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A Bad Litmus Test


A Bad Litmus Test

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Phil Factor
Phil Factor
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I've got a feeling that I disagree with most of these comments if they are meant to apply to programmers rather than DBAs.

Programmers do well to study the code written by the masters, and study that code in depth. I learned far more from studying in depth the code written by Jonathan Sachs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Sachs code (the guy who originally wrote Lotus 123 and STOIC) than from a whole shelf of books. I pored over everything that was written by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie. If you do not study Ken Henderson's books, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Most of the list given in Steve's example are B-list in terms of the art of programming, but it contains one or two programmers who should be on everyone's list. If I interview a programmer who has never heard of Knuth, then I know he/she has never studied algorithms and I'm sure that this will handicap their ability to write really great code.

If we studied the work of the great programmers such as Charles Moore in more detail, then the current dreadful standard of coding that we come across must surely improve. We have no reason to feel complacent that we can somehow do better than they did without being familiar with what they did. That is pure arrogance.

I've interviewed, and appointed, several programmers who subsequently enjoyed great success. They had no qualifications at all, and were from a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The one thing they had in common was that they had studied the art of programming and knew the work of the greatest proponents of the art. It takes a great deal of effort to become a skilled programmer, and I'd never want to work with a programmer who can't be bothered to study the work of the greats.


Best wishes,

Phil Factor
Simple Talk
EdVassie
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My experience is that most standard interview questions, no matter what they are 'designed' to do, just arbitarily eliminate x% of applicants using a reason that could stand up to a challenge. Very rarely do they identify the best shortlist of candidates for the job.

The questions that do help identify the best are tend to be the 'What would you do if x happened...' which do not often have a single 'right' answer. But many organisations like the 'Tell me the syntax of the y statement' because it is easy to score and compare this type of result.

An example of a poor litmus test is the requirement to have a university degree. The result I see is that you get the same cross section of no-hoper through to genius if you insist on candidates having a degree compared to those who do not. In the main, the ability to actually do the job is not much affected by the posession of a degree*. But insisting on a degree means employers can quickly eliminate most of the potential applicants, leaving a more manageable number to look at in more detail.

As for using a question about who appeared in a particular book, this beggars belief. It may be the bedtime read of the interviewer, but that does not mean that the group of people most capable of doing the job feel it is worth looking at.

* I say that in the main a degree is no guarantee of suitability, but I do admit the absolute top class people I have seen are never without one.

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Captain Miserable
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Three points I'd like to make:

(1) In a profession as diverse as software development, where no two positions are exactly the same between companies, where so many different classes and training materials apply to what we do, why on Earth would you expect a candidate to know names out of a particular book?

(2) You aren't the sum of 'what' and 'who' you know, professionally or otherwise. Knowing names and facts proves nothing at all about your critical thinking ability, learning potential, etc....

(3) Since we're talking Litmus Tests, if I as a candidate was ever asked to rattle off names out of a book during an interview, it would be an immediate red flag. I would no longer be interested in working with that person.
Grant Fritchey
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I realize I'm not terribly well educated... but I didn't recognize a single name on that list. I must not know what I'm doing. I'd better go tell my boss to fire me.

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Damus
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Many "programmers" I know, including me, care very little about celebrity, fame or names.
blandry
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Hmmm, very thought provoking subject matter... and very timely too.

I heard from an old co-worker a few weeks ago asking me if I knew any good FoxPro guys who might be available. I chuckled and said "No, but I'll take the job for the right money..." He said they had hired two different programmers who claimed to know FoxPro and in both cases, they hired the guys and found out they were spending most of their time on Google looking for FoxPro answers/education. Both were let go rather quickly.

He said they even altered their posting for the job so that it states "Must know FoxPro without the use of Google"!

I don't think identifying famous programmers is any kind of litmus test, let alone any indication of the kind of quality one might get from a developer (or not), but I do think there has to be some sort of litmus test and this applies especially to SQL Server.

In my career I think I have interviewed probably 25 to 50 "DBAs" who were not (at least in my book) DBAs at all. I've interviewed people who worked at small companies doing little more than backups and yet presumed they were a DBA. I interviewed a few people who could write stored procedures but have never worked with SSIS or SSRS - and yet considered themselves DBAs.

Litmus tests are good to separate valid candidates from 'self-defined' candidates, but I would not consider naming authors to be any kind of helpful or valid litmus test. Better to check actual working knowledge than casual secondary knowledge.

There's no such thing as dumb questions, only poorly thought-out answers...
Gary Varga
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I would find it an interesting opening, whether I was one side of the interview table or the other, into a discussion about whose papers/book had been worth reading. This list could be a starting point but, even as a professional developer (I am considering as a SQL Server site some DBAs have less emphasis on this skill) I only knew two of the top of my head (Knuth and Thompson). I recognised others in the same way some describes someone from school and it "rings a bell" but only just.

I don't think anyone here are questioning the contributions by the people on this list (and to refer to Knuth as "not relevant" is, in my not some humble opinion, just plain wrong - not wanting to pick a fight though Gift).

In conclusion, excluding someone on the basis that they cannot remember or, perhaps, never knew of someone else's (valuable) contribution to the industry is ridiculous.

I do think it is valid to use some of the these peoples works as suggested reading - even with experienced colleagues. An example of this for me was when I recommended to an extremely talented TA that he read the chapter on Design by Contract in Bertrand Meyer's Object Oriented Software Construction book - which incidentally, Mark, you still have!!!

Gaz

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hemmingway
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Well said, Steve. I can name several movies I like but not the writers nor directors yet I can describe the plots. Different things appeal to different people. What matters is can you do the job? Kudos on your perspective, Sir.
K. Brian Kelley
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I think my response would be along the lines of, "Why that book? 280 names were submitted. 15 were selected, partially on the basis of their willingness to do an interview (for a book they likely weren't compensated for). It misses big names like Ritchie (C language), like Larry Wall (Perl), like Cutler (since we're talking Windows), like McConnell (Code Complete). So why that book? What makes it so special in the literature that you're using it as a filter question?"

K. Brian Kelley
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Grant Fritchey (11/9/2009)
I realize I'm not terribly well educated... but I didn't recognize a single name on that list. I must not know what I'm doing. I'd better go tell my boss to fire me.


And here I think Steve's point is especially valid. You may not recognize the name, but if you looked at their body of work, you'd be saying, "Okay, I know this one and that one. I just didn't pay attention to who the author was at the time." We're more about content. Like me, I don't care if you remember my name with regards to SQL Server security. I just care that you remember what I'm saying about securing SQL Server. After all, one day you may be securing data on me. And then it doesn't matter if you know who I am. But you better know how to keep data about me safe.

K. Brian Kelley
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