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Coders Who Don’t Job Interview: Zed Shaw

I wrote a piece about the current state of job recruiting from a coder looking for work. I wondered:

What would it be like if you didn’t have to do a job interview?

(The non-tl;dr summary is below.)

By “job interview,” I just mean the normal process where I job candidate replies to an ad, contacts an employer directly, or works with a recruiter, and gets a job through that process. High-profile experts are courted, or work out a mutually beneficial deal where it doesn’t feel like an interview.

I asked around for folks that didn’t have to interview. One name that consistently came to the top was Zed Shaw.

Zed is the creator of the Mongrel Web Server, and a really great framework that is powered by Mongrel, Tir. Personally, I first heard of him from a video Leah Culver linked to on a talk that Zed gave, “The ACL is dead.” A careful viewing of that talk is always rewarded, especially if you are a coder freelancing for a corporation.

Here’s my interview with him (conducted over email). Thanks Zed!

Barce: What’s your own process for choosing the projects you want to work on?

Zed: Within my profession I try to just work on whatever is needed to get the
project or job done. Sometimes that ends up being a lot of crap work so
other people can do more important stuff. Professionally I don’t mind
this kind of work as it’s low investment and removes the pressure off
other folks who would rather do interesting things. I think I also tend
to pick off the lower level work because most of my original ideas are
usually too weird for a professional setting.

Personally, I tend to work on projects that match ideas I might have,
and usually they have a secondary motive that’s outside of programming.
Many times these ideas come from combining a couple of concepts, or
they’re based on a problem I’ve noticed, or they are just a kind of
funny joke or cool hack I thought up.

I think the most important thing is I don’t try to plan my inspiration
in my personal projects, but instead go with it when it comes. I don’t
have a “process”, and in fact I think “process” kills creativity.
Proess definitely helps make creative ideas a reality, but it doesn’t
create the initial concepts very well.

Professionally though, inspiration is for amateurs and I just do my

Barce: What advice can you give someone who feels trapped by their job or surrounded by recruiters?

Zed: Well, if you’re trapped by your job then I’d say start working on
getting a new one. Nobody is every really *trapped*, but maybe you
can’t just quit right away. Instead, work on projects at home,
constantly look for new work, and move to where the work is. Even if
it’s temporary, moving to say San Francisco during the boom times could
be a major boost to your career.

I’d also say that going back to school is a good way to update your life
and change your profession. I’m a firm believer in getting government
student loans and using them to go to school. They’re cheap, low
interest, and the US government is usually very nice about letting you
pay them back. I’m not so sure about other places around the world

Barcee: What’s the most disruptive technology you know about right now?

Zed: If I were to be honest, I’d have to say Facebook, even though I
absolutely hate it. It’s probably the one technology in recent history,
maybe after HTTP and the Browser, that is changing the way governments,
societies, and regular people work. It’s also sort of irritating that
the most important thing to hit most people’s lives is also one of the
most privacy invading companies in the world.

After that I’d have to say the rise of automated operations and
virtualized machines. Things like Xen, kvm, and even llvm as compiler
infrastructure are changing how systems are managed and deployed, which
then leads to bigger automation for large hetergenous networks. I’m
sort of waiting for operating systems to catch up and realize that their
configuration systems are getting in the way of real automation.

Barce: Thanks again, Zed, for the interview. The take aways that I hope readers get from this are:

  • Zed has open source projects that free him from the normal interviewing process. Building your own open source project is one way to free yourself.
  • “Professionally though, inspiration is for amateurs and I just do my work.”
  • “[W]ork on projects at home,
    constantly look for new work, and move to where the work is.”
  • Facebook is the most disruptive technology that’s changing governments… Virtualization / Cloud technologies are a 2nd.
Announcements Questions

Where are the people that hack together in meatspace?

I’ve got a flu and am hopped up on ibuprofen and Nyquil.

This year I’ve been telecommuting and co-working. I’ve made a few friends, but we don’t hang out much. I’ve actually been blown off by a few people to, but you know what? You’re hardly worth the thought.

This rant is addressed to those of you I haven’t met or haven’t hung out with this year, but I truly feel you can do something awesome for the tech scene that’s more than just about your career. Actually if we do this shit that I’ll mention later, you’ll see that it’ll enhance our careers.

I’ve seen you folks in cafes: the guy with the latest Apple laptop tailing server logs with an ev-do card, or the woman compiling drizzle on some beater Lenovo laptop converted to Linux. I’ve seen the creepy and utterly lame pick-up that you engineer dudes do at co-working places. Life’s more than eating where you shit.

Next year, let’s do something awesome. Let’s fucking hang out in meatspace and build something awesome. Let’s have awesome discussions and turn a particular cafe as the place to talk tech.

Let’s meet on some night during the week and actually build and learn shit, and actually help each other. San Francisco has about 17,000 people per square mile in some places. Why aren’t these folks hanging out and making there lives more awesome. Insert Matrix Quote Here.

I know some of you hackers are one pay check away from disaster (if you’re not already there), or some of you are doing okay. Let’s all combine forces and create an awesome network and see if we can actually build something.

You’re the kind of person who knows there’s gotta be better than Facebook or Google. Technology wasn’t meant to pigeonhole and objectify people as consumers but in some weird way liberate their human potential. Ya, it’s pretty hard to buy this BS given what a rough year it was, but if you are reading this here’s my proposal to you:

We meet each week at some common space and work on technology together.

This might sound too simple, but ask yourself this question: What community do you belong to?

Having a hard time answering? Working on a tech project? Then the community I’m proposing might be the one for you.

Maybe there’s already a group out there. If you’re out there, I’d like to talk to you. We have to stop isolating ourselves and unite in a really powerful way.

php Questions ruby TechBiz WebApps

My Favorite Coder Interview Question

What is your favorite algorithm?

My favorite algorithm right now is the merge sort.

v1: Nuno Nogueira (Nmnogueira), v2: edited by Daniel Miller (cobaltBlue)
v1: Nuno Nogueira (Nmnogueira), v2: edited by Daniel Miller (cobaltBlue)

I like it so much that I’ve implemented it in PHP and Ruby.

The problem is that as a web developer I’ve never had to use a merge sort. Back in the old days when pagination was tricky, I’ve had to use a linked list, but you really don’t have to use the merge sort anymore.

So at this point it’s really just academic.

What interview question should really count now?

More on that in my next post. As a clue, I’d like to say it has to do with Leibniz’s statement, “The present is big with the future.” A techie who believes that and the principle of sufficient reason is the kind of techie you want.

Questions TechBiz

Where Are The Tech Jobs Right Now? In Booze and Legal

I wrote this to the San Francisco PHP Meetup List. I am posting it here because in a month or so I know a huge portion of you will be looking for work in the tech area.


Subject: Re: [php-139] Headhunters/Recruiters: Some feedback please. 🙂
From: barce
Date: October 31, 2008 12:06:08 PM PDT
To: SF PHP Meetup List

Let me comment on what’s going on.

I will tell you about two types of layoffs, and then two types of opportunities that I am benefitting from right now.

1. Scapegoating Pathology in Layoffs. This is where staff gets laid off to “fix” a problem, and the problems are still there. Sure, they have one less mouth to feed, but they got rid of the wrong person. How can you tell? The problem is still there. Most recruiters have a hard time filling these spots b/c turnover is high. No amount of technical skill will solve this problem. You need people skills if you’re gonna fill this role.

2. The Invisible Hand Layoffs. The company ends up with more capital and gains more worker productivity because the invisible hand is at work.

I would say that from the Web 2.0 companies that are laying off people it’s 50/50 . If you are really hard up for a job, then your best bet is with a company that’s done scapegoating layoffs.

That is the opportunity #1 that I mentioned, and examples of this are which loses a lead every 3 months and Mahalo. Calacanis fired and is now looking for workers again. Talk about scapegating!

Opportunity #2: Litigation Support. Right now a lot of companies have a financial strategy to stay alive, and that is sue. During this economic downturn you will see companies like DTIGlobal, Iron Mountain (NYSE: IRM) and other litigation support companies do well. Iron Mountain is already doing really well. I have a client in litigation support where I do light sysadmin work.

Get a job in these areas. Recruiters won’t know about them because they are still trying to fill jobs where there is a scapegoating pathology.

I wish you all the best of luck,

PS Beer is doing well right now, too, so look for tech work in the beer industry, or hell, do what I did right out of college, sell beer. It is fun work!

Questions WebApps

SubEthaEdit for Linux?

SubEthaEdit is a fun editor that links coders via OS X’s chat. You and your friends can see each other’s cursor in the editor and edit accordingly. From a management perspective, it’s quite satisfying to see your coders collaborate on the same tough problem that crops up and you have to have everyone talk about it.

pic of subethaedit

Dear Lazy Web,

I have two questions:

Is there a SubEthaEdit for Linux?

What collaborative technologies do you use for coding?


PS I use eclipse, svn, pastebin, IM, IRC, and sometimes ventrilo. I would love to just use SubEthaEdit though.