Monday, January 11, 2010

Your Field -- How to Land a Job as a Software Engineer

Job InterviewWell. This is it. My last post in the How to Land a Job as a Software Engineer series. I spent a lot of time deciding whether this would be the first post of the series or the last.

I thought about making it the first post because it's really the first step to becoming a software engineer, but I saved it for last because I wanted to make sure I gave these thoughts plenty of time to ripen. If you've been following the series, you probably know how this series came about in the first place.

Emerald Software Group has been interviewing programmers in search of new development talent. I've used a lot of examples (both good and bad) from real life interviews I've conducted in the past few months. This particular story is one of the most important lessons I've learned in my career, so it's really important to me to tell it correctly.

I know that my style and sense of humor can be pretty sardonic and I know that many would be readers find that off-putting, but I will do my best to convey my sincerity in this post.

A few months ago, I interviewed a candidate who had a masters degree in computer science from a relatively prestigious technical university in Georgia. I expected great things from this developer and was excited about the interview.

I went through my standard series of programming questions and was disappointed by his lack of understanding of the technologies he had spent the last 6 years studying. After a while, I started feeling bad for the kid and decided to move on with the interview. After all, like I've said before, just because you don't know the information doesn't mean I'm going to assume you're incapable of learning it.

I decided to ask him a little about himself. I closed my notebook, leaned back in my chair, and asked, "what kinds of things do you program in your spare time?" He said, "I don't really program in my spare time."

I was pretty surprised, so I asked, "Do you read programming blogs or books? How do you learn about new technologies and techniques?"

"I don't really bother learning it until I need it."

I was fundamentally confused. I didn't understand how he had spent 6 years in school studying computer science and was looking to begin a career in the field, but that he neither knew anything about it nor had any interest in learning it. I thought for a minute and I asked him, "Why are you here?"

He said, "I'm looking for a job."

"No, I mean, why do you want to be a programmer?"

"Because it pays well."

"Do you like it?"

"Not really."

I was dumbfounded. I asked him a few more questions so that I didn't have to end the interview abruptly, I told him we'd be in touch, and I walked him to the door. If you want to write software for a living, you need to love it. It's not just a job; it's a craft. If you're not doing it for the love of the field, then you're committing an injustice not only against yourself but also against your employer, your teammates, and the customers.

To be sure, I don't just feel this way about software engineering, but about all careers. Whatever it is you do, do it for the love of your field. If you don't like what you do, let alone love it, you'll be miserable for most of your life and there is no amount of money that will make up for a lifetime of misery.

Now, I know that there are plenty of people out there who would be perfectly happy spending 5 days a week doing something they don't care about so that they can have more fun the other 2 days of the week. You cannot be great at what you do if you don't care enough to try and I will not tolerate mediocrity, especially intentional mediocrity.

So chose your field carefully. Don't get a degree in software engineering if you don't like it. Obviously, don't get two degrees. Think about the things that you love to do. What would you like spending your weekends doing? Take those things and find a way to make money doing them. If you make your living doing what you love, you'll always love what you do, you'll always be proud of your work, and you'll be in the top of your field.

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