Archive for November 2008

Stack Overflow Podcast #27 01 Nov

Our guests on this week's Stack Overflow Podcast are the founders of Reddit, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian.

By the way, Jeff recently upgraded the database server from Microsoft SQL Server 2005 to 2008, and found pretty conclusively that 2008 has a new architecture for full text search which is significantly slower than it was in 2005. Something to be careful about if you're thinking of upgrading to 2008.

The Unproven Path 03 Nov

“As for what this all means, I'm still trying to figure that out. I abandoned seven long-held principles about business and software engineering, and nothing terrible happened.”

From my latest Inc. column: The Unproven Path

Stack Overflow Podcast #28 06 Nov

Corey reviews the podcasts Jeff and I are doing, under the title Jeff Atwood is Trying to Kill Me: “The trip from Chicago to Detroit was without homicidal incident. The only harbinger of what was to come was that I could sense a growing irritation in myself towards Jeff Atwood. Why? Because Jeff just couldn't keep up with the pace of Joel's conversational tennis.”

Ha! Take that, Jeff “Atwood,” if that's even your real name, you homicidal maniac!

Anyway, sorry I haven't been posting as much here on the blog. As Corey discovered, the action is all on the podcast. This week, Jeff and I go through the colors. Azure and Orange feature prominently.

Stack Overflow Podcast #29 12 Nov

In this week's Stack Overflow podcast, Jeff and I talk about video games, programming languages that aren't "in" English, and hiring great programmers.

Anecdotes 18 Nov

Michiko Kakutani reviews Malcolm Gladwell's latest book in the New York Times: “Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.”

This review captures what's been driving me crazy over the last year... an unbelievable proliferation of anecdotes disguised as science, self-professed experts writing about things they actually know nothing about, and amusing stories disguised as metaphors for how the world works. Whether it's Thomas Friedman, who, it seems, cannot go a whole week without inventing a new fruit-based metaphor explaining everything about the entire modern world, all based on some random jibberish he misunderstood from a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur, or Malcolm Gladwell with his weak theories on tipping points, crazy incorrect theories on first impressions, or utterly lunatic theories on experts, it all becomes insanely popular simply because the stories are fun and interesting and everybody wants to hear a good story. Spare me.

Friedman and Gladwell's outsized, flat-world success has lead to a huge number of wannabes. I was really looking forward to reading Simplexity, because it sounded like an interesting topic, until I settled down with it tonight and discovered that it was chock-full of all those amusing bedtime stories about the map of the cholera plague in London in 1854, which I've heard a million times, and then suddenly I noticed (shock!) that not only was the author a journalist, not a scientist, but he was actually an editor at Time Magazine, which has an editorial method in which editors write stories based on notes submitted by reporters (the reporters don't write their own stories), so it's practically designed to get everything wrong, to insure that, no matter how ignorant the reporters are on an issue, they'll find someone who knows even less to write the actual story. Panicking, I began to flip through the book at random. There's that story about Don Norman and complicated user interfaces. Here he is reading Nassim Taleb. I've heard all these anecdotes! Stop, already! I threw the book away in frustration.

This is the third one of the day. My business partner Jeff Atwood was busy extracting himself from the flamewars he started by writing an article on, of all things, NP-completeness, which is, actually, something that it's possible to know something about, because it's not a vague sociological hypotheticoncept like simplexiflatness or blinkoutliers, it's actually a real, important result from Computer Science, with a rigorous definition and lots of published papers, and poor Jeff got himself in something of a pickle by writing a book review when he hadn't read the book, and fortunately, he has comments on his blog, so his readers called him out on it.

Now, I am not one to throw stones. Heck, I practically invented the formula of "tell a funny story and then get all serious and show how this is amusing anecdote just goes to show that (one thing|the other) is a universal truth." And everybody is like, oh yes! how true! and they link to it with approval, and it zooms to the top of Slashdot. And six years later, a new king arises who did not know Joel, and he writes up another amusing anecdote, really, it's the same anecdote, and he uses it to prove the exact opposite, and everyone is like, oh yes! how true! and it zooms to the top of Reddit.

This is not the way to move science forward. On Sunday Dave Winer [partially] defined "great blogging" as "people talking about things they know about, not just expressing opinions about things they are not experts in (nothing wrong with that, of course)." Can we get some more of that, please? Thanks.

Stack Overflow Podcast #30 20 Nov

Stack Overflow Podcast episode 30 is up, with special guest Richard White of UserVoice.

Exploding Offer Season 26 Nov

If you’re a college student applying for jobs or summer internships, you’re at something of a disadvantage when it comes to negotiation. That’s because the recruiter does these negotiations for a living, while you’re probably doing it for the first time.

I want to warn you about one trick that’s very common with on-campus recruiters: the cynical “exploding offer.”


Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright
Here’s what happens. You get invited to interview at a good company. There’s an on-campus interview; maybe you even fly off to the company HQ for another round of interviews and cocktails. You ace the interview, of course. They make you an offer.

“That sounds great,” you say.

“So, when can you let us know?”

“Well,” you tell them, “I have another interview coming up in January. So I’ll let you know right after that.”

“Oh,” they say. “That might be a problem. We really have to know by December 31st. Can you let us know by December 31st?”

Tada! The magnificent “exploding offer.”

Here’s what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, well, that’s a good company, not my first choice, but still a good offer, and I’d hate to lose this opportunity. And you don’t know for sure if your number one choice would even hire you. So you accept the offer at your second-choice company and never go to any other interviews.

And now, you lost out. You’re going to spend several years of your life in some cold dark cubicle with a crazy boss who couldn’t program a twenty out of an ATM, while some recruiter somewhere gets a $1000 bonus because she was better at negotiating than you were.


Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright
Career counselors know this, and almost universally prohibit it. Every campus recruiting center has rules requiring every company that recruits on campus to give students a reasonable amount of time to make a decision and consider other offers.

The trouble is, the recruiters at the second-rate companies don’t give a shit. They know that you’re a college kid and you don’t want to mess things up with your first real job and you’re not going to call them on it. They know that they’re a second-rate company: good enough, but nobody’s dream job, and they know that they can’t get first-rate students unless they use pressure tactics like exploding offers.

And the worst thing that career centers can do is kick them off campus. Big whoop. So they hold their recruiting sessions and interviews in a hotel next to the campus instead of at the career center.

Here’s your strategy, as a student, to make sure you get the job you want.

1. Schedule your interviews as close together as possible.

2. If you get an exploding offer from a company that’s not your first choice, push back. Say, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to give you an answer until January 14th. I hope that’s OK.” Almost any company, when pressed, will give you a chance to compare offers. Don’t worry about burning bridges or pissing anyone off. Trust me on this one: there’s not a single hiring manager in the world who wants to hire you but would get mad just because you’re considering other offers. It actually works the other way. When they realize you’re in demand, they’ll want you more.


Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright
3. In the rare case that they don’t accept that, accept the exploding offer at the last minute, but go to the other interviews anyway. 
Don’t cash any signing bonus checks, don’t sign anything, just accept the offer verbally. If you get a better offer later, call back the slimy company and tell them you changed your mind. Look, Microsoft hires thousands of college kids every year. If one of them doesn’t show up I think they’ll survive. Anyway, since we instituted that 13th amendment thing, they can’t force you to work for them.

If you do find yourself forced to renege on an offer, be classy about it. Don’t do this unless you are absolutely forced to because they literally refused to give you a chance to hear from your first choice company. And let them know right away you’re not going to take the offer, so they have a chance to fill the position with someone else.

Campus recruiters count on student’s high ethical standards. Almost all students think, “gosh, I promised I’ll go work for them, and I’m going to keep my promise.” And that’s great, that’s a commendable attitude. Definitely. But unethical recruiters that don’t care about your future and don’t want you to compare different companies are going to take advantage of your ethics so they can get their bonus. And that’s just not fair.

Stack Overflow Podcast #31 27 Nov

In the Thanksgiving edition of the Stack Overflow podcast, episode 31, Jeff and I discuss math, status reports, the economic downturn, the business case for nice office space, SQL parameters, programming “slumps,” and a whole lot more.

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