Monday, October 25, 2004

A Luminary Is On My Side

I was reading Joel Spolsky's latest book last night, where I found another real gemstone: "Back to Basics", which shows some surprisingly (or probably not so surprisingly?) close analogies to what I tried to express just a short time ago. Joel Spolsky writes about performance issues on C strings, in particular the strcat() function, and concludes:

These are all things that require you to think about bytes, and they affect the big top-level decisions we make in all kinds of architecture and strategy. This is why my view of teaching is that first year CS students need to start at the basics, using C and building their way up from the CPU. I am actually physically disgusted that so many computer science programs think that Java is a good introductory language, because it's "easy" and you don't get confused with all that boring string/malloc stuff but you can learn cool OOP stuff which will make your big programs ever so modular. This is a pedagogical disaster waiting to happen.

Here is what I had to say some weeks ago:

The course curriculum here in Austria allows you to walk through a computer science degree without writing a single line of C or C++ (not to mention assembler).


What computer science professors tend to forget is that the opposite course is likely to happen as well to those graduates once they enter working life (those who have only applied Java or C#). There is more than Java and C# out there. And this "backward" paradigm shift is a much more difficult one. Appointing inexperienced Java programmers to a C++ or C project is a severe project risk.

It's a nice comfort to know that my opinion complies with the conclusions of a real software development celebrity. I admire Joel Spolsky's knowledge of the software industry's internal mode of operation, but the same is true for his excellent writing style. His writings are perceptive and entertaining at the same time.

In another article, "The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing", Joel states:

Many "C programmers" just don't know how to make pointer arithmetic work. Now, ordinarily, I wouldn't reject a candidate just because he lacked a particular skill. However, I've discovered that understanding pointers in C is not a skill, it's an aptitude. In Freshman year CompSci, there are always about 200 kids at the beginning of the semester, all of whom wrote complex adventure games in BASIC for their Atari 800s when they were 4 years old. They are having a good ol'; time learning Pascal in college, until one day their professor introduces pointers, and suddenly, they don't get it. They just don't understand anything any more. 90% of the class goes off and becomes PoliSci majors, then they tell their friends that there weren't enough good looking members of the appropriate sex in their CompSci classes, that's why they switched. For some reason most people seem to be born without the part of the brain that understands pointers. This is an aptitude thing, not a skill thing – it requires a complex form of doubly-indirected thinking that some people just can't do.

<humor_mode>Java is for wimps. Real developer use C.</humor_mode>

But there is something very true in that. So much harm is done by people who just don't understand the underlyings of their code.

I have been quite lucky so far. Either I could choose my project team members (admitted, from a quite limited pool of candidates), or I happened to work in an environment with sufficiently qualified people anyway. But I know of many occasions when the opposite happened. The candidates cheated on their resume. Their presentation skills were good, so they obscured their technical incompetence - even to technical-savvy interviewers. Those interviewers just didn't dig deep enough. They were too busy presenting their company, talking 80% of the time. They really should just have asked the right questions instead. And they should have spent more time on listening carefully.

Joel is actually looking for Triple-A people only. That's kind of hard when you work in a corporate environment. I do not have any influence on the recruiting process itself, so there is no "Hire" or "No Hire" flag I could wave. In order to attract excellent people, I can only try to ensure a professional working environment within the corporate boundaries. Still, this is not what potential hires get to see when they go through the recruiting process.

But I did something else. I forwarded "The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing" to the people in charge.