I noticed that Effective Java's foreword is written by Guy Steele, so I
actually bothered to read it. Here's the bit I found particularly intriguing:
If you have ever studied a second language yourself and then tried to use
it outside the classroom, you know that there are three things you must
master: how the language is structured (grammar), how to name things you
want to talk about (vocabulary), and the customary and effective ways to
say everyday things (usage).
When programmers enter the job market, the idea that, "We have the capability
to learn any programming language," gets thrown around a lot. I now realize
that this sentiment is irrelevant in many cases, because the deciding factor in
the hiring process is more often time to fluency.
Time to fluency as a hiring factor
Let's say that there are two candidates, Fry and Laurie, interviewing for a
programming position using Haskell. [*] Fry comes off as very intelligent
during the interview process, but has only used OCaml and sounds like he
mutabled all of the stuff that would make your head explode using
monads. Laurie, on the other hand, couldn't figure out how many ping pong
balls fit into Air Force One or why manhole covers are round, [†] but is
clearly fluent in Haskell. Which one gets hired?
The answer to this question is another question: When are they required to be
pumping out production-quality code?
Even working all hours of the day, the time to fluency for a language is on the
order of weeks, independent of other scary new-workplace factors. Although
books like Effective * can get you on the right track, fluency is ultimately
attained through experience. Insofar as programming is a perpetual decision of
what to make flexible and what to hard-code, you must spend time in the hot
seat to gain necessary intuition — each language's unique characteristics
change the nature of the game.
Everybody wants to hire Fry; however, Laurie will end up with the job due to
time constraints on the part of the hiring manager. I'm pretty sure that
Joel's interview notions are over-idealized in the general case:
Anyway, software teams want to hire people with aptitude, not a particular
skill set. Any skill set that people can bring to the job will be
technologically obsolete in a couple of years, anyway, so it’s better to
hire people that are going to be able to learn any new technology rather
than people who happen to know how to make JDBC talk to a MySQL database
right this minute.
Reqs have to be filled so that the trains run on time — it's hard to let real,
here-and-now schedules slip to avoid hypothetical, three-years-later slip.
Extreme Programming as catalyst
You remember that scene from The Matrix where Neo gets all the Kung Fu
downloaded into his brain in a matter of seconds? That whole process is
nearly as awesome as code reviews.
Pair programming and code reviews:
Trick your brain into learning everything faster through mild stress and the
threat of looking noobish in your colleagues' eyes.
Give you the shoulders of language-fluent programmers to stand on as they
push you in the right direction.
Back off in accordance with your fluency acquisition.
This is totally speculative, but from my experience I'd be willing to believe
you can reduce the minimum-time-to-fluency by an order of magnitude with the
right (read: friendly and supportive) Extreme Programming environment.
What I learned: When you create interfaces for everything (instead of base
classes) it's almost less work to make a factory.
The point is that Fry has the high ground in terms of perceived aptitude. I
actually think most of the Mount Fuji questions are nearly useless in
determining aptitude, though I do enjoy them. The referenced sentence is a
poor attempt at a joke. ;-)
I write this entry in response to Why Should I Bother?. The answer, in
short, is that I find Python to be a great language for getting things done,
and you shouldn't let stupid interviewers deter you from learning a language
that allows you to get more done.
I think I'm a pretty tough interviewer, so I also describe the things I'd
recommend that a Python coder knows before applying to a Java position, based
on my own technical-interview tactics.
A spectrum of formality
As my friend pointed out to me long ago, many computer scientists don't
care about effective programming methods, because they prefer theory.
Understandably, we computer scientists qua programmers (AKA software engineers)
find ourselves rent in twain.
As a computer science degree candidate, you are inevitably enamored with
complex formalities, terminology, [*] and a robust knowledge of mathematical
models that you'll use a few times per programming project (if you're lucky).
Pragmatic programming during a course of study often takes a back seat to
familiar computer science concepts and conformance to industry desires.
As a programmer, I enjoy Python because I find it minimizes boilerplate,
maximizes my time thinking about the problem domain, and permits me to use
whichever paradigm works best. I find that I write programs more quickly and
spend less time working around language deficiencies. Importantly, the
execution model fits in my brain.
Languages like Java sit somewhere in the middle. They're still strongly
imperative (there are no higher-order functions in Java), but there are more
formalities. As the most notable example, compile-time type checking eliminates
the possibility of type errors, which gives some programmers a sense of safety.
[†] Such languages still let scientists chew on some computer sciencey
problems; for example, where values clash with the type system, like provably
eliminating NullPointerExceptions, which is fun, but difficult!
As the cost of increased formality, this class of languages is more
syntax-heavy and leans on design patterns to get some of the flexibility
dynamic typing gives you up front.
It's debatable which category of languages is easiest to learn, but Java-like
languages have footholds in the industry from historical C++ developer bases,
Sun's successful marketing of Java off of C++, and the more recent successes of
the C# .NET platform.
It makes sense that we're predominantly taught this category of languages in
school: as a result, we can play the percentages and apply for most available
developer jobs. Given that we have to learn it, you might as well do some
throw-away programming in it now and again to keep yourself from forgetting
everything; however, I'd recommend, as a programmer, that you save the fun
projects for whichever language(s) that you find most intriguing.
I picture ease-and-rapidity of development-and-maintenance on a spectrum from
low to high friction — other languages I've worked in fall somewhere on that
spectrum as higher friction than Python. Though many computer scientists much
smarter than I seem to conflate formality and safety, I'm fairly convinced I
attain code completion and maintainability goals more readily with the
imperative and flexible Python language. Plus, perhaps most importantly, I
My technical-interview protocol
The protocol I use to interview candidates is pretty simple. [‡]
Analyze their background experience for potential weaknesses that would
affect their ability to perform in the position.
Don't let the candidate talk about anything until the last n minutes,
when they can ask questions or comment on the interview experience.
Hone in on the areas of potential weakness to determine how bad they are
(if they're bad at all).
Evaluate how easy it is to overcome those weaknesses. Determine where their
level in relevant areas falls in the Dreyfus model and how much it matters
to the description of the position.
Potential Java interview weaknesses
Interviewing a candidate whose background is primarily Python based for a
generic Java developer position (as in Sayamindu's entry), I would
immediately flag the following areas as potential weaknesses:
Primitive data types
A programmer can pretty much get away never knowing how a number works in
Python, since you typically overflow to appropriately sized data types
The candidate needs to know what all the Java primitives are when the
names are provided to them, and must be able to describe why you would
choose to use one over another. Knowing pass-by-value versus
pass-by-reference is a plus. In Python there is a somewhat similar
distinction between mutable and immutable types — if they understand
the subtleties of identifier binding, learning by-ref versus by-value will
be a cinch. If they don't know either, I'll be worried.
Object oriented design
The candidate's Python background must not be entirely procedural, or they
won't fare well in a Java environment (which forces object orientation).
Additionally, this would indicate that they probably haven't done much
design work: even if they're an object-orientation iconoclast, they have to
know what they're rebelling against and why.
They need to know:
When polymorphism is appropriate.
What should be exposed from an encapsulation perspective.
What the benefits of interfaces are (in a statically typed,
Basically, if they don't know the fundamentals of object oriented design,
I'll assume they've only ever written "scripts," by which I mean,
"Small, unimportant code that glues the I/O of several real applications
together." I don't use the term lightly.
If they've been writing real-world Python without a single unit test or
doctest, they've been Doing it Wrong (TM).
unittest is purposefully modeled on xUnit. They may have to learn the
new jUnit 4 decorator syntax when they start work, but they should be able
to claim they've worked with a jUnit 3 -like API.
Abstract data structures
Python has tuples, lists and dictionaries — all polymorphic containers --
and they'll do everything that your programmer heart desires. [§] Some
other languages don't have such nice abstractions.
It'd be awesome if they knew:
The difference between injective and bijective and
how those terms are important to hash function design. If they can tell
me this, I'll let them write my high-performance hash functions.
The difference between a vector and a linked list, or
when one should preferred over the other. The names are
unimportant — I'd clarify that a vector was a dynamically growing
The "difference" between a tree and a graph.
Turning attention to you, the reader: if you're lacking in data structures
knowledge, I recommend you read a data structures book and actually
implement the data structures. Then, take a few minutes to figure out where
you'd actually use them in an application. They stick in your head fairly
well once you've implemented them once.
Some interviewers will ask stupid questions like how to implement sorting
algorithms. Again, just pick up a data structures book and implement them
once, and you'll get the gist. Refresh yourself before the interview,
because these are a silly favorite — very few people have to implement
sorting functions anymore.
Design patterns serve several purposes:
They establish a common language for communicating proposed solutions to
commonly found problems.
They prevent developers for inventing stupid solutions to a solved class
They contain a suite of workarounds for inflexibilities in statically
I would want to assure myself that you had an appropriate knowledge of
relevant design patterns. More important than the names: if I describe them
to you, will you recognize them and their useful applications?
For example, have you ever used the observer pattern? Adapter pattern?
Proxying? Facade? You almost certainly had to use all of those if you've
done major design work in Python.
These are some things that I would feel extra good about if the candidate
knew and could accurately describe how they relate to their Python analogs:
The importance of string builders (Python list joining idiom)
Basic idea of how I/O streams work (Python files under the hood)
Basic knowledge of typecasting (Python has implicit polymorphism)
Some (bad) interviewers just won't like you because you don't know their
favorite language. If you're interviewing for a position that's likely to be
Java oriented, find the easiest IDE out there and write an application in it
for fun. Try porting a Python application you wrote and see how the concepts
translate — that's often an eye-opener. Or katas!
If you find yourself unawares in an interview with these "language crusaders,"
there's nothing you can do but show that you have the capacity to learn their
language in the few weeks vacation you have before you start. If it makes you
feel better, keep a mental map from languages to number of jerks you've
encountered — even normalizing by developer-base size the results can be
Clearly candidates could exploit a vulnerability in my interview protocol:
leave off things they know I'm likely to test that they know particularly
well; however, I generally ask them to stop after I'm satisfied they
know something. Plus, the less I know about their other weaknesses the more
unsure I am about them, and thus the less likely I am to recommend them.