Mel Reams


What does being an experienced developer actually mean?

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I was poking around in /r/javahelp, saw a question about something I haven’t personally done, and found what I strongly suspect was the answer right away.  I try to explain how I found the answer when I answer questions like that because “oh it’s _____” isn’t really that helpful in the long term. I mean, what is the question asker supposed to do next time if I’m busy or sick or on vacation?

But how do you explain “well obviously that’s a_____ problem”? I can explain that I googled a thing and didn’t get very helpful results so I googled another thing and found what I needed, but not how I knew what to search for in the first place.

The closest I can come to explaining how I recognize problems is a term I recently learned from Katrina Owen‘s talk Cultivating Instinct. That term is perceptual learning, which according to Wikipedia is:

learning better perception skills such as differentiating two musical tones from one another or categorizations of spatial and temporal patterns relevant to real-world expertise as in reading, seeing relations among chess pieces, knowing whether or not an X-ray image shows a tumor.

After you’ve worked with enough code and seen enough different kinds of problems, you just kind of know what the answer is (or at least a few things it could be) when you see a new problem. And that, finally, is what being an experienced programmer really means. It’s not about some magical level of skill or about instantly knowing the perfect solution for every problem or even finally feeling like you know what you’re doing, it’s just about having seen enough problems that you end up with a library of them in your head.

I can’t tell you how long that will take but on the upside I can tell you it will definitely happen if you just keep coding. Okay, there are people with “ten years of experience” who really just have one year ten times, but if you care enough about programming to bother reading my blog, you’re not one of them.

Another part of being an experienced programmer is that once you feel confident about getting your code to do what you wanted, you sort of move up a level and start worrying about whether it’s a good idea to do it that way. That’s where people with one year of experience ten times really fall down, they can make things work but can’t make them maintainable. Getting to the point where you worry about the right way to do things takes a little more deliberate effort, but the most important step is just to care about whether it’s possible to change your code.

Once you’re past struggling to get your for loops to work and once you’re past feeling totally overwhelmed by starting a new project, it’s really tempting to think that you’re done, you’re a “real” programmer now and there’s nothing else you need to learn. But if you stop there, not only will you never be a very good programmer, but more importantly you’ll miss out on one of my favourite parts of programming, which is figuring out how to design things so you won’t curse your name in six months when you need to change them. For me that’s way more fun than Strings and Arrays.

All this is to say that if you’re a beginner programmer and you see a job posting looking for developers with x years of experience, all they really want is someone who can reliably get things to work (not necessarily immediately) and who knows a bad idea when they see one. If you can do that, go ahead and apply. It’s not unusual for job postings to be more of a wishlist than a list of what the job actually requires, anyway :)

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 :)

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