Notes from the Interview Front

Interrogation Room #5

Sadly, I won’t be sharing a bunch of funny anecdotes from my time on the interview trail. While that might be fun, there are some bigger trends that I wanted to talk about after having reviewed dozens of job descriptions and talking to dozens of people at one level or another over the month of March.

AngularJS is the new boss

At least in terms of green field development it seems like no one is talking about anything other than AngularJS right now. My year and a half’s worth of Angular experience set off alarm bells for many recruiters. Backbone comes up, but not with as much frequency. Several people were moving from Backbone to Angular. Nothing else in the MV* space was really in the running.

Lots of smart people (including many that I know) are still pouring a lot of time and effort into Backbone, so it’s clearly not going anywhere. It is weird, however, as Angular seems to be winning developer mind share no matter what the regular front end engineering taste-makers might think about it. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people (including some big names) where they’re completely flabbergasted that anyone is even using Angular, forget about the fact that it’s storming the castle.

It’s definitely storming the castle.

In the course of writing this post, I saw a bell clear sign of Angular’s rise. I saw an “Angular expert” job posting from a company who had spent a ridiculous amount of time and money (hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of developer hours) crafting a “perfect” Backbone based application development stack. I’m sure they’re still quite fond of Backbone, but it was interesting to see them hedging their bets, trying to get some Angular expertise on staff.

Start-ups are spreading like wildfire.

The Boston start-up scene is pretty nuts. I’m not generally interested in start-ups, but as part of my “talking to everyone” thing I ended up talking to a few of them. I remain mostly uninterested from a full-time perspective, although I did get up to the brink with one group that seemed pretty cool.

There is a lot of opportunity out there for someone like me to help them out on a short-term basis, however, so in my new life as an indie consultant, I might go back into the fray.

Start-up Geography

At this point start-ups are no longer crowding around South Station. They’re in South Boston proper. It’s a walk to get over there these days.

Bocoup might be leading a smart charge over to North Station.

Agency vs. Startup/Product

When I interview at agencies I don’t do tech screens. No one has asked me to do anything like that in 4 years. The shared experience of the agency existence and the number of people I usually have in common with agency folks means that the “tech” portion of interviews usually doesn’t go beyond philosophy and general experience. For most agency people knowing the level I’ve been at the places I’ve worked is a pretty good indicator that I know what I’m doing.

Product people, on the other hand, are super wary of my experience. They seem to think that because I’ve been a manager and been in charge of teams that I don’t know how to code. Some of them have even made the assumption that I don’t want to code (yes, I do open source software to torture myself.)

Interviewer: “So you’ve been a manager, running teams for a while. You haven’t really been coding since 2007 then?”

Rob: “No, unless today is opposite day. I’ve worked on probably 20 sites or applications in that time. Some with thousands of lines of JavaScript and incredibly complex UIs.”

Let me set the record straight on that assumption. Being an engineering manager at some companies might include no coding/all meetings, but at an agency the pendulum usually swings way too far in the other direction.

A technology manager at an agency will probably be doing coding/architecture most of the time and will not have any time officially allotted to do anything strategic or to work with their team on anything other than project work. .

Even if their target allocation is something like 60% billable work, they will probably be fully allocated to client work. Occasionally, they will be over-allocated to a client (or two.) Oftentimes, soft-skills “manager stuff” happens in hours 40 and above (or 80 and above.)

Personally, at one point a couple of years ago I was allocated 100% to two separate divisions at the same investment bank for six weeks. Not a lot of time to get soft when you’re scheduled to work 80 hours a week :)

This is actually a systemic problem at agencies. There’s not a lot of room for people at even the director level and above to really nurture staff. There are exceptions, of course. If you look around and spot stable teams at different agencies you can usually spot a guy or gal at the top who makes a point of keeping their staff happy, but the pressure to do that is not coming from up on high. The pressure from up on high is to keep your billable rate as high as you possibly can in order to justify your continued presence at the agency.

To that end, senior people at agencies are constantly getting their hands dirty. No one is hiding. I know start-up people think their experience is special, and in a lot of ways it is, but the experience on the agency side isn’t any easier.

To be perfectly honest, looking at someone from an agency with a good engineering culture and thinking they’re going to be soft is insane. That person has probably built up and torn down more architectures than most people do in a career in the product world.

There is a reverse bias

Agency people don’t want to hire people who don’t have agency experience. This is undeniably true. There’s a fear that you will hire someone, they will walk in the door, see the maelstrom and walk back out the door.

That happens, so it’s a valid concern, even if I don’t put as much weight into it as some people do. For my money, I’d rather have people get the shot and fill the role than play gatekeeper just because someone is coming from another industry. Sometimes it turns out really well.

Front-end engineering isn’t, universally, a first class discipline (although it’s getting closer to being one)

Something similar to the following happened twice when interviewing for very senior architect positions (including one that was titled something like “Front End Architect.”)

Hiring manager: “We want an architect whose focus is on the front end. You’ll lead projects, working with other developers and vendors, but we really want someone who can make a difference with the user interface layer. We see it as a game changer for us. ”

Me: “Sure, great. I’d love to come in”

Rob interviews

Feedback: “Rob was really strong on the front end, but he wasn’t as strong as we want him to be with Java/C#”

(So you actually want a Java guy? You want a Java guy who’s also an expert with JavaScript? Does such an unholy chimera even exist? )

The thing that drives me crazy about this scenario (beyond the fact that it’s a waste of my time) is that I’ve worked with architects who knew so little about JavaScript that they didn’t know enough to leave the JavaScript alone. I’ve seen very smart people completely break the UI because they were completely clueless about JS and didn’t even realize the depth of their cluelessness.

Up until they start breaking things, I’m cool with this. As long as folks delegate I don’t want or expect someone to be an expert across the whole system or to be able to code the whole system. I wouldn’t trust many of the absolute geniuses I’ve worked with to code the front end of any system. Just like they wouldn’t trust me to code up the services layer or come up with a database schema. But yet, in many organizations, you are simply not allowed to be in charge if you don’t have significant back-end experience. It doesn’t matter that the heavy lifting is happening in the browser now. It doesn’t matter that the potential advantage is in the user interface because there’s still an incredible shortage of strong front end engineers. It doesn’t matter than getting people to be effective at their jobs is a skill that stretches across technology domains. If you’re not a Java or C# expert, in some places at least, you still can’t straddle domains and run the show.

It is getting better

The good news is, the previous used to be universal. It’s no longer. I did interview for two general technology leadership roles (Director/VP) and those were judged on their own merits. No one once gave me the stink eye because I’m not a reformed Java developer.

Random notes

The Interrogation

  • I don’t like people who do tech screens like it’s an affront to their honor that you would even think you are good enough to work at their company. This doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen and I fill up with quiet rage pretty quickly when I encounter one of these people. When I run tech screens, I want to fill the role. I’m not happy when people aren’t up to snuff. I’m truly disappointed. It seems to me like these people would be happier to keep the role unfilled. That’s the absolute wrong way to approach the interview process. My reaction is invariably: “You don’t want me here? Cool, I won’t work here.”
  • I’ve been contacted by 28 separate recruiters in six weeks for various jobs at one company. I want to opt-out permanently please? I wish there was a central registry to opt out of contact by company.
  • I’ve got a hint for people who have been trying to fill roles for a six months or a year and can’t find anyone. Pay more money. Instead of losing out on some opportunity waiting to get someone at a 50th percentile wage and fitting it into some budget, push the pay envelope by 10% or more and people will be a lot more receptive. There are very few job descriptions I’ve seen in the Boston area, at any level, that had an aggressive (for the level) salary attached. There are some, but not many (maybe 10%.) Everyone else seems to think that being able to use new technology and getting free soda and coffee should be enough of a selling point to get you to choose them in the middle of one of the hottest skill sectors in the job market. The salaries seem to slot into very clear strata and there are few outliers. I know people are afraid because money is money and front-end developers should be worth $xxx. But if you have a need now, paying aggressively is one way to fill it that’s within your control. Everything else is outside of your control. Pay more than your competitors. Everyone is using Angular or other modern architecture. Everyone gives out free snacks and coffee and all that crap. You can’t win with that stuff.


And that’s it for now. I may add onto this as other trends percolate around in my brain. For the most part I enjoyed the conversations I had even if nothing turned out to be a perfect fit for me and I hope that people on the other side of the desk felt the same.

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