Better Programmer Interviews

April 14th, 2011 Business, Programming, Project Management

One of my former co-workers wrote some of his thoughts on crappy interview questions as well as some advice on improving the situation. My latest job was the first time I had to write code during the interview. It was interesting although I think the problem was a bit trivial. The thing I liked about it was that it started with an OOAD design question about a specific problem and then segued into you coding your solution. It was kind of a nice "eat your own design dog food while I watch" moment.

However, when I read the post I mentioned above it occurred to me that you might be able to use open source projects to improve on this a bit. The idea I had was to use an open source library on which you depend and have the interviewee either address a bug or add a feature that you've wanted. This can easily be a take home type of question as well. The plus is you get to do a code review on their submission and get a feature you want. The open source software community benefits as well. It's just wins all around, baby!

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Austin Java Developer Job Market

August 23rd, 2010 Humor

I stopped getting paid some time in late January of 2010. My "former" company still paid for my health care while they hoped to bring me back on "very soon." Between then and roughly the beginning of July I kind of just hung out and piddled around. I wrote an Android game for the hell of it (still haven't bothered publishing it), read a few books, and played a ton of Call of Duty.

Around the beginning of July my company decided it "wasn't fair" to me to pay for my health care any longer. I think it took them that long to realize that I have an amazing ability to sit on my ass and do nothing as long as I have health care.

Since the beginning of July I've been looking for a Java developer position in the Austin area. That is, I put my resume (sans funny accented characters) up on a couple of job sites and have been mostly waiting for recruiters to come to me. Okay, so I was only half looking. Through an ex-coworker I landed a 100% telecommute contracting job for the time being. Meanwhile, I thought I'd write up a brief summary of what it's like to deal with the recruiters that find you on both Dice and Monster (soon to be referred to as "D&M").

One Job List to Find Them…

Apparently 95% of the recruiters on D&M get their jobs from the same source. They just spam emails and calls to any candidates that even come close. That means for any one position you will receive calls from about a dozen recruiters trying to fill the very same position. Given the recruiters' often complete absence of any kind of technical understanding they can't even screen me properly. I'm not sure what value they're adding or if they ever even successfully place a candidate.

Hi! My name is.. (what?) My name is.. (who?)

The next thing that gets me is that about 75% of the recruiters using D&M are located in New Jersey and are originally from another country guessing from their accents. I'd guess from their names (Adwait, Aneesh, Kaushal, Kavitha, Prashant, Raghu, Raj, Rajiv, Susheel, Tervinder) that it may be India. This means they apparently 1) don't know how big Texas is, 2) don't know how big the United States is, and 3) can't read the words "I am not willing to relocate" on my resume. As such I get a lot of inquiries about jobs that would require anywhere from a 3 hour commute all the way up to a whopping 27 hour commute. That's a hell of a drive. They seem honestly surprised each of the 12 times a day that I explain to each of them that Austin is 3 hours away from Dallas. It's an honest mistake.

The other thing is that I typically get an email followed immediately by a call from the same person. They're really hot and heavy to talk to me. Once I explain that I'm not interested I get a call back from the exact same person about 10% of the time. I guess he lost his place on his call sheet.

The Crown Prince of AT&T Needs My Help

And finally there are those impossible to fill jobs. AT&T and Bank of America are hiring in the area. Due to their complicated, highly corporate rehire screening policy all recruiters with thick foreign accents are required to get social security numbers from all prospects as soon as humanly possible. For some reason this feels weird to me so I've never gotten to see what happens if I actually give my SSN to them. But since these jobs must pay a premium to the recruiter and are all but unfillable due to the SSN requirement they account for about 10% of all calls by themselves.

But You Seem So Normal

On the plus side I get about one call per week from someone that honestly seems to know what they're talking about regardless of where they're located or from. They can ask all the right questions, seem to understand my answers, and actually ask what it is I'm looking for. Unfortunately they just don't have any opportunities in which I'm interested. If you are good and are willing to work (yet again) for a dysfunctional organization you can get a job in about 4 weeks. If you're willing to work a little cheaper than what you're worth then you can probably trim that down to 2 weeks.

So in case any of you were wondering, it seems to be a pretty okay time to be looking for software development work in Austin.

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An Embarrassment of Fixes

August 14th, 2010 Humor

I finally broke down and picked up a copy of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 for the XBox. I do love me some multi-player first person shooters. When you try to play online multi-player the game attempts to connect to EA's servers. Unfortunately I could not for the life of me connect. I tried multiple times, reset my XBox, reset my router, etc. A couple of minutes of Google searches led me to this little gem. It says that the EA proposed fix for this problem is to disconnect from XBox Live, reset your system clock to 2005, log back into XBox Live, and then try the multi-player mode again. It sounds stupid but I tried it and it actually worked.

As a programmer I feel embarrassed for EA. That's a stupid fix. That's the best they can do? As someone interested in user experience I feel even more embarrassed for them. Any hope of using your product right out of the box requires someone to either Google around for this idiotic fix or to contact your support group and have them suggest this idiotic fix. That blows. I would think a company of that size could do better. The best case scenario for any hope of a defense is to somehow claim that Microsoft is to blame. That'd be a stretch since every other online multi-player game I have works right out of the box. Oh well.

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MP3s and Ratings

August 13th, 2010 Business, Community Management, Entertainment, General, Programming, Random Thoughts, Technical

Don't you hate when you put ratings on most of the songs in your massive music library only to find that you need to do it again when you switch players? On Ubuntu I use Banshee which allows you to save ratings to the ID3 tag right in the MP3 file. That means those ratings are available from any Banshee player. Nice.

The problem is that I'm working a contract gig that sort of requires Windows (well, they think they do at least) and I don't fully trust the port in progress of Banshee to Windows. So, I'm using iTunes (which I hate). I think it'd be nice if other players could use that same custom ID3 tag to use the ratings but I realize that many people have an issue with subjective information (the ratings) being stored in a repository meant to store common supposedly objective information about the song itself. Then there's the whole issue of standardizing on the custom tag. In a perfect world more stuff would use a plugin based design and you could simply write an extension to get the ratings from wherever you wanted.

A simple import / export to an agreed upon format could also sort of solve the problem but you can't get people to agree on things and you would then have some annoying synchronization issues. I think it'd be swell if something like last.fm acted as that song and ratings repository since they're a bit of a de facto standard supported by most MP3 players. It seems simple to stick the rating in there when you scrobble whatever you're listening to. Then it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to an import / export to get up and running. It also feels like it'd add some value to their existing service. Somebody get on that…

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The Tech That Should Not Be

August 12th, 2010 Business, Community Management, Entertainment, General, Technical

I just read this post about a thing called the Espresso Book Machine that allows a bookstore to print a fully bound book in minutes. The idea is that they could print an out of stock book for you rather than ordering it.

I have mixed emotions about this. Nothing pisses me off more than going to an old fashioned bookstore in search of some instant gratification only to find that they don't have the book I'm looking for. "We can order it for you," they say. Well, I can order it for me too. Only, when I order it for me it comes to my house and not to your stupid little store (and I don't pay sales tax (or shipping fees usually (nested parens FTW))). This print on demand idea seems pretty boner inducing on the surface.

Unfortunately the kinds of technology that make this dream possible also instantly make it unnecessary. In a world where this machine can acquire and store the number of books required to make it useful it has already been replaced by the ability to instantly purchase, download, and read the book on an e-reader without leaving my precious home or touching any dirty, sweaty money. Sure it will probably still be successful but only because of the Luddite fetishists that insist on consuming their information the old fashioned way.

This whole thing reminds me of those stupid redbox DVD dispensaries. In any sane world they would have never existed. I have a relatively high speed Internet connection and an abundance of digital cash. Can't I just instantly stream those movies directly to my viewer of choice for a the same reasonable price? Ah, the devil's in the (bold) details. I have a variety of ways to pseudo instantly watch movies but the only reasonably priced option is Netflix. Unfortunately their instant queue selection needs a little work. Knock down that barrier and the only benefit of redbox is to satisfy weirdos that reached for the technological dream and missed, coming up with a beer in one hand and their disk in the other.

I digress. To sum up, in a perfect world everything would be peer reviewed, indexed, searchable, remixable, and digitally available from the comfort of my own home. I could watch new movies on my own television without someone kicking the back of my seat or mistaking the theater for open mic night at the Laughatorium. "And I wanna be rich. You know, someone important … like an actor."

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Job Postmortem #2

August 3rd, 2010 Business, Community Management, General, Java, Random Thoughts

About the Company

Now that I'm done with my current job it's again time to reflect on what I learned and what went wrong. I've changed the names to protect the innocent. I spent about 2 years at "Company V." They make a retirement planning tool. It allows you to do some nice "what if" scenarios to determine whether or not you're on track to do all those things you dream of someday doing after you retire. It's much more sophisticated than the crappy one or two question forms on the website of most financial planning companies.

It's a great idea in my opinion. It has a lot of potential. For the record, I like the people at Company V and I love the product idea. I just think things could be better.

Now for the lessons. I won't bother talking about the many issues I had about software development methodology at Company V. Instead I'll just talk about the product side of things.

Analytics, Stupid

The first is a simple one: collect some fucking analytics. Any discussion about how important a feature is, why people aren't signing up, which type of sign up button is more attractive are all bullshit if you don't have some way of collecting data about your visitors. We collected almost zero data about our visitors. What was our conversion rate? Fuck if I know. How many people abandoned the sign up process once they saw all of the data we required? Fuck if I know. That's the answer to every one of those questions because there's no goddamn data.

I can't talk about analytics as well as these two videos: Startup Metrics for Pirates and Web App Marketing Metrics. They're pretty short and definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

Multiple Masters

Company V has two very different target customers. Home users and financial advisors. If you are serving two very disparate customer types you will wind up with some very serious conflicts. Each customer type is a reason not to do something for the other customer or a great way to more than double your effort in the rare case you actually get to work on a feature.

In the case of Company V it was that they have a feature called "offline mode." This allowed financial advisors to take their laptop to locations where they don't have an Internet connection and sit down with a customer, going over their retirement plan. This was accomplished via a desktop application written in Java.

Getting Java working on someone's computer is an unnecessary hurdle and places without Internet connections only exists in movies. Offline mode is not useful to the home user. I would argue that it's not sufficiently useful to the financial advisor either. However, it was a feature that kept us from doing a lot of cool stuff because we had to have it. Yes, this feature could be accomplished in a better way but the need to keep the feature presented unnecessary overhead and complexity in my opinion.

Too Many Hurdles

There's just too much shit for someone to do before they can use the product. They have to sign up for an account, install the Java plug-in, download the application (or launch the applet) which is over 100 megabytes, and figure out how to use your product.

The more of those steps you can eliminate the better. Each one of those steps throws away half of your potential users. They just go bye-bye. The observant reader will realize that I just pulled that number out of my ass since Company V doesn't collect that kind of data. Prove me wrong.

The Things I'd Do

Short and sweet. Here's a list of things I would have done that I firmly believe would make for a better product for Company V.

Web App

Easy. Ditch the desktop application and make it a web application. Use something like GWT so you can get some good use out of your current Java development staff and have a relatively rich UI for your user. No installation on your computer, no downloading. Nice. You could even use Gears to get some workable solution for offline mode.

Use It Before You Register

If you have that nice web application, let people start making their retirement plan without even signing up. Just start using the product. Of course it would be nice if your product guided people through unfamiliar territory, but that's a given.

Once you've proven your value to them then you can try and get them to create an account if that's really your sort of thing.

Don't Even Register

Even better is to let them sign in with their Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, or OpenID login. Create an imperfect, incomplete profile off of whatever data you've got and bug them later to fill in the blanks. So what if you don't have their email address? Why the hell do you want to email them anyway?

Stop Emailing People

We collected email as part of the registration so we could bother our customers. Why? If you have a product announcement or a change in your training schedule why not just Tweet it? Or post an update on your product's Facebook page? Fine, let them put in their email if they want to be updated that way or need a password reminder (assuming they aren't using a 3rd partly authentication mechanism), but don't demand it.

Be the Tool

With retirement planning there are a lot of financial advisors that blog about how cool they are and how huge their planning penises are. We should have helped them do that. Our web app should have allowed embedding of whole or partial plans into web pages. If you want to show the benefits of a 529 savings plan create a couple of portfolios and embed the relevant portions into your blog. Company V would have a teeny tiny link in there so they get a little free press and the financial planner gets a tool that makes displaying unwieldy information a little easier. It's one of those win-win things I hear so much about.

Be the Tool Part 2

If you go to a financial planner they need to ask you roughly 3500 questions (I made that up) to determine the current state of your financial clusterfuck. Company V helped them do this by creating a PDF that was 10 megabytes and 40 pages long. The advisor would email it to the potential customer, pray it doesn't bounce because it's fucking huge, the customer would print it out, fill out the relevant portions, take it to the financial advisor who then hands it off to some data entry monkey to type into our desktop application. Simple, no?

Yeah, to hell with that. Use the no registration web application to allow the financial advisor to email, host, whatever a guided process to determine the relevant data and collect it directly from the user and dump it straight into the Company V application. The advisor has access to it immediately and the end user doesn't see most of those irrelevant questions. Throw in some tracking codes so the advisor can see the ROI for different ad campaigns. Let the advisor create a special URL that they can include in every email signature or even print right on their business card that takes the potential customer right to where they need to go. You get the idea.

Nice Ideas, But…

In fairness Company V thought some of my ideas were good. They just weren't good enough to actually do. There was no shortage of excuses. We have to keep offline mode, there are more important features to work on, who's going to pay for the development, etc. I still think each of these is potentially a great idea in general and for Company V especially. My next task is to find a place to work that agrees with me.

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I Wish They Made This

August 2nd, 2010 Business, Community Management, Entertainment, Random Thoughts

Rhapsody is a music subscription service. For $10 a month you can stream music to your computer from their pretty massive catalog. It seems like a nice idea but I don't actually use it. I'm not sure why not. Anyway. I do love me some Guitar Hero (pretend I said Rock Band if your allegiances lie elsewhere). I would gladly pay a monthly fee to get access to a huge catalog of GH ready songs.

I know that Rock Band has opened up their tool set to allow independent bands to create RB tracks (and simultaneously get raped by an unfair split) but they're still selling the individual songs. I want to drink from the fire hose! Are there technical hurdles? Sure but that's not my problem. See, I'm an idea man, Chuck.

Yes, they can continue to release a new "game" every quarter or so and have a 50/50 chance of getting my $50, but wouldn't it be better to screw me out of $10 or $15 every month like clockwork? I think so.

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Recreating Foreign Keys in MySQL

October 20th, 2009 Programming, SQL, Technical

The short version of this story is that I had a test server that was inadvertently configured to use the MyISAM engine of MySQL. This engine doesn't support foreign keys. It will quietly ignore your attempts to add them. I meant to use the InnoDB engine (which does support foreign keys). Of course, who hasn't done that? Am I right?

I fixed the engine problem quickly enough. Next I wanted to take a version of our production / dev / whatever that had the foreign keys and export the necessary "alter table" statements to add them to the fixed version of the test database. I couldn't find anything so I whipped up this SELECT statement to generate a script based on my limited understanding of MySQL. If it helps someone else then great.

SELECT concat('ALTER TABLE `',  table_name, '` ADD CONSTRAINT `', CONSTRAINT_NAME, '` FOREIGN KEY (`', column_name, '`) REFERENCES `', referenced_table_name, '`(`', referenced_column_name, '`);') from information_schema.key_column_usage where referenced_table_name is not null and constraint_schema = 'ourserverdb' order by table_name, column_name

This of course results in a whole bunch of rows of the form:

ALTER TABLE `licensekeys` add constraint `FK_keysIssuerId__appuserId` FOREIGN KEY (`issuer_id`) REFERENCES `app_user`(`id`);
ALTER TABLE `subscription` add constraint `FK_subscription_entity_group_id__entityGroupId` FOREIGN KEY (`entity_group_id`) REFERENCES `entityGroup`(`id`);
ALTER TABLE `user_role` add constraint `FK_userRoleRoleId__roleId` FOREIGN KEY (`role_id`) REFERENCES `role`(`id`);

From there it's just a little copy / paste into MySQL command prompt and I'm done. Incidentally mysqldump with the --no-data flag didn't do quite what I wanted since the foreign key creation is in the middle of a CREATE TABLE statement. There are surely other ways to do this but this is what worked for me.

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Shell Scripting Madness

October 16th, 2009 Java, Programming, Technical

Every now and then I bask in the beauty of the simple things. I'm not talking about children smiling, flowers, or any of that other crap. Shell scripting, baby! Today I had to move some SQL statements in some XML document into a Java class. So I needed to change this (which I didn't write):

SELECT CASE
    WHEN primaryStartAge < 20  THEN ' 0 to 19'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 20 AND 29 THEN '20 to 29'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 30 AND 39 THEN '30 to 39'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 40 AND 49 THEN '40 to 49'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 50 AND 59 THEN '50 to 59'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 60 AND 69 THEN '60 to 69'
	WHEN primaryStartAge > 70 THEN '70 and up'
	END as "Primary Start Age Range",
	count(1) as "Count" FROM analyticsResults
	WHERE calculatorType like ?
	GROUP BY CASE
	WHEN primaryStartAge < 20  THEN ' 0 to 19'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 20 AND 29 THEN '20 to 29'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 30 AND 39 THEN '30 to 39'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 40 AND 49 THEN '40 to 49'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 50 AND 59 THEN '50 to 59'
	WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 60 AND 69 THEN '60 to 69'
	WHEN primaryStartAge > 70 THEN '70 and up'
END
ORDER BY 1 ASC

to something like this (which I still didn't write):

"SELECT CASE "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge < 20  THEN ' 0 to 19' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 20 AND 29 THEN '20 to 29' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 30 AND 39 THEN '30 to 39' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 40 AND 49 THEN '40 to 49' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 50 AND 59 THEN '50 to 59' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 60 AND 69 THEN '60 to 69' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge > 70 THEN '70 and up' "
            + "    END as \"Primary Start Age Range\", "
            + "    count(1) as \"Count\" FROM analyticsResults "
            + "    WHERE calculatorType like ? "
            + "    GROUP BY CASE "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge < 20  THEN ' 0 to 19' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 20 AND 29 THEN '20 to 29' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 30 AND 39 THEN '30 to 39' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 40 AND 49 THEN '40 to 49' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 50 AND 59 THEN '50 to 59' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge BETWEEN 60 AND 69 THEN '60 to 69' "
            + "    WHEN primaryStartAge > 70 THEN '70 and up' "
            + "END "
            + "ORDER BY 1 ASC";

I could copy and paste and fix it manually, use a text editor with regex search and replace, or something equally bland. Since it was Friday though i decided to treat myself and do it from a Cygwin shell. This got me close enough and made me giddy with satisfaction:

getclip |sed -e 's/"/\\"/g' -e 's/^/"/g' -e 's/$/ " +/g' |putclip

This grabs the contents of the clipboard, replaces all quotes with escaped quotes, replaces the beginning of each line with a double quote, and replaces the end of each line with a space / double quote / space / plus combo. It then sticks it back into the clipboard. It's not fancy, it could be better, but it was a minor bright point. And thanks to Cygwin it happened in Windows. Sort of.

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Usability: Suspending and Resuming Shuffle

August 25th, 2009 Humor

So I'm actually using my old iPod again rather than using the ultra-fantastic Pandora (highly recommended by the way) and I had an idea for a feature it should have. Keep in mind I'm several generations behind on my personal media player so this may be in the current iteration. What I'd like to be able to do is suspend shuffle mode, listen to a few songs by the artist that came up in shuffle, and finally resume shuffle mode. That's it. I can do this but it requires navigating through multiple menus. Not so convenient.

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