How to Pass an Interview with Me

I do a lot of interviews. I mean, seriously, a lot of interviews. One a day is getting to be pretty normal.

I’ve read before Jeff Atwood’s classic “The Non-Programming Programmer,” and it’s still disturbingly valid, half a decade later: A very large percentage of the phone screens and in-person interviews I do are dismal, epic failures: The person can’t code, and, more significantly, doesn’t realize how poor their coding skills are.

Our dev shop is populated by really capable people. We get stuff done. Our flagship product has two and a half million lines of code in it — and growing — and there are a raft of satellite products orbiting not far from its gravitational well. And it’s not large because it’s wasteful; it’s large because that’s the smallest we could make it and still do what it needs to do.

And what that means is that if you want to join our staff, you have to know what you’re doing. We don’t have time to hand-hold. You need to be able to make stuff on your own. If you can’t deal with a business person giving you some abstract requirements and saying, “I need this in a month,” you’re not going to last. (Yes, we’re Agile, and we do plan better than that quote might imply, but a lot of stuff really boils down to, “Here’s a rough idea, go build it.”)

When you bomb out of our interviews, you’re actually doing yourself a favor. I know it seems like we’re being mean, but I swear we aren’t. In our initial interviews with you, we give you programming problems. Easy problems. These are all things that should have been homework in your Freshman or Sophomore year of college.

And any one of our current employees can do these problems in about five minutes. Literally. We’ve had phone screens that ran 15 minutes total. The reason we give these easy problems is because the real work is way harder. You’re never going to last in a two-million-line codebase full of graph algorithms and complex data structures if you can’t count letters in a string. We know this because we used to have weaker interviews, and people bombed out hard during the first month of employment afterward.

So here’s the deal. If you want to work for us, here are the critical parts:

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The latest: We’re expecting! The due date is the middle of February. First ultrasound looks good. Robin’s pretty sick a lot of the time, but there’s only a month left in the first trimester, and we’re hoping the nausea settles down after the first trimester like it did with Alan. She’s a lot sicker this time, and thinks that maybe that means we have a girl. Hard to say, but we’ll find out!

Alan keeps growing. He’s at the just-shy-of-terrible-twos now and exerting his independence by means of tantrum. (Lord help you if you want to change his diaper, or if you leave the room without his permission.) We took him to the zoo for the first time last weekend, and he was far more interested in the carousel than the animals. Ah, well. He recently learned that he can stack his alphabet blocks into towers, which has been highly entertaining to watch. Still no speech yet except for going “nyaah” when he sees a cat (it’s his “meow”), but with any luck, he’ll at least figure out “Mommy” and “Daddy” soon. He certainly knows what we’re saying, and nods (and waves his arms) and shakes his head (and waves his arms) to indicate “yes” and “no.”

What’s new in Smile-land? Back in April, I started rewriting the interpreter in C. It was never going to be fast enough in C#, and I always knew a C or C++ port would be necessary. I rejected C++ after a few attempts (more thoughts on that below). So far — well, I have a garbage collector and a working String object and a bunch of unit tests and that’s about it for the last three months. I only get an hour here or there at best to work on it. But Ben recently challenged me to have a minimally-usable interpreter by Christmas, and that’s put a little more fire under my butt to do something about it.

On C++

I rejected C++ because C++ is C++.

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ASP.NET WebForms Without The Suck

Time to Ruffle Some Feathers

ASP.NET MVC gets all the notoriety these days in the Microsoft web-programming world. ASP.NET WebForms is kind of the ugly stepchild, sitting in the back corner, mostly neglected. “Did you see WebForms last week? He was awful, just awful,” say the voices at the party. “But MVC! MVC is sooo elegant. And so smart! Did you hear she was given early admission at Dartmouth?”

Now, I’ve been coding for thirty years, and I’ve seen a lot of technologies, languages, and environments come and go. And Microsoft is a major, major offender in this category: They have a tendency of building these big, awful, overarching frameworks that make the U.S. Federal Government look under-managed, and then they drop them as soon as the Next Big Thing comes along. MFC was a horrendous mishmash of bad ideas that all managed to somehow end up in one ball of code. COM was a fever-driven acid nightmare that the computer industry has thankfully mostly wakened from. And VB — do I really even need to explain why VB is bad?

Which brings us to ASP.NET. Now I know that the original goal with it was to bring the VB WinForms programmers to the web and get them the heck off of the junky VB/C++/COM conglomerations that were killing Microsoft’s own abilities to fix issues in Windows itself. To that end, they came up with some clever abstractions that made the web sort-of vaguely smell like Windows programming for programmers who weren’t really clever enough or willing enough to get with the future.

And if you were offended by that last sentence, then you can stop reading right now, because this article is not for you.

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Computer Science vs. Programmers

I have a gripe.

Computer science is a branch of mathematics. It’s a powerful, amazing tool based on logic and reasoning and the work of giants. And it seems to get no respect from the programmers who blithely don’t realize they’re using it every day.

In the business world, programming problems are solved by either gluing preexisting stuff together or “just hack it until it works.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a colleague say, “Well, what if we just try this,” or “I know this trick,” or “I don’t know why that broke, maybe sunspots.” There seems to be little recognition of the value that computer science brings to the table: Everything is just tips and tricks and technologies, not reasoning and technique.

And if (like me) you’re one of the rare ones who uses computer science to solve a problem, it’s not attributed to all those proofs and techniques and hard science you learned: You’re just a “programming wizard.” It’s as if everybody around you is building houses out of pine, and they see you build a house out of stone and think you found really hard, strong pine somewhere. And worse, they then ask you to point out which trees you got it from.

I don’t understand this disconnect.

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C minus minus 11

I spent a little time yesterday reading through the changes to C++11.

Now, mind you, I’ve written a lot of code in C++, upwards of half a million lines of it: So I know all the intricacies of templates. I can use references and pointers safely. I can write const-correct code and overload operators without causing trouble. I know which parts of the language are sturdy and which are dangerously unsafe. I know how to aim the gun right next to my foot without actually striking it.

Now, I spent the last four years in C#, and that’s colored my opinions a bit. A lot of the stuff I used to have to work hard on in C++ is stupid-crazy-easy in C#, and not having to worry about freeing memory makes certain algorithms a few bajillion times simpler. But at the same time, I miss being able to control what winds up on the stack and determine where my memory gets allocated and when it gets freed. C++ gave me power, and sometimes I miss it.

So I think I’m at least somewhat qualified for talking about C++. And I went back to that language for the first time in a while yesterday and read up on what’s new.

I threw up in my mouth more than once.

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