Contract Work

Friday, July 29, 2016

Remote Non-Senior Developers, Part 2: What You Should Consider

Part 1 of this post was all about what companies need to consider and think about when hiring a remote developer. It's just as important for folks considering being a remote developer to think about a few critical pieces as well. Real talk time... Not everyone is cut out to be a remote worker regardless of your level of expertise. Some days are great and some are really challenging. If you're a non-senior considering remote work you need to be BRUTALLY honest with yourself because if you're not and you actually wouldn't be a great remote developer then it'll actually be you who suffers the most. So what are those things you should think about? 
  1.  Are you a self-sufficient worker? As a remote worker you need to set up a schedule for yourself and get into a routine. You need to push yourself through the days where you're tired and a little checked out. And you need to be filling in the gaps. Working on an issue and stuck but no one is free to pair? If you twiddle or thumbs or go watch tv, remote work is not for you but if you say to yourself, "ok, I can't figure out this problem but it has to do with ______. I'm going to read the docs, find some blog posts, or find a conference talk to watch until someone is available to pair" then you're on the right track. 

  2. Can you boldly, bravely, and shamelessly ask question? This is the most difficult part. You can't be fearful and let imposter syndrome take over because you'll never get anything done. When you're stuck, no one can see that you're stuck or maybe frustrated. You can lean over and say "hey, can you check this out real quick?" You've gotta announce it in a slack channel. And sometimes that sucks but it's important! When I began, I made it a goal to ask 100 questions a week so that I could frame asking questions as a positive thing. It wasn't something I needed to do because I didn't know anything, it was something I had to do to learn and accomplish my goals. 

And finally, what structural pieces can you put in place to help you be successful.
  1. Coworkers to work with. But you're remote you say? How would this happen? Well, there are lots of other remote workers as well! I generally try to cowork at least once a week preferably with a group of ruby developers. There's no doubt in my mind that you do miss some learning when you're not in an office. You miss overhearing snippets of technical conversations or jumping into a conversation because it sounds interesting so try to creat that for yourself.

  2. Regularly scheduled pairing sessions. As I got more experienced and started working on more challenging tickets, I would get stuck (as everyone does). Additionally I try to take a "challenge ticket" every week. Challenge tickets are tickets that are just above my skill level. I know they're within reach but I can't quite wrap my head around how to start them or what an effective plan of action would be. They're tickets I have to pair on. We have a pretty small team so sometimes there wasn't anyone free to help. I decided to set up scheduled pairing times. I have one hour a week with two coworkers that is in the calendar to ensure the time is blocked. The time can be used to ask some quick questions and get a few tickets out the door, work on a challenge ticket, or pair on something they are working on. And sometimes we cancel it if it's not needed but the point is that it's there, blocked off. 

  3. A regular way to evaluate yourself. I try to do weekly personal retros which is something I noticed a coworker doing. He just reviews 3 things; liked, learned, lacked. I keep these documented in Evernote and they're a great way to looks back and see all the things that have been going on. 

I hope you've enjoyed this short series and it's given you some good information to consider. Again, here are the slides from the original talk.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Remote Non-Senior Developers, Part 1: What Your Company Should Look For

When I tell developers I meet at conferences or elsewhere that I transitioned from a career in nonprofit management to becoming a software developer I usually get smiles. And then, when I add that since becoming a Dev I've only worked remotely, the smile changes to skepticism. I understand hat skepticism. People have views of what will help a junior Dev be successful, some companies have had bad experiences with non-senior remote developers, and there are lots more stories out there. But as remote work and distributed teams become more prevalent in the field, companies shouldn't feel like they can't hire, train, grow, and mentor less experienced developers as a result. Last month at the United Silver Spring Ruby meet up, I spoke about being a non-senior remote developer (note: non-senior does not explicitly mean junior although I was a remote junior developer). Folks of all experience levels were interested to hear what I had to say because many can't envision what a non-senior remote teammate might look like. Here's s little bit about my experience, what I think makes a successful remote non-senior Dev. Part 1 will cover what a company should look for when considering hiring someone and then part 2 (coming out next week) will go over what a less experienced developer should think critically about before deciding to go remote. 

I won’t lie to you. It does take a special type of person to be a remote worker regardless of their level. This is why some companies decide not to have remote employees at all. And it is a little riskier to hire a remote worker with less experience because do can have a higher risk of not being successful if they are not great (I say great because they do need to be better than good) at the things that make remote workers of any level good remote workers. Here are some characteristics you want to look for when hiring for a remote non-senior developer. 

  1. Someone who takes initiative. There are going to be bumps and issues and as a non-senior dev. In order for the employee to learn and grow as much as they possibly can, they’re going to need to make some decisions, put improvements in place, and get the rest of the team on board with what they need. Make sure that as a company, you look for someone who has done this in the past or has the potential to do this.

  2. Good communication skills. This is necessary for any developer but especially when remote. How can they articulate their thoughts, the research they've done, a problem they're facing, etc. 

  3. Learn about their past. Are they a new professional or just new to development? When I became a developer I had about 7 years of prior professional experience and had already been working from home for 2 years in different industries successfully. I might not be a senior developer technically, but I’ve got all the other skills necessary to be successful.

  4. Make sure the person understands what remote work is all about. Ask them about the best and worst parts of working remotely. I don't like working remotely because I can work in my pjs (which I don't do, for the record). I like it because I have a schedule, more work time without a commute, and a quiet distraction-free workspace. I also have opinions about the parts of working remotely I don't like. I’m aware of all the good parts and bad parts of remote work and I know what i’m getting into when I accept a remote position. You want to ensure you’re hiring someone who also understands these aspects or has at least thought through them.

  5. And maybe most importantly, someone who isn't afraid to say to a slack channel that they are stuck, frustrated, or need help. Without this personality trait, the individual won't be successful because asking questions is probably the most important skill a developer can have.

I find the best way to learn about all of the characteristics above is to ask behavioral interview questions. Instead of the interview where you decide if you'd like to chill with the candidate, ask about scenarios. For example, tell me about when you were stuck on a problem, what did you do? What if no one was available to help you? What was a time you had an issue with a teammate, how did you address it and how was it solved (if at all)? 

Now finding the right candidate is half the battle, but you also want to make sure they’re set up for success. A person isn't an island. They can only exist and thrive if they're put in an atmosphere to do so. Companies sometimes feel they don't have enough resources or structures in place to support a non-senior person but if you have the right candidate, you actually just need a few small things to ensure success.

  1. A good manager who has had some experience/training. This person will be vital for support and working through issues that may come up on the team. They should be an ally and be able to recognize when issues are actually opportunities to help the team as a whole grow and learn more about things like diversity, empathy, mentorship and more. 

  2. A kind, caring team. It is easy as a non-senior Dev to be scared of asking questions but if the team they are put on is supportive, thoughtful, positive, and constructive it will really go a long way in creating an environment with lots of psychological safety where it is easy to learn. 

  3. A system of regular check-ins. It's great if you have a good manager but that manager (or even a tech lead) need to be regularly checking in with this person, especially at the beginning. I think 1-1s are a vital part of a healthy team culture regardless of experience level or if folks are remote, but it’s even more important when you don’t see each other every day in person.

  4. A partially remote team. Even if your current team of remotes are only senior, having a partially remote team means you understand some of the baseline difficulties of remote work regardless of level. It also hopefully means you have some processes in place to allow for easy, async communication and remote pairing tools that are widely used and understood. I'm not saying it won't work if your first remote hire is non-senior but it's definitely going to be a steeper mountain to climb. 

That's it. Really not as involved as you thought it'd be, is it?

Here are the original slides from the talk I gave:

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

And if you’re interested in hiring a remote software developer or want to speak more about the points made here, get in touch!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Technical Interviews - A Revised Process

I recently attended a handful of conferences, some of which I’ve spoken at. A topic that is frequently discussed based on the research I’ve been doing in regard to the the benefits and challenges of being a parent and developer is technical job interviews. More specifically, people focus on the questions of what do companies ask? What do they expect?  And how well do these processes actually asses an applicant’s ability to do the job? One of the things I’ve found in my research is that parents have difficulty showing what they are capable of because they have less time to contribute to open source and side projects. The proliferation of take home code challenges as a response to the backlash against white boarding in interviews has solved some problems but created others. Giving a large chuck of focused time and attention outside of work hours to accomplish a code challenge is often difficult for parents, caregivers, or people who have significant outside-of-work responsibilities. As a result, I’ve done a lot of thinking and discussing about what an effective interview process might be, especially for developers with 2-3 years of experience.

I started by thinking about what I do at work. I refactor (a lot). I research (a lot). I learn (a lot). And I work through understanding code that other people wrote (a lot). What I don’t do a lot is code from a blank page. Companies always say that they just want to hire people they know can solve problems and can learn. From what I’ve heard, most technical challenges don’t really accomplish this. I’m not saying the methodology below is perfect but I think it comes closer to a solution where unconscious biases and the dependence on a significant amount of free time are less of a factor while still showing technical capabilities.

Here is what I suggest an interview process contain. Ideally this would be broken up into a short (1.5-2 hours or less) take home portion and an in-person or virtual conversation in lieu of a pairing session and/or take home code project. I think I see the first three items as ideal for a take-home portion and the last two as either take home portions with additional discussion or fodder for some fantastic technical conversations.

1. Breaking apart a problem or feature

One skill I find extraordinarily useful in my day-to-day experience is to be able to break apart a problem or feature. I’m often looking at issues and asking additional questions based on my knowledge of the codebase, and making sure that something doesn’t strike me as problematic within the context of a solution. An example to use in a challenge could be technical, but that may be difficult without a lot of domain knowledge. Keep in mind that an interviewer can also tell someone’s prowess for problem-solving by giving a candidate a scenario that is completely unrelated to tech. How do they reason through it? What pieces does someone highlight? What additional questions would they want to ask? If it seems applicable, what might a diagram of the solution look like? All of these reasoning come into play really often, especially for developers who have 2-3 years of experience, oftentimes a group that is looking to grow in this area and understand what additional questions and considerations more senior developers ask when solving a similar problem.

2. Research a topic, library, or other implementation strategy. 

This is a great one because we look at this stuff all day long. Developers hear about new tools at a meet up and think about if it’s applicable or if it could help their company in any way. During the day, developers are asked about a feature or functionality and want to see what’s out there and what might be worth implementing or do you want to roll your own? Having to do this research, including listing potential pros and cons, commenting not only on the result but how a candidate came to that conclusion is really powerful. A candidate could include what they read, where they looked, how they got started and more! They could also not include these things which would also be extremely telling in an interview. Ultimately, the “right” answer might depend on project context but this would tell the interviewer a lot about what they might do on the job and how much confidence you could have in something they recommended. Finally, one of the things I love about this question is that it is scalable to every level since you expect junior developers to evaluate possible items differently than a senior developer might.

3. Provide an explanation for something. 

Oftentimes at work, developers are helping to teach each other and learn from one another. I think great code reviews sometimes include a person commenting “what’s this?” or “I haven’t seen this design pattern before. Can you explain it a little further or provide some learning resources?” Most companies want to make sure they’re hiring a team player, someone who isn’t just writing code but contributing to an overall positive culture for a team. For this, I’d suggest a simple term (not some complex process that has lots of different polarizing opinions surrounding it), possibly something related to the company’s codebase that they’ve found new people coming in don’t have lots of experience with or that they need to be taught. Make sure to say it’s okay to google and use resources if a candidate needs to (I assume that a good answer to this question will likely site at least one or two different resources). As an additional consideration, I’ve talked about the importance of actually interviewing for mentorship if that’s something your company values. In this case, if mentorship and team learning is a company or team value, a company interviewing might ask for two different explanations… one that someone would provide to peers at a similar experience level and one that would be a more appropriate explanation to a junior or brand new developer. This is also a great way to get other people on the team involved in the interview process. Show a couple of teammates at these levels the explanations (without the candidates name, if possible) to see if they understand them.

4. Refactoring

We all know that this is what most developers do every day. We refactor. We solve bugs, we tweak features, and we refactor. I LOVE refactoring and I like to think most other developers do as well so provide that as a technical challenge, or even something to pair on. Provide either a method or a file with some code you, as an interviewer, would consider dirty, smelly, ugly, slightly confusing, or whatever other adjective you want to use for it and have the candidate refactor it. You can see their thought process when approaching code, you can probably have a really amazing conversation about this thought process, methodologies used to refactor, different ways of refactoring, and more. If you’re providing a file or more than one example, let the interviewee pick where to start. Again, while this can be a portion of a take home assignment, I think both interviewer and interviewee will get more out of the exercise if they’re doing it as a part of a conversation and it also helps the company interviewing be mindful of outside time spent on challenges.

5. Tell me what this file is doing.

Finally, the last item on this list is a blanket- what is this file doing? How many companies have big, complex monolith applications at this point? And how many times do you spend time during your work day working through code, figuring out what’s going on? This is another perfect example of something that can spark a great conversation, show an interviewer how a candidate goes about figuring these problems out (there are a variety of ways to do this) and this skill likely directly affects a person’s ability to accomplish the job successfully. Another super scalable activity because you can show files of different complexity levels to different candidates based on their number of years of experience.

Again, I’ve written these suggestions as good options for mid-level developer interviews, but, as I mentioned specifically in a few points, they could be altered slightly to be applicable for interviewing at any level. What do you think? If you interview, do you employ any of these strategies? If you currently depend on long (I define long as anything over 3 hours, even for a junior level developer) take home challenges, would these alternative “assignments” help you asses a developer more effectively when looking at their everyday responsibilities?

And if you do interview like this (or would love to test it out), I'd love to talk because I'm looking for my next great career opportunity. Get in touch.