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What if Cars Were Rented Like We Hire Programmers?

Imagine if you will that car rental agencies rented cars like programmers are hired at many software companies...

Agency : So sorry you had to wait in the reception area for an hour. Nobody knew you were coming to today. I finally found 8 people to interview before we can rent you a car. If we like you you may have to come in for another round of interviews tomorrow because our manager isn't in today. I didn't have a chance to read your application, so I'll just start with a question. What car do you drive today?
Applicant : I drive a 2008 Subaru.
Agency : That's a shame. We don't have a Subaru to rent you.
Applicant : That's OK. Any car will do.
Agency : No, we can only take on clients who know how to drive the cars we stock. We find it's safer that way. There are so many little differences between cars, we just don't want to take a chance.
Applicant : I have a drivers license. I know how to drive. I've been driving all kinds of cars for 15 years, I am sure I can adapt. 
Agency : We appreciate your position, but we can only take exact matches. Otherwise, how could we ever know if you could drive one of our cars?
Applicant : Oookay. I've driven a Taurus before. You probably rent those, don't you?
Agency : Indeed we do. What year did you drive?
Applicant : It was 2009...but I don't see how that ma...
Agency : Oh sorry, we use the 2012 model. We can't possibly let you drive a later model.
Applicant : But, but they aren't that different. Surely if I can drive a 2009 I can drive a 2012?
Agency : Sorry, sir. Our requirements clearly spell out that you must be able to drive a 2012 model. 
Applicant : I've driven a 2010 Escort. Do you rent those? 
Agency : Ah, excellent, you are in luck. We have one in stock.
Applicant : Great. Can I rent it?
Agency : No, no, no. We have to go through our structured interview process now. I'll go try and find the first person.
Interviewer#1 : Sorry I was late, I was in a meeting I couldn't get out of. I like to ask technical questions to get a feel for your competency as a driver. What color has the middle wire feeding into the distributer cap?
Applicant : What? What does that have to do with driving?
Interviewer#1 : If you have experience as you say driving an Escort then you would certainly know the color of that wire. 
Applicant : I know how to drive. Why don't you ask me questions about driving?
Interviewer#1 : I assure you I am. Are you this way with everyone you rent a car from? Nevertheless, I'll ask another question. What is the total weight of an Escort just after it has been washed, but before it has been dried?
Applicant : Hand dried or blow dried?
Interviewer#1 : It doesn't matter.
Applicant : I know.
Interviewer#1 : Well then. Thank you very much. We are done. I'll find the next person.
Interviewer#2 : Sorry I am late. They never told me I had an interview today. I see on your application that you've driven a lot of different cars and you have a lot of experience driving. So, how would you fit a SUV through the eye of a needle?
Applicant : What? What does that have to do with driving? I know how to drive! Please ask me some #$*&! questions about driving!
Interviewer#2 : Sorry, I have a meeting to go to. Let me search for the next interviewer.
Interviewer#3 : Shoot, we're going to have to find another conference room, another meeting is scheduled here. Somebody forgot to reserve a room for the interview. Oh, here we go, nobody uses this room (for obvious reasons). So, do you have an exact itinerary of where you will drive and park?
Applicant : Not really. I just thought I would drive around and explore. I know I plan on going to the tech museum downtown.
Interviewer#3 : I believe that's on first street. That's good. It's on our approved list of streets. Have you ever driven first street before?
Applicant : Hm, let me think, no, don't think so. But I am sure I can find it. One city street is pretty much like any other, so it shouldn't be a problem.
Applicant : Oh I am sorry, our policy is you can only rent you a car if you've driven on an approved street that you've driven on before for more than 10 years. We just can't take a chance that you won't be able to drive on new and different streets. 
Applicant : I don't believe this. I know how to drive, I have a long history of successful driving in many different cities in many different situations. I can navigate, diagnose and fix minor problems, ask for help, find out anything I need to find out, and learn anything I need to learn. I know everything I need to know to rent this car because I've done it successfully a hundred times before!
Interviewer#3 : How excellent for you. But it's policy. We need the exact experience to be sure. No exceptions. You may be very skilled, but you don't have the specific skills we require...that will be all.
Agency : Sorry, but interviewers #4 - #8 were called to an emergency off site with upper management to reformulate policies on policy formation.
Applicant : Bows head forward, looks at the water spot on the desk, and sighs. 
Agency : We might or might not let you know in a couple of weeks if we'll rent you a car.
Applicant : But I need a car now!
Agency : Very well. It was close, not everyone wanted to rent you a car, but we will rent you a 2010 Escort. How much did you pay for your last rental car?
Applicant : I don't see how that matters. What are you charging?
Agency : We like to know what you paid before so you get a fair rate.
Applicant : I paid market rates.
Agency : Sorry, we must know how much...
Applicant : Gets up and walks out of the interview room in total frustration, wondering how anyone ever rented a car at this agency.
Interview chorus: Just as well, we really only want young rock star drivers that are in the top .000001% of their class...


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Reader Comments (45)

Having just gone through multiple rounds of interviews with multiple companies, I can attest to this being spot on for the industry on average. Some companies do much better, thankfully.

Don't forget these gems:

1. Being asked 487 times about the difference between an interface and abstract class. Ooooo. You got me there!
2. Being asked about 2's complement notation. Even if I can't remember CS 101 from 21 years ago, I can look up the answer in 10 seconds.
3. Tell me about a time when you triumphed over evil and saved the day when no one else could. Few of us are really going to encounter the kind of heroics that a company is looking for. Sorry guys, left my cape at home.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Multilanguage programmers are bad programmers... Thats a fact.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIvan de la Jara

I disagree with the comparison. Programming (especially senior positions) are better compared to a specialist profession. Imagine if this comparison were with Doctors. No one would say "Oh, you were a plastic surgeon and we need a brain surgeon, I am sure they are pretty much the same. You can certainly adapt!" I agree that when you know how to program, you can more easily pick up a language and learn something new, and for a junior position all I look for hiring is someone who is smart, and can learn quickly. It is not entirely the same for top talent. Also, if you are a candidate, and think it would be easy to learn the language, start learning before the interview, then you won't have this problem

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJW

When you rent a car you pay the car rental company, when you're employed the company pays you. In the first case you don't have to take any sh!t in the second case how much sh!t you take is a function of your desperation.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMuigai

Multicar drivers are bad drivers... Thats a fact.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterK

"Multilanguage programmers are bad programmers... Thats a fact."

Care to back that up? Ability in more than one language implies the person can learn and adapt. Only knowing a single language leads to thinking one tool is right for every job.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSD

Right so to ace the interview all one needs is some white racing overalls and a white simpson Daimondback helemt accessorized with a vintage HP calculator and a set of steam tables.

Some say that his not only the man-in-the-middle, he's at both ends and has wiretaps on Alice, Bob, Carol and Dave. and that he once crashed a 10 way IBM sysplex by staring at at it all we know is hes the stigs nerdy cousin.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNeuromancer

"Multilanguage programmers are bad programmers... Thats a fact."

Care to back that up? Ability in more than one language implies the person can learn and adapt. Only knowing a single language leads to thinking one tool is right for every job.

A person who dabbles in everything will be worse on almost all aspects than a person who *knows* a language and can use it as a kicking point to discover the idiosyncrasies of a new language. Alternatively a person who *knows* more than one language (hopefully for different uses) will have a wider skillset in which they can attack a problem. THe ol' "if all you have is a hammer" analogy works in this case.

Bottom line is that how many languages you know really has no correlation to your skill. A bit, maybe, but overall? No.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGB

Hahahaha had to put the 'rock star' stab in there, for definite. Basically a translation of 'someone we can pay peanuts to develop everything with no desire for promotion'

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

This all gells. IT is almost perfectly stupid. They are practising hunting/gathering. They should look for people with the trait of understanding computers which Knuth says only one person in 50 has.

Also, they have a youth fetish. They act like they are trying to put together a hockey team.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Guy

"Multilanguage programmers are bad programmers... Thats a fact."

Specialization is for insects.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNapolean

I've worked at places that operate the opposite way with equally horrible results:

Agency: "Have you ever driven a 2013 Ferrari?"
Applicant: "Of course! I've actually been driving Ferraris for 15 years now and would rate myself a 10 out of 10."
Agency: "Great! Here's the car! We'll even give you our best rate!"
Applicant: *returns the car 2 weeks later with the transmission all screwed up because he's only ever driven an automatic*
Agency: "I don't understand... I he said he was really good at driving Ferraris...?"

... which inevitably leads to:

Agency: "These local drivers are awful and really beat us up on our rates. Maybe somebody in India wants to rent a car?"

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

this is spot on!
I would like to add something: If you make it in the interview and you get the job, the chances are that you are not going to drive anything, instead you are going to pull a donkey cart!

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid C.

Jack of all trades, master of none. Better than the master of one.

Whether the second sentence has merit or not depends on what the job needs. Some jobs are better off with a jack of all trades (e.g. exploring the space for a new product), others are better with master of ones (e.g. implement a well-defined feature/component/system).

So, if the product is mature, I'd hire a master of one on the area I care about; otherwise, I'd hire a jack of all trades, and let the jack figure out the shape of the problem and its solution.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

African or European? I love the Python reference there!

See what I did? LOL!

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave

This is a pretty bad analogy, IMO. Cars mostly really do all drive the same. Also, if you interview anywhere that cares specifically what programming languages or frameworks you use, you should interview somewhere else. Interviews are as much about vetting the company as they are about them vetting the applicant.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hinnegan

"A person who dabbles in everything will be worse on almost all aspects than a person who *knows* a language and can use it as a kicking point to discover the idiosyncrasies of a new language. Alternatively a person who *knows* more than one language (hopefully for different uses) will have a wider skillset in which they can attack a problem. THe ol' "if all you have is a hammer" analogy works in this case."

I disagree with this.
Different languages have different syntax that is all.
Good coders must master the concept of GOOD programming. The tool you choose to work with can vary from project to project.
Good programmers should be able to adapt to different environments , learn new skills and so on.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNima

This seriously was my number one reason for changing majors in college (from Computer Engineering to Electrical), well that and I like seeing sunlight... and some of the best programmers I know didn't go to school for it if they went to uni at all. Course I still had to learn a few languages and did some programming freelance, finished my CS courses around late 07. Graduated late 08. And in 09 during the recession while I was job hunting, couldn't even snag an internship because I didn't know this or that language. Just kept thinking of that professor who told me "Once you master OOP, people know you can learn any language" apparently not.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJDKS

I smell corporate Java drones...

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCavendish

What it comes down to is the applicant's personality. The purpose of the long repetitive interview process is that to see how the candidate handles the pressure & see if the candidate will be able to give a consistant answer to those questions.

Nothing is easy, if you feel like a company has to give you a job just because you think you deserve it - you have a very hard time landing a position.

No matter how many times you're asked the same question, no matter how stupid the question may seem, you give your best answer with a big smile. Even if you're not the best candidate technically, being personable goes a long way.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpeterc

(First a confession: I'm a hiring manager)

I don't agree with the analogy. To avoid exactly this, the accelerator is always on the right, the clutch on the left and the brake in the middle. You turn the top of the wheel in the direction you want to move.

Government licensing mandates that you're only allowed to drive cars that fit within your abilities. You need an additional or different license to drive a semi trailer (tractor trailer in the US?) or a motorbike or a bus.

Your analogy would suggest that my ability to drive my Mistubishi Outlander qualifies me for a job driving Formula One or helming a container ship.

It doesn't. And your ability to write PHP doesn't qualify you to write C or vice versa.

The interview process is designed to keep people out, not to bring people in. You want to bring in one person, but you have 200 applicants. The entire point of the process is to kick out at least 199 people. If I'm hiring for a C developer and you've only ever professionally and recently written PHP, but the guy next to you has been writing C it's very easy to work out how to cull another applicant and work towards my target of 199. Even if you've both been writing C for exactly the same amount of time but he's used the same libraries or frameworks that we use, you're going to be culled.

Of course, we could put you in the Prius to make sure your Beetle driving gave you enough of a clue to drive the Prius, but when the next guy in line has been driving a Prius since 1997, I'm not going to waste my time.

I understand your frustration. I've been there. But from your side, there's just you and the company. Somewhere off in the hazy background you're aware there's an unknown number of other applicants. But they're almost invisible to you. From my side, you're just one of 200 of whom 199 need to be cut. A car rental agency wants to find the other 199 cars they'll need.

- Rick

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRick

This is a very bad comparison!!!! WHY?

All cars are same except few minor differences. So the comparison should be with Module coded before and latest ones. new libraries and functions. Everyone knows there in a automatic trans there is R-N-D, a gas pedal, brake pedal; so no matter how different they look in size or shape their function is same. This pertains to version numbers in programming language.

Comparing each from a different manufacturer as a totally different programmign language is absurd.

For a fair comparison you shoould compare renting car, truck, 18-wheeler, a Forumula 1 race car or something like that.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPrashanth

I don't think this is an analogy so much as relating how programming interviews work to those who have never had one or those who aren't programmers.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLee

Employers get all uppity about little version numbers so they can higher lower cost h1bs.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames

The analogy could have been better. It seems to overlook the importance of software engineering. Programming is not about coding programs, it's about designing programs. And any design that is not a copy requires engineering. Bad engineering causes project failure no matter how appropriate the language, libraries, and frameworks used were for the problem domain. A good engineering effort, on the other hand, can overcome a lot of weaknesses in other areas.

So the analogy probably should have been about building cars rather than driving them. But all-in-all, I thought it was a pretty humorous analogy with a serious point. The point being that hiring managers (and mediocre programmers) use arbitrary, capricious and whimsical methods to cull applicants because they have no concept of how "rock star" programmers really think and so can't identify them during interviews.

Not that mediocre organizations really want to hire rock stars anyway. Far from it. Does it take a chef to work at Burger King?

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Crews

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