Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Finding or Keeping a Tech Job -- An interview with Andy Lester and Chad Fowler

Andy Lester (@theworkinggeek) and Chad Fowler (@chadfowler) the authors of Land the Tech Job You Love and The Passionate Programmer, respectively, agreed to do a joint interview with me. It was a lot of fun to talk with these guys, I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did doing it.

Your books look like great companions to each other. Did you interact at all when writing them?

Chad We didn't interact much, no. We actually "met" each other because of the fact that we were writing complementary books. It was good fortune more than anything else. Surprisingly, we don't overlap much in content despite the lack of a coordinated effort.

Andy I was happy when I found out that Chad was updating "My Job Went To India", because that book was one of my reasons for writing my book. It was inspiring to me to see an author who had such a positive, proactive way to look at one's career. I remember reading it and every page there was one of those "Yeah, that's exactly right!" moments.

There are a lot of people who hack code, fewer who hack communities, and still fewer who hack themselves. Your books (along with a few others) seem aimed at this last group. Why do you think people are more willing to work on code than on habits, health, or career?

Andy Because it's uncomfortable to admit that you might have areas for improvement. When you're improving code, you're working on something with no feelings. Besides, cleaning up code, even your own, shows positive results in only a few minutes. Changing your habits takes time, and is difficult, never mind having to admit that you might be imperfect.

Chad I think there's also a common belief that we can change everything except ourselves. That's we're somehow stuck with the "self" we were born with and it's a static thing. It's a self-fulfilling misconception in that the commonly held nature of the belief makes it indeed harder to change ourselves than to change the things around us. But paradoxically, your self is the one thing you have complete and total control over.

It's also scarier to tackle big stuff like health, habits, and career than it is to work on relatively inconsequential things like code. I semi-recently read The War of Art and my major takeaway was that we tend to procrastinate the things that are most important to us, because we're afraid of tackling them. So, says the book, you can figure out which things are important by looking at which big things you're avoiding. Interesting idea. Not universally true but I've found it valuable to keep in mind anyway.

I think doing things intentionally is an underlying theme in both books. The stress of day to day work, or being out of work often pushes our intentions out the window. What advice can you give us about keeping focused on them?

Chad One thing I've learned over years of putting a lot of thought into how to best manage my career is that I am always going to be "too busy" to do the important things. I think that's true for most people. Parkinson's Law applies outside the workplace just as well as it does to an individual project or set of tasks. Almost everyone I know is "busy" no matter what they've got going on.

Andy It's all about Quadrant Two.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey draws a square with two axes: Importance and Urgency. Things that are important and urgent get done automatically. Things that aren't important shouldn't get done. That leaves one quadrant, Quadrant Two, which is where you find activities that are important but not urgent. The problem is carving out the time out of your day or your week to do those things.

Parkinson's Law takes hold here as Chad says, but we also find that it's amplified by urgency of everything else. The new website has to go live by the first day of the trade show, or a security patch sends us scrambling to update a dozen servers, or your boss needs a new report by the end of the week. All that urgency leaves us drained, but ignoring the Quadrant Two activities that allow us to move quickly when things get crazy only makes the urgency all the more stressful.

Chad So it's really a matter of prioritizing (sorry for the obvious answer). One thing I do not advocate is cutting down on fun, relaxation, health, or family time. Those are the natural things to let slip when you're faced with stress (after you let career development slip). But when you sacrifice the "living" part of life, you burn out fast. And from my experience, burnout is the fastest ticket to mediocrity.

So if burnout is the fastest way to being unremarkable, it's the thing we have to attack most ruthlessly. How do you do it? I don't have a definitive answer but my current philosophy is that if you're faced with too much to do and are stressing, you should take inventory of all the stuff you don't want to do and stop doing those things.

It may sound like I'm advocating laziness — and I am, but in the same way Larry Wall does. Some of the stuff we hate doing really isn't worth doing. We can just stop doing it. But most of what we hate doing still needs to be done. As programmers, we have a unique advantage here: automation. We don't have to rely on tools others have created to automate our work. We can do it ourselves.

Andy As a long-time Perl user and advocate, it's no surprise I love Larry's view on laziness. The corollary to laziness is the idea that "machines should work, people should think." Any time you're spending doing some sort of work that the machine should be doing is wasted time, because you're spending your brain power, which is incredibly valuable, doing things that can be done with computer power, which is cheap and getting cheaper every day. We have these amazingly powerful tools, if we just put the time and mental effort into making them do even more.

The barrier to entry, however, is the unwillingness to increase our knowledge to let us know how to make the computer do a given task, or take the time make it happen. Larry calls this "false laziness." If you've ever said "It's faster for me to retype this than to hack together a conversion tool for this data", that might well be false laziness. What about the next time you need to convert similar data? It doesn't take many iterations before you say "Geez, I should have spent the time up front."

It takes determination to get over the hump, but after a while you get into the groove and you find yourself saying "I don't mind doing extra work up front because I know I'll get more brain cycles back days down the road." More free brain cycles = less burnout.

Chad If you start automating everything in the workplace, you'll not only make your life better, freeing yourself to focus on the important task of leveling up as a software developer. You'll also save your company money, reduce the turnaround time for tasks, and reduce the chance of human errors.

I think it was Martin Fowler who said, "If you can't change your organization, change your organization". How do we choose between investing in ourselves (in place) and investing in finding a better place?

Andy It's simple, if not easy, cost-benefit analysis. The problem that most people run into is not knowing what benefits that they are looking for. If we only go by reflex, we might look at salary, perceived job security, and technical specifics of the job that we have and the one that we might be going to. Unfortunately, those three factors are rarely the only relevant issues. What about your co-workers? Work/life balance? The industry you'll be working on?

The one crucial point I tell anyone who is unhappy with a job and looking to go elsewhere is to make sure that when they finally look to make the jump, that they are moving to somewhere good, not running away from somewhere bad. Running away leaves in you a position of weakness. You're more likely to make desperate moves, take unnecessary risks, and accept jobs or salaries that you would ordinarily turn away.

Chad Andy's point about going to good vs. running from bad is profoundly right.

I'd add that it's easier to hope for external forces to change your situation than to change your own situation. So I'd recommend starting with the assumption that there is a better way to perceive and respond to any work situation until that proves to be incorrect.

Also, I think a lot of "knowledge workers" tend to develop an unhealthy attachment and relationship to their employers. We come to think of a job as a place to go and live. Therefore we establish a sense of entitlement about how things should be and how "fair" work life should be. Ultimately, the employer/employee relationship is a series of business transactions. It's not a family or a home. Remembering that it's a business relationship can help you make better decisions both for yourself and for your job.

Lots of people don't understand the technology job space. What makes it so different than working in other industries?

Andy As far as job hunting, your peers are as smart as you are, and you're held to a higher standard than most other industries. The hiring manager is probably as much of a geek as you are, and is going to scrutinize you like the detail-oriented person she is. We also understand the Internet in a way that other professionals usually don't. For example, I've seen plenty of articles for non-techie job hunters that warn that your online activity could be checked out by a potential employer, so watch out with those drunken frat party photos on MySpace. Show that article to anyone in our industry and he'll say "Duh, of course."

We also have to perform at a higher level to show that we can do the job. It's not enough to come in for an interview, answer some questions and hope you get picked. You need to show that you can do the job, either by showing prior work that you've done, or by telling compelling stories about your background. If you're not going to take the time and effort to step up the level at which your job hunting, someone else will, and you'll be shut out.

Chad I don't think it's very different from other "knowledge work" industries. The one big difference is that technologists (particularly programmers) have the ability to build up a portfolio of work that anyone can use. Software is everywhere, so it's possible for a programmer to create something that can touch literally anyone's life. And software doesn't cost per-unit like, say, a piece of furniture does. This means that if a software developer creates something on his or her own time, it can be shared at no cost with anyone they want to share it with. From the perspective of the job market, this is a powerful tool. There aren't many industries where a candidate could give a piece of their work to every potential employer to actually keep and use. I think programmers should take advantage of this and create Free software to distribute as part of the job search process. (There are countless other benefits to creating Free software that I'm not focusing on here obviously).

Andy Samples of your work are crucial to the job search. I think that anyone hiring programmers who doesn't see samples of the code written by the candidate is crazy. You wouldn't hire a chef without tasting his cooking, so why are programmers different? Ten-minute exercises at the interview like "Write a function to do X" may weed out the bottom feeders, but seeing a sizable chunk of code tells so much more. I can tell so much about a programmer by reading five pages of code that verbal discussion just doesn't bring out. How does she name her variables? Does she create beautiful code? What gets documented? Has the code been maintained, or is it a pile of hacks and bolt-ons?

Even if the hiring manager doesn't ask for code samples at the interview, bring them with you anyway. Seeing samples of your good work lower the risk in the mind of the manager. Given two candidates who are roughly similar in skills, but one can show evidence of his working abilities, who do you think the manager is going to pick?

The problem with code samples is that many people are not at liberty to disclose they've worked on in their jobs. It doesn't have to be military contractors or stealth startups to run into this problem. Working on Free Software or open source software is your way around this. You can work on existing projects or start one of your own, and your code is available for anyone in the world to see, especially your future employer.

If you've read each other's book, what's the best advice you took from it?

Chad What I like about Andy's book is how tactical and detailed it gets. For example, his description of the actual interview process is spot on. For those of us who haven't gone through interviewing in a long time, it presents a clear walk-through of what to expect on a real interview. It's like actually being there but with Andy sitting by you giving advice the whole time. For me, I can imagine that taking the pressure out of the situation if I were nervous about an interview. If you follow all of his advice on the interview day, you'll likely be one of the most prepared candidates the interviewers ever see.

Andy The advice about making sure that you're the worst guy in the room is tough. It struck me when I first read it in the first version, and I try always to remember it.

The idea comes from jazz guitarist Pat Metheny's advice to "always be the worst guy in any band you're in," because you'll be surrounded by better players and will naturally play better and will learn along the way. When you're the best player in a band, you're less likely to learn from others.

I find myself mostly applying this to open source projects, where I'm surrounded by fantastic programmers from around the world. I need to remember to appreciate the skills of those around me, and learn as much as I can. The tough part is that it's so intimidating.

A lot of hackers find the non-programming aspects of our jobs unpleasant or worse. What's been the hardest non-programming task to adapt to for you?

Andy As always, it's dealing with other people, and remembering the robustness principle of "Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others" when dealing with others from work.

For being conservative on output, it's always tough to remember that our geek argot and our overly direct way of saying things can be off-putting to others. It's especially dangerous because one slip of the tongue can leave you marked as a jerk for quite a while.

Easier, although still frustrating, is being liberal in what I accept as input. Say I've got someone who's reporting a bug in the software, and he says "Yeah, I tried to update a batch, and it didn't work," and I've got to go through the process of "How did it not work" and "what specifically did you try" and all the classic debugging questions. When I first starting programming, I'd be so mad that the person I was talking to didn't say all the right things, or didn't have my thought process. It took a while to learn to accept that.

Now, these are minor annoyances, but they don't bother me. It's like being annoyed at the rain, but not letting it ruin my day.

Chad For me it was probably before I became a programmer. But it still applies, because it happened while I was a hacker of a different sort: a musician. At nights I did my "real" career as a professional saxophonist. In the mornings, I had an extra job as a forklift operator. I actually loved both jobs. Some days I even preferred the fork lift job.

I was really good at the fork lift job. I got great satisfaction as a part time contractor at beating all of the full time employees on the truck dock where I worked in productivity every day by a significant percentage. I would basically get to work and run for my entire shift, either on foot or virtually on a forklift. It was a rewarding job and the bosses were taking notice. They wanted to bring me on full time, which would give me benefits and a great deal more pay. Especially given my musician's living, it was a tempting offer.

But I was painfully introverted. I was so shy, in fact, that it was almost a problem on the truck dock. People constantly took shots at me because I was such a pushover and so obviously uncomfortable around people.

I knew this was going to be a life-long limitation if I didn't do something about it.

So I quit my beloved fork lift job and started working as a waiter.

It was a miserable experience. I panicked daily at first having to interact with group after group of strangers while also juggling their orders, special requests, and (physically juggling) their plates. I was the worst waiter I've ever witnessed. I would sometimes leave work with less money than when I started due to the way waiters have to give a percentage of sales to the supporting restaurant staff.

But over time, though I never really became a passable waiter (great respect to all of you who have ever done that job successfully!), it was that experience that gave me the comfort to interact with people that has probably been the single most important career development move I will ever make. I threw myself way out of my comfort zone and have become the sort of person who is (hilariously) described as "the most extroverted programmer ever" and that sort of silly thing. It's been the key to my success in corporate environments as well as the change that enables me to do things like organize and speak at conferences, give training, do on-site consulting for clients, and basically most of what I make my living at now.

What about you? What's been the hardest thing for you to pull into your work-a-day lives?