Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hiring Online Engineers

(By the way, Maxis is hiring).

I've interviewed a lot of candidates over the years. At my last job, we seemed to have an unending stream of candidates because we had learned to be picky. And I didn't even do the phone screens that kept the numbers down. But I did do what we affectionately called the "make them cry" part of the interview, drilling down on Java knowledge as much as I could.

At Maxis, we have less candidate churn, but I now have to sift through the resumés and do the phone screens. And I'd like to pass along some advice about getting your resumé to the top of my pile. None of these are absolutes, but the more flaws in your resumé, the greater your strengths need to be.

First, have someone proofread your resumé. I don't care if English is your first language or not; get a good editor to give you feedback. I'll wince at one typo but let it slide. Much more than that, and I begin to wonder if your code will be as unprofessional as your text. A recent candidate said in the header of his resumé that he's a "self-mortification" person. I'm guessing he meant self-motivated, but clearly not self-motivated enough to have someone sanity check his text.

In a similar vein, make sure you use the correct terms when discussing things you know. You do not "program in" AJAX, HTML, XML, or CSS. You may understand them, but it doesn't look like you do if you call them programming languages.

Next, keep your resumé brief. I've always liked the saying, "the only thing on the second page of a resume should be the Nobel Prize you won," but I am in the minority. The style du jour is to make your resume as long as possible.

I'll grudgingly accept a two-page resumé even without the Nobel Prize, but a recent applicant I saw had a many-page resumé with this line item: "Coded Perl functions, invoking subroutines and functions calling functions." In other words, you did some programming? And that was simply the most ridiculous in a long list. "Set up Object-Relational Mapping with Hibernate" is another common line item. For those who don't know, this involves writing a config file. If you have items such as these on your resumé, you're padding, and I'll think you need to pad because you don't have any real skills.

If you're a mid-level Java engineer with some enterprise software experience, I'm afraid your resumé looks like approximately 100,000 others. Spring, Hibernate, JUnit, Struts, MySQL, Oracle. I'm yawning already. So make your projects sound interesting. We don't all get to work on famous video games, but before I did, I worked on projects you've never heard of. And I made them sound neat. I focused on the compelling problems and described those. If you can't find interesting problems in your work, you're not a programmer I want to work with: Every problem is interesting in its own way.

I also look for personal projects on a resumé. Yes, people have families and whatnot. But think of great writers. They don't just write because they are required to: They write because they need to.

If you're working on personal projects, no matter how esoteric, you're telling me that you're so in love with programming that you can't simply kick it aside when you clock out. You're telling me you love the craft, the problem-solving, the tinkering. You're telling me that you're a programmer I want to work with.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Visualizing My Bike Rides

My three main interests are programming, writing, and food and wine.

You'll notice exercise isn't on that list. In fact, quite the opposite: My primary interests are all anti-exercise. But I grudgingly acknowledge its value, and I've decided to "trick" myself into exercising more by turning it into a programming project.

I live close enough to work that I can commute on my bike, and so I've started a project to gather data on my rides and do interesting things with that data, inspired in part by Cooper Smith's visualization of Nike+ data from New York City. Since I need a lot of data to make useful visualizations, I'm riding more consistently to get it. And hopefully by the time I have enough data, the bike riding will seem routine.

I picked up a couple of bike tracking apps for the iPhone, but have settled on Abvio's Cyclemeter, based on the recommendation of a co-worker who is both a data geek like me and an avid cyclist. You press Start on your phone, ride your bike, and press Stop when you're done. It gives graphs, maps, and all sorts of other goodies.

Getting to the data is then just a minor step: All of these apps seems to support exports in KML and GPX. Since these are actually just my rides, that data isn't all that interesting by itself. I know how I get to work.

But with that data, I can create meta-analyses. For instance, how does my speed look across a given ride? Here's a ride I took from the Saturday Berkeley farmers market to Berkeley Bowl, our preferred grocery store.

Green lines indicate places where I was faster than my average speed for that ride. Red lines indicate places where I was slower. I add in the Start and Stop pins, and also provide meta information about the ride off of the extra data in Cyclemeter's GPX file: total distance, average speed, and so forth.

Ruby made this work pretty straightforward. I use Nokogiri to parse a GPX file and calculate the velocity between subsequent points. Each velocity item has the coordinates and timestamps of the two points as well as the calculated velocity. I then use an ERB template for the KML I want to create. That ERB template sets up the styles and other items, and then uses the state variables to construct the line segments, the start/stop pins, and other items.

Eventually, I want to add arrows indicating the direction (which is more useful when you're looking at lots of overlapping routes), pins for the slowest point and the fastest point, and other items.

That will do for individual routes, but I also plan to start aggregating my rides to show even more data.