Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Two Traps

Joel Spolsky famously opined that you should look for two things when hiring a programmer: Smart, and Gets Things Done. Now, there are a lot of smart people in the world (with a nod in the direction of the fox/hedgehog debate), and plenty of them spend some time programming. Even though there are also a great many people who think themselves smarter than they are, there is a thriving body of lore on filtering that demographic out. So most of the task of evaluating programmers is about evaluating how and if they Get Things Done.

Evaluating yourself this way is a good skill to have; lately I’ve been trying to build more and tinker more on account of being less-than-fully satisfied with what I see in my self-evaluation. I’ve also noticed two failure modes that smart programmers may fall into (one of which I’m doing my darndest to avoid), running parallel to the symbols-versus-understanding sides of the Chinese Room Argument. The argument, oversimplified, is about whether or not it’s possible to infer that an unseen conversational partner who manipulates symbols correctly, understands the communication.

A self-taught programmer is proficient in manipulating symbols, but is vulnerable to the failure mode of not understanding them, of having a myopia about methods and goals. On the other hand, engineers who’ve been involved in trying to hire from university computer science departments can attest that CS shops produce a certain proportion of people who understand why all of those symbol-manipulation rules are what they are, and who know a great deal about the rules and how they are implemented, but who are curiously unable to actually perform the manipulation of symbols and the latching-together of symbols into structures— no GitHub account, no projects of their own, no open-source contributions.

I’m nothing like the first person to notice these failure modes, but I think that identifying them as such (not as “all self-taught programmers are flaky” or “a CS degree is superfluous”) is helpful. Identifying a problem opens up the possibility of solving it. For me, it was humbling to stumble on the Chinese Room Argument and realize that while I’m good at manipulating the symbols, that is not the same as fluency and I have a lot of work to do ahead of me.