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Some thoughts on the role of open source experience in recruitment

Jeff Atwood wrote an interesting post the other day where he asked the question, Is Open Source Experience Overrated? He quoted an anonymous developer who had lamented not being able to find a job despite being the architect of a couple of open source projects:

One company seemed impressed with my enthusiasm for the job but it was part of their policy to provide coding tests. This seemed perfectly reasonable and I did it by using the first solution I thought about. When I got to the phone interview, the guy spent about five minutes telling me how inefficient my coding solution was and that they were not very impressed. Then I asked whether he had looked at the open source projects I mentioned. He said no – but it seems his impression was already set based on my performance in the coding test. The coding test did not indicate what criteria they were using for evaluation but my solution seemed to kill the interview.

I must confess that I was a little bit incredulous when I read this. It seems the correspondent was expecting the recruiter to consider his open source contributions as a substitute for his poor performance in the coding test — and it would be an irresponsible recruiter who did that.

The problem with open source contributions is that they don’t necessarily tell a recruiter what they need to know about you. They indicate passion and enthusiasm for programming, which is a plus, but they don’t necessarily indicate competence — and passion is no substitute for competence. In fact, some open source projects, such as this example cited by Ayende the other week, are very badly written and do not reflect well on the developer. And in the recruitment process, it’s competence that a responsible recruiter will be looking for first and foremost. That’s why it’s so important to have a coding test. The team needs to have a certain baseline standard, and that standard needs to be treated as a “must have” — failing the technical test should be an automatic “no hire,” regardless of passion or experience. Yes, they should take a look at your open source contributions, but they only really become relevant in the later stages of the recruitment process, once they have carried out the technical screening and are getting into the final round of interviews.

Here are some examples of things that a recruiter may want to know about your abilities that he or she is unlikely to find in a typical open source project:

  • How quickly you can write code
  • How quickly you can troubleshoot code
  • How quickly you can learn new technologies
  • The extent of your understanding of the company’s core technologies (how much you have committed to memory, and how much you need to refer to the documentation)
  • How well you can understand and implement customer requirements
  • How clean you can keep your code when working to tight deadlines
  • Whether you can grok recursion
  • Whether you understand Big O Notation and its implications for performance
  • How well you can integrate with the rest of the team

Different companies also have different attitudes towards open source. The ones that are most likely to be interested will advertise job openings in the open source community itself — they reason that that way they have a generally richer pool of talent to draw on than the hordes of unqualified and mediocre people that you get in places like monster.com and recruitment agencies. Larger organisations, on the other hand, are only likely to take notice if your contributions are to a project that they’re actually using, such as NHibernate or Tomcat, and some companies actually have a prejudice against it, so it pays to do some research and bear in mind that YMMV.

One other thing. If you want to pitch your open source contributions to your prospective employer, you need to make sure that your code is the best quality that you can give it. You might find that they take it into account in ways that you hadn’t expected, and if you’re doing stupid things such as silently swallowing exceptions, or writing thousand-line, hundred-parameter, multi-responsibility, copy-and-paste methods, or giving them names like DoIt(), or if your code formatting is sloppy and difficult to follow with inconsistent indentation, it may work to your disadvantage if they ask a technical reviewer to look at it. Open source coding isn’t like coding for work or profit: you have no deadlines, so you can afford to give it a lot more tender loving care.