Tidbits | Aug. 5, 2007

A Guide to Hiring Programmers: The High Cost of Low Quality

by Frank Wiles |   More posts by Frank

I was invited to a wonderful dinner party ( I swear it wasn't too spicy Sarah! ) with some St. Louis Perl peoples this week while I'm here on business. At one point we were talking about hiring programmers, specifically Perl programmers.

We agreed on the following:

  • Finding good programmers is hard in any language. And that a good programmer can be as effective as 5-10 average programmers.
  • Average pay rates between equivalent programmers are out of sync and are based more on the language used than the skill of the programmer.
  • You don't need to hire an expert in language X, you can and should look for expert programmers that are willing to learn language X. An expert can easily cross over from being a novice in any language in a matter of a few weeks.
  • You should seriously consider allowing your expert developers to telecommute full-time. Restricting your search to programmers who live in your area or are willing to move limits the talent you can acquire. Arguments regarding "face time", productivity, etc. can easily be nullified when you look at how some of the largest and most successful Open Source projects such as Linux, Apache, and Firefox are developed by individuals rarely living in the same time zone or even country.
  • We love Perl and think it's a great language that you graduate to after you have been forced to use less agile languages such as Java, C/C++/C#, etc. Not necessarily a first language you get your feet wet with and then move onto a cough "real" language.

Many people in the Perl community have been writing on this topic lately and wanted to share my opinions on the subject, as it is one I have put many hours of thought into. Doing my best to keep this language agnostic as I believe these tips can be applied to any programming language. I will however, use Perl in some examples as it is my preferred language.

Why is it so hard to find good programmers?

The simplest reason is when a company finds a good developer they do more to make sure that person is happy which leads to longer tenures. Better salary, more flexible working conditions, good tools, interesting projects, and better perks can often keep a programmer working for you longer.

Another obvious reason is that experts in any field are small in number, so your possible talent pool is limited. This leads managers and HR departments to settle for average or even below average developers. I believe this is the single biggest mistake a technology oriented company can make, regarding developers, just short of not using a good version control system.

We're not talking about customer service representatives or sales people here. Just having a body to fill the seat is not, I repeat not, always a win for the company. Sub-standard programmers drag down the efficiency of your other developers with beginner questions, poor comments/documentation, and bad code that someone else will later be forced to spend time fixing.

Companies need to stop thinking about their developers as cogs in the machine. They are more akin to artists, authors, designers, architects, scientists, or CEOs. Would your HR department rush to find the first person who would be willing to take on the role of Chief Scientist, Art Director, or CEO in your company? Of course not, they would spend the time to do a thorough talent search for just the right candidate, court them, and then compensate them appropriately. They realize that having the wrong person in that seat is much worse than having the seat empty. It is absolutely the same with programming.

Anyone who has been a developer or managed developers can tell you that an expert can accomplish as much as 10 average developers. However, companies typically pay only a 10-20% premium for an expert over the average programmer. Whether or not their title is Lead, Architect, Development Manager, Guru or whatever nomenclature the company uses. I am not saying that if your average developer is paid $50k/year that you should pony up $500k/year for an expert. The employer/employee relationship never works like that, but what employers don't seem to realize is that in the end paying more saves them more.

Let's look at an example. One common argument from HR departments is that they "can't find any Perl programmers, but they can't swing a cat without hitting a Java developer". While this is fairly accurate, they are approaching the problem from the wrong direction. If you fill your shop with 15 average Java developers, paying an average of $60k per developer you have an approximate labor cost of $900k/year for your development staff. Not considering any non-salary benefits.

Suppose you instead took the time to find 5 experts, or at least above average, Perl developers at $120k each per year. Here is a partial list of the pros and cons of such a scenario:


  • You must spend extra time finding, evaluating, and courting these more sought after developers.
  • Your company and what the developer may be asked to build may simply not be attractive to this class of developer. Very few people want to work for a spammer or a small web design firm that caters solely to freelance accountants for example. Smart people find boring things even more boring than the masses.
  • When one of them leaves the company, there is the feeling that your company's business objectives are more at risk due to having only 4/5ths of your normal resources. Or that a larger chunk of your corporate knowledge just walked out the door. This is more of a perceived problem than an actual one as good developers are better at writing readable/maintainable code, commenting their work, and writing effective documentation.


  • Each developer will be more content with their job, due in part to the higher than average salary, but also because his or her co-workers are of a much higher quality which improves anyone's job satisfaction.
  • Development would require less overall communication as there are less people to communicate with. This obviously improves efficiency as anyone who has been on a 20+ person conference call can attest to. Or read the Mythical Man Month if you want a more in-depth analysis of this phenomenon.
  • Experts travel in the same social circles. Having one expert on staff makes it much easier to find other experts in the same field, no matter what field that may be.
  • You would save 2/3rds on infrastructure costs. Things like cubicles, computers, cell phones, free lunches, training costs, travel, office space, air conditioning, electricity, etc, etc. The list is essentially endless.
  • Your HR department would have 1/3rd the number of developers that it would need to take care of. Less paper work, less questions, less everything, and less turn over because of the lower number of employees.
  • Oh and you'd save $300k/year on your labor costs. Not to mention non-salary benefits such as stock options, retirement matches, health insurance premiums, perks, etc. You could spend as much as $100k/year on your talent searches and still be $200k/year ahead. Hell, you could dedicate an entire HR person just to this task.

What is an expert programmer?

Experience is key, but not necessarily in ways you might imagine. Time in the saddle, with a particular language is not as important as diversity of experience. Someone who has worked in several disparate industries, a generalist, is often a much better developer than one who has spent years in the same industry. There are exceptions to this, but in general I have found this to be the case. Bonus points if your developer was a systems administrator in a former life.

Some of the best developers I know were originally trained as journalists, mathmaticians, linguists, and other professions not normally associated with software development.

Experts use better tools and care deeply about their craft. They aren't assembling bits on an assembly line, they are crafting a unique product to solve a unique problem. Experts are lazy, they work smarter rather than harder. Experts prefer the easiest solution that gets the job done. Experts aren't interested in creating complex solutions simply to have the complexity, that misguided egoism is the territory of more junior developers. They often get it right the first try and almost always on the second one.

Simply put, experts write readable code. They comment and document it appropriately based on the complexity and criticality of that particular piece of code.

All of this pays huge dividends when the next developer has to pick up where they left off. Especially if the next person isn't an expert.

More reasons you want an expert programmer

Is your business technology oriented? Perhaps the software you create is even your main product. If nothing else I'm sure we can agree that if the software your developers create is to some degree critical to your business.

I've worked in many different environments, with people of every skill level, and it's very easy to tell whether or not a company has expert developers. Do you often find that the software is down? That it has as many bugs or even just idiosyncrasies that make no sense to the user as it does features? Do the users find it difficult to use? Is the problem at hand relatively simple compared to the training or documentation necessary to begin using the software?

If you answered yes to any of those questions you more than likely have average or below average developers.

When you work in an environment with experts things simply work. They are easier to use and require less initial training. The software is easier to modify. Requested changes happen more frequently and easily. Things just flow. It is the difference between Apple and Microsoft. It's the difference between the iPod and a 400 disc CD changer with 50+ buttons.

As with many things in life, sometimes you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your comments and opinions on the subject.

UPDATE: I've written a response to some of the questions and comments I've received on this article in a follow up post A follow up to "A Guide for Hiring Programmers"

programming   Featured Posts   perl   business  

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2007-08-05T06:11:57 2018-10-17T13:28:37.726729 2007 programming,Featured Posts,perl,business