Friday 14 September 2007

And God said to Adam...

(Part of a series on matters technological. It beats doing real work.)

We've been interviewing recently. Before hiring people for software jobs, everyone reads Joel Spolsky's Guerilla Guide to Interviewing *. You must have read it - it's excellent. Well, mostly excellent.

The bit we got stuck on is part 6:

Part 6: the design question. Ask the candidate to design something. Jabe Blumenthal, the original designer of Excel, liked to ask candidates to design a house. According to Jabe, he's had candidates who would go up to the whiteboard and immediately draw a square.

Really? A square?

A square! These were immediate No Hires.

A square does seem a bit minimalist for a house. The fashion in the UK at the moment is for buying distressed Victoriana in run-down parts of town. High ceilings, superfluous ornamental brickwork. But it turns out that's not Joel's problem:

Good candidates will try to get more information out of you about the problem. Who is the house for? As a policy, I will not hire someone who leaps into the design without asking more about who it's for. Often I am so annoyed that I will give them a hard time by interrupting them in the middle and saying, "actually, you forgot to ask this, but this is a house for a family of 48-foot tall blind giraffes."

This is puzzling. We'd much prefer a candidate who says "What's the budget for the design stage?" followed by "Well, let's hire an architect to design the thing properly".

Anyone involved in software development will leap at this sort of design question like a seal after fish. It's actively encouraging three of the most disastrous traits of the IT industry: (a) ignoring precedent and expertise, and therefore continually re-inventing the wheel in a squarer form; (b) concocting "problems" in order to be able to "solve" them; and (c) unshakeable belief in one's own wide-ranging genius. It is impossible to over-estimate the self-regard of anyone who has ever worked in the software industry. (Yes, this includes the author of this article.)

There's another problem, which we can tease out by inserting a stage direction into Joel's scene of the hapless interviewee being humiliated somewhere in the Garment District:

Interviewer:Please could you design us a house.
Interviewee:(Pauses. No further information is forthcoming. Eyes swivel in alarm at the prospect of working for people incapable of providing even the most basic brief for a project. Cursing the evil hour that they sent in their resume, the interviewee begins to draw the thing most apparently in tune with the interviewer's mental faculties: a childlike depiction of a house.)

Who wants to work for someone so inept at communicating their essential requirements? When, in real life, would you make a request such as this unless you were the worst manager in the world, or an unspeakable sadist? It's as though God said to Adam, "Don't eat from the tree of... oh, whatever, just hang out in this garden for a few days."

The following is pure supposition, but interesting: questions such as this seem designed to identify candidates with a talent for arch, knowing role-play, and for recognising when it's professionally advantageous. These are skills which seem best-fitted to large, rigidly hierarchical, politics-ridden organisations. Microsoft is the source of this interview question and many other equally famous ones. Microsoft has become notorious for its bureaucracy and back-stabbing.

(* The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing got revised about a year ago. The Design Question mysteriously vanished. The new version is great, but it's less fun and the silent changes are as informative as the article itself.)