Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Australia's got talent?

Mike Cannon-Brookes was on the radio. Slamming the government's drive to cut down on 457 visas. “We don't have the scale or scope of talent here”. For some reason his words were making me angry. Red hot under the collar, steam coming out of my ears type angry.

So I had to reflect. Was my anger because I'm not sure we actually have a shortage of software developers in Australia? Or that I think that employers in this industry are continually trying to hire people that they don't have to train? No. They might have been a contributing factor to my internal steam levels, but they weren't the cause.

I was getting annoyed because of the use of the word “talent”. To me it is such a nebulous term. What on earth do we mean when we use the word “talent” in the software industry?

I have a dread suspicion that it is an unconsciously used synonym to indicate “superstar” employee. That the real complaint here is not that we do not have enough developers, rather, that we do not enough superstar developers.

Trying to break this down a bit, first off, what is talent? In this article Scott Barry Kaufman, adjunct assistant professor of psychology at New York University, tells us that talent and practice are intertwined. And that 10 years of deliberate practice seems to be the general rule when it comes to developing deep domain specific knowledge.

Which leads me to wonder if the speaker at the developers breakfast I attended a few weeks ago, targeted the right thing when he suggested that we use the latest “hot” languages and tools to attract the “young talent, fresh out of university”. Surely we should be looking to attract the older and more staid developers, rather than avoiding them, if we are looking for deep domain specific knowledge?

Scott Barry Kaufman goes on in the article to tell us that talent can be see as the mix of characteristics that allows someone to either accelerate the acquisition of the deep domain specific knowledge, or to perform better than someone else who has a similar level of practice and learning.

He then notes that the interaction of genes and environment play a distinct role in helping us to develop by increasing our abilities according to our talents, and in turn those personal characteristics that we call talent. In the article he finishes by stating that “we shouldn't dismiss the seemingly untalented” and that we should in fact be “keeping the door open and instituting a dynamic talent development process where the only admission criterion is readiness for engagement”

Which is not what I feel we are doing in the software industry.

I have two dead canaries in this coal mine.

The first is Ted Neward. I've never met Ted Neward, and I have no idea what he is like as a person. However, I do know that not only does he write books and articles, he has also written what is to me one of the most insightful blog postings I've ever read in my career in software: The Vietnam Of Computer Science. I believe that the world would actually be a better place if this blog posting was required reading for software developers.

So if Ted Neward was interested in working for a company I was at, I would be delighted, as we could learn much from him. I would be trying to find out what he was like as a person, and seeing if he was a good fit for the people he was going to be working with. I certainly would not be getting him to write a programming test.

However, in this whacky industry: yes, he was required to write a programming test. And was rejected on that basis!

My second canary is someone I met socially, recently, right here in Melbourne, who has been unemployed since graduating two years ago. One of the desirable “young talent, fresh out of university”. Unable to find work, he has been getting by through tutoring and part time teaching at the university he graduated from. So. Degreed, good enough to be invited to tutor and teach, but not “talented” enough to hire, in a country where we are claiming to have a shortage that is so bad we need to bring in people from overseas on special visas.

What seems to be happening is that the software industry has adopted some sort of heard mentality as to how to hire people. Heard mentality in hiring is apparently normal. Not rational, but normal.

As ever, though, we've taken it to extremes by becoming increasingly set on using coding tests to find out if potential hires have “talent”. But really, how do you set a coding test for a mix of characteristics that will indicate that the person in front of you has the potential to be a better developer than someone with a similar level of experience?

The truth is that if we as an industry hire like this, a shortage of people passing our tests doesn't indicate a shortage of developers: it indicates a shortage of developers that companies are prepared to hire.

Some thoughts have been bothering me about all of this:
  • If anyone is going to have to pass a test showing their ability at hiring time, then I would very much like it to be, say the brain surgeon who may be about to operate on me. Strangely enough, the medical profession doesn't seem to work this way. Why is that?
  • Are we actually moving to a world where some newly graduated developers are not going to find work in the industry because they aren't “talented” enough? My second canary seems to indicate that this may indeed be the case.
  • Is this the hoary old chestnut about developer productivity raising its head again?
  • Why don't we regularly test existing employees? If recruitment tests are actually useful in determining “talent”, then it would be good to regularly check to see if our internal processes are helping our talented developers to further their acquisition of that deep domain knowledge?
  • How many companies regularly review their recruitment process and measure its effectiveness?

Having pondered the Scott Barry Kaufman's article on talent, I've decided that if a developer can pass a simply “fizz buzz” test, then they have enough “talent” to hire. End of story.

The onus should actually be on the companies that hire developers to create environments that are conducive to developing “talent”. Rather than creating ever more stringent and time consuming new hire procedures, they should be “instituting a dynamic talent development process where the only admission criterion is readiness for engagement”.

Just about the only Australian software company I'm aware of that seems to do this, by design or accident, is Atlassian. The company founded and run by Mike Cannon-Brookes.
Go figure.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A click is not enough

In the Maldives a 15 year old girl has been sentenced to 8 months of house arrest and 100 lashes from a whip. Her crime? She confessed to having been raped. This is, to our western sensibilities, clearly outrageous. A travesty of justice.

In Uganda the government is close to passing a bill that will introduce the death penalty for homosexuality. Again, to us in the west, a clear breach of basic human rights.

Something must be done to stop this terrible law being passed!

The Rhinoceros stands on the very brink of extinction, the surviving few at risk of being killed and dismembered so that some Chinese and Vietnamese people can drink the powdered horn in the form of a tea, to cure their ailments. Whilst I can sympathise with the fear a cancer sufferer must have, the world stands on the brink of loosing a wonderful animal because of some unscientific belief system.

I'm sure I'm not the only person in the world who is aware of these terrible injustices.

For they flood our email inboxes, crowd our Facebook pages and fill our twitter streams. Sent to us by our caring friends.

The truth is we can all take action about any perceived injustice right now! Thanks to modern tools, anyone can create and distribute an online petition. And invite their friends to join in the outrage by signing, cascading the anger on through the world.

Coca-Cola have brought and won a court case against deposits on containers right here in Australia, dealing recycling a tremendous blow.

There's a petition about that!

Monsanto are patenting genetic sequences: the building blocks of life, and charging people 'licensing fees' to grow crops that contain those genetic sequences.

There's a petition against that!

But what good are all these online petitions if all we ever do is simply sign them?

We've signed the petition: we've done something. Our consciences can rest easy! Now to plan our holiday to the Maldives, whilst munching on our genetically modified granola bar and sipping on our Coke.

Why fear online petition if the only effect it has is to stroke the signatories ego?

In fact, if the signatories now feel that they have acted on an outrage, on-line petitions might make wrong doing easier to get away with!

“They won't do anything: they've signed the petition. Their consciences are clean” I can hear the captains of industry and politics smirking.

Given the ease with which we can now create, sign and distribute on line petitions, I believe that we now have to do more when we become aware of an injustice.

You have to decide if you care enough about the injustice to take further action. If you don't care enough to anything more, then I believe you shouldn't sign the petition.

If you do care and sign, then, you have to work out what more you are going to do, and how you are going to let the parties know what you are doing.

The reason Coke gave for their lawsuit against the container deposit scheme was that “Australian families do not deserve to be slugged with yet another cost of living increase

Knowing of the huge islands of plastic that is found in the oceans this justification made me really angry.

The Australian CEO of Coke received compensation of just under $8 million last year. Assuming that they make a 10% profit per can of Coke sold, and that a can sells for $1.20, that means that Coke Australia have to sell over 60 million cans right here in Australia just to cover their CEO's compensation alone.

Coke's global CEO got over $29 million in compensation in 2011.

If Coke really cares about the cost of living for Australian families they simply need to cut their CEO's remunerations to make a difference. Not only have I now signed several petitions against Coke's actions, I now am boycotting Coke's products where possible.

I let Coke know of my intentions by writing a message on their face book wall. If you care about the environment I strongly encourage you all to join me in these actions.

Online petitions need to show that not they only publicize wrongs, but that they also lead to behavioral changes by those that sign them.

Changes that will directly affect the targets of the petition.

If we don't give online petitions this added power, they are going to loose their impact on the world.

The only way we are going to change the world is if we change ourselves first.

A simple click is not enough.