Friday, March 20, 2009

Case Study in Small Worlds

I've worked in a few major software locales - the SF Bay Area and Boston. In both places it's not uncommon to hear someone remark that, "it sure is a small community here. Don't piss someone off, because they're sure to know the next guy who's going to hire you".

In the land of this being a true statement, I just heard this week that someone I worked with a few jobs ago is now out of work and looking. How do I know? His resume landed on another friend of mine's desk, and I got a phone call. Small world!

What I struggled with a bit, though, is what to say. This guy was.... okay. He was very very young, very cocky, and didn't have the skills to back it up at that point. And this was about two years ago.

So what can you talk about, when you're talking about an ex-colleague?

In general, you can talk about things that are unlikely to change. Things that may have changed, though, should be off limits.

Things to Discuss:
  • Ability to learn. This is huge and I'm pretty well convinced it's innate - either people learn in an environment or not. Do allow for some different results in a different environment, though.
  • Attitude. Attitudes are extremely difficult to change, and in my experience they generally don't. Someone who always had to feel like the smartest person in the room before will almost certainly still be going around trying to feel he's the smartest person in the room.
  • Work ethic. If the person couldn't focus on anything before, the amount of focus is not likely to have increased. If a person regularly came in late and left early, and slacked off a lot, well, you can probably expect that to continue.
  • Talent. Talent to me is a person's innate ability; it's the things that person simply finds easy. Some people are simply talented testers; parsing a system and effectively interacting with it just sort of happens. Others are not; they may be able to test, but it's often a lot harder for them. Same goes for coding and even communicating. Skills can be learned, but it's more of a struggle for some than for others.

Things To Avoid:
  • Experience. Since you worked with the person he may have learned that Linux he was lacking. He may have picked up test automation, even though he never used to write a line of code. Don't ding him based on what used to be true.

That being said, if you're a candidate, you can hazard a guess that your ex-colleagues will find out about and could influence your job search. So even in this job, be mindful of the impression you're leaving.


  1. I would say that impressions about attitude and work ethic, like those regarding experience, can also be outdated.

    Some just-out-of-college kids actually grow up and mature, professionally.

    Others go from wide-eyed, enthusiastic developers to burnt-out, jaded, don't-rock-the-boat types after a few bad experiences.

  2. Joe, I would hope you're right. I was thinking of attitude as different from professional maturity or burnout, though. I was thinking more about personality or approach to others, which is much less temporal.

    My phrasing on that one could have been better!

    What do ya'll think? Should a candidates two-year-old cockiness, unwillingness to learn, or belittling of others be mentioned when you're asked about whether you liked an ex-colleague? Conversely, if the candidate was eager to help, wide-eyed about learning new techniques, etc., should that be mentioned?

  3. Whenever I am asked for a reference, unless I have kept up with the person after we worked together, I always say things like "When we worked together, I thought Name's greatest strength was ______________. When I worked with Name, I believe his (her) greatest area for improvement was _____________.

    You really don't have more of a frame of reference than that time and whoever YOU were at the time. So stay accurate but acknowledge that skills and deficiencies can change over time.