Let Them Perish


Last week, Red Queen Coder’s blog post about iOS job interviews was discussed a lot. The interviewers asked her to sketch how to implement a linked list on a whiteboard. She couldn’t. And thinks it is pointless. (I agree.) But then people on social media responded that she should just learn (that is: memorize) that kind of stuff to get a good job. Read her transcript, it’s a well-written story of how a job interview and the onslaught by narrow-minded people who defend the status quo (and their own status as the establishment) made her wonder what’s wrong with the community at large.

When I studied sociology at University, there was a nice figure of speech; the German term is “Stallgeruch”. A translation seems to be farmyard smell, though “barn smell” would be the literal translation. In English, the figurative translation is “being from the same stable.”

That’s what interviews are good for: to filter out participants who don’t match. Their smell is too different from the rest of the animals, so to speak. Every entry barrier is a means toward that end, interviews being only one way of many. Employing anybody without assessing their skill somehow would be nuts. I don’t want to hire my neighbor as developer for my team – he’s a janitor. I want to make sure I get a developer who fits the task. Putting up some sort of filter or entry barrier is mandatory.

Red Queen Coder mixes up a few things, as is Russ Bishop in his blog post reply (which I recommend you read, too). Russ argues that formalized interviews are bad predictors of job performance. It seems both are accusing companies and recruiters to do a bad job at hiring good people. But that’s not really the point.

I am rather lazy and would be kind of pissed were I to travel to, say, Munich (5+ hours of train travel), only to be presented with pointless interview questions. What a waste of time, indeed! But neither RedQueenCoder nor Russ Bishop is annoyed by stupid interviews alone. They don’t complain that their time got wasted. (Merely venting these feelings would be a boring story, too, by the way.) Instead, they complain that these companies are doing a bad job.

Let them continue, I say.

Nobody has a right to be employed. We don’t just deserve good jobs.

We struggle to find a good fit – or we “go indie” and create our own future.

I don’t know what’d have happened if I hadn’t thought about job interviews this week, but were I to be interviewed in the future, I’d laugh and leave if the recruiters asked me to sketch a linked list algorithm. Because, honestly, what good a fit is that company? Let them continue, and let them perish. It’s their responsibility to keep the business alive, not mine.

“The community” doesn’t appear broken to me, either. This year, I got in touch with a bunch of developers around the world. I hang around in iOS developer Slack channels with amazing people. I went to my first conference and talked to folks and had a great time. All of these people seem to be genuinely nice. It’s not the community per se which is sick. It’s business. That’s only natural, since a company is not not a human being. It’s part of economy (as a social system), operating to the code of profit. If you and I talk to each other, our topics may shift and we may get to know each other from different angles; to a company, you’re only a means to its ends. Interviewers play the role of gate-keepers. They may as well be sexually attracted to you, for example, but that doesn’t change the company’s perspective a teeny bit. (As long as they do their job properly, that it.)

People make a difference. Small teams looking for friendly and skilled people can show their attitude. A 1000+ people corporation has no face to show. If you end up flabbergasted because an interview was shit, you may just as well have tried to seize the wrong opportunity.

A few months ago, I skyped with 3 folks from The Soulmen, makers of Ulysses, who are still looking to expand the team. Founder Max Seeleman and 2 developers (I think it was Friedrich and Götz) were on the call. Relaxed, smiling. They were friendly and we chatted about our plans and expectations. When I met them in person at a conference, I still found them to be very likable. They are a crucial part of the team and do a good job representing … themselves. They are the team. There’s not much of a role they have to play. Of course I don’t know either of them from the perspective of a family member, say. I got to know them a bit as developers. If you’re looking to be part of a team of developers, that’s all you need to know: can you like the people and can you relate to their work? The Soulmen as a team isn’t fragmented like a big organization. It makes no sense to even try to say the same for a company that scaled well beyond 30 or so people and begins to establish hierarchy. You start as a team; if you scale up, you end up with an organization where people may not know each other in person anymore.

Formalized interviews are part of bureaucracy. Formalization itself is a crucial part of bureaucracy and thus organization. It helps to reduce uncertainty. It helps form expectations about the outside world. The Soulmen, for example, don’t have to formalize the process; they have the luxury of being small enough to just get to know people and then see if things work out. It’s personal. A company or organization cannot be personal, because there’s no representative persona available. Heroes don’t count, either. Apple wasn’t Steve Jobs. In a company, your closest co-workers matter more than other departments. That’s part of human group-think, I guess. If a single group is all there is, if the company is really a small team, things look totally different.

Sure, bad interviews are bad filters. The organization will suffer from them. It’s not our problem, though.

As a side-effect of bad interviews, talented and well-spirited people feel bad for being treated like a commodity. I can relate to that. But that’s the world we created for ourselves over the last 200 years. It’s not pretty. I don’t like the way things work. But you know what? I like to develop apps. And I’m struggling to survive. Literally. I live below the poverty line for years now. I understand this is a risk not everyone wants to take. I don’t believe “getting a job” is a viable solution for folks like me, though. Even if the interview process isn’t stupid, the work may turn out to be a drag. Because organizations cannot offer fulfillment. They use your time and skill and trade it for money. Being indie offers a totally different perspective. Teams like The Soulmen do, too. You may find fulfillment there; a place where you can express yourself through the work you do. Organizations which conduct formalized interviews at all, not so much.

So let these corporations continue their stupid practice. It’s not your business or responsibility. Worrying about stuff outside your circle of influence only drains energy. I’m not here to advise corporations how to recruit really talented people. You probably aren’t, either. I believe in talented and inspired developers, though, as developers, not as cogs in a machinery. I want to empower developers to learn, to become better at what they do. No computer science degree required. I don’t care if my writing helps getting a job because I don’t care about jobs. If you worry about being employable, you worry about the wrong end of the stick.

This isn’t an elitist speaking. Quite the contrary. If you had to categorize me, you’d say I’m a punk, not at all part of the establishment. I don’t think economy at large has anything to offer for people. That’s why I say: let them perish, let them burn, then fill the holes with something better.

Being a working-class child myself, I know how much effort it takes to break out of the system of beliefs which puts employment first, “making” a family second, and recreation and luxury third. (Where’s self-expression on that list, pa? How does spending all your waking hours for someone else’s goals give you satisfaction, mom? I think I know what makes you sad and feel excavated: it’s our heritage itself.) Changing attitude can be done. And if you’re done, you don’t care about a stupid job interview anymore.

My best friend’s father used to say: tell me, why should the mighty oak tree worry when a boar rubs its back on its bark? You can’t hide from the boars out there; but you can grow strong enough to not be shaken by their behavior.

Let them continue their practice. It’s a process like evolutionary selection; find out on which side you want to stand in the process. Things will be fine if you figured that out. One way or another.

Let them continue, and let them perish. You’re better than that.

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