Tag: contractor

171i-Training-Talet-Development-Competency-BenchmarkingI’ve had occasion to be interviewed for positions at a variety of technology companies. Sometimes the position actually exists, other times it might exist and even other times, the folks are just fishing for solutions to their problems and hope to save a little from their consulting budget. In all cases, the goal of the interview is primarily to find out what you know and how well you know it in a 30 to 45 minute conversation. It is interesting to see how some go about doing it. My experience has been that an interview really tells you nothing but does give you a sense of whether the person is nice enough to “work well with others“.

But now, finally folks at Google used big data to figure out something that has been patently obvious to anyone who has either interviewed for a job or was interviewing someone for a job. The article published in the New York Time details a talk with Mr. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google.  In it, he shared that puzzle questions don’t tell you anything about anyone.  I maintain that they tell you if someone has heard that particular puzzle question before. In the published interview Mr. Bock, less charitably, suggests that it merely serves to puff up the ego of the interviewer.

I think it’s only a matter of time before big data is used again to figure out another obvious fact – that even asking simple or complex programming questions serves as no indicator of on-the-job success.  Especially now in the age of Google and open-source software.  Let’s say you want to write some code to sort a string of arbitrary letters and determine the computational complexity, a few quick Google searches and presto – you have the solution.  You need to understand the question and the nature of the problem but the solution itself has merely become a matter of copying from your betters and equals who shared their ideas on the Internet.  Of course, such questions are always made more useless when the caveat is added – “without using the built-in sort function” – which is, of course, the way you actually solve it in real life.

Another issue I see is the concern about experience with a specific programming language. I recall that the good people at Apple are particularly fond of Objective C to the point where they believe that unless you have had years of direct experience with it, you could never use it to program effectively.  Of course, this position is insulting to both any competent programmer and the Objective C language. The variations between these algorithmic control flow languages are sometimes subtle, usually stylistic but always easily understood. This is true of any programming language.  In reality, if you are competent at any one, you should easily be able to master any another. For instance,  Python uses indentation but C uses curly braces to delineate code blocks.  Certainly there are other differences but give any competent developer a few days and they can figure it out leveraging their existing knowledge.

But that still leaves the hard question.  How do you determine competency?  I don’t think you can figure it out in a 45 minute interview – or a 45 hour one for that matter – if the problems and work conditions are artificial.  I think the first interview should be primarily behavioral and focus on fit and then, if that looks good, the hiring entity should then pay you to come in and work for a week solving an actual problem working with the team that would be yours. This makes sense in today’s world of limited, at-will employment where everyone is really just a contractor waiting to be let go. So, in this approach, everyone gets to see how you fit in with the team, how productive you can be, how quickly you can come up to speed on a basic issue and how you actually work a problem to a solution in the true environment. This is very different from establishing that you can minimize the number of trips a farmer takes across a river with five foxes, three hens, six bag of lentils, a sewing machine and a trapeze.

I encourage you to share some of your ideas for improving the interview process.

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spaceIn the famous Aardman Animations short film “Creature Comforts“, a variety of zoo animals discuss their lives in the zoo.  A Brazilian Lion speaks at length about the virtue of the great outdoors (cf. a zoo) recalling that in Brazil “We have space“.  While space might be a great thing for Brazilian Lions, it turns out that space is a dangerous and difficult reality in path names for computer applications.

In a recent contract, one portion of the work involved running an existing Windows application under Cygwin. Cygwin, for the uninitiated, is an emulation of the bash shell and most standard Unix commands. It provides this functionality so you can experience Unix under Windows. The Windows application I was working on had been abandoned for several years and customer pressure finally reached a level at which maintenance and updates were required – nay, demanded. Cygwin support was required primarily for internal infrastructure reasons. The infrastructure was a testing framework – primarily comprising bash shell scripts – that ran successfully on Linux (for other applications). My job was to get the Windows application re-animated and running under the shell scripts on Cygwin.

It turns out that the Windows application had a variety of issues with spaces in path names. Actually, it had one big issue – it just didn’t work when the path names had spaces. The shell scripts had a variety of issues with spaces. Well, one big issue – they, too, just didn’t work when the path names had spaces. And it turns out that some applications and operations in Cygwin have issues with spaces, too. Well, that one big issue – they don’t like spaces.

Now by “like”, I mean that when the path name contains spaces then even using ‘\040’ (instead of the space) or quoting the name (e.g., “Documents and Settings”) does not resolve matters and instead merely yields unusual and unhelpful error messages. The behavior was completely unpredictable, as well. For instance, quoting might get you part way through a section of code but then the same quoted name failed when used to call stat. It would then turn out that stat didn’t like spaces in any form (quoted, escaped, whatever…).

Parenthetically, I would note that the space problem is widespread. I was doing some Android work and having an odd an unhelpful error displayed (“invalid command-line parameter”) when trying to run my application on the emulator under Eclipse. It turns out that a space in the path name to the Android SDK was the cause.  Once the space was removed, all was well.

The solution to my problem turned out to be manifold. It involved a mixture of quoting, clever use of cygpath and the Windows API calls GetLongPathName and GetShortPathName.

When assigning and passing variables around in shell scripts, quoting a space-laden path or a variable containing a space-laden path,  the solution was easy. Just remember to use quotes:


Passing command line options that include path names with spaces tended to be more problematic. The argc/argv parsers don’t like spaces.  They don’t like them quoted and don’t like them escaped.  Or maybe the parser likes them but the application doesn’t. In any event, the specific workaround that used was clever manipulation of the path using the cygpath command. The cygpath -w -s command will translate a path name to the Windows version (with the drive letter and a colon at the beginning) and then shortens the name to the old-style 8+3 limited format thereby removing the spaces. An additional trick is that then, if you need the cygwin style path – without spaces – you get the output of the cygpath -w -s and run it through cygpath -u. Then you get a /cygdrive/ style file name with no spaces. There is no other direct path to generating a cygwin Unix style file name without spaces.

These manipulations allow you to get the sort of input you need to the various Windows programs you are using. It is important to note, however, that a Windows GUI application built using standard file browser widgets and the like always passes fully instantiated, space-laden path names. The browser widgets can’t even correctly parse 8+3 names. Some of the system routines, however, don’t like spaces. Then the trick is how do you manipulate the names once within the sphere of the Windows application? Well, there are a number of things to keep in mind, the solutions I propose will not work with cygwin Unix-style names and they will not work with relative path names.

Basically, I used the 2 windows API calls GetLongPathName and GetShortPathName to manipulate the path. I used GetShortPathName to generate the old-style 8+3 format name that removes all the spaces. This ensured that all system calls worked without a hitch. Then, in order, to display messaging that the end-user would recognize, make sure that the long paths are restored by calling GetLongPathName for all externally shared information. I need to emphasize that these Windows API calls do not appear to work with relative path names. They return an empty string as a result. So you need to watch out for that.

Any combination of all these approaches (in whole or in part) may be helpful to you in resolving any space issues you encounter.

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In these days of tight budgets but no shortage of things to do, more and more companies are finding that having a flexible workforce is key. This means that having the ability to apply immediate resources to any project is paramount. But also as important, is the ability to de-staff a project quickly and without the messiness of layoffs.

While this harsh work environment seems challenging, it actually can very rewarding both professionally and monetarily and see both the employers and employees coming out winners.

The employees have the benefit of being able to work on a wide variety of disparate projects. This can yield a level of excitement unlikely to be experienced in a full time position that is usually focussed on developing deep expertise in a narrow area. The employers get the ability to quickly staff up to meet schedules and requirements and the ability to scale back just as quickly.

Of course, this flexibility – by definition – means that there is no stability and limited predictability for both employees and employers. The employees don’t know when or where they will see the next job and the employers don’t know if they will get the staff they need when they need it. While some thrive in this sort of environment, others seek the security of knowing with some degree of certainty what tomorrow brings. With enough experience with a single contractor, an employer can choose to attempt to flip the contractor from a “renter” to an “owner”. Similarly, the contractor may find the work atmosphere so enticing that settling down and getting some “equity” might be ideal.

It is a strange but mutually beneficial arrangement with each party having equal stance and in effect both having the right of first refusal in the relationship. And it may very well be the new normal in the workplace.

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