision Maker 1: What will happen to our company if we train our technology employees and they leave to find better jobs elsewhere?
Decision Maker 2: What will happen to our company if we do not train our technology employees and they stay?

Two varying points of view obviously.

On a team where learning is not important, developers tend to stagnate or move on. Will the best talent stay in an environment like this? I’ll spare you the A, B, and C-Player talk. It should be sufficient to say that a lack of learning isn’t healthy for development culture.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the developer to seek learning and the best developers know this. Are the best developers going to be working for companies without a great learning culture? That scenario seems unlikely to me.

Learning Options

What if I told you that a classroom isn't always the best learning environment?
Developer training doesn’t necessarily begin or end in the classroom.

There is a wide spectrum of cost among differing methods of learning. A good mix assures plenty of coverage without completely breaking the bank.

This list is meant to be only as inclusive as I could make it given my current knowledge. Please leave a comment or contact me if you know of options I’ve missed.

Online/Print

Videos

This is usually one of the best places to look for technology-specific and implementation-specific training. There are multiple options and they are growing all the time.

Free – YouTube, Vimeo, Egghead.io, Channel9, etc.
The quality of free videos varies. The only advice I can give, is to avoid wasting time with something that doesn’t seem valuable pretty quickly.

Subscription – Pluralsight, Wintellect Now, Lynda.com
Subscription-based video training tends to be pretty well curated by the company selling the subscriptions. They rely on ongoing subscriptions for revenue so new high quality content is constantly being released (or the model is not successful). Pluralsight (http://pluralsite.com/) in particular has an enormous and constantly updated library… and no, we aren’t affiliated. Pluralsight has purchased several of the smaller players to help build out their library over the past couple of years. Subscription may cost as much as $499 per year, and is a good return on investment if you learn well this way.

Purchase – Udemy, Cleancoders.com, etc.
These tend to also be of higher quality than the free options in my experience. There are some great sources out there… but you may have to hunt for them. Word of mouth has been valuable to me here.

Social Media/Blogs/Podcasts

If you enjoy this blog, follow me on Twitter.
If you enjoy the blog, follow @dubmun on Twitter.

There are a wide variety of options here. Find people who talk about things you are interested in and subscribe to their blogs or follow them on Twitter/Google+. In my experience, many of the thought leaders in the developer community are on Twitter. This has the added benefit of allowing interactions if you have a question about someone’s latest tweet or blog post.

Podcasts can also be very, very good as long as they aren’t too sales/technology focused. Choose wisely. I find them particularly useful for long commutes. HerdingCode (http://herdingcode.com/), Ruby Rogues (http://rubyrogues.com/), and Writing Excuses (my SF/Fantasy writing guilty pleasure) are among my personal favorites. A good podcast app is a must as well… downloading all the episodes manually can get tedious.

This is where the cutting edge lives and breathes. If you want to know what is really happening you should be reading and hopefully contributing to this kind of content.

Open Source Repositories

This is the section for Github, Codeplex, Google Code, and Sourceforge. Github is definitely the current leader and you can find awesome and interesting code in any of these repositories.

Looking at how other people code is a great resource for learning. Additionally, submitting a pull request to an open source project can be the fast track to learning (albeit a potentially humbling one). Humility is a good thing, it lets us know where we can improve.

Books

I’ve heard a lot of varying opinions on books as a training resource. Yes, technology-specific books are often outdated before they are printed. I generally avoid the latest C#, Java, Clojure, Javascript, etc. books (with a few exceptions). The flip side of this is… if you do choose to read tech-specific books, be sure to get the latest version.

What a library!
Some options here…

My thought is that when you are really looking to deepen your knowledge on something specific, books are a great resource.

There are also many classics that are as close to timeless as you can get in this industry. I highly recommend books like The Pragmatic Programmer, Clean Code, The Art of Unit Testing, Design Patterns, and Domain Driven Design as examples of excellent resources for learning practices and patterns or as reference material.

Books are available in several formats as well: hard-copy, ebook, and subscription.

Hard-copy and ebooks are basically just a matter of preference. I find that I like having a hard copy of books I might lend to others, but nothing beats the convenience of an ebook that you can read on multiple devices. When I have the option, I get both.

Subscription to a service that provides ebooks can be really handy as well. Particularly if you find yourself reading a lot of technology-specific books. Safari Books (http://www.safaribooksonline.com) offers hundreds of titles on technical subjects for $199 or $460 annually.

Remember…

…to read 2014 Developer Learning Guide Part 2 and Part 3.

I’d love to see your thoughts and comments below or on Twitter (@dubmun).

When To Quit Your Job

A friend asked for my advice on this subject recently:

I’m kind of thinking about changing jobs. I’m doing good at [COMPANY] so no concerns there. I would honestly rather be working in the software and technology space, instead of the financial industry. […] The other factor is that I’m not in an area where I can attend conferences and be involved in a good development community. I’ve only been at [COMPANY] for [less than 12] months. What do you think?

While I was flattered to be asked for such personal advice, I’m not really qualified to say what’s best for anyone. Maybe not even myself. Remember this.

The following is the philosophy that I try to follow in terms of changing jobs in case helps anyone.

When To Leave

First, as anyone I’ve talked with about this will tell you, I’m a big proponent of changing jobs at least every 3-4 years.

Departures

In our profession, this helps us remain fresh and exposes us to new tech/architectures/ideas in a way that is hard to ignore. This is a good thing. My general rule holds unless there are special circumstances. For example: vesting concerns, when nearing retirement, or another important life event. I’ll also interview every year or two in order to keep my interviewee skills honed and because it helps me to be a better interviewer when I’m performing interviews at my current company.

When To Stay

As for a shorter end of the tenure spectrum, I usually will stay a minimum of 1-2 years.

Again, this is a rule of thumb. I’m not going to cover all of the exceptions here. If circumstances like a hostile work environment or an amazing new opportunity came up, I would consider breaking it. I have a friend who left a company after a couple months once because it ended up being hostile. I can’t imagine any decent future employer who would fault him for this. However, it is the only instance like this in his career. An established pattern of “hostile” work environments is a read flag all by itself.

If you are making an immediate decision, sleep on it. One more night can help organize your thoughts and shouldn’t hurt anyone involved.

Regrets
Don’t make a hasty decision you might regret.

As for my recommendations, the first year is basically for resume purposes… taking a full-time employee position and then quitting before a year is up might make some employers question the value of going through the cost and effort of bringing you on. It may even be “interview prohibitive”.

The second year and beyond is often when I find that I learn the most about a business, can contribute the most (due to knowledge, trust/influence earned). It is also when I solidify relationships with people I work with.

Contracts

MercenaryAll of this is basically thrown out the window for contract positions. Contractors are expected to be mercenaries, to an extent, and might switch companies/projects every month without much scrutiny. I think there are some interesting things to be learned from that as well but I don’t have a lot of personal experience. I’ve considered joining a firm similar to Catapult or StG that sends contractors out to multiple companies and has a bench program for downtime. I believe it would be a valuable experience.

Summary

So the short version is: except for contracts, aim for a 1-4 year stay whenever starting a new job. Commit to this mentally, or don’t accept the offer. An exception could definitely be made in either direction under the right circumstances, but don’t plan on it. In practice, I have stayed at each of my gigs for 2-3 years without exception.

In my friend’s case, his company/team doesn’t match the values he wished they had and isn’t working on anything terribly interesting. Also, he is considering leaving the area. Not an emergency per se, but not great either.

My advice to him was to stick it out until a year is up while doing his best to influence change at the company. If things don’t start to improve in that time-frame, (i.e. if he felt he wasn’t having a positive impact) start looking.

Again, I’m not really qualified to advise anyone on their particular situation. I do believe these ideas have value and should be discussed.