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The Sidekick Failure and Cloud Culpability

Kirby Sort of (246 comments)

Well, any time you're storing data in a central place, you have a greater consequence of failure. That's a downside of "cloud computing", or any web application that stores data in a database too.

The alternative approach is everyone to have a local version of their data, which will be lost by individuals all the time but not by everyone all at once.

Obviously, if you have a server that's a single point of failure for your company, and you botch a maintenance, something went very wrong. And not having a backup - it seems strange for a company that's been around the block a few times and has big resources behind it. You have to write this off as more of a specific failure and not a failure of the concept of storing data on a remote server.

I do have a good friend that works for Danger - I really don't envy the week he must be having.

more than 5 years ago
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Cursive Writing Is a Fading Skill — Does It Matter?

Kirby About time (857 comments)

Good! Cursive is a skill for writing fast, not for writing legibly. I haven't used it since leaving school.

Print is easier to read in the circumstances where you can't use a computer, and those situations are rapidly decreasing. The vast majority of interaction and professional work is typed these days.

This is the counterpoint to the recent article asking if typing should be taught in schools - yes, in elementary, in the slot that cursive used to live in.

more than 5 years ago
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Appropriate Interviewing For a Worldwide Search?

Kirby Re:Boo for tests! (440 comments)

Well, a good interview test isn't about trivia or things you could find in 30 seconds of google. It's things like: What does this code sample print to the screen? Write a regular expression to capture the phone numbers from a file with the following sample data. Write a SQL statement to select all the people from these two tables who have an outstanding balance (ie, can you do a join). That sort of thing.

more than 5 years ago
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Appropriate Interviewing For a Worldwide Search?

Kirby Re:Yay for tests! (440 comments)

Well, I mean, it's hard to really compare the before and after, because you don't follow the people you don't hire. It's all going to be anecdotal. That doesn't equate to blind, though.

But anecdotally, we expanded at WhitePages.com from about 8 programmers before we implemented the test, to a team of about 20, in the space of about a year. The quality of hires after that point was, IMO, very high, and more consistently good than before. (Only one was an abject failure, and that was for personal reasons that had little to do with his capabilities.)

And it's a mistake to distinguish between 'taking tests' and 'actually writing code' - what do you think is on these tests? (Hint, it's writing code.) Multiple choice is okay (and my current job has one of those), but actually writing real code is substantially better.

more than 5 years ago
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Appropriate Interviewing For a Worldwide Search?

Kirby Yay for tests! (440 comments)

I've worked several places that had some sort of practical skills test for programmers.

I consider them a strong success.

There's a surprising number of people that can talk a really good game, but fall apart when asked the most basic actual questions. And, conversely, people who aren't extroverts or for whatever reason aren't stars in the verbal part of the interview, but clearly know their stuff when given a written test. It's a really good way to fairly judge technical skills across candidates, and weed out the fakers before you have to fire them later.

And as an employee, I like working with smart, competent people. I know how much, from experience, a bad hire wastes my time and ruins morale, so I'm happy to work for places that put out effort one way or another to not enter into this trap.

Anyone who'd refuse on principal, I'd worry is either a) faking it, or b) too arrogant to work well with others. A good candidate is happy to prove that they're a good candidate, and won't have to work with idiots.

A test isn't the _only_ way to do this. Any sort of nice, concrete technical grilling will do. But for a programmer, it _must_ involve actually writing code of a non-trivial nature. You can't believe resumes - even if people aren't lying, a Senior Programmer at one shop may only be barely competent at another, and not even realize that the bar is set differently.

Of course, the quality of a test can vary just like the quality of an interview question, but the goal is good for the company _and_ the employees, and in my experience it works better than most techniques.

Now, if your shop isn't terribly compelling based on product, and you're desperate to not turn people away... well, you probably should be looking for places that feel like they need a test to screen out unqualified candidates, so you can stop hating your job, and not worry about fixing this particular problem. :)

more than 5 years ago
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10th Annual System Administrator Appreciation Day

Kirby Yay sysadmins (232 comments)

You should clearly get them a ThinkGeek gift certificate. $20 gets most sysadmins a T-Shirt they really would like.

-- Kirby, ThinkGeek programmer

(Okay, see, I'm biased, but I'm _still_ right.)

more than 5 years ago
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Which Language Approach For a Computer Science Degree?

Kirby I'd choose the variety (537 comments)

You're not going to come out of school with the expertise to be a professional software engineer in any case, whether you focus on one language or many. It's a hard job, and 90% of what makes it hard are factors of time longer than a quarter/semester, and factors of dealing with non-Computer Scientists and people with demands other than your professor.

It's okay, we (the hiring industry) know this, and a lot of us are willing to put in the investment to do the appropriate apprenticeships. CS Degrees are one way to select people who are more likely to succeed, but it's a discipline that's only learned through doing for the most part, and best done with people who are more senior teaching you. (I self-taught a lot after my CS degree, but I advanced more in the first year I had a real mentor than I did in the previous 6 I was doing it mostly myself. But people do vary, and if you're the exception, great.)

I'd recommend the variety approach, because people _do_ vary. Some people love the rigid structure of a Python, the massive infrastructure available to Java, the exposure of the bare metal of C, the total control of Assembly, the flexibility and rapid development of Perl, or whatever suits you. At this stage: Try a lot! Find a language you have fun with, and code more in that. You'll be a lot happier with your job if you don't find the language you use every day to be high in however you define bullshit. And if you don't fall in love with a particular approach, you've got a lot more starting nodes for your resume and can do a broader job search.

Employers have hired college students before, and we know that what you learn in your CS classes with respect to being a professional programmer is _really_ not that much, and hire more for people who we think will learn quickly, not be a pain in the ass, and actually have some amount of work discipline. Whether someone took one or three C# classes is not very interesting. (Personal side projects using the language of choice, those are more interesting.)

Good luck!

more than 5 years ago
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Should Undergraduates Be Taught Fortran?

Kirby Not sure it's a big deal (794 comments)

I tend to think that the goal is not to learn specific instances of skills in college (ie, a particular language), but learn principles. It's very much worth any science student's time to know a programming language. It's a reasonable thing to learn programming well enough to pick up any language - but really, this is one path of many, and is probably best called 'minor in computer science'. Yes, Fortran is not exactly cutting edge, but it's a fine example of one kind of language.

If you wanted to learn the language most commonly used in science labs, sad to say as a programmer type, probably spend some time with Visual Basic.

As an ecosystem, the best thing is probably variety. It's good that some percentage of new graduates know Fortran, so it doesn't become burdensome to hire people to work at places with legacy codesets, but it's also good that it's possible to hire someone working in a language that might be more suited to what you're doing. Or to a different type of brain. Diversity is good in a larger sense - someone who might be a mediocre Java programmer might be a star Perl programmer, and vice versa. The more diversity gives more individuals a chance at finding a niche they excel in. I think this aspect is overlooked massively when people talk about 'the right tool for the job'.

If you're a scientist that likes programming, though, a minor in CS so you can pick up whatever language comes your way is an approach with a lot of practical potential. (Or a double major, but CS is hard and most Science programs are hard, so I'm not sure it's worth it - even the people that hire programmers that like degrees would not find fault with a Physics degree and a CS minor.)

more than 5 years ago
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How Do IT Guys Get Respect and Not Become BOFHs?

Kirby Two-way street (902 comments)

The same way anyone else gets respect. Actually get to know your coworkers, make sure that they know you understand their concerns and needs (and it helps if it's true), be someone who isn't just the weird guy in the server room that nobody ever talks to.

Don't consider getting to know your coworkers to be 'politics'. That's an anti-pattern.

It's not a cure-all, but if at least some people start thinking of you as a human with a name, and actually trust you, it helps a lot.

And also, return the favor. They're not just users violating policies and expecting miracles - they're stressed out people with demanding jobs that need support. If you don't respect them, it's _blindingly obvious_ and they will respond in kind.

Not everyone's personality is suited to this approach, but a little bit of empathy goes a long ways.

more than 5 years ago
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For CS Majors, How Important Is the "Where?"

Kirby Doesn't matter much (991 comments)

I went to Oregon State, a mid-level engineering school. After graduating, I moved to California and worked with recent graduates from some top schools, like UC Berkeley and Harvey Mudd and Cal Tech. (Well, Mudders certainly think very highly of their school.)

Comparing curriculum (and this was mid-90s), there was very little difference. The better schools have more interesting senior projects, but the actual education a motivated student gets is extremely similar.

Right out of school employment opportunities are a little better at the more prestigious schools, because companies target them more. They send recruiters to Stanford more than a typical state college. However, once five years has passed, very few people care, and there's wide swaths of the programming world that doesn't even care if you have a degree.

The real advantage of the more prestigious schools is networking. I don't really talk to any of my Oregon State buddies anymore. But my friends who went to, say, CalTech, seem to stay very close to their college circles. They trust each other as smart and capable, and that's a huge plus for getting interesting jobs for quite some time. Sometimes tech departments get clusters from a particular school, and it's no coincidence. I didn't value this at 17, and I should have.

Relatedly, the other big difference is quality of the other students. I was decidedly a top student at Oregon State. I'd probably have been somewhere in the middle at CalTech. I think I learned about the same, being a motivated and smart student, but there definitely exist a percentage at the lesser schools that just skate by, and waste your time in classes asking stupid questions. On the other hand, the top schools can be highly stressful. A very personal decision, if you'd rather be the top dog in a low stress environment, or be in the middle of an awesome but highly competitive environment. This choice re-presents itself throughout your career.

Note that none of the above applies to graduate school, where you're working directly with professors and learning a less generic expertise. For that, where you go matters a great deal.

This may also not be accurate outside of the West Coast. I'd easily believe we place less of a premium on prestige and pedigree than the rest of the country.

If you want to go to the liberal arts school, there won't be any problems for you, but I'd recommend the tech school because you'll make better, more useful friends. You're more likely to end up at an interesting startup with other super smart folks, more likely to make a big splash. But anyone can do these things - it just takes a little more luck and hard work post college.

more than 6 years ago

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