First Thoughts: “Coders at Work” by Peter Seibel

I’ve just started to read the book Coders At Work. The book is a nice, recent collection of interviews from many big name developers. I’ve read other developer interview books before, but this one sticks out in an unusual way: with most “interview” books, the interview is either completely boring or incredibly interesting. In Coders At Work, the interviews have varied between amazing and neutral. I haven’t gotten to a bad interview yet.

A few things jumped out at me and made me think. Jamie Zawinski’s interview made me wonder about the value of non formally-educated developers in “today’s market.” Brad Fitzpatrick’s interview reminded me of the “I’ll build everything,” but you “must know everything” attitudes. Douglas Crockford’s interview didn’t inspire me, but it did make me consider other issues within software development.

Jamie Zawinski’s interview was an amazing conversation about a guy who has many interests in learning and doing work. He is a self taught LISP developer who can occasionally get very opinionated. I found his work experience with Netscape fascinating. As a user of the early versions of Netscape, I never knew all of the politics or construction going behind the scenes. I also found it technically intriguing that the pre-3.0 mail reader within Netscape was not written in C++. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Zawinski for being able to identify a potential bias of his – he appeared very introspective when asked about hiring new developers. He understood that he could distinguish people that he could find reputable, but not those who would make good candidates.

One of the things that struck me as a bit off-putting about Mr. Zawinski was his rejection of automatic unit testing. I feel that if it was made as easy in the 90s as it is today, software would be VERY different today.

Brad Fitzpatrick’s interview left me with mixed feeling about the guy. I’m not sure if he is a guy you would want to work with, however he sounds like the kind of guy that you would want to share war stories with over drinks. He has worked on many interesting projects, mainly LiveJournal, and is one of the early “Growth Hackers {http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth_hacking}.” I like his recommendation that you should spend some time in reading other’s code. He fights the immediate urge to ignore others’ code and his approach sounds different from what I had expected: I expected his approach to making suggestions on other people’s code would be antagonistic. However, it was described as the following:

  1. Code copies are distributed to the audience – in digital and paper form

  2. The developer presents their code line by line

  3. Q&A time

  4. Suggestions / feedback from the audience

This struck me as different from my experience where code reviews tend to be either technically or personally antagonistic (or both). This approach was more similar to proofreading a paper you just made or audience-testing a book you just wrote.

The two things that really put me off about Mr. Fitzpatrick was one of the questions he asks in interviews, and the other is the insistence of knowing everything. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s “famous” interview/programming question was a recycled question from his “AP CS” exam. The question is to write a class that handles large number arithmetic (rewrite BigDecimal). It appears that he uses his previous experience as a baseline for evaluation. I also got the feeling that it is a way for him to “show superiority over others” (over something he did many years ago a high school student). Second, he is incredibly insistent over knowing everything about how every layer works. He ranted against high-level language developers because they didn’t know that a specific way of polling may not work on a specific deployment machine. He even ranted over those who deployed towards a VM because the VM’s “virtual”->native OS/hardware has been abstracted. I feel that in 98% of the cases he’s picking up pennies in front of a steam roller.

I was not very thrilled with Douglas Crockford’s interview. Primarily because it dealt with Javascript, it was a little too high-level for my taste. During the reading of this interview, my mind went back to Mr. Fitzpatrick’s interview. It made me wonder and realize about how you find the “best” tools. I find it incredibly difficult to keep afloat of all the languages and tools available. Recently, for example, I just learned how – and why – Git, Jenkins (plus the automated unit/lint/reporting/checkstyle plug-ins), and deep Maven knowledge are really good things to know if you’re developing in Java.

When new languages, tools, and frameworks come around, I love to read about them and learn how they work (if they’re useful and interesting enough). However, time is limited: how do you identify the tools that would solve the most pressing need you have?  Prior to Jenkins, I built everything via an IDE. Why would I need an automated build tool? I’m the only developer on the project. Prior to Git, I used Subversion – it did everything I needed. Why would I want to make “sub-commits”? Prior to Maven, why would I want to have the build tool automatically deploy the WAR file or require that all unit tests pass before generating an executable? (I’m running unit tests all the time anyway.)

Later it made me think about the code reading suggestion and I realized: I’m not very happy with the code review tools I know about. ReviewBoard looks nice, but that is for only for Ruby. Should I write my own? Where are the existing tools for Java (which can also integrate with Maven and Jenkins)? Are the tools good? Are there others out there that have solved this issue? Is it worth setting up a code review tool just for this? This are questions I’m not sure how to answer.

Overall, I really enjoyed that this book goes over many topics – personal projects, interview questions, and famous debugging stories. I do occasionally enjoy a story bragging how the developer’s language or tool was miles ahead. However after reading about their accomplishments in a serial fashion, it just gets old. Perhaps interspersing their accounts in a more conversational form would have made this book more interesting, and easier to recommend.

Similarities of the individuals who were interviewed:

  1. All have a strong focus on one particular project

  2. Each interviewee has worked in many companies

  3. None of them focused on the reputation of the company they have worked for

  4. All have interesting debugging stories