I have spent the last week doing some soul searching and I have decided I am going to discontinue the planned algorithms and data structures series I was going to do on this blog.
My calculation was if I attempted to solve one problem in Cracking the Code interview each day it would take me about six months to get through the whole book. That was before I encountered several road blocks with attempting to implement a custom data structure that was not really intended for this use and required me to greatly extend its functionality.
I made the mistake of reading the beginning of Cracking the Code Interview and to my horror, found a lot of the same things I was saying in my post about the algorithms of discrimination, except they were being touted as features and not bugs.
The author indicated that companies know you probably won’t use algorithms on a day to day basis, but that they’re being used as a proxy to see if you got a computer science degree. They’re assuming if you got a computer science degree you’re a good programmer.
I am a hacker. I love to build things. I love to wander off into unexplored areas of our field to figure out how something works because I enjoy doing it. I love to craft code and make things work. I am fascinated by how to actually grow a complex code base in a way that is sustainable. I am interested in figuring out how to break up a seemingly insurmountable task into pieces that can be accomplished. I am interested in figuring out how to make my code better and I am willing to write absolutely terrible code initially that I know I will go back and fix to get to that point. I am interested in how my user interacts with my code and making sure it’s seamless and intuitive.
I know that not all companies are the same, but my experience of interviewing at companies that use algorithms screening is quite bad. I feel like I am being treated like a criminal whose guilt is assumed and I have to prove my innocence but I don’t get a chance to call a lawyer.
I have never had an interview at a company doing an algorithm screen where anyone has bothered to read my resume. Most of them ask me how they’re supposed to know if I know how to code or not without this screen. Well, I have written books that are published and available. I write about code on this blog. I speak about code at conferences. I post code on GitHub.
A lot of these companies are also ones where they expect relocation. Relocating is a massive deal for me. I have a stable and cheap living situation at the moment. I have parents to watch my second pug while I take the first pug with me to conferences. I have issues with depression and other mental health that are exacerbated by being in urban areas.
If a company is going to demand that I uproot my life, greatly increase my cost of living, and give up the stability of working from the place I feel most comfortable, I want them to not treat me like a criminal. At the very least read my resume. Don’t put me in a situation where I don’t get to speak to an actual human being until I jump through some hoop to prove that I got a computer science degree.
I heard a lot of people telling me that I am shitty developer because I am refusing to spend a few months learning data structures and sorting algorithms.
I feel learning this stuff without context is yak shaving. It’s future engineering. It’s learning something before you need to know it. It’s important to know it is out there, but it is not vital to learn it before you need it. If you spend all your time learning things before you need them, then you won’t build anything.
I learned so much about my code after I started implementing it. I wrote what I thought were solid data structures until I tried to work with them in my code. I found I had underlying assumptions about it that were wrong and I had to go back and add functions and properties to correct for my assumptions.
We like to think that the world can be simplified with algorithms in text books, but they rarely account for the complexity of the real world. You wind up adding bits and pieces to deal with edge cases and your artfully crafted algorithm turns into a house with pieces tacked on. Why not go into it knowing that you’re doing something complex and ugly rather than simple and elegant but imaginary?
There is the argument that I won’t understand how programs work if I don’t learn data structures and algorithms. Again, I disagree.
There are so many things we could use as a proxy for actual engineering knowledge. Why not ask candidates to write things out in assembly language? Why not ask them about computer architecture? Why not ask them how they would break out a large project into smaller pieces? Why not ask them about how they would test their code?
How many people have used a disassembled on their code to look at what the machine is actually doing? I just found out this is something I can do and it’s magical to me. It’s far more interesting to me than memorizing the difference between a bubble sort and a quick sort when I will always just use the
sort() function on collection types in Swift anyway.
For whatever reason, this is the thing that we use as a proxy for being a good developer and I am not doing it.
I am interviewing companies and ones that behave like this are ones I don’t want to work for. If this is a small component of a larger hiring process, I am willing to engage in it, but not as a barrier to entry to even get to talk to a human being.
So instead of trying to please large companies and shave all my edges off and submit to conformity, I am going to build things. I am aware that there are algorithms and solutions out there that could make my code cleaner and work better. Once I get something working I will go back and refactor it to resolve many of the issues that I know are there. My understanding was that refactoring was part of being a great developer too. If you disagree with that, then I really hope I am not stuck maintaining your legacy code.
I have faith that if I keep learning and working on cool projects and contributing to the programming community that there is a place for me somewhere. It may not be one of those big companies on the West Coast, but I think the world is big enough to accommodate a lot of different kinds of people.