Open Source - The Recruiter's Dream
May 9, 2001
Consider interviews at a company like Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) (Nasdaq: MSFT), where I used to work, for example. Word has spread about the "Microsoft interview question," brainteasers such as "Why are manhole covers round?" or "How much water flows past New Orleans?"
Such questions are more common in the technology sector now, but Microsoft was one of the first high-tech companies to ask them. It also pioneered the now-common tactic of asking programming questions during interviews and expecting candidates to jump up and write actual code on the whiteboard.
All this has given Microsoft a reputation as an astute judge of talent and a hard place to be hired. Certainly Microsoft has hired a lot of smart people and had success in the marketplace. But its interviews, no matter how technical they are, are still only an approximation of the ideal employee look-see -- actually watching someone write production code for several months. That's why Microsoft likes to hire former summer interns.
As word gets out about the type of questions that are asked, it becomes more difficult to find untainted ones. Nobody asks about round manhole covers anymore, because they've been mentioned in the media a few too many times.
Occasionally while I was working at Microsoft, I would be scheduled to interview someone at the same time that I was grappling with a particular technical issue. I would joke to my co-workers that I should just ask the candidate the question, and recommend hire if they solved it.
Of course I couldn't do that: the specific details of the unreleased code I was working on were considered Microsoft's intellectual property, and I couldn't reveal them to an interview candidate.
For similar reasons, I couldn't tell them too much about what I was working on, or when we were going to ship. Getting a candidate excited about a project was really the art of dropping tantalizing hints without revealing too much.
In the end it all came down to a "hire" or "no hire" decision, which produced an incredibly stark contrast. You either hired someone, paid to relocate him, made him sign a non-disclosure agreement and privy to most of Microsoft's secrets, gave him options and benefits, free soda and an office with a computer with full access to the source code of product and the freedom to write code without a whole lot of oversight -- or else you gave him none of that.
Compare that to open source. To start getting involved in an open-source project, you don't have to sign anything. You just have to follow the discussion about the project, which most likely takes place in public for all to see, and start participating.
If you want to fix some bugs or write some new code, you have complete freedom to do so. You can take as long as you want to understand the source code and learn how to be productive, with no clock ticking because someone is paying you a salary.
You can learn all you want about a project before deciding if it is something you want to work on.
The best part is, the "interview" is a perfect simulation of writing code for the project, because it is precisely that. You write code and submit it, and if it passes muster you are "hired." The Microsoft joke about having an interview candidate solve a technical issue has instead become open-source reality.
The advantages don't stop there. Without the big, up-front investment in each contributor to the project, having someone leave is often not a big deal.
Anyway, there are fewer reasons for people to stop contributing; you don't need to drop off an open-source project because you move to a different city, or go back to school, or want to devote more time to other interests.
At the very least, most people will still be available to answer questions about areas they used to work on -- unlike asking a former Microsoft employee about something, when they won't have their old e-mail and source lying around, and as a non-employee cannot be told too much detail anyway.
The bottom line is, if you are a recruiter at a technology company, you should learn to love open source, because it makes your job a lot easier. Hey, maybe Microsoft should open-source some non-critical product, like Publisher. Then the company could hold an "Add a Feature to Publisher" contest, and hire all the winners.
With 5,000 job openings in Redmond, it can't hurt.
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over 10 years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, "Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," was published in December 2000 and contains even more about Microsoft interviews. Barr lives in Redmond, Washington.