More On Identifying Programming Talent

Alright, obviously, I have been Scobleized. The articled I published two days ago, entitled Why Microsoft Can’t Hire Great Programmers hit a string. Robert Scoble noticed the article and posted a link + response on his weblog. As Robert has thousands of readers, you can be sure that the news spreads quickly. And indeed, a day or so later there’s a post on Microsoft’s Recruiting Blog.

Let me tell you after three days of rousing speeches by key executives like Steve Ballmer, detailed discussions surrounding our organizations strategies and initiatives for the next year, and declaring my profession about thousand times (“Hi. I’m Gretchen, and I am responsible for hiring great technical talent!”), my first reaction to this headline was: “What the [expletive deleted]?!” Followed by: “Who the [expletive deleted] is Zef?” And then: “What the [expletive deleted] does Zef know?”
I quickly scanned Scoble and Zef Hemel’s entries, but as my next session was ready to begin, I couldn’t devote much attention to the read. And I walked away still piping mad.

After the conference, I was due at obedience school with my puppy, and since Josh was playing a baseball game, that meant, between work and home and home and school, I was stuck in the car by myself for about an hour — just processing that little amount of information over and over in my head.

I hate when I obsess over things.

Upon returning home, I had the opportunity to read Zef’s post in more detail, and in fact, I mostly agree with everything he said.

Two things about this:

  • Blogging is a great thing, everybody gets an equal saying. You don’t have to be a CEO of Big One Ltd. for people at Microsoft to listen to you.
  • Choosing a provocative title for your piece makes more people read it, yet appears to mess up people’s days too. Set your priorities.

It’s interesting to see that as your clique of readers grows, their diversity grows aswell. When you look at the comments to Robert’s article you see most comments are about why Apple’s stuff is better than Microsoft’s. Which of course, is not the point at all.

Before I start to respond to the response I got, I want to set one thing straight: I’m not saying that Microsoft can’t hire great programmers at all. They’re just having a harder time doing so, which is something Gretchen (a Microsoft Recruiter) seems to agree with. I will be the very last to say that there are no great people working at Microsoft. And that’s not just to suck up. Nearly all people in the industry I look up to, work at Microsoft.

Something that both Robert Scoble and Gretchen mention is that they do think non-tech people can identify (better term than recognize, indeed Gretchen) great programmers. Robert Scoble says:

I’m not a programmer. But I recognize Bram Cohen of Bittorrent as a great programmer. Why? Cause of what he wrote. I recognize that Chris Uhlik over at Google is a great programmer. Why? Cause of what he wrote. I recognize Brent Simmons of NetNewsWire as a great programmer. Why? Cause of what he wrote. I recognize Stewart Butterfield of Flickr as a great programmer. Why? Cause of what he wrote. Dave Winer. Cause of what he wrote.

“What he wrote” what does he mean by that? The code he wrote? Obviously not, non-programmers can’t judge actual code. The results the coding has? The actual working product? Does the software he wrote work correctly? Sure, you can judge that, but that doesn’t mean his code is not ill-documented, inefficient, unmaintainable or just plain ugly. It takes a great programmer to see that. And that’s fine. That’s how good recruiting departements work. They gather a group of people, screen them and throw out the most obvious bad apples. If they pass their first interviews (which are mostly non-technical I understand) they’re sent to an actualy team member. Somebody that actually is a good programmer, who then checks if the person is actually a great programmer. There you go. If you have great ideas that work out well, that doesn’t mean you qualify as being one.