October 19, 2011

My programming job evaluation criterion

I love making lists with no title or context and then hiding them somewhere in my room. At least, that's the inevitable conclusion of my paper-purging weekend.

I actually found one fun list (under my bed) that I've rematerialized the context for: what criterion do I use, as a candidate, to evaluate a programming position in the valley?

I came up with this short list when I was interviewing at Mozilla. It's a personal list, inextricable from my personality, experiences, and my current lot in life, but some of the thoughts may apply generally and help future candidates to brainstorm.


If you're into the whole consequentialism thing.

What's the outcome you're achieving by doing this job? Particularist (i.e. feed your family, put your kid through college) and universalist (i.e. bring education to undeveloped nations, make navigation systems that don't fail) concerns are both important to consider. [*]


Who are the people you're going to be working with? Community in my mind is roughly, "Humans you will be interacting with as a part of your job." Do you have reason to believe this will be a beneficial community for you? Maybe you work best interacting with a particular disposition of person: driven, explanatory, idealistic, encouraging, expert, iconic, pub-dwelling, sky-diving?

As my friend eloquently put it, "Fuck staying in a job where people suck."


How much do you already know about the subject of your work? How much do you want to know? They say, "God is in the details." I buy it, but if the job expects and encourages you to learn new things in topics that you're passionate about on a regular basis, it sure makes this part easier.

I've also heard, "Lots of folks just try to do the same exact thing they did at their last job over again, but slightly better." Maybe you'd like to avoid that. [†]

Artistic direction

How much control do you have over the direction of the project that you'll be working on? It's quite frustrating to pour your heart and soul into your work if all your projects get cancelled or you're being metaprogrammed.

This brings up related questions of status: How valued will your input be? Is this place a meritocracy in the ways that drive excellent products and good decision making? What capability do you have to devote resources to things that you think are important? (This could be a use-20%-time-to-prove-its-worth-pursuing kind of deal.)

Or, maybe there is no meritocracy, and there's politics. That'd be important to know.

Artistic fidelity

How much craftsmanship is expected? Mandated? Tolerated?

Posed another way: how hacky will your work need to be to meet deadlines, output requirements, expectations, and so forth? How hacky do you anticipate the work of others will be? Is there some mitigating circumstance (like an important product deadline) that makes a lower level of craftsmanship acceptable?

Another consideration: does this job expect you to show appropriate respect for the product being delivered, or is it overly focused on the purity of their development methodology?


What percentage of your time will be spent doing mundane tasks (that you have little hope of learning from)? Do you have a good strategy for coping-with/minimizing expected sources of tedium?


How much state-that-already-exists will you have to deal with? Sometimes this is to your advantage (i.e. already-established big/important customers) and sometimes it's to your disadvantage (i.e. original code base believed the MS Visual Basic was the language of the future and wrote their application using solely the corner cases of the language semantics).

(Compensation and career advancement weren't on the list. I'm sure that everyone has a price where they'd sacrifice any one of these things, but it's a much more meaningful exercise to evaluate them on their own.)

The categories are supposed to be largely orthogonal, but the idea is simply to provoke thought for meaningful/tough questions during the interview process — if you value your time and attention, the employer should be giving you sufficiently satisfying answers!

No place is perfect, but thinking about what you're getting yourself into and why should put you squarely ahead of the game as a job candidate.



Programming jobs that work towards solving severe third-world problems that also let you work with interesting technology are not abundant. My current strategy is to work in the interesting tech position of my choosing and donate a pre-set percentage of my salary towards effective charities working in those areas.


A similar quote that a friend gave me: "Some people don't have ten years of experience so much as the same year of experience ten times."