On interns and hiring people at the first stages of their career

time to read 4 min | 738 words

imageWhen looking for candidates, there is an ideal candidate. It is the ability to take one of the people already working for you, with all the domain knowledge and expertise and clone them. Hopefully multiple times. If you do this right, you can probably stick the clones in a basement with a bunch of computers, slide Pizza under the door every so often and get a lot of work done for the price of Pizza.

While this (dystopian) scenario is quite nice in terms of overall effort, I do believe that there are some issues with it. Naturally the biggest hurdle is the medical bills for cloning people, there are also some noise about this being inhumane. The real issue, of course, is the lack of feasible technology to accelerate the growth of the clones. I’m sure this will be solved at some point. My time machine comes back from the shop on Monday (and isn’t that ironic), so I’ll be investigating this further at that point.

Setting the clone wars option aside, there is the need to get new hires. And there are several ways to do go about that. You can try getting people with some or all the skills that you require. Or you can get someone that is a blank slate and train them internally. This post is about the later option.

The question is really what do you actually define as a blank slate. For example, hiring my 3 years old daughter as a software developer would be really nice. She is a blank slate, but given that we are currently teaching her to count to 20, I think that this might be premature.

To be perfectly honest, the amount of knowledge that is required to be an efficient developer is staggering. If I was to start the clock from scratch, I think that I would be sitting there twiddling my thumbs to this day, scared of all the things that I must understand to be effective. In some way, not knowing how much I don’t know was really helpful. It allowed me to go out and learn without being overwhelmed. If I looked at just C# and compare the language from 1.0 to 7.3, for example. Each change made sense at the time, and incrementally added to the language. Some of them were bigger than others (generics, linq) but they came in byte size chunks (typo intended). Trying to grok it all at once… much harder.

We actually hire fairly often directly from college. Either immediately after completing the degree or even beforehand. We usually look for people that have gone beyond the rote learning for the good grade but are actually able to understand why this are happening, not just what API to call. Our most junior hire ever had just finished high school and had a few months free before going to the army, effectively being an intern in the company for a short while.

The approach we take for onboarding a new employee (with no practical experience) and an intern is quite different. For a full time employee, my priority is to get them well situated and familiar with how we work and the overall codebase. That means that the typical first assignments will be things that are on the sidelines. Things that are okay if they take a little longer, since they are used to get the new developer familiar with the landscape of the code. Examples include writing new clients, building internal applications using RavenDB, becnhmarking work and building diagnostics and debug tools for production analysis.

For an intern, however, the situation is different. Given that I’m only going to have the intern for a few short months,  spending 2 – 3 months training to the expected level of a full time employee is going to be a waste. Instead, we try to give the intern experimental and research projects. Things that we wished we could have done if we had the time, but typically do not. Some of them are pretty complex, but the key “feature” in this regard is that they are possible to approach without having to have a deep understanding of RavenDB.  For example, SQL Migration, one of the main features of RavenDB 4.1, was actually initially developed by an intern.