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Monday, October 20, 2014

The "family" objection

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We recently held a panel titled “Software development is a team sport: Women In Technology” at Houston TechFest in Houston and Austin CodeCamp in Austin, Texas.  The goal was to have a conversation about men and women working together in IT and software development industry. Research shows that we are more productive because of our differences, not in spite of our differences, when we manage to work together. We had great participation: men and women shared stories, concerns from their experience, concerns they have for their daughters, difficult situations and techniques that worked in different environments.

Each time, there surfaced an old-time objection to hiring women:
-          Why hire a woman, who may get pregnant and go on leave for weeks, and then perhaps be somewhat distracted for a few more months, when one can perfectly well hire a man, who is not in any danger of ever bearing a child?
This entire line of reasoning strikes me as odd.

Fertility rate in the US is 1.9 children per woman, i.e. over a lifetime an average woman is expected to have 1.9 kids. Women with more education tend to have fewer children, so for women with a college degree the average is just 1.1 children

A college graduate typically has a 45+ year career, male or female, first entering the workforce at age 22 and working at least until his or her late 60s.  Today’s typical tenure in IT at a given position, job or company is 2-5 years.

So, a woman interviewing for a job today, has an approximately 2-in-45 chance to have a child while working at this job.  If she already has a child, that chance falls to 2-in-450. 

In order to get this interview, this woman has shown herself to be a stronger candidate than, typically, 2 to 100+ other people, who also applied for this position.  She still has to beat 2+ other candidates, also invited to interview for this position. Overall, her chances of becoming the top candidate are between 1-in-4 and 1-in-100, which makes her (or anyone reaching that point) quite awesome!

Now, consider another angle. Productivity among mediocre, good and great developers varies by orders of magnitude.  Hiring the best person for the team makes a significant difference in bottom-line productivity, quality, time-to-market and maintainability of the project.  A woman who is x10 as productive as the next candidate, even if she takes 2-4 months (over her 2–5 year tenure in a particular job) to take care of her family, is still a net win for the team with a realized productivity gain of 90%+.  And this is the worst-case scenario!  In a typical case, your best candidate will deliver an even better value, regardless of her gender.

The argument about women's propensity to take time off to have children makes no sense in the context of hiring the best person for a software development job. Any organization's best bet is to identify and hire the best person they can get, and then make sure that person stays with them as long as possible. Regardless of their gender.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Discussion about good code at DallasTechFest 2014


Many programmers are dedicated, or even obsessed, with writing “good” code.

Often we follow certain patterns and practices because we believe they are the best solution for the problem, or because the experts tell us so. There are many quasi-religious wars about proper ways to write code; those wars last years, inflame the most peaceful communities, and make many heads spin.

While it is easy to argue whether a particular piece of code is good, it is hard to come up with an overall idea of what makes code good. We had an interesting discussion about good code at Dallas TechFest, with a great crowd of fellow developers.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stretch your mind

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The more you know,
the more you realize you know nothing.”
– Socrates


There is a big push on young engineers (and colleges that educate them) to build up a wide variety of popular, currently in-demand skills. More popular technologies, common platforms, more courses and projects give students a better chance to hit every bullet point in job recs. It is favorably considered by recruiters and looks extremely attractive to hiring managers who think they are getting a well-rounded engineer at a recent-graduate salary. In addition, it sounds impressive in casual conversations with peers and professionals alike. 

Unfortunately, breadth often comes at the expense of depth. Mastering depth of understanding fundamentals, theories and concepts that are the foundation of modern technologies takes time, effort and dedication to learning. It also takes a lot of effort to learn to work in technologies that give developer more direct access to underlying systems, and data structures. It takes passion and drive to gain an understanding of how to use any technology well, and to set high standards for one's work.

Those with deeper understanding, and the curiosity to gain that understanding, go on to become better software engineers and architects. While not immediately required by a job rec, knowledge of the underlying concepts is regularly needed to solve tough technical challenges in real life. Familiarity with more difficult concepts and technologies makes it easier to learn the popular and simpler ideas that change many times throughout one's career. It is well-established that ability to learn, to think critically and creatively is trained by pushing the mind out of its comfort zone, studying hard, understanding rather than memorizing.

Popular technologies and skills that are “hot” in the jobs market are designed to be easy to acquire, and to solve a narrow set of common business problems, with the trade off that these technologies may not be well-suited to a wider range of applications. These skills are easy to learn and apply. The difference comes in the speed of learning, the quality of outcomes, and the critical thinking that better engineers bring to the job, together with the technical skills. In a competitive marketplace, those who went through the trouble of gaining the deeper knowledge of computer science fundamentals, software construction, and code craftsmanship will fare better.

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