Category Archives: interviewing

How to negotiate a better contracting rate

In any transaction, the person with more information and more experience usually comes out ahead. That’s why the typical consumer negotiating with a full-time salesman is at a huge disadvantage. A car dealer, for example, might negotiate several sales every week, while you only do it every two to three years.

So people making big decisions — new car, new house, new job — do as much research as they can, trying to level the playing field just a little bit. And lots of the information they come up with is flat out wrong.

One of the most damaging pieces of advice to follow when looking for a job is to rely on a headhunter’s self-interest to get you the best rate. The idea – which seems quite reasonable on the surface – is that the headhunter’s commission is a percentage of your salary. Obviously they want this number to be as high as possible. It’s easy to believe that their self-interest lines up with yours.

The first flaw with this idea is that the headhunter doesn’t get anything if someone else gets the job. If there are multiple qualified applicants, you are on the wrong side of a bidding war. The contractor doesn’t want to price you out of the running, so the incentive is to lowball your rate.

The second flaw is that every day the headhunter spends searching for your perfect job is day they don’t spend finding a job for the dozen other people they’re working with. They make more money by placing more people than they do by placing fewer people at higher rates. 30% of $70k x 3 is more than 30% of $80k x 2. Their incentive favors the quick hit, not protecting your interests.

So what do you do about it?

  • Stop thinking of the headhunter as your own personal agent.

    They’re doing a job for you, but they are more interested in getting you something than in getting you the best thing.

  • Know what you’ll accept before taking the interview.

    Have a bottom line that you won’t go below. Based on what you hear in the interview, you may decide to demand even more to accept the conditions. But your lower limit should never be negotiable.

  • Ask what the range is for the position up front.

    There’s no point in wasting time on a position that you’ll never take.

  • Never give up something for nothing.

    If they want you to travel and you don’t want to do it, ask for extra vacation in return. If they want you to be on call, ask for comp time. Never give up one of your demands without getting a concession in return.

  • Get it in writing.

    You can’t deposit a promise in the bank, or buy groceries with verbal assurances.

So are all headhunters ready to sell you out at a moment’s notice? Of course not, even if onlyto preserve their reputation. But if you want to avoid being disappointed, you should never forget that your best interest only sometimes matches up with the headhunter’s interests.

Hate the game if you want, don’t pretend it isn’t being played

When I was in college I worked at a bar that had a pool room. I played a lot when it was slow and after hours. I got pretty good on those tables. Only “pretty good” and only on those tables … I knew where the dead spots were in the rails.

If I bet anything on the game, it was usually who bought the next round. Sometimes we couldn’t drink as fast as we played, and we’d go for a dollar a game. We were all friends, and it was just to make the game more interesting.

But every so often someone would come in who none of us recognized. You could usually tell really fast who was better than just a casual player. Sometimes they’d see if they could get a game for $5. I’d always take them up on it. And I always won the first game.

Then they’d ask for a rematch … let them win their money back. I’d take that game, too. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes not. But I was breaking even so I didn’t care. It was usually after the second game that they’d look at their watch and realize they had somewhere they needed to be. But they had time for one more game.

How about one last round for $50?

No.

How about $30?

No.

Come on, give me a chance to win it back!

No, you’re a better pool player than I am. But you suck at reading people. You thought I didn’t know you were throwing the first two games.

That’s when they’d get pissed. It wasn’t fair that I took their money even though they could beat me without trying hard. I was just a punk-ass bitch that couldn’t carry their stick.

Yup. But I had their money, and they were leaving.

If I wanted to, I could have spent the equivalent of a full-time job becoming a professional level pool player. I would have run into diminishing returns as I was going up against ever stronger competition. It would have dominated my life, and the only way to make a steady living would be constant travel.

Plus there’d be no retirement plan. Your earnings stop the moment you stop playing. The skills don’t translate to anything else worthwhile.

So I stayed in school and learned to be a programmer, which doesn’t suffer from any of those negatives. </sarcasm>


Hmm, that came out a lot longer (and a lot faster) than I expected. It all started from one idea, though: You don’t win by being better, you win by playing better. And you start by knowing what game you’re playing.

When you’re in an interview, you’re playing the “get the job” game. Once you have the job you’re in the “impress the decision-makers” game. If you go the uISV route you’re in the “sell the most product” game.

Being better at coding is one of the plays in each of those playbooks. But it’s not the one they keep score with.

Is your resume hot or not?

Getting a job is like getting a date.

  1. There may or may not be rules to it.
  2. It may or may not be fair.
  3. They may be so desperate it doesn’t matter what you say. But do you want to hook up with someone who’s desperate?
  4. Or maybe it doesn’t matter what you say because they’ve decided the answer is “no” before you opened your mouth.
  5. The more in-demand you are, the more choosy you can afford to be. But if you want to get this job — or this date — then you’re probably going to have to say what they want to hear. Good luck figuring out what that is.

Principle: Everyone should hit the ground running

Total size of the codebase doesn’t matter. Everything a new programmer touches is either shared by other parts of the system or it’s not. If it’s shared, the new guy probably shouldn’t be touching it anyway. If it’s not shared, it should be small and self-contained enough to learn it quickly.

Now if you’ve got a guy in his first month who says he needs to re-write your DB access class before he can do anything productive, then you’ve got a whole different problem than just getting him up to speed. (And if he’s right about it needing to be re-written, the problem isn’t with the new guy.)

How to avoid analysis paralysis in the interview

Prepping for a job interview is a little like a politician prepping for a debate. There are certain questions you can count on hearing, and you prepare canned responses to them. In the job interview these would be things like, “Why did you leave your last job?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Then there are the technical screening questions. They’ll focus on your experience and knowledge. Typically you’ll get some basic stuff to begin with, just to see if you really did all those things you put on your resume.

Then you start getting to the interesting questions. The ones that don’t have a clear “right” answer. Or do they? Does the interviewer have something specific in mind? Will I blow it by not coming up with the right answer?

Take these two technical questions as an example:

  1. When or why would you consider using an RDBMS (like MySQL etc) as opposed to a desktop database (sqlite etc)?
  2. When creating a function how many parameters would you allow that function to handle?

Programmers tend to enter the field, and stay in it, because they’re good at finding right answers. Computers are (mostly) deterministic. The upside for the programmer is that they know with certainty when they’ve solved a problem. The downside is that they know with frustrating certainty when they haven’t. They can’t just dress up “because I said so” in reasonable-sounding logic and turn it in. Their program has to actually work.

But the questions above don’t have right answers. They aren’t intended to see if someone knows how to implement a given solution. They’re intended to see if someone knows how to ask the right questions to choose the right solution.

Anyone can look up a linked list implementation, or a quicksort. Most interviewers are more interested in identifying the guy who can figure out which one to use.

For the parameters question above, I’d want somebody to state a basic rule of thumb — probably something from 3-10 “feels” like a reasonable starting point. But they should also explain their reasoning, which might be along the lines that too many parameters is likely to indicate too much going on in one function. Then possibly present an exceptional case where a high parameter count would be preferred.

Maybe there would be some discussion around passing an array of name/value pairs instead of multiple individual parameters, or named parameters, default values, etc. Or pro/con on passing all the values for an object in the new() declaration, vs. a basic instantiation and then multiple set() calls.

These specifics are not the “one right answer”. They’re examples of the kind of answer I’d hope to hear. If I asked you the question and you couldn’t either float some ideas or ask some reasonable questions, I’d take it as a sign of lack of experience. Interviews are not a multiple-choice test, they’re essay format. If the interviewer or the candidate acts like it’s multiple-choice, they’re wrong.

Trying hard to not get it

If you’re interviewing people for entry-level jobs, maybe you do just need to know that the candidate can implement a particular pattern. Once you get past entry level, you’ll want to see that the candidate can identify which pattern they should implement. Best is to find a candidate who knows why to choose a particular pattern. Which means they know other patterns and why not to choose one of them instead.

You can make it through a class in school only learning the one technique that you’re going to be tested on. That’s why entry level people aren’t trusted to make choices, just do what they’re told. Once you get out of the classroom, you have the freedom to re-invent everything, making the same mistakes everyone has made before you. The more ways you’ve seen to solve a given problem, the more choices you have. I’m not interested in finding someone who’s always going to choose the same solution as me. I want someone who knows the general principles and how to prioritize competing goals.

But some programmers will get nervous, and others downright hostile, if you ask a question without a clear right answer. As far as they’re concerned, it’s a “bad question” that you shouldn’t even ask. Apparently any question where the answer starts with “It depends” is a trick question, and even asking it is an insult.

How you should answer

Remember those courses you took where the instructor would tell you to show your work? Even if the answer was wrong, you could get partial credit for having the right approach. When interviewing it’s all about showing the work. The “right” answer is almost incidental.

But sometimes there is a right answer. Doesn’t that matter? Absolutely. And knowing whether you’re dealing with one of those questions or not is an important skill.

If my goal is to evaluate whether someone knows how to clarify an incomplete requirement, I don’t start by telling him, “Now I’m going to give you an incomplete requirement to see if you know to clarify it.” I ask a question as though there is a right answer and see what they say.

So maybe you read all of this and think that now you know what I’m looking for. That doesn’t help you with someone else who may have a different plan. The good news is that it doesn’t matter, as long as you answer truthfully.

If the interviewer is looking for a specific answer and you give multiple alternatives, you may be giving a better answer than what he expected. Or maybe he’ll disagree with your reasoning and decide that you are wrong. Do you want to work for someone who will shoot down your ideas?

Or the question was supposed to be open-ended but you give a single definitive answer. A good interviewer will prompt you to explain, maybe even asking about specific alternatives. Did you have a good reason to discount those answers? Explain it. Did you not think about that? Admit it. Maybe you’re really not a good fit for this position.

Sure, you need a paycheck. But unless you are desperate you also need a good fit. If you and the person you’ll be working for don’t see things the same way, you won’t get that fit. So instead of trying to overanalyze what the interviewer “really meant”, just answer as honestly and completely as you think you can. If you, the interviewer and the position are a match, all that’s left is to talk about the money.