Developers’ side projects

Pretty much 100% of developers working for other people end up signing some kind of “proprietary invention agreement,” but almost all of them misunderstand what’s going on with that agreement. Most developers think that the work they do at work belongs to their employer, but anything they work on at home or on their own time is theirs. This is wrong enough to be dangerous.

So let’s consider this question: if you’re a developer working for software company, does that company own what you do in your spare time?

Before I start: be careful before taking legal advice from the Internet. I see enough wrong information that you could get in trouble. Non-US readers should also be aware that the law and legal practice could be completely different in their country.

There are three pieces of information you would need to know to answer this question:

1. What state (or country) are you employed in?

There are state laws that vary from state to state which may even override specific contracts.

2. What does your contract with your employer say?

In the US, in general, courts are very lenient about letting people sign any kind of contract they want, but sometimes, state laws will specifically say “even if you sign such and such a contract, the law overrides.”

3. Are you a contractor or an employee? In the US there are two different ways you might be hired, and the law is different in each case.

But before I can even begin to explain these issues, we gotta break it down.

Imagine that you start a software company. You need a developer. So you hire Sarah from across the street and make a deal whereby you will pay her $20 per hour and she will write lines of code for your software product. She writes the code, you pay her the $20/hour, and all is well. Right?

Well… maybe. In the United States, if you hired Sarah as a contractor, she still owns the copyright on that work. That is kind of weird, because you might say, “Well, I paid her for it.” It sounds weird, but it is the default way copyright works. In fact, if you hire a photographer to take pictures for your wedding, you own the copies of the pictures that you get, but the photographer still owns the copyright and has the legal monopoly on making more copies of those pictures. Surprise! Same applies to code.

Every software company is going to want to own the copyright to the code that its employees write for them, so no software company can accept the “default” way the law works. That is why all software companies that are well-managed will require all developers, at the very least, to sign an agreement that says, at the very least, that

  • in exchange for receiving a salary,
  • the developer agrees to “assign” (give) the copyright to the company.

This agreement can happen in the employment contract or in a separate “Proprietary Invention Assignment” contract. The way it is often expressed is by using the legal phrase work for hire, which means “we have decided that the copyright will be owned by the company, not the employee.”

Now, we still haven’t said anything about spare time work yet. Suppose, now, you have a little game company. Instead of making software, you knock out three or four clever games every few months. You can’t invent all the games yourself. So you go out and hire a game designer to invent games. You are going to pay the game designer $6,000 a month to invent new games. Those games will be clever and novel. They are patentable. It is important to you, as a company, to own the patents on the games.

Your game designer works for a year and invents 7 games. At the end of the year, she sues you, claiming that she owns 4 of them, because those particular games were invented between 5pm and 9am, when she wasn’t on duty.

Ooops. That’s not what you meant. You wanted to pay her for all the games that she invents, and you recognize that the actual process of invention for which you are paying her may happen at any time… on weekdays, weekends, in the office, in the cubicle, at home, in the shower, climbing a mountain on vacation.

So before you hire this developer, you agree, “hey listen, I know that inventing happens all the time, and it’s impossible to prove whether you invented something while you were sitting in the chair I supplied in the cubicle I supplied or not. I don’t just want to buy your 9:00-5:00 inventions. I want them all, and I’m going to pay you a nice salary to get them all,” and she agrees to that, so now you want to sign something that says that all her inventions belong to the company for as long as she is employed by the company.

This is where we are by default. This is the standard employment contract for developers, inventors, and researchers.

Even if a company decided, “oh gosh, we don’t want to own the 5:00-9:00 inventions,” they would soon get into trouble. Why? Because they might try to take an investment, and the investor would say, “prove to me that you’re not going to get sued by some disgruntled ex-employee who claims to have invented the things that you’re selling.” The company wants to be able to pull out a list of all current and past employees, and show a contract from every single one of them assigning inventions to the company. This is expected as a part of due diligence in every single high tech financing, merger, and acquisition, so a software company that isn’t careful about getting these assignments is going to have trouble getting financed, or merging, or being acquired, and that ONE GUY from 1998 who didn’t sign the agreement is going to be a real jerk about signing it now, because he knows that he’s personally holding up a $350,000,000 acquisition and he can demand a lot of money to sign.

So… every software company tries to own everything that its employees do. (They don’t necessarily enforce it in cases of unrelated hobby projects, but on paper, they probably can.)

Software developers, as you can tell from this thread, found this situation to be upsetting. They always imagined that they should be able to sit in their own room at night on their own computer writing their own code for their own purposes and own the copyright and patents. So along came state legislators, in certain states (like California) but not others (not New York, for example). These state legislatures usually passed laws that said something like this:

Anything you do on your own time, with your own equipment, that is not related to your employer’s line of work is yours, even if the contract you signed says otherwise.

Because this is the law of California, this particular clause is built into the standard Nolo contract and most of the standard contracts that California law firms give their software company clients, so programmers all over the country might well have this in their contract even if their state doesn’t require it.

Let’s look at that closely.

On your own time. Easy to determine, I imagine.

With your own equipment. Trivial to determine.

Not related to your employer’s line of work. Um, wait. What’s the definition of related? If my employer is Google, they do everything. They made a goddamn HOT AIR BALLOON with an internet router in it once. Are hot air balloons related? Obviously search engines, mail, web apps, and advertising are related to Google’s line of work. Hmmm.

OK, what if my employer is a small company making software for the legal industry. Would software for the accounting industry be “related”?

I don’t know. It’s a big enough ambiguity that you could drive a truck through it. It’s probably going to depend on a judge or jury.

The judge (or jury) is likely to be friendly to the poor employee against Big Bad Google, but you can’t depend on it.

This ambiguity is meant to create enough of a chilling effect on the employee working in their spare time that for all intents and purposes it achieves the effect that the employer wants: the employee doesn’t bother doing any side projects that might turn into a business some day, and the employer gets a nice, refreshed employee coming to work in the morning after spending the previous evening watching TV.

So… to answer the question. There is unlikely to be substantial difference between the contracts that you sign at various companies in the US working as a developer or in the law that applies. All of them need to purchase your copyright and patents without having to prove that they were generated “on the clock,” so they will all try to do this, unless the company is being negligent and has not arranged for appropriate contracts to be in place, in which case, the company is probably being badly mismanaged and there’s another reason not to work there.

The only difference is in the stance of management as to how hard they want to enforce their rights under these contracts. This can vary from:

  • We love side projects. Have fun!
  • We don’t really like side projects. You should be thinking about things for us.
  • We love side projects. We love them so much we want to own them and sell them!
  • We are kinda indifferent. If you piss us off, we will look for ways to make you miserable. If you leave and start a competitive company or even a half-competitive company, we will use this contract to bring you to tears. BUT, if you don’t piss us off, and serve us loyally, we’ll look the other way when your iPhone app starts making $40,000 a month.

It may vary depending on whom you talk to, who is in power at any particular time, and whether or not you’re sleeping with the boss. You’re on your own, basically—the only way to gain independence is to be independent. Being an employee of a high tech company whose product is intellectual means that you have decided that you want to sell your intellectual output, and maybe that’s OK, and maybe it’s not, but it’s a free choice.

The Duct Tape Programmer

Jamie Zawinski is what I would call a duct-tape programmer. And I say that with a great deal of respect. He is the kind of programmer who is hard at work building the future, and making useful things so that people can do stuff. He is the guy you want on your team building go-carts, because he has two favorite tools: duct tape and WD-40. And he will wield them elegantly even as your go-cart is careening down the hill at a mile a minute. This will happen while other programmers are still at the starting line arguing over whether to use titanium or some kind of space-age composite material that Boeing is using in the 787 Dreamliner.

When you are done, you might have a messy go-cart, but it’ll sure as hell fly.

I just read an interview with Jamie in the book Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel. Go buy it now. It’s a terrific set of interviews with some great programmers, including Peter Norvig, Guy Steele, and Donald Knuth. This book is so interesting I did 60 minutes on the treadmill yesterday instead of the usual 30 because I couldn’t stop reading. Like I said, go buy it.

Go! I’ll wait.

Here is why I like duct tape programmers. Sometimes, you’re on a team, and you’re busy banging out the code, and somebody comes up to your desk, coffee mug in hand, and starts rattling on about how if you use multi-threaded COM apartments, your app will be 34% sparklier, and it’s not even that hard, because he’s written a bunch of templates, and all you have to do is multiply-inherit from 17 of his templates, each taking an average of 4 arguments, and you barely even have to write the body of the function. It’s just a gigantic list of multiple-inheritance from different classes and hey, presto, multi-apartment threaded COM. And your eyes are swimming, and you have no friggin’ idea what this frigtard is talking about, but he just won’t go away, and even if he does go away, he’s just going back into his office to write more of his clever classes constructed entirely from multiple inheritance from templates, without a single implementation body at all, and it’s going to crash like crazy and you’re going to get paged at night to come in and try to figure it out because he’ll be at some goddamn “Design Patterns” meetup.

And the duct-tape programmer is not afraid to say, “multiple inheritance sucks. Stop it. Just stop.”

You see, everybody else is too afraid of looking stupid because they just can’t keep enough facts in their head at once to make multiple inheritance, or templates, or COM, or multithreading, or any of that stuff work. So they sheepishly go along with whatever faddish programming craziness has come down from the architecture astronauts who speak at conferences and write books and articles and are so much smarter than us that they don’t realize that the stuff that they’re promoting is too hard for us.

Here’s what Zawinski says about Netscape: “It was decisions like not using C++ and not using threads that made us ship the product on time.”

Later, he wrote an email client at Netscape, but the team that was responsible for actually displaying the message never shipped their component. “There was just this big blank rectangle in the middle of the window where we could only display plain text. They were being extremely academic about their project. They were trying to approach it from the DOM/DTD side of things. ‘Oh, well, what we need to do is add another abstraction layer here, and have a delegate for this delegate for this delegate. And eventually a character will show up on the screen.’”

Peter asked Zawinski, “Overengineering seems to be a pet peeve of yours.”

“Yeah,” he says, “At the end of the day, ship the fucking thing! It’s great to rewrite your code and make it cleaner and by the third time it’ll actually be pretty. But that’s not the point—you’re not here to write code; you’re here to ship products.”

My hero.

Zawinski didn’t do many unit tests. They “sound great in principle. Given a leisurely development pace, that’s certainly the way to go. But when you’re looking at, ‘We’ve got to go from zero to done in six weeks,’ well, I can’t do that unless I cut something out. And what I’m going to cut out is the stuff that’s not absolutely critical. And unit tests are not critical. If there’s no unit test the customer isn’t going to complain about that.”

Remember, before you freak out, that Zawinski was at Netscape when they were changing the world. They thought that they only had a few months before someone else came along and ate their lunch. A lot of important code is like that.

Duct tape programmers are pragmatic. Zawinski popularized Richard Gabriel’s precept of Worse is Better. A 50%-good solution that people actually have solves more problems and survives longer than a 99% solution that nobody has because it’s in your lab where you’re endlessly polishing the damn thing. Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.

One principle duct tape programmers understand well is that any kind of coding technique that’s even slightly complicated is going to doom your project. Duct tape programmers tend to avoid C++, templates, multiple inheritance, multithreading, COM, CORBA, and a host of other technologies that are all totally reasonable, when you think long and hard about them, but are, honestly, just a little bit too hard for the human brain.

Sure, there’s nothing officially wrong with trying to write multithreaded code in C++ on Windows using COM. But it’s prone to disastrous bugs, the kind of bugs that only happen under very specific timing scenarios, because our brains are not, honestly, good enough to write this kind of code. Mediocre programmers are, frankly, defensive about this, and they don’t want to admit that they’re not able to write this super-complicated code, so they let the bullies on their team plow away with some godforsaken template architecture in C++ because otherwise they’d have to admit that they just don’t feel smart enough to use what would otherwise be a perfectly good programming technique FOR SPOCK. Duct tape programmers don’t give a shit what you think about them. They stick to simple basic and easy to use tools and use the extra brainpower that these tools leave them to write more useful features for their customers.

One thing you have to be careful about, though, is that duct tape programmers are the software world equivalent of pretty boys… those breathtakingly good-looking young men who can roll out of bed, without shaving, without combing their hair, and without brushing their teeth, and get on the subway in yesterday’s dirty clothes and look beautiful, because that’s who they are. You, my friend, cannot go out in public without combing your hair. It will frighten the children. Because you’re just not that pretty. Duct tape programmers have to have a lot of talent to pull off this shtick. They have to be good enough programmers to ship code, and we’ll forgive them if they never write a unit test, or if they xor the “next” and “prev” pointers of their linked list into a single DWORD to save 32 bits, because they’re pretty enough, and smart enough, to pull it off.

Did you buy Coders at Work yet? Go! This was just the first chapter!

Exploding Offer Season

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.

Talk at Yale: Part 3 of 3

This is part three of the text of a talk delivered to the Yale Computer Science department on November 28. Part one and part two already appeared.

I despaired of finding a company to work for where programmers were treated like talent and not like typists, and decided I would have to start my own. In those days, I was seeing lots of really dumb people with really dumb business plans making internet companies, and I thought, hey, if I can be, say, 10% less dumb than them, that should be easy, maybe I can make a company too, and in my company, we’d do things right for a change. We’d treat programmers with respect, we’d make high quality products, we wouldn’t take any shit from VCs or 24-year-olds playing President, we’d care about our customers and solve their problems when they called, instead of blaming everything on Microsoft, and we’d let our customers decide whether or not to pay us. At Fog Creek we’ll give anyone their money back with no questions asked under any circumstances whatsoever. Keeps us honest.

So, it was the summer of 2000, and I had taken some time off from work while I hatched the plans for Fog Creek Software and went to the beach a lot. During that period I started writing up some of the things I had learned over the course of my career on a website called Joel on Software. In those early days before blogs were invented, a programmer named Dave Winer had set up a system called where anyone could post things to the web in a sort-of blog like format. Joel on Software grew quickly and gave me a pulpit where I could write about software development and actually get some people to pay attention to what I was saying. The site consists of fairly unoriginal thoughts, combined with jokes. It was successful because I used a slightly larger font than the average website, making it easy to read. It’s always hard to figure out how many people read the site, especially when you don’t bother counting them, but typical articles on that site get read by somewhere between 100,000 and a million people, depending on how popular the topic is.

What I do on Joel on Software—writing articles about somewhat technical topics—is something I learned here in the CS department, too. Here’s the story behind that. In 1989 Yale was pretty good at AI, and one of the big name professors, Roger Schank, came and gave a little talk at Hillel about some of his AI theories about scripts and schemas and slots and all that kind of stuff. Now essentially, I suspect from reading his work that it was the same speech he’d been giving for twenty years, and he had spent twenty years of his career writing little programs using these theories, presumably to test them, and they didn’t work, but somehow the theories never got discarded. He did seem like a brilliant man, and I wanted to take a course with him, but he was well known for hating undergraduates, so the only option was to take this course called Algorithmic Thinking—CS115—basically, a watered-down gut group IV class designed for poets. It was technically in the CS department, but the faculty was so completely unimpressed that you were not allowed to count it towards a CS major. Although it was the largest class by enrollment in the CS department, I cringed every time I heard my history-major friends referring to the class as “computer science.” A typical assignment was to write an essay on whether machines can think or not. You can see why we weren’t allowed to count it towards a CS degree. In fact, I would not be entirely surprised if you revoke my degree today, retroactively, upon learning that I took this class.

The best thing about Algorithmic Thinking was that you had to write a lot. There were 13 papers—one every week. You didn’t get grades. Well, you did. Well, ok, there’s a story there. One of the reasons Schank hated undergrads so much was that they were obsessed with grades. He wanted to talk about whether computers could think and all undergrads wanted to talk about was why their paper got a B instead of an A. At the beginning of the term, he made a big speech about how grades are evil, and decided that the only grade you could get on a paper was a little check mark to signify that some grad student read it. Over time, he wanted to recognize the really good papers, so he added check-PLUS, and then there were some really lame papers, so he started giving out check-minuses, and I think I got a check-plus-plus once. But grades: never.

And despite the fact that CS115 didn’t count towards the major, all this experience writing about slightly technical topics turned out to be the most useful thing I got out of the CS department. Being able to write clearly on technical topics is the difference between being a grunt individual contributor programmer and being a leader. My first job at Microsoft was as a program manager on the Excel team, writing the technical specification for this huge programming system called Visual Basic for Applications. This document was something like 500 pages long, and every morning literally hundreds of people came into work and read my spec to figure out what to do next. That included programmers, testers, marketing people, documentation writers, and localizers around the world. I noticed that the really good program managers at Microsoft were the ones who could write really well. Microsoft flipped its corporate strategy 180 degrees based on a single compelling email that Steve Sinofsky wrote called Cornell is Wired. The people who get to decide the terms of the debate are the ones who can write. The C programming language took over because The C Programming Language was such a great book.

So anyway, those were the highlights of CS. CS 115, in which I learned to write, one lecture in Dynamic Logic, in which I learned not to go to graduate school, and CS 322, in which I learned the rites and rituals of the Unix church and had a good time writing a lot of code. The main thing you don’t learn with a CS degree is how to develop software, although you will probably build up certain muscles in your brain that may help you later if you decide that developing software is what you want to do. The other thing you can do, if you want to learn how to develop software, is send your resume to, and apply for a summer internship, and we’ll teach you a thing or two about the subject.

Thank you very much for your time.

Talk at Yale: Part 2 of 3

This is part two of the text of a talk delivered to the Yale Computer Science department on November 28. Part one appeared yesterday.

After a few years in Redmond, Washington, during which I completely failed to adapt to my environment, I beat a hasty retreat to New York City. I stayed on with Microsoft in New York for a few months, where I was a complete and utter failure as a consultant at Microsoft Consulting, and then I spent a few years in the mid-90s, when the Internet was first starting to happen, at Viacom. That’s this big corporate conglomerate which owned MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Blockbuster, Paramount Studios, Comedy Central, CBS, and a bunch of other entertainment companies. New York was the first place I got to see what most computer programmers do for a living. It’s this scary thing called “in house software.” It’s terrifying. You never want to do in house software. You’re a programmer for a big corporation that makes, oh, I don’t know, aluminum cans, and there’s nothing quite available off the shelf which does the exact kind of aluminum can processing that they need, so they have these in-house programmers, or they hire companies like Accenture and IBM to send them overpriced programmers, to write this software. And there are two reasons this is so frightening: one, because it’s not a very fulfilling career if you’re a programmer, for a list of reasons which I’ll enumerate in a moment, but two, it’s frightening because this is what probably 80% of programming jobs are like, and if you’re not very, very careful when you graduate, you might find yourself working on in-house software, by accident, and let me tell you, it can drain the life out of you.

OK, so, why does it suck to be an in house programmer.

Number one. You never get to do things the right way. You always have to do things the expedient way. It costs so much money to hire these programmers—typically a company like Accenture or IBM would charge $300 an hour for the services of some recent Yale PoliSci grad who took a 6 week course in dot net programming, and who is earning $47,000 a year and hoping that it’ll provide enough experience to get into business school—anyway, it costs so much to hire these programmers that you’re not going to allowed to build things with Ruby on Rails no matter how cool Ruby is and no matter how spiffy the Ajax is going to be. You’re going into Visual Studio, you’re going to click on the wizard, you’re going to drag the little Grid control onto the page, you’re going to hook it up to the database, and presto, you’re done. It’s good enough. Get out of there and onto the next thing. That’s the second reason these jobs suck: as soon as your program gets good enough, you have to stop working on it. Once the core functionality is there, the main problem is solved, there is absolutely no return-on-investment, no business reason to make the software any better. So all of these in house programs look like a dog’s breakfast: because it’s just not worth a penny to make them look nice. Forget any pride in workmanship or craftsmanship you learned in CS323. You’re going to churn out embarrassing junk, and then, you’re going to rush off to patch up last year’s embarrassing junk which is starting to break down because it wasn’t done right in the first place, twenty-seven years of that and you get a gold watch. Oh, and they don’t give gold watches any more. 27 years and you get carpal tunnel syndrome. Now, at a product company, for example, if you’re a software developer working on a software product or even an online product like Google or Facebook, the better you make the product, the better it sells. The key point about in-house development is that once it’s “good enough,” you stop. When you’re working on products, you can keep refining and polishing and refactoring and improving, and if you work for Facebook, you can spend a whole month optimizing the Ajax name-choosing gizmo so that it’s really fast and really cool, and all that effort is worthwhile because it makes your product better than the competition. So, the number two reason product work is better than in-house work is that you get to make beautiful things.

Number three: when you’re a programmer at a software company, the work you’re doing is directly related to the way the company makes money. That means, for one thing, that management cares about you. It means you get the best benefits and the nicest offices and the best chances for promotion. A programmer is never going to rise to become CEO of Viacom, but you might well rise to become CEO of a tech company.

Anyway. After Microsoft I took a job at Viacom, because I wanted to learn something about the internet and Microsoft was willfully ignoring it in those days. But at Viacom, I was just an in-house programmer, several layers removed from anybody who did anything that made Viacom money in any way.

And I could tell that no matter how critical it was for Viacom to get this internet thing right, when it came time to assign people to desks, the in-house programmers were stuck with 3 people per cubicle in a dark part of the office with no line-of-sight to a window, and the “producers,” I don’t know what they did exactly but they were sort of the equivalent of Turtle on Entourage, the producers had their own big windowed offices overlooking the Hudson River. Once at a Viacom Christmas party I was introduced to the executive in charge of interactive strategy or something. A very lofty position. He said something vague and inept about how interactivity was very important. It was the future. It convinced me that he had no flipping idea whatsoever what it was that was happening and what the internet meant or what I did as a programmer, and he was a little bit scared of it all, but who cares, because he’s making 2 million dollars a year and I’m just a typist or “HTML operator” or whatever it is that I did, how hard can it be, his teenage daughter can do that.

So I moved across the street to Juno Online Services. This was an early internet provider that gave people free dial-up accounts that could only be use for email. It wasn’t like Hotmail or Gmail, which didn’t exist yet, because you didn’t need internet access to begin with, so it was really free.

Juno was, allegedly, supported by advertising. It turned out that advertising to the kinds of people who won’t pay $20 a month for AOL is not exactly the most lucrative business in the world, so in reality, Juno was supported by rich investors. But at least Juno was a product company where programmers were held in high regard, and I felt good about their mission to provide email to everyone. And indeed I worked there happily for about three years as a C++ programmer. Eventually, though, I started to discover that the management philosophy at Juno was old fashioned. The assumption there was that managers exist to tell people what to do. This is quite upside-down from the way management worked in typical west-coast high tech companies. What I was used to from the west coast was an attitude that  management is just an annoying, mundane chore someone has to do so that the smart people can get their work done. Think of an academic department at a university, where being the chairperson of the department is actually something of a burden that nobody really wants to do; they’d much rather be doing research. That’s the Silicon Valley style of management. Managers exist to get furniture out of the way so the real talent can do brilliant work.

Juno was founded by very young, very inexperienced people—the president of the company was 24 years old and it was his first job, not just his first management job—and somewhere in a book or a movie or a TV show he had gotten the idea that managers exist to DECIDE.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that managers have the least information about every technical issue, and they are the last people who should be deciding anything. When I was at Microsoft, Mike Maples, the head of the applications division, used to have people come to him to resolve some technical debate they were having. And he would juggle some bowling pins, tell a joke, and tell them to get the hell out of his office and solve their own damned problems instead of coming to him, the least qualified person to make a technical decision on its merits. That was, I thought, the only way to manage smart, highly qualified people. But the Juno managers, like George Bush, were the deciders, and there were too many decisions to be made, so they practiced something I started calling hit-and-run micromanagement: they dive in from nowhere, micromanage some tiny little issue, like how dates should be entered in a dialog box, overriding the opinions of all the highly qualified technical people on the team who had been working on that problem for weeks, and then they disappeared, so that’s the hit-and-run part, because there’s some other little brush fire elsewhere that needs micromanagement.

So, I quit, without a real plan.

(Part three will appear tomorrow).

Talk at Yale: Part 1 of 3

This is part one of the text of a talk delivered to the Yale Computer Science department on November 28. The rest of the talk will be published tomorrow and Wednesday.

I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science in 1991. Sixteen years ago. What I’m going to try to do today is relate my undergraduate years in the CS department to my career, which consists of developing software, writing about software, and starting a software company. And of course that’s a little bit absurd; there’s a famous part at the beginning of MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science where Hal Abelson gets up and explains that Computer Science isn’t about computers and it isn’t a science, so it’s a little bit presumptuous of me to imply that CS is supposed to be training for a career in software development, any more than, say, Media Studies or Cultural Anthropology would be.

I’ll press ahead anyway. One of the most useful classes I took was a course that I dropped after the first lecture. Another one was a class given by Roger Schank that was so disdained by the CS faculty that it was not allowed to count towards a degree in computer science. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The third was this little gut called CS 322, which you know of as CS 323. Back in my day, CS 322 took so much work that it was a 1½ credit class. And Yale’s rule is, that extra half credit could only be combined with other half credits from the same department. Apparently there were two other 1½ credit courses, but they could only be taken together. So through that clever trickery, the half credit was therefore completely useless, but it did justify those weekly problem sets that took 40 hours to complete. After years of students’ complaining, the course was adjusted to be a 1 credit class, it was renumbered CS 323, and still had weekly 40 hour problem sets. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same thing. I loved it, because I love programming. The best thing about CS323 is it teaches a lot of people that they just ain’t never gonna be programmers. This is a good thing. People that don’t have the benefit of Stan teaching them that they can’t be programmers have miserable careers cutting and pasting a lot of Java. By the way, if you took CS 323 and got an A, we have great summer internships at Fog Creek. See me afterwards.

As far as I can tell, the core curriculum hasn’t changed at all. 201, 223, 240, 323, 365, 421, 422, 424, 429 appear to be almost the same courses we took 16 years ago. The number of CS majors is actually up since I went to Yale, although a temporary peak during the dotcom days makes it look like it’s down. And there are a lot more interesting electives now than there were in my time. So: progress.

For a moment there, I actually thought I’d get a PhD. Both my parents are professors. So many of their friends were academics that I grew up assuming that all adults eventually got PhDs. In any case, I was thinking pretty seriously of going on to graduate school in Computer Science. Until I tried to take a class in Dynamic Logic right here in this very department. It was taught by Lenore Zuck, who is now at UIC.

I didn’t last very long, nor did I understand much of anything that was going on. From what I gather, Dynamic Logic is just like formal logic: Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. The difference is that in Dynamic Logic truth values can change over time. Socrates was a man, now he’s a cat, etc. In theory this should be an interesting way to prove things about computer programs, in which state, i.e., truth values, change over time.

In the first lecture Dr. Zuck presented a few axioms and some transformation rules and set about trying to prove a very simple thing. She had a computer program “f := not f,” f is a Boolean, that simply flipped a bit, and the goal was to prove that if you ran this program an even number of times, f would finish with the same value as it started out with.

The proof went on and on. It was in this very room, if I remember correctly, it looks like the carpet hasn’t been changed since then, and all of these blackboards were completely covered in the steps of the proof. Dr. Zuck used proof by induction, proof by reductio ad absurdum, proof by exhaustion—the class was late in the day and we were already running forty minutes over—and, in desperation, proof by graduate student, whereby, she says, “I can’t really remember how to prove this step,” and a graduate student in the front row says, “yes, yes, professor, that’s right.”

And when all was said and done, she got to the end of the proof, and somehow was getting exactly the opposite result of the one that made sense, until that same graduate student pointed out where, 63 steps earlier, some bit had been accidentally flipped due to a little bit of dirt on the board, and all was well.

For our homework, she told us to prove the converse: that if you run the program “f := not f” n times, and the bit is in the same state as it started, that n must be even.

I worked on that problem for hours and hours. I had her original proof in front of me, going in one direction, which, upon closer examination, turned out to have all kinds of missing steps that were “trivial,” but not to me. I read every word about Dynamic Logic that I could find in Becton, and I struggled with the problem late into the night. I was getting absolutely nowhere, and increasingly despairing of theoretical computer science. It occurred to me that when you have a proof that goes on for pages and pages, it’s far more likely to contain errors in the proof as our own intuition about the trivial statements that it’s trying to prove, and I decided that this Dynamic Logic stuff was really not a fruitful way of proving things about actual, interesting computer programs, because you’re more likely to make a mistake in the proof than you are to make a mistake in your own intuition about what the program “f := not f” is going to do. So I dropped the course, thank God for shopping period, but not only that, I decided on the spot that graduate school in Computer Science was just not for me, which made this the single most useful course I ever took.

Now this brings me to one of the important themes that I’ve learned in my career. Time and time again, you’ll see programmers redefining problems so that they can be solved algorithmically. By redefining the problem, it often happens that they’re left with something that can be solved, but which is  actually a trivial problem. They don’t solve the real problem, because that’s intractable. I’ll give you an example.

You will frequently hear the claim that software engineering is facing a quality crisis of some sort. I don’t happen to agree with that claim—the computer software most people use most of the time is of ridiculously high quality compared to everything else in their lives—but that’s beside the point. This claim about the “quality crisis” leads to a lot of proposals and research about making higher quality software. And at this point, the world divides into the geeks and the suits.

The geeks want to solve the problem automatically, using software. They propose things like unit tests, test driven development, automated testing, dynamic logic and other ways to “prove” that a program is bug-free.

The suits aren’t really aware of the problem. They couldn’t care less if the software is buggy, as long as people are buying it.

Currently, in the battle between the geeks and the suits, the suits are winning, because they control the budget, and honestly, I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing. The suits recognize that there are diminishing returns to fixing bugs. Once the software hits a certain level of quality that allows it to solve someone’s problem, that person will pay for it and derive benefit out of it.

The suits also have a broader definition of “quality.” Their definition is about as mercenary as you can imagine: the quality of software is defined by how much it increases my bonus this year. Accidentally, this definition of quality incorporates a lot more than just making the software bug-free. For example, it places a lot of value on adding more features to solve more problems for more people, which the geeks tend to deride by calling it “bloatware.” It places value on aesthetics: a cool-looking program sells more copies than an ugly program. It places value on how happy a program makes its users feel. Fundamentally, it lets the users define their own concept of quality, and decide on their own if a given program meets their needs.

Now, the geeks are interested in the narrowly technical aspects of quality. They focus on things they can see in the code, rather than waiting for the users to judge. They’re programmers, so they try to automate everything in their life, and of course they try to automate the QA process. This is how you get unit testing, which is not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong, and it’s how you get all these attempts to mechanically “prove” that a program is “correct.” The trouble is that anything that can’t be automated has to be thrown out of the definition of quality. Even though we know that users prefer software that looks cooler, there’s no automated way to measure how cool looking a program is, so that gets left out of the automated QA process.

In fact what you’ll see is that the hard-core geeks tend to give up on all kinds of useful measures of quality, and basically they get left with the only one they can prove mechanically, which is, does the program behave according to specification. And so we get a very narrow, geeky definition of quality: how closely does the program correspond to the spec. Does it produce the defined outputs given the defined inputs.

The problem, here, is very fundamental. In order to mechanically prove that a program corresponds to some spec, the spec itself needs to be extremely detailed. In fact the spec has to define everything about the program, otherwise, nothing can be proven automatically and mechanically. Now, if the spec does define everything about how the program is going to behave, then, lo and behold, it contains all the information necessary to generate the program! And now certain geeks go off to a very dark place where they start thinking about automatically compiling specs into programs, and they start to think that they’ve just invented a way to program computers without programming.

Now, this is the software engineering equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. It’s one of those things that crackpots keep trying to do, no matter how much you tell them it could never work. If the spec defines precisely what a program will do, with enough detail that it can be used to generate the program itself, this just begs the question: how do you write the spec? Such a complete spec is just as hard to write as the underlying computer program, because just as many details have to be answered by spec writer as the programmer. To use terminology from information theory: the spec needs just as many bits of Shannon entropy as the computer program itself would have. Each bit of entropy is a decision taken by the spec-writer or the programmer.

So, the bottom line is that if there really were a mechanical way to prove things about the correctness of a program, all you’d be able to prove is whether that program is identical to some other program that must contain the same amount of entropy as the first program, otherwise some of the behaviors are going to be undefined, and thus unproven. So now the spec writing is just as hard as writing a program, and all you’ve done is moved one problem from over here to over there, and accomplished nothing whatsoever.

This seems like a kind of brutal example, but nonetheless, this search for the holy grail of program quality is leading a lot of people to a lot of dead ends. The Windows Vista team at Microsoft is a case in point. Apparently—and this is all based on blog rumors and innuendo—Microsoft has had a long term policy of eliminating all software testers who don’t know how to write code, replacing them with what they call SDETs, Software Development Engineers in Test, programmers who write automated testing scripts.

The old testers at Microsoft checked lots of things: they checked if fonts were consistent and legible, they checked that the location of controls on dialog boxes was reasonable and neatly aligned, they checked whether the screen flickered when you did things, they looked at how the UI flowed, they considered how easy the software was to use, how consistent the wording was, they worried about performance, they checked the spelling and grammar of all the error messages, and they spent a lot of time making sure that the user interface was consistent from one part of the product to another, because a consistent user interface is easier to use than an inconsistent one.

None of those things could be checked by automated scripts. And so one result of the new emphasis on automated testing was that the Vista release of Windows was extremely inconsistent and unpolished. Lots of obvious problems got through in the final product… none of which was a “bug” by the definition of the automated scripts, but every one of which contributed to the general feeling that Vista was a downgrade from XP. The geeky definition of quality won out over the suit’s definition; I’m sure the automated scripts for Windows Vista are running at 100% success right now at Microsoft, but it doesn’t help when just about every tech reviewer is advising people to stick with XP for as long as humanly possible. It turns out that nobody wrote the automated test to check if Vista provided users with a compelling reason to upgrade from XP.

I don’t hate Microsoft, really I don’t. In fact, my first job out of school was actually at Microsoft. In those days it was not really a respectable place to work. Sort of like taking a job in the circus. People looked at you funny. Really? Microsoft? On campus, in particular, it was perceived as corporate, boring, buttoned-down, making inferior software so that accountants can do, oh I don’t know, spreadsheets or whatever it is that accountants do. Perfectly miserable. And it all ran on a pathetic single-tasking operating system called MS-DOS full of arbitrary stupid limitations like 8-character file names and no email and no telnet and no Usenet. Well, MS-DOS is long gone, but the cultural gap between the Unixheads and the Windows users has never been wider. This is a culture war. The disagreements are very byzantine but very fundamental. To Yale, Microsoft was this place that made toy business operating systems using three-decades-old computer science. To Microsoft, “computer sciency” was a bad word used to make fun of new hires with their bizarre hypotheses about how Haskell is the next major programming language.

Just to give you one tiny example of the Unix-Windows cultural war. Unix has this cultural value of separating user interface from functionality. A righteous Unix program starts out with a command-line interface, and if you’re lucky, someone else will come along and write a pretty front end for it, with shading and transparency and 3D effects, and this pretty front end just launches the command-line interface in the background, which then fails in mysterious ways, which are then not reflected properly in the pretty front end which is now hung waiting for some input that it’s never going to get.

But the good news is that you can use the command line interface from a script.

Whereas the Windows culture would be to write a GUI app in the first place, and all the core functionality would be tangled up hopelessly with the user interface code, so you could have this gigantic application like Photoshop that’s absolutely brilliant for editing photos, but if you’re a programmer, and you want to use Photoshop to resize a folder of 1000 pictures so that each one fits in a 200 pixel box, you just can’t write that code, because it’s all very tightly bound to a particular user interface.

Anyway, the two cultures roughly correspond to highbrow vs. lowbrow, and in fact, it’s reflected accurately in the curriculum of computer science departments throughout the country. At Ivy League institutions, everything is Unix, functional programming, and theoretical stuff about state machines. As you move down the chain to less and less selective schools Java starts to appear. Move even lower and you literally start to see classes in topics like Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 101, three credits. By the time you get to the 2 year institutions, you see the same kind of SQL-Server-in-21-days “certification” courses you see advertised on the weekends on cable TV. Isn’t it time to start your career in (different voice) Java Enterprise Beans!

(Part two will appear tomorrow).

The Perils of JavaSchools

Lazy kids.

Whatever happened to hard work?

A sure sign of my descent into senility is bitchin’ and moanin’ about “kids these days,” and how they won’t or can’t do anything hard any more.

“You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We had to get up at six in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down the mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt.” — Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Four Yorkshiremen

When I was a kid, I learned to program on punched cards. If you made a mistake, you didn’t have any of these modern features like a backspace key to correct it. You threw away the card and started over.

When I started interviewing programmers in 1991, I would generally let them use any language they wanted to solve the coding problems I gave them. 99% of the time, they chose C.

Nowadays, they tend to choose Java.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with Java as an implementation language.

Wait a minute, I want to modify that statement. I’m not claiming, in this particular article, that there’s anything wrong with Java as an implementation language. There are lots of things wrong with it but those will have to wait for a different article.

Instead what I’d like to claim is that Java is not, generally, a hard enough programming language that it can be used to discriminate between great programmers and mediocre programmers. It may be a fine language to work in, but that’s not today’s topic. I would even go so far as to say that the fact that Java is not hard enough is a feature, not a bug, but it does have this one problem.

If I may be so brash, it has been my humble experience that there are two things traditionally taught in universities as a part of a computer science curriculum which many people just never really fully comprehend: pointers and recursion.

You used to start out in college with a course in data structures, with linked lists and hash tables and whatnot, with extensive use of pointers. Those courses were often used as weedout courses: they were so hard that anyone that couldn’t handle the mental challenge of a CS degree would give up, which was a good thing, because if you thought pointers are hard, wait until you try to prove things about fixed point theory.

All the kids who did great in high school writing pong games in BASIC for their Apple II would get to college, take CompSci 101, a data structures course, and when they hit the pointers business their brains would just totally explode, and the next thing you knew, they were majoring in Political Science because law school seemed like a better idea. I’ve seen all kinds of figures for drop-out rates in CS and they’re usually between 40% and 70%. The universities tend to see this as a waste; I think it’s just a necessary culling of the people who aren’t going to be happy or successful in programming careers.

The other hard course for many young CS students was the course where you learned functional programming, including recursive programming. MIT set the bar very high for these courses, creating a required course (6.001) and a textbook (Abelson & Sussman’s Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs) which were used at dozens or even hundreds of top CS schools as the de facto introduction to computer science. (You can, and should, watch an older version of the lectures online.)

The difficulty of these courses is astonishing. In the first lecture you’ve learned pretty much all of Scheme, and you’re already being introduced to a fixed-point function that takes another function as its input. When I struggled through such a course, CSE121 at Penn, I watched as many if not most of the students just didn’t make it. The material was too hard. I wrote a long sob email to the professor saying It Just Wasn’t Fair. Somebody at Penn must have listened to me (or one of the other complainers), because that course is now taught in Java.

I wish they hadn’t listened.

Think you have what it takes? Test Yourself Here!

Therein lies the debate. Years of whinging by lazy CS undergrads like me, combined with complaints from industry about how few CS majors are graduating from American universities, have taken a toll, and in the last decade a large number of otherwise perfectly good schools have gone 100% Java. It’s hip, the recruiters who use “grep” to evaluate resumes seem to like it, and, best of all, there’s nothing hard enough about Java to really weed out the programmers without the part of the brain that does pointers or recursion, so the drop-out rates are lower, and the computer science departments have more students, and bigger budgets, and all is well.

The lucky kids of JavaSchools are never going to get weird segfaults trying to implement pointer-based hash tables. They’re never going to go stark, raving mad trying to pack things into bits. They’ll never have to get their head around how, in a purely functional program, the value of a variable never changes, and yet, it changes all the time! A paradox!

They don’t need that part of the brain to get a 4.0 in major.

Am I just one of those old-fashioned curmudgeons, like the Four Yorkshiremen, bragging about how tough I was to survive all that hard stuff?

Heck, in 1900, Latin and Greek were required subjects in college, not because they served any purpose, but because they were sort of considered an obvious requirement for educated people. In some sense my argument is no different that the argument made by the pro-Latin people (all four of them). “[Latin] trains your mind. Trains your memory. Unraveling a Latin sentence is an excellent exercise in thought, a real intellectual puzzle, and a good introduction to logical thinking,” writes Scott Barker. But I can’t find a single university that requires Latin any more. Are pointers and recursion the Latin and Greek of Computer Science?

Now, I freely admit that programming with pointers is not needed in 90% of the code written today, and in fact, it’s downright dangerous in production code. OK. That’s fine. And functional programming is just not used much in practice. Agreed.

But it’s still important for some of the most exciting programming jobs. Without pointers, for example, you’d never be able to work on the Linux kernel. You can’t understand a line of code in Linux, or, indeed, any operating system, without really understanding pointers.

Without understanding functional programming, you can’t invent MapReduce, the algorithm that makes Google so massively scalable. The terms Map and Reduce come from Lisp and functional programming. MapReduce is, in retrospect, obvious to anyone who remembers from their 6.001-equivalent programming class that purely functional programs have no side effects and are thus trivially parallelizable. The very fact that Google invented MapReduce, and Microsoft didn’t, says something about why Microsoft is still playing catch up trying to get basic search features to work, while Google has moved on to the next problem: building Skynet^H^H^H^H^H^H the world’s largest massively parallel supercomputer. I don’t think Microsoft completely understands just how far behind they are on that wave.

But beyond the prima-facie importance of pointers and recursion, their real value is that building big systems requires the kind of mental flexibility you get from learning about them, and the mental aptitude you need to avoid being weeded out of the courses in which they are taught. Pointers and recursion require a certain ability to reason, to think in abstractions, and, most importantly, to view a problem at several levels of abstraction simultaneously. And thus, the ability to understand pointers and recursion is directly correlated with the ability to be a great programmer.

Nothing about an all-Java CS degree really weeds out the students who lack the mental agility to deal with these concepts. As an employer, I’ve seen that the 100% Java schools have started churning out quite a few CS graduates who are simply not smart enough to work as programmers on anything more sophisticated than Yet Another Java Accounting Application, although they did manage to squeak through the newly-dumbed-down coursework. These students would never survive 6.001 at MIT, or CS 323 at Yale, and frankly, that is one reason why, as an employer, a CS degree from MIT or Yale carries more weight than a CS degree from Duke, which recently went All-Java, or U. Penn, which replaced Scheme and ML with Java in trying to teach the class that nearly killed me and my friends, CSE121. Not that I don’t want to hire smart kids from Duke and Penn — I do — it’s just a lot harder for me to figure out who they are. I used to be able to tell the smart kids because they could rip through a recursive algorithm in seconds, or implement linked-list manipulation functions using pointers as fast as they could write on the whiteboard. But with a JavaSchool Grad, I can’t tell if they’re struggling with these problems because they are undereducated or if they’re struggling with these problems because they don’t actually have that special part of the brain that they’re going to need to do great programming work. Paul Graham calls them Blub Programmers.

It’s bad enough that JavaSchools fail to weed out the kids who are never going to be great programmers, which the schools could justifiably say is not their problem. Industry, or, at least, the recruiters-who-use-grep, are surely clamoring for Java to be taught.

But JavaSchools also fail to train the brains of kids to be adept, agile, and flexible enough to do good software design (and I don’t mean OO “design”, where you spend countless hours rewriting your code to rejiggle your object hierarchy, or you fret about faux “problems” like has-a vs. is-a). You need training to think of things at multiple levels of abstraction simultaneously, and that kind of thinking is exactly what you need to design great software architecture.

You may be wondering if teaching object oriented programming (OOP) is a good weed-out substitute for pointers and recursion. The quick answer: no. Without debating OOP on the merits, it is just not hard enough to weed out mediocre programmers. OOP in school consists mostly of memorizing a bunch of vocabulary terms like “encapsulation” and “inheritance” and taking multiple-choice quizzicles on the difference between polymorphism and overloading. Not much harder than memorizing famous dates and names in a history class, OOP poses inadequate mental challenges to scare away first-year students. When you struggle with an OOP problem, your program still works, it’s just sort of hard to maintain. Allegedly. But when you struggle with pointers, your program produces the line Segmentation Fault and you have no idea what’s going on, until you stop and take a deep breath and really try to force your mind to work at two different levels of abstraction simultaneously.

The recruiters-who-use-grep, by the way, are ridiculed here, and for good reason. I have never met anyone who can do Scheme, Haskell, and C pointers who can’t pick up Java in two days, and create better Java code than people with five years of experience in Java, but try explaining that to the average HR drone.

But what about the CS mission of CS departments? They’re not vocational schools! It shouldn’t be their job to train people to work in industry. That’s for community colleges and government retraining programs for displaced workers, they will tell you. They’re supposed to be giving students the fundamental tools to live their lives, not preparing them for their first weeks on the job. Right?

Card Punch -- yes, I learned Fortran on one of these when I was 12.Still. CS is proofs (recursion), algorithms (recursion), languages (lambda calculus), operating systems (pointers), compilers (lambda calculus) — and so the bottom line is that a JavaSchool that won’t teach C and won’t teach Scheme is not really teaching computer science, either. As useless as the concept of function currying may be to the real world, it’s obviously a prereq for CS grad school. I can’t understand why the professors on the curriculum committees at CS schools have allowed their programs to be dumbed down to the point where not only can’t they produce working programmers, they can’t even produce CS grad students who might get PhDs and compete for their jobs. Oh wait. Never mind. Maybe I do understand.

Actually if you go back and research the discussion that took place in academia during the Great Java Shift, you’ll notice that the biggest concern was whether Java was simple enough to use as a teaching language.

My God, I thought, they’re trying to dumb down the curriculum even further! Why not spoon feed everything to the students? Let’s have the TAs take their tests for them, too, then nobody will switch to American Studies. How is anyone supposed to learn anything if the curriculum has been carefully designed to make everything easier than it already is? There seems to be a task force underway (PDF) to figure out a simple subset of Java that can be taught to students, producing simplified documentation that carefully hides all that EJB/J2EE crap from their tender minds, so they don’t have to worry their little heads with any classes that you don’t need to do the ever-easier CS problem sets.

The most sympathetic interpretation of why CS departments are so enthusiastic to dumb down their classes is that it leaves them more time to teach actual CS concepts, if they don’t need to spend two whole lectures unconfusing students about the difference between, say, a Java int and an Integer. Well, if that’s the case, 6.001 has the perfect answer for you: Scheme, a teaching language so simple that the entire language can be taught to bright students in about ten minutes; then you can spend the rest of the semester on fixed points.


I’m going back to ones and zeros.

(You had ones? Lucky bastard! All we got were zeros.)

Are you a Junior in college who can rip through a recursive algorithm in seconds, or implement linked-list manipulation functions using pointers as fast as you can write on the whiteboard? Check out our summer internships in New York City! Applications are due February 1st.

Advice for Computer Science College Students

Despite the fact that it was only a year or two ago that I was blubbering about how rich Windows GUI clients were the wave of the future, college students nonetheless do occasionally email me asking for career advice, and since it’s recruiting season, I thought I’d write up my standard advice which they can read, laugh at, and ignore.

Most college students, fortunately, are brash enough never to bother asking their elders for advice, which, in the field of computer science, is a good thing, because their elders are apt to say goofy, antediluvian things like “the demand for keypunch operators will exceed 100,000,000 by the year 2010” and “lisp careers are really very hot right now.”

I, too, have no idea what I’m talking about when I give advice to college students. I’m so hopelessly out of date that I can’t really figure out AIM and still use (horrors!) this quaint old thing called “email” which was popular in the days when music came on flat round plates called “CDs.”

So you’d be better off ignoring what I’m saying here and instead building some kind of online software thing that lets other students find people to go out on dates with.


If you enjoy programming computers, count your blessings: you are in a very fortunate minority of people who can make a great living doing work they enjoy. Most people aren’t so lucky. The very idea that you can “love your job” is a modern concept. Work is supposed to be something unpleasant you do to get money to do the things you actually like doing, when you’re 65 and can finally retire, if you can afford it, and if you’re not too old and infirm to do those things, and if those things don’t require reliable knees, good eyes, and the ability to walk twenty feet without being out of breath, etc.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah. Advice.

Without further ado, then, here are Joel’s Seven Pieces of Free Advice for Computer Science College Students (worth what you paid for them):

  1. Learn how to write before graduating.
  2. Learn C before graduating.
  3. Learn microeconomics before graduating.
  4. Don’t blow off non-CS classes just because they’re boring.
  5. Take programming-intensive courses.
  6. Stop worrying about all the jobs going to India.
  7. No matter what you do, get a good summer internship.

Now for the explanations, unless you’re gullible enough to do all that stuff just because I tell you to, in which case add: 8. Seek professional help for that self-esteem thing.

Learn how to write before graduating.

Would Linux have succeeded if Linus Torvalds hadn’t evangelized it? As brilliant a hacker as he is, it was Linus’s ability to convey his ideas in written English via email and mailing lists that made Linux attract a worldwide brigade of volunteers.

Have you heard of the latest fad, Extreme Programming? Well, without getting into what I think about XP, the reason you’ve heard of it is because it is being promoted by people who are very gifted writers and speakers.

Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can’t do anything about that.

The difference between a tolerable programmer and a great programmer is not how many programming languages they know, and it’s not whether they prefer Python or Java. It’s whether they can communicate their ideas. By persuading other people, they get leverage. By writing clear comments and technical specs, they let other programmers understand their code, which means other programmers can use and work with their code instead of rewriting it. Absent this, their code is worthless. By writing clear technical documentation for end users, they allow people to figure out what their code is supposed to do, which is the only way those users can see the value in their code. There’s a lot of wonderful, useful code buried on sourceforge somewhere that nobody uses because it was created by programmers who don’t write very well (or don’t write at all), and so nobody knows what they’ve done and their brilliant code languishes.

I won’t hire a programmer unless they can write, and write well, in English. If you can write, wherever you get hired, you’ll soon find that you’re getting asked to write the specifications and that means you’re already leveraging your influence and getting noticed by management.

Most colleges designate certain classes as “writing intensive,” meaning, you have to write an awful lot to pass them. Look for those classes and take them! Seek out classes in any field that have weekly or daily written assignments.

Start a journal or weblog. The more you write, the easier it will be, and the easier it is to write, the more you’ll write, in a virtuous circle.

Learn C before graduating

Part two: C. Notice I didn’t say C++. Although C is becoming increasingly rare, it is still the lingua franca of working programmers. It is the language they use to communicate with one another, and, more importantly, it is much closer to the machine than “modern” languages that you’ll be taught in college like ML, Java, Python, whatever trendy junk they teach these days. You need to spend at least a semester getting close to the machine or you’ll never be able to create efficient code in higher level languages. You’ll never be able to work on compilers and operating systems, which are some of the best programming jobs around. You’ll never be trusted to create architectures for large scale projects. I don’t care how much you know about continuations and closures and exception handling: if you can’t explain why while (*s++ = *t++); copies a string, or if that isn’t the most natural thing in the world to you, well, you’re programming based on superstition, as far as I’m concerned: a medical doctor who doesn’t know basic anatomy, passing out prescriptions based on what the pharma sales babe said would work.

Learn microeconomics before graduating

Super quick review if you haven’t taken any economics courses: econ is one of those fields that starts off with a bang, with many useful theories and facts that make sense, can be proven in the field, etc., and then it’s all downhill from there. The useful bang at the beginning is microeconomics, which is the foundation for literally every theory in business that matters. After that things start to deteriorate: you get into Macroeconomics (feel free to skip this if you want) with its interesting theories about things like the relationship of interest rates to unemployment which, er, seem to be disproven more often than they are proven, and after that it just gets worse and worse and a lot of econ majors switch out to Physics, which gets them better Wall Street jobs, anyway. But make sure you take Microeconomics, because you have to know about supply and demand, you have to know about competitive advantage, and you have to understand NPVs and discounting and marginal utility before you’ll have any idea why business works the way it does.

Why should CS majors learn econ? Because a programmer who understands the fundamentals of business is going to be a more valuable programmer, to a business, than a programmer who doesn’t. That’s all there is to it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated by programmers with crazy ideas that make sense in code but don’t make sense in capitalism. If you understand this stuff, you’re a more valuable programmer, and you’ll get rewarded for it, for reasons which you’ll also learn in micro.

Don’t blow off non-CS classes just because they’re boring.

Blowing off your non-CS courses is a great way to get a lower GPA.

Never underestimate how big a deal your GPA is. Lots and lots of recruiters and hiring managers, myself included, go straight to the GPA when they scan a resume, and we’re not going to apologize for it. Why? Because the GPA, more than any other one number, reflects the sum of what dozens of professors over a long period of time in many different situations think about your work. SAT scores? Ha! That’s one test over a few hours. The GPA reflects hundreds of papers and midterms and classroom participations over four years. Yeah, it’s got its problems. There has been grade inflation over the years. Nothing about your GPA says whether you got that GPA taking easy classes in home economics at Podunk Community College or taking graduate level Quantum Mechanics at Caltech. Eventually, after I screen out all the 2.5 GPAs from Podunk Community, I’m going to ask for transcripts and recommendations. And then I’m going to look for consistently high grades, not just high grades in computer science.

Why should I, as an employer looking for software developers, care about what grade you got in European History? After all, history is boring. Oh, so, you’re saying I should hire you because you don’t work very hard when the work is boring? Well, there’s boring stuff in programming, too. Every job has its boring moments. And I don’t want to hire people that only want to do the fun stuff.

I took this course in college called Cultural Anthropology because I figured, what the heck, I need to learn something about anthropology, and this looked like an interesting survey course.

Interesting? Not even close! I had to read these incredibly monotonous books about Indians in the Brazilian rain forest and Trobriand Islanders, who, with all due respect, are not very interesting to me. At some point, the class was so incredibly wearisome that I longed for something more exciting, like watching grass grow. I had completely lost interest in the subject matter. Completely, and thoroughly. My eyes teared I was so tired of the endless discussions of piling up yams. I don’t know why the Trobriand Islanders spend so much time piling up yams, I can’t remember any more, it’s incredibly boring, but It Was Going To Be On The Midterm, so I plowed through it. I eventually decided that Cultural Anthropology was going to be my Boredom Gauntlet: my personal obstacle course of tedium. If I could get an A in a class where the tests required me to learn all about potlatch blankets, I could handle anything, no matter how boring. The next time I accidentally get stuck in Lincoln Center sitting through all 18 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, I could thank my studies of the Kwakiutl for making it seem pleasant by comparison.

I got an A. And if I could do it, you can do it.

Take programming-intensive courses.

I remember the exact moment I vowed never to go to graduate school.

It was in a course on Dynamic Logic, taught by the dynamic Lenore Zuck at Yale, one of the brightest of an array of very bright CS faculty.

Now, my murky recollections are not going to do proper credit to this field, but let me muddle through anyway. The idea of Formal Logic is that you prove things are true because other things are true. For example thanks to Formal Logic, “Everyone who gets good grades will get hired” plus “Johnny got good grades” allows you to discover the new true fact, “Johnny will get hired.” It’s all very quaint and it only takes ten seconds for a deconstructionist to totally tear apart everything useful in Formal Logic so you’re left with something fun, but useless.

Now, dynamic logic is the same thing, with the addition of time. For example, “after you turn the light on, you can see your shoes” plus “The light went on in the past” implies “you can see your shoes.”

Dynamic Logic is appealing to brilliant theoreticians like Professor Zuck because it holds up the hope that you might be able to formally prove things about computer programs, which could be very useful, if, for example, you could formally prove that the Mars Rover’s flash card wouldn’t overflow and cause itself to be rebooted again and again all day long when it’s supposed to be driving around the red planet looking for Marvin the Martian.

So in the first day of that class, Dr. Zuck filled up two entire whiteboards and quite a lot of the wall next to the whiteboards proving that if you have a light switch, and the light was off, and you flip the switch, the light will then be on.

The proof was insanely complicated, and very error-prone. It was harder to prove that the proof was correct than to convince yourself of the fact that switching a light switch turns on the light. Indeed the multiple whiteboards of proof included many skipped steps, skipped because they were too tedious to go into formally. Many steps were reached using the long-cherished method of Proof by Induction, others by Proof by Reductio ad Absurdum, and still others using Proof by Graduate Student.

For our homework, we had to prove the converse: if the light was off, and it’s on now, prove that you flipped it.

I tried, I really did.

I spent hours in the library trying.

After a couple of hours I found a mistake in Dr. Zuck’s original proof which I was trying to emulate. Probably I copied it down wrong, but it made me realize something: if it takes three hours of filling up blackboards to prove something trivial, allowing hundreds of opportunities for mistakes to slip in, this mechanism would never be able to prove things that are interesting.

Not that that matters to dynamic logicians: they’re not in it for useful, they’re in it for tenure.

I dropped the class and vowed never to go to graduate school in Computer Science.

The moral of the story is that computer science is not the same as software development. If you’re really really lucky, your school might have a decent software development curriculum, although, they might not, because elite schools think that teaching practical skills is better left to the technical-vocational institutes and the prison rehabilitation programs. You can learn mere programming anywhere. We are Yale University, and we Mold Future World Leaders. You think your $160,000 tuition entititles you to learn about while loops? What do you think this is, some fly-by-night Java seminar at the Airport Marriott? Pshaw.

The trouble is, we don’t really have professional schools in software development, so if you want to be a programmer, you probably majored in Computer Science. Which is a fine subject to major in, but it’s a different subject than software development.

If you’re lucky, though, you can find lots of programming-intensive courses in the CS department, just like you can find lots of courses in the History department where you’ll write enough to learn how to write. And those are the best classes to take. If you love programming, don’t feel bad if you don’t understand the point of those courses in lambda calculus or linear algebra where you never touch a computer. Look for the 400-level courses with Practicum in the name. This is an attempt to hide a useful (shudder) course from the Liberal Artsy Fartsy Administration by dolling it up with a Latin name.

Stop worrying about all the jobs going to India.

Well, OK, first of all, if you’re already in India, you never really had to worry about this, so don’t even start worrying about all the jobs going to India. They’re wonderful jobs, enjoy them in good health.

But I keep hearing that enrollment in CS departments is dropping perilously, and one reason I hear for it is “students are afraid to go into a field where all the jobs are going to India.” That’s so wrong for so many reasons. First, trying to choose a career based on a current business fad is foolish. Second, programming is incredibly good training for all kinds of fabulously interesting jobs, such as business process engineering, even if every single programming job does go to India and China. Third, and trust me on this, there’s still an incredible shortage of the really good programmers, here and in India. Yes, there are a bunch of out of work IT people making a lot of noise about how long they’ve been out of work, but you know what? At the risk of pissing them off, really good programmers do have jobs. Fourth, you got any better ideas? What are you going to do, major in History? Then you’ll have no choice but to go to law school. And there’s one thing I do know: 99% of working lawyers hate their jobs, hate every waking minute of it, and they’re working 90 hour weeks, too. Like I said: if you love to program computers, count your blessings: you are in a very fortunate minority of people who can make a great living doing work they love.

Anyway, I don’t think students really think about this. The drop in CS enrollment is merely a resumption of historically normal levels after a big bubble in enrollment caused by dotcom mania. That bubble consisted of people who didn’t really like programming but thought the sexy high paid jobs and the chances to IPO at age 24 were to be found in the CS department. Those people, thankfully, are long gone.

No matter what you do, get a good summer internship.

Smart recruiters know that the people who love programming wrote a database for their dentist in 8th grade, and taught at computer camp for three summers before college, and built the content management system for the campus newspaper, and had summer internships at software companies. That’s what they’re looking for on your resume.

If you enjoy programming, the biggest mistake you can make is to take any kind of job–summer, part time, or otherwise–that is not a programming job. I know, every other 19-year-old wants to work in the mall folding shirts, but you have a skill that is incredibly valuable even when you’re 19, and it’s foolish to waste it folding shirts. By the time you graduate, you really should have a resume that lists a whole bunch of programming jobs. The A&F graduates are going to be working at Enterprise Rent-a-Car “helping people with their rental needs.” (Except for Tom Welling. He plays Superman on TV.)

To make your life really easy, and to underscore just how completely self-serving this whole essay is, my company, Fog Creek Software, has summer internships in software development that look great on resumes. “You will most likely learn more about software coding, development, and business with Fog Creek Software than any other internship out there,” says Ben, one of the interns from last summer, and not entirely because I sent a goon out to his dorm room to get him to say that. The application deadline is February 1st. Get on it.

If you follow my advice, you, too, may end up selling stock in Microsoft way too soon, turning down jobs at Google because you want your own office with a door, and other stupid life decisions, but they won’t be my fault. I told you not to listen to me.

Mike Gunderloy’s Coder to Developer

Front cover image of the book Coder to DeveloperNote: This is my foreword to Mike Gunderloy’s awesome new book, Coder to Developer. The book is now available from SYBEX.


You know what drives me crazy?

“Everything?” you ask. Well, OK, some of you know me a bit too well by now.

But seriously, folks, what drives me crazy is that most software developers don’t realize just how little they know about software development.

Take, for example, me.

When I was a teenager, as soon as I finished reading Peter Norton’s famous guide to programming the IBM-PC in Assembler, I was convinced that I knew everything there was to know about software development in general. Heck, I was ready to start a software company to make a word processor, you see, and it was going to be really good. My imaginary software company was going to have coffee breaks with free donuts every hour. A lot of my daydreams in those days involved donuts.

When I got out of the army, I headed off to college and got a degree in Computer Science. Now I really knew everything. I knew more than everything, because I had learned a bunch of computer-scientific junk about linear algebra and NP completeness and frigging lambda calculus which was obviously useless, so I thought they must have run out of useful things to teach us and were scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Nope. At my first job I noticed how many things there are that many Computer Science departments are too snooty to actually teach you. Things like software teamwork. Practical advice about user interface design. Professional tools like source code control, bug tracking databases, debuggers and profilers. Business things. Computer Science departments in the most prestigious institutions just won’t teach you this stuff because they consider it “vocational,” not academic; the kind of thing that high school dropouts learn at the local technical institute so they can have a career as an auto mechanic, or an air-conditioner repairman, or a (holding nose between thumb and forefinger) “software developer.”

I can sort of understand that attitude. After all, many prestigious undergraduate institutions see their goal as preparing you for life, not teaching you a career, least of all a career in a field that changes so rapidly any technologies you learn now will be obsolete in a decade.

Over the next decade I proceeded to learn an incredible amount about software development and all the things it takes to produce software. I worked at Microsoft on the Excel team, at Viacom on the web team, and at Juno on their email client. And, you know what? At every point in the learning cycle, I was completely convinced that I knew everything there was to know about software development.

“Maybe you’re just an arrogant sod?” you ask, possibly using an even spicier word than “sod.” I beg your pardon: this is my foreword; if you want to be rude write your own damn foreword, tear mine out of the book, and put yours in instead.

There’s something weird about software development, some mystical quality, that makes all kinds of people think they know how to do it. I’ve worked at dotcom-type companies full of liberal arts majors with no software experience or training who nevertheless were convinced that they knew how to manage software teams and design user interfaces. This is weird, because nobody thinks they know how to remove a burst appendix, or rebuild a car engine, unless they actually know how to do it, but for some reason there are all these people floating around who think they know everything there is to know about software development.

Anyway, the responsibility is going to fall on your shoulders. You’re probably going to have to learn how to do software development on your own. If you’re really lucky, you’ve had some experience working directly with top notch software developers who can teach you this stuff, but most people don’t have that opportunity. So I’m glad to see that Mike Gunderloy has taken upon himself to write the book you hold in your hands. Here you will find a well-written and enjoyable introduction to many of the most important things that you’re going to need to know as you move from being a person who can write code to being a person who can develop software. Do those sound like the same thing? They’re not. That’s roughly the equivalent of going from being a six year old who can crayon some simple words, backwards N’s and all, to being a successful novelist who writes books that receive rave reviews and sell millions of copies. Being a software developer means you can take a concept, build a team, set up state of the art development processes, design a software product, the right software product, and produce it. Not just any software product: a high quality software product that solves a problem and delights your users. With documentation. A web page. A setup program. Test cases. Norwegian versions. Bokmål and Nynorsk. Appetizers, dessert, and twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was. (Apologies to Arlo Guthrie.)

And then, one day, finally, perhaps when it’s too late, you’ll wake up and say, “Hmm. Maybe I really don’t know what it really takes to develop software.” And on that day only, and not one minute before, but on that day and from that day forward, you will have earned the right to call yourself a software developer. In the meantime, all is not lost: you still have my blessing if you want to eat donuts every hour.

Getting Your Résumé Read

I’ve been going through a big pile of applications for the summer internship positions at Fog Creek Software, and, I don’t know how to say this, some of them are really, really bad. This is not to say that the applicants are stupid or unqualified, although they might be. I’m never going to find out, because when I have lots of excellent applications for only two open positions, there’s really no need to waste time interviewing people that can’t be bothered to spell the name of my company right.

So here are a few hints to review, if you’re sending out résumés.

  • A résumé is a way to get to the next stage: the interview. Companies often get dozens of résumés for every opening … we get between 100 and 200 per opening. There is no possible way we can interview that many people. The only hope is if we can screen people out using résumés. Don’t think of a résumé as a way to get a job: think of it as a way to give some hiring manager an excuse to hit DELETE. At least technically, your résumé has to be perfect to survive.
  • If you don’t have the right qualifications, don’t apply for the job. When the job listing says “summer intern,” don’t ask for a full time job. You’re not going to get it and you’re just going to waste your time. (It won’t count against you in the future, of course, because your original application was deleted so quickly I’ll have no memory of you when we do get a full time opening and you apply for it.)
  • OK, this one really bugs me. Learn where spaces go in relation to other punctuation. Whenever you have a comma, there is always exactly one space and it’s always after the comma and never before it. Thank you.
  • In the olden days résumés were sent out in the mail and included a cover sheet on top which explained why the résumé was being sent. Now that we use email, there is no reason whatsoever to send the cover letter as an attachment and then write a “cover cover” letter in the body of the email. It’s just senseless.
  • Even stupider is submitting two big Word documents with no body text in the email. This just gets you spam filtered. I don’t even SEE these.
  • Please do not use cover letters that you copied out of a book. If you write “I understand the position also requires a candidate who is team- and detail-oriented, works well under pressure, and is able to deal with people in departments throughout the firm” then at best people will think you’re a bullshit artist and at worst they will think that you were not born with the part of the brain that allows you to form your own thoughts and ideas.
  • The personal pronoun “I” is always capitalized. All sentences must end in a period. If your cover letter looks like this I will not even look at your résumé:

i m interested in your summer job.
here is my resume
Do you Yahoo!?
Yahoo! SiteBuilder – Free web site building tool. Try it!

  • And while I’m on it, anonymous email accounts and AOL accounts just don’t send a good message. They won’t exactly disqualify you since so many people use them, but crazydood2004 at does not really impress me as much as name at Do you really need to know if I Yahoo!? Do you really want to advertise Yahoo! SiteBuilder, a competitor to one of Fog Creek’s products, when you’re actually applying for a job at Fog Creek?
  • In most of the English speaking world it is not considered polite to open letters to a Mr. Joel Spolsky by writing “Dear Spolsky.” One might write “Dear Mr. Spolsky,” or “Dear sir,” or perhaps, “Hi Joel!” But “Dear Spolsky” is usually followed by some story about embezzled funds and needing to borrow my bank account.
  • Don’t tell me about one of the requirements of the position and then tell me that you don’t want to follow it. “One of the requirements for Summer Internship says that you need to interview in person in New York City. I am interested in the position but I stay in East Nowhere, TN.” OK, that’s nice, hon, you stay there. Another PS, I thought we said in the requirements “Excellent command of written and spoken English.” Oh, yes, indeed, that was our first requirement. So at least do yourself a favor and get someone to check your cover letter for obvious mistakes. Like I said, don’t give me an excuse to throw your résumé in the trash.

I don’t know why I need to spell these out because they’re probably listed in every single “how to send out résumés” book on the planet, right there in chapter 1, but I still get more résumés that show an appalling lack of concern for what it takes to get an interview.

Let me try not to be so negative and provide some constructive advice.

  • Proofread everything a hundred times and have one other person proofread it. Someone who got really good grades in English.
  • Write a personal cover letter that is customized for the job you are applying for. Try to sound like a human in the cover letter. You want people to think of you as a human being.
  • Study the directions that are given for how to apply. They are there for a reason. For example our website instructs you to send a résumé to This goes into an email folder which we go through to find good candidates. If you think for some reason that your résumé will get more attention if you print it out and send it through the mail, that you’ll “stand out” somehow, disabuse yourself of that notion. Paper résumés can’t get into the email folder we’re using to keep track of applicants unless we scan them in, and, you know what? The scanner is right next to the shredder in my office and the shredder is easier to use.
  • Don’t apply for too many jobs. I don’t think there’s ever a reason to apply for more than three or four jobs at a time. Résuméspam, or any sign that you’re applying for 100 jobs, just makes you look desperate which makes you look unqualified. You want to look like you are good enough to be in heavy demand. You’re going to decide where you want to work, because you’re smart enough to have a choice in the matter, so you only need to apply for one or two jobs. A personalized cover letter that shows that you understand what the company does goes a long way to proving that you care enough to deserve a chance.

Some of this stuff may sound pretty superficial. Indeed, what we’re really looking for when we look at résumés is someone who is passionate and successful at whatever they try to do. We like people who are passionate about software. Writing a shareware app when you’re a teenager is just as good a qualification to us as getting into MIT. This is your life story, and by the time you’re applying for a job it’s probably too late to change that.

Would I reject someone just because they don’t quite understand the relationship between the comma and the space? Well, not necessarily. But when I have to find two summer interns out of 300 applicants, here’s what I do with the résumés: I make three piles: Good, OK, and Bad. I give the same résumés to Michael and he does the same thing. There are always enough people that we both put in the Good pile that those are really the only people that stand a chance. In principle if we can’t find enough people we like that we both rated as “good” we would consider some people who got Good/OK, but in practice this has never happened. Much as I’d love to be able to consider everyone on their merits instead of on superficial résumé stuff, it’s just not realistic, and there’s just no reason a college graduate can’t get this right.

(Added 1/27/2004)

The number one best way to get someone to look at your resume closely: come across as a human being, not a list of jobs and programming languages. Tell me a little story. “I’ve spent the last three weeks looking for a job at a real software company, but all I can find are cheezy web design shops looking for slave labor.” Or, “We yanked our son out of high school and brought him to Virginia. I am not going to move again until he is out of high school, even if I have to go work at Radio Shack or become a Wal*Mart greeter.” (These are slightly modified quotes from two real people.)

These are both great. You know why? Because I can’t read them without thinking of these people as human beings. And now the dynamic has changed. I like you. I care about you. I like the fact that you want to work in a real software company. I wanted to work in a real software company so much I started one. I like the fact that you care more about your teenage son than your career.

I just can’t care about “C/C++/Perl/ASP” in the same way.

So, maybe you won’t be qualified for the job, but it’s just a lot harder for me to dismiss you out of hand.