Mel Reams


Hiring funnels are a thing

Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.
Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

Recently I went to a Victoria BC Startups meetup about diversity and inclusion in recruitment called Lever talks Diversity and Inclusion in Recruitment. What I learned the most about was how hiring funnels work.

I first learned about the concept of funnels from sales funnels, where you start at the top with lots of people who are simply aware your product/service exists, and work your way down through getting them interested in your product to making a decision about whether to buy to eventually making a sale, with fewer people at every level. That’s normal for sales (and for any other funnel, like hiring), not everyone who is aware of your product is going to want it. Many of them may not even have a problem your product solves. Some people go with competitors, some people just keep doing what they’re already doing, some people are ready to buy but at the last minute they lose their budget or their boss decides to change direction, all sorts of things happen. Because of that, you need a lot of potentials at the top of the funnel to make sure anyone makes it all the way down to the bottom.

Sounds a bit like hiring, doesn’t it? ;) The big difference with hiring is that you either need to get people into the top of the funnel before you have an open position for them or you need to fill that funnel up extraordinarily quickly once you do have that open position.

The big thing I learned about that is that lots of people don’t think exactly like me. I’m sure that’s all kinds of helpful :)

More precisely, what I learned is that it’s normal to start talking with people before you actually have a job to fill and that doesn’t make you a time-wasting jerk as long as you’re honest about not having an open position right then.

The reason I had so much trouble with that idea was because I don’t usually bother talking to other companies until I’m Capital D Done with my current company and am actively interested in a new job. Since I thought that way I assumed everyone else did too, and because of that I figured talking with potential hires about a job that didn’t exist yet would be a mean-spirited waste of their time. I mean, they could have been talking with someone else about a job that actually existed and started making real progress toward their goal of finding a new job instead of wasting time on maybes with me. I’m not saying it was perfectly rational to be that worried about wasting people’s time, just that it was a thing I worried about.

But apparently it’s also normal for people to start talking to other companies well before they reach the Capital D Done stage, which makes it not a jerk move to talk with them about a job that doesn’t exist yet – as long as you’re clear about the job not existing yet, of course. I’m harping on that point because I feel very strongly about not jerking people around and because that’s the big thing that makes talking with people without having a job opening to interview them for work for me – I have to know I’m not jerking them around or I just feel weird about the whole thing.

Honestly, it’s probably smarter to start looking around before you desperately need a change, but the flip side of my not wanting to waste candidates’ time is that I don’t want to waste hiring managers’ time either. I assumed they only started talking with people because they had a job they needed to fill, which would make it a waste of their time to talk with them before I was sure I wanted to leave my current job.

I never really thought about how much time it takes to fill a hiring funnel (have you ever tried to hire an experienced developer in Victoria? It’s hard!), so I never realized how useful it actually is for hiring managers to have some people already in the funnel. If you have that then when it’s time to hire you don’t have to start from scratch, you can interview people who you’ve already talked to, who you already think could be a fit, who are already interested in your company. That sounds pretty great if you’re looking to hire, which makes it not at all a jerk move to talk to hiring managers before you’re sure you want to change jobs – again, as long as you’re honest.

In short, the moral of the story is that not everyone thinks the exact same way you do and that as long as you’re honest about what you have to offer you’re not being a jerk :)

Talk of the day

I really enjoyed this recording of the Pycon 2015 keynote and I think you will too. My favourite part was the bit about we are all statistically unlikely to be terrible – it’s called a normal distribution for a reason, most of us are, drumroll please…. normal! Sure, you’re not super likely to be extraordinary (if everyone was then it really wouldn’t be extraordinary), but you’re not super likely to be terrible either. I personally find that comforting to remind myself of when I’m struggling with something and feel totally useless.

Why not start with an IDE?

Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.
Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

In college our first Java classes used a text editor (TextPad), not a full featured IDE like Eclipse, and compiled and ran our programs from the command line. When we finally started using Eclipse, I was kind of pissed off that we’d spent so much time slowly and painfully debugging our code when Eclipse could’ve just told us exactly where the problem was. Knowing what I know now, I totally understand why our teachers did it that way, but I don’t remember anyone doing a particularly good job of explaining it at the time.

For anyone out there wondering why on earth they have to do things the hard way when they could just use a tool that makes things so much easier, the answer is that the tool doesn’t actually make things easier.

It sure seems like it does once you’ve got the basics of coding down, but until then it’s just another complication that you really don’t need when you’re already trying to learn something extremely complicated. Take this question I found on reddit for example: you can have perfectly good code but be unable to run it because your IDE isn’t configured correctly. IDEs are powerful tools, and any powerful tool can hurt as much as it helps. If you already know how to write code, compile it, keep track of your files and build path and everything, then IDEs are great. If you try to learn all those things plus how to use an IDE, how to set it up, and how to recognize and fix problems with your configuration if you mess something up all at the same time, you’re going to have a bad time.

You know how your teacher always said to add one a thing at a time when you’re writing code so that you know what caused it if something breaks? That counts for tools, too. If you’re not already good at tracking down what’s wrong with your code, you’ll have a terrible time figuring out whether your code is actually wrong or whether your IDE isn’t configured right.

IDEs can also hide stuff from you that you actually will want to learn, even if it’s a pain while you’re learning it. With java in particular, an IDE can make it seem like you just write code and it runs by magic. That’s not helpful once you start working on projects that need to be run outside of the IDE. You will need to know how to compile your code, what settings you need to get the right output, where that output ends up, and how to use/deploy the compiled code, none of which you’ll learn by hitting the run button in Eclipse.

I can even see the point, as infuriating as it was at the time, of making students manually find issues like missing semicolons without the help of an IDE. The level of attention to detail you learn by finding your own missing semicolons is absolutely necessary to track down the kind of subtle logic errors an IDE can’t help you with. I don’t believe there’s any way to learn that without spending a lot of time being very very frustrated, but it’s an extremely useful skill and one that every programmer will need sooner or later.

If there’s a better (and less frustrating) way to learn to program I’d love to hear it, but I’d be very surprised if there’s a non-frustrating way to learn a fundamentally frustrating skill.

Dev tool of the day

Hey java devs, somebody built a REPL! It even runs in the browser, nothing to install or configure (or curse at). I love this thing for when I can’t remember which function accepts a null parameter and which one freaks out and throws a null pointer exception, it’s so helpful.

There is a REPL in Java 9, but we haven’t even switched to 8 yet at work (always let someone else try the new stuff first :) ). If you’re not exactly on the cutting edge either, try the online REPL, it’s awesome.

Happy thanksgiving!

Hey look, a vaguely related image from! It's still only here to make this post look nicer in social media shares, though.
Hey look, a vaguely related image from! It’s still only here to make this post look nicer in social media shares, though.

Happy thanksgiving readers!

In the spirit of thanksgiving (and not making you read too much when you’re just going to end up in a turkey coma), here are some things I’m grateful for:

Being lucky enough to enjoy doing a job I can make a good living at. The tech industry certainly has its flaws, but it beats the hell out of the jobs I had between high school and college where the only reason my employers didn’t pay me even less was because they legally couldn’t.

Incredible free resources like Khan Academy and the many, many MOOCs out there. It’s incredible how much stuff you can learn at no cost but your time.

Conferences that record their talks and put them online. Most of them have excellent sound and video quality too. Look at how many Sandi Metz talks you can watch without ever buying a conference ticket or even putting on pants!

Beginner friendly communities like Code Newbie and Java Ranch/Code Ranch. I love that there are places online where it’s okay to not know everything already.

Learn to code/learn to code better resources like Free Code Camp, Exercism, Programming Praxis, Code Kata, and so many more. People put incredible amounts of work into these tools just to help other people become better programmers and that’s awesome.

JSON – working with XML is generally terrible and I’m delighted JSON has become the new standard. It sounds petty but seriously, any day I don’t have to fight with XML is a good day :)

What about you, readers? What nerdy stuff are you grateful for?

CSS tip of the day

If for any reason you ever need to center a circle inside of a another circle using CSS, here’s how. That delightful person even created a jsFiddle so you can test it out yourself. And in the spirit of almost-Canadian-thanksgiving, I give thanks for stack overflow :)

What if I don’t know?

Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.
Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

I was listening to the Developer Tea podcast the other day and caught a re-air of an episode about how to handle questions that you don’t have good answers to. The very short version of their answer (which I totally agree with) is don’t say “I don’t know” and stop there, follow it up with “but I can find out.” And then, you know, actually find out and follow up with the person who asked the question :)

It’s been such a long time since I worried about that that I forgot it was still an issue for people. I’m not saying I feel great about it when I get asked a question I can’t immediately answer, but my perspective is that my job as a developer is much more about knowing how to figure stuff out than it is about knowing the answers off the top off my head. I’m not Google, and it’s not reasonable to expect me to be.

My theory (and readers, if you think I’m out to lunch here, I’d appreciate you letting me know in the comments) is that newer devs are more likely to freak out about not knowing the right answer because they’re used to having to produce an answer right away or lose marks on tests in school. One of many, many ways being a professional developer is different from school is that there’s no time limit and everything is open book.

Seriously, no reasonable person is going to react badly if you tell them you’re going to find the answer and get back to them. And if they do react badly, they’re a jerk and if that jerk is your boss, you should seriously consider finding a new job. Production applications are just too complicated for any one person to remember every detail of the back end, the front end, the database, the logging, the monitoring, the API, the deployment process, or whatever other pieces you deal with. It’s just not possible for a person to memorize every detail of a complex system and if you think it is you have no business managing developers.

Speaking of complexity, a completely reasonable answer to a question might be “Amy built that feature, she would know better than I would.” Just telling someone where to look or who to ask is really helpful, it’ll make it easier for them the next time they need an answer. Sometimes, say if your boss asks you a question, they might need you to do the legwork and go ask Amy for them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful for the next time they have a question about that feature.

Unlike school, very few parts of professional development involve a time limit. Sure, if production is down you’re going to want to figure out why as quickly as possible, but even that is more about problem solving skills than it is about having stuff memorized. If my boss asks me a question, it’s far more useful to them to take five minutes to go look it up and make sure it’s right than it is to spit out an answer right then and there.

Basically none of professional development is closed book, either. That’s one of the reasons for my very limited interest in general knowledge questions in technical interviews (the other one is that a stressful, high stakes situation like an interview is going to give you false negatives because people go blank when they actually know the subject perfectly well). Not remembering the difference between a StringBuilder and StringBuffer is never going to matter in my career, that takes about 30 seconds to Google.

“That’s great,” you say, “but what if I do all my research and I still don’t know what the best option is?” That’s totally fine! Write down what you learned and share that with your boss/whoever asked you the question. I’ve had plenty of conversations with my boss where I showed them what I found and straight up told them “I don’t know what the best thing to do is, but here’s what I found.” As long as you’ve done something to help find the answer you’ve at least saved your boss the time it took to research it, that’s still helpful.

Not knowing the answer is just not an issue as a developer. The issue is if you don’t make an effort to find the answer, and making an effort is something anyone can do.

Not all problems need to be solved with code

Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.
Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

If you’re a programmer and someone asks you to solve a problem, that means the problem needs to be solved by writing code, doesn’t it? That’s what programmers do, right? Not necessarily!

Knowing how to write good code is a huge part of being a good developer, but so is knowing when not to write more code. Take this question from reddit for example. If the problem is that you need an online store, writing one from scratch is the last thing you should consider. Needing to be able to sell stuff online is not a unique problem. It’s not even a slightly unusual problem. The more common the problem you’re trying to solve, the better chance somebody out there has already solved it and will sell you the solution for a reasonable price. In the case of an online store, that’s probably WordPress and one of about a zillion ecommerce plugins, or one of many (so many) ecommerce platforms.

To keep beating on the online store example, let’s talk about why it’s such a bad idea to write one from scratch. First of all, writing a whole store from nothing would take ages. If your goal is to sell things, spending weeks if not months building your store and getting everything working just right would be a huge waste of time. And don’t think you’re done just because the store works – if nothing else, you’re going to need to apply security updates to whatever it runs on, and let’s be honest, there will be bugs and you will need to fix them :) Sadly, the more lines of code you have the more potential bugs you have. The more code you write, the more code you have to maintain.

Another reason you shouldn’t write a store from scratch is if you’re taking people’s money, you have to be absolutely sure that you keep their payment details and personal information safe. Protip: security is hard and if at all possible, you should make it someone else’s problem. If you use a reputable plugin or platform, you can be reasonably sure all the security stuff has been done correctly. Aside from security, there’s also uptime to worry about. If your store goes down, you don’t make any money and you get to freak out about what brought it down and how to bring it back up. Again, if what you want to do is sell things, trying to figure out why your store went down is a terrible use of your time. Also, if you use existing software that thousands of other people have already beaten on, you’re a lot less likely to have surprise downtime.

And don’t forget requests for new features! If you build your own store, it’s going to be pretty basic at first. Sooner or later, you’re going to want fancy stuff like sales, limited time offers, discount codes, etc, etc. Yay, more stuff to worry about finding bugs in! Those aren’t even the really scary examples, either. If you decide you want to internationalize your store with descriptions in the local language and prices in the local currency, you may need to rewrite huge parts of it. And then worry about finding bugs in those parts, because there are so many fiddly little details you can get wrong with internationalization.

Developing your own [fill in the blank] can enormously expensive, too. Sometimes it is worth it to develop exactly the thing you need in-house, but sometimes it’s really not. The great thing about commercial off-the-shelf software is that the vendor can sell it for a tiny fraction of what it cost to build it because they can sell it over and over. Even the very newest junior dev’s time still has a value – is a week of their time still cheaper than buying the solution? Is having precisely the feature you want going to make more money than having that junior dev work on something more directly related to your business?

As developers, our first instinct is to start writing code when we want to get something done. That’s totally normal and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. It took me ages to learn to ask whether we actually need more code to solve a problem or whether there’s a simpler workaround. What I wish more developers were taught in school is that our job is to solve problems, not to write code. Yes, sometimes writing custom code is the best solution to the problem, but sometimes a simple wordpress plugin or a cron job is all you need :)

The dining philosphers

Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.
Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

I read this article by Uncle Bob called The Lurn (it’s a companion piece to an earlier article of his called The Churn), where he mentioned a lot of topics that he thinks are more important for developers to learn about than just scrambling to keep up with the latest languages and frameworks (not that you shouldn’t learn a few of those, but you’re going to hit diminishing returns pretty quickly because not that many things are actually a meaningful leap forward and eventually you’re going to start seeing enough patterns that learning yet another slightly different framework just isn’t a good use of your time).

One of the topics he mentioned was the Dining Philosphers problem, which I’d never heard of so I went and looked it up. The problem (quoting wikipedia, of course) is:

Five silent philosophers sit at a round table with bowls of spaghetti. Forks are placed between each pair of adjacent philosophers.

Each philosopher must alternately think and eat. However, a philosopher can only eat spaghetti when they have both left and right forks. Each fork can be held by only one philosopher and so a philosopher can use the fork only if it is not being used by another philosopher. After they finish eating, they need to put down both forks so they become available to others. A philosopher can take the fork on their right or the one on their left as they become available, but cannot start eating before getting both of them.

Eating is not limited by the remaining amounts of spaghetti or stomach space; an infinite supply and an infinite demand are assumed.

The problem is how to design a discipline of behavior (a concurrent algorithm) such that no philosopher will starve; i.e., each can forever continue to alternate between eating and thinking, assuming that no philosopher can know when others may want to eat or think.

Yep, it’s a concurrency problem. Specifically, a deadlock problem. Just because it sounds like it should be simple to get all of our philosphers fed doesn’t mean it actually is. The simplest solution would be that each philosopher picks up the fork on their left and waits for the fork on their right to become available – which never happens because the philosopher to their right has already taken it and is waiting for the philosopher on their right to put down their fork.

Okay, so let’s give the philosophers a time limit. If you grab one fork but don’t get another one within five minutes, you put your fork down and wait five minutes, then try again. No dice :( This is something called a livelock (that link explains it particularly well), where all the philosophers grab one fork, wait five minutes, put their forks down, wait five more minutes, and try to get two forks again. Forever. It’s almost the same thing as a deadlock except that the processes can still try to do things, they just can’t actually accomplish anything.

That only happens if every philosopher has the same wait time, though. What if we assign each philosopher a different wait time? That sort of works, but the philosopher with the longest wait time is likely to get less spaghetti because they try to pick up a fork fewer times, and if they’re particularly unlucky may get no spaghetti at all. We could try random wait times too, but only if we wanted to tear our hair out trying to figure out why one process is super slow one day and fine the next. Random numbers are out to get you – if you generate enough of them, eventually you’re going to get a long streak of [insert least helpful result here] and the people trying to use the feature that never manages to get two forks will hate you.

Another solution is to number all the forks and tell the philosophers that they must pick up the lower numbered fork first when they need one. The philosophers each grab the lower numbered fork until we get to philosopher number five, who needs to take fork one before fork five, but fork one is already taken so they don’t take any forks. That leaves fork five available to philosopher four, who sets down forks four and five when they finish eating, which lets philosopher three take forks three and four, and so on around the table.

That actually works pretty well if you only ever need two forks, but if you take forks three and four, then discover you need fork one as well, you have to set down the forks you already have and start over again from two.

Yet another solution is to introduce a waiter and make the philosophers ask them for permission to take forks. The waiter only gives permission to one philosopher at a time to pick up forks, which is great in terms of preventing deadlock but kinda sucks if one philosopher needs forks two and three, and another one needs forks four and five and they can’t get permission to pick up forks at the same time even though they don’t want the same forks.

If you relax the constraint about philosophers talking to each other, there’s another solution: all the forks are either clean or dirty (and start out dirty), and all the philosophers are numbered. When two philosophers want the same fork, the lower numbered one gets it. Any philosopher can ask for a fork, and the philosopher who has it must hand it over if it’s dirty but keeps it if it’s clean. When a philosopher finishes eating, they clean their forks and set them down. This prevents deadlocks and fixes the problem of philosophers who haven’t eaten never getting a fork, but (there’s always a but) introduces more overhead in the form of making it possible for philosophers to talk to each other and keep track of who has which fork.

Those are by no means all the possible solutions, but the individual solutions – and there are plenty of them – are less important than the general point of the exercise, which is that concurrency is hard :) Specifically, it’s prone to weird edge cases and is hard to think about because there are so many moving parts.

And now we both know what the dining philosophers problem is all about.

Talk of the day: Be Awesome By Being Boring

Because I’m a Katrina Owen fan, I’ve watched a bunch of her talks. Recently I was watching her talk on Therapeutic Refactoring (it’s great and you should watch that one too), saw that it was from Cascadia Ruby Conf, and decided to see what other talks from that conference were recorded anywhere. One that grabbed my eye right away was called Be Awesome By Being Boring by John Hyland.

The gist of his talk is that “boring” (stable, commonly used, not shiny and new) technology is awesome because you can trust it, you can get help when you need it, and you can focus on building something useful instead of fighting with your tools.

Even if you’re a beginner programmer and nowhere near ready to worry about whether your production database is going to crash, it’s still good advice. Well known, commonly used tools are way easier to learn because they’ve been around long enough to have docs written for them and to have the majority of the bugs worked out of them, they’ve been used enough that somebody else has probably run into the same problem and asked about it on stackoverflow already, and because so many people use it, even if your exact question hasn’t been asked already somebody out there can answer it.

For example, take a look at the number of questions tagged Java on stackoverflow versus the number of Kotlin questions. When I wrote this post, Kotlin was closing in on 4k, where Java had 1.1 million. I’ve heard good things about Kotlin and I’m not saying it’s a bad language to learn, just that you’re going to find answers a lot more easily with the language that has over 200 times more presence on stackoverflow. Not that stackoverflow is the be all, end all of programming language popularity, but I think it’s a decent measure of how many people are using a language.

Be awesome by being boring, it’ll make your life easier!

WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux