Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: August 2006 (page 2 of 3)

Cool idea: homework assignments for job interviews

I just read a job listing for a couple of Perl programmers, and in addition the job description and the basic requirements of the job, it included two homework assignments. One was to explain why you’d use a certain programming construct in Perl, and another to explain how you’d solve a big refactoring problem that the employer must need to solve.

There are two objectives for any interview: to determine whether the person is qualified for the position in question and to determine whether the person is a good fit for the organization. The second is the easiest for me. After interviewing someone, I almost always know whether I’d enjoy working with them and whether they have the enthusiasm requisite for the job. The first is more difficult. I’ve tried a number of approaches in that regard, and I’ve not been satisfied completely with any of them.

The one I rejected first is the “trivia question” interview. I’ve been on the receiving end of this one more often than I’ve inflicted it on others. Basically you ask obscure questions with very specific answers and see if the person knows them. This is not useful for determining whether someone can develop software. I’ve also tried asking essay-type questions, like, “Explain how branches are used in the version control system of your choice.” I never feel entirely comfortable testing people that way, though. I think it’s perfectly valid and useful, but I don’t enjoy it.

Lately I’ve tried to go with what I’d call the interrogative questioning style, reviewing the person’s work experience with them. I ask them to describe projects they’ve worked on, digging deeper and deeper into the details to make sure that they really did what they claimed and figuring out whether they understand the things they claim to. I think this approach is very solid and I would encourage others to adopt it.

Another common approach (that I’ve been subjected to but haven’t used) is to ask problem solving questions that the interviewee must solve in real time. Long ago I interviewed with amazon.com and the interviewer asked questions in that vein. I think it’s effective but it’s very stressful, particularly when the interview is a phone interview. You have to take time to think about the answers, and it’s not pleasant to just sit there and think when you’re on the phone with someone.

The homework assignment is a form of the “problem solving” approach and augments the interrogative approach (or any other approach) very well. It lets the person solve the problems on their own time with all of the tools available to them that they normally have. (Asking someone to solve a problem while sitting in front of strangers and without the use of Google, books, or even having their hands on a keyboard is artificial and stressful.) By giving the assignment, the depth of their answer not only tells you something about their problem solving skills, but also about their degree of interest in the position. If they show up with a poor answer, either they aren’t qualified or they don’t care enough to deserve the job.

I’m eager for the opportunity to try out this approach.

Why African Americans can’t swim

A Florida House candidate has apologized for remarking that based on his experience, African Americans generally can’t swim. What fascinates me is that he has obviously not put any thought toward why that might be. In Baton Rouge, Lousiana’s city park, they have a swimming pool that’s been filled with dirt. It was open for public use until a federal court ruled that the pool must be opened to both blacks and whites. Rather than allow blacks to use the pool, the city chose instead to just fill it in. (A woman who was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace when she tried to integrate the pool was pardoned last year by Louisiana’s governor.) Maybe the fact that blacks in his home state of Alabama often didn’t know how to swim should have inspired a bit of reflection on Tramm Hudson’s part.

The next step with the Pebl

I’ve been using the Motorola Pebl I bought on eBay for a couple of weeks now with much success. I am able to call people, sync the address book with my computer, check my voice mail, and access the Web. The phone still has the wrong menu entries (they’re for the Italian mobile carrier) and some wallpapers from the Italian mobile carrier. It’s also missing a menu item mentioned in the manual which allows you to let your carrier set the time on your phone. It also has an issue where the phone gets a strange text message every time a call goes to voice mail. I assume the network is sending a message to the phone that it’s supposed to handle transparently but instead just sticks in my in box.

At this point, I’m beyond doing stuff mentioned in the manual and on to hacking the phone to get it to work properly with Cingular. Next stop, phone modding web sites like The Moto Guide. I’ll report on how it goes.

Fun with numbers

The Foreign Policy blog describes a new “terrorist detector” that the TSA is considering adding at airports. Basically, you sit in the machine and answer questions while hooked up to sensors of some kind. It uses answers and measurements to determine whether you’re “afraid of being caught.”

What’s interesting to me is that they claim an 85% success rate. That sounds atrocious to me. You can read that a number of ways, but let’s say they’re speaking plainly and the machine returns the correct result (“terrorist” or “not terrorist”). For starters, that means that the machine says that 1 in 6 or 1 in 7 people who sit in the machine will be flagged as a terrorist when they’re not.

There haven’t been any terrorist attacks on US domestic flights since 9/11 and there haven’t been any terrorist attacks on US bound flights since Richard Reid’s shoe bombing attempt. Is a machine that says that 1 in 6 travelers are probably terrorists really useful?

This, of course, is one of the many problems with racial profiling as well. Profile any race, age group, religion, or astrological sign and you still find that very few members of the group are terrorists, because the number of actual terrorists is miniscule.

Security theater

Let me get this straight: the British authorities had been tracking a cell of would-be terrorists for nearly a year, and had appraised the US government of the threat months ago. Furthermore, they have known for some time that the terrorist plot involved the use of liquid explosives, a potential means of attack that was already well known to law enforcement. Pakistan arrests affiliates of the British cell, so the British authorities move in and arrest the locals before they figure out that the jig is up.

Only upon the arrests do transportation officials impose radical new security measures for airline passengers? Why now? Is the threat of attack via liquid explosives suddenly higher now that the active cell working on such an attack has been neutralized? Why not impose these measures months ago when the cell members had not yet been captured and such an attack was thought to be in the offing? I guess I don’t get the point.

Jon Carroll on bloggers

I think he’s exactly right when he says:

It is not clear that bloggers had much real impact on the Connecticut primary, but they’re a new wild card in the political process, and that makes them a story. I have always appreciated the fierce independence of bloggers, and I fear that, as they accumulate influence, they’ll be co-opted in the classic capitalist way. (As soon as bloggers really influence elections, Rupert Murdoch will begin buying them by the long ton.)

It seemed to me unwise for Markos Moulitsas to have starred in a TV campaign commercial for Lamont. It seems he wants to be a Player, and being a Player is not compatible with fierce independence. Experience suggests that, somewhere along the line, there’s a price for seeking power. The price could be a loss of credibility, or a cringe-inducing compromise, or something else. I’m not saying it’s happened or it will happen; I’m saying that’s what experience suggests.

Status reports

I wanted to solicit some advice regarding status reports. Let’s say you’re managing a project with several participants. Do you require them to submit weekly status reports?

I am of two minds about this. On one hand, I can see where the reports would be useful. It would be interesting to have a list of what people are working on and the problems they’re running into all in one place. On the other hand, I have always hated writing status reports and swore to myself that I would never make anyone write them.

My philosophy was that by providing people with good collaborative tools, you wouldn’t need to force them to spend time writing status reports. We have an issue tracking system that we use to organize our work, and a version control system that is hooked up to a mailing list for commits. So I know exactly who’s checking in which files and which issues they’re closing at all times. That obviates the need for a lot of the stuff ordinarily found in status reports.

What I’m wondering though is whether getting rid of the obvious stuff may lead to the production of more useful status reports, rather than eliminating the need for them completely. Do you find status reports to be essential? What should go in a good status report?

Platform vendors and shareware developers

Over at O’Reilly Radar Nat Torkington debunks an argument that I was once very sympathetic toward, which is that Apple (and other platform vendors) are evil when they incorporate features into the operating system that are provided by third party software vendors. In this case, the argument specifically revolves around small third party shareware applications that make using an operating system more livable.

Nat makes a variety of arguments about this, but to me, it all comes down to one thing. If you create an application that makes a platform easier to deal with, you can expect it to become part of the platform at some point. Not because the platform vendor wants to eat small software developers, but because no matter how good your shareware application is, all of the users of an operating system will never download and install it, but it very well might be useful to everyone. To survive in that ecosystem, you have to expect that the platform vendor is going to be coming after your features, and the better and more useful those features are, the sooner the platform vendor is going to make them part of the platform.

How Apple and other companies work this out with their developers so that people keep writing cool software for their platform is a business matter. One thing’s for sure, this is not a new problem. Dave Winer wrote Platform is a Chinese Household over ten years ago. Apple (and Microsoft) have certainly incorporated thousands of features that have also appeared in shareware products since then. The wheel continues to turn.

Nikon D50 afield

Last weekend I took my first real trip with the Nikon D50 in tow, a few impressions follow.

First of all, the pictures it takes are wonderful. I find myself to be lacking as a photographer, but I certainly can’t blame the tool. The pictures are sharp, the colors are great, and the indoor photos came out very well. (I never worry about outdoor photos, pretty much any camera will take good pictures on a sunny day.)

For whatever reason, I forgot to use any of the camera’s features. The D50 has all of the features you’d expect from an SLR in terms of allowing you to control your exposure, and it has some idiot modes that you can set to take pictures of various types of scenes. I didn’t use any of them. (In fact, I forgot that I could use them and I think I took all of my photos in “close up” mode.) Next time I’ll do better.

Ken Rockwell has an excellent supplemental manual for the D50 that he’s published online. I read that when I got back from my trip, and I think I’m equipped to take better photos next time. I’ll probably review it again immediately before using the camera next time, just so I don’t forget everything I’m supposed to know.

One thing I really missed was having a telephoto lens. Ordinarily a normal lens is fine for what I use a camera for, but there were a number of opportunities to take some interesting photos with a telephoto lens, and I didn’t have one. I also missed having a wide angle lens, just because I enjoy taking wide angle photos. I had all of those lenses for my film SLR but I sold them with the camera, mainly because the wide angle lens for a 35mm camera would have been a normal lens on my D50. New lenses are expensive, though, and there’s no good reason to invest in them when I’m still using my D50 the way most people use disposable cameras from the drug store.

Update: Looks like I’m not the only person who doesn’t know how to get the most out of their expensive toy.


I’m going on a short trip over the weekend, so activity will be lacking around here until next Tuesday. The good news (for me) is that I’ll be escaping the stifling heat for a few days.

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