Industry#JuniorHints: How Planet Argon Hires

Celeste Hamilton Dennis
writes on February 23, 2016

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Carlos Rodriguez got his start in systems administration around Y2K. But when he wasn’t racking servers, he was dabbling in various programming languages, eventually falling in love with Ruby on Rails and the Open Source community. Realizing he wanted to devote his career to building software instead of maintaining it, he made the professional switch to full-time software developer seven years ago.

Carlos is currently Director of Development at Planet Argon, a creative web agency based in Portland, Oregon whose culture is one of humility, openness, and learning. From Code Review Fridays each week to Professional Development Day each month – and access to books and videos at any time – the agency makes it their priority to ensure the growth of all the developers they hire.

In this condensed and edited interview below, Carlos talks about why not knowing is a good thing, the value of honesty in the application process, and the importance of communication.

Carlos

Not knowing something is the basis of creativity, imagination, and innovation. That’s where scientists come from. “I don’t know” is their most important question.

When you made the decision to become a developer, what helped you grow along the way?

When I first started out, you had limited options. Mostly I relied on books, blogs, trial and error. I wish I had a coding school or service like Treehouse where I could learn from an individual, whether through a video or in-person.

Was there anything you’d wish you’d known then that you know now?

Reading code (other people’s code) is just as important, if not more, than writing code. It’s sort of like the adage “How do you become a better writer?” and the answer is by reading more books.

In addition, it would have been helpful to know the level of communication it takes to make a great product. One part of your job as a developer is obviously writing and understanding code, and understanding and solving problems. But you also need to be able to communicate with your clients and coworkers, and communicate ideas.

I can teach anyone to code but it’s really hard to take a person who has stage fright and get them in front of an audience. Those kinds of soft skills are the harder ones to come across in the development world.

Why does Planet Argon emphasize humility and learning?

I believe we never stop learning. That’s just the nature of the industry we’re in.

I see that in the people I hire. They’re hungry for knowledge, they’re hungry to learn more, and put themselves in uncomfortable situations.

Not knowing something is the basis of creativity, imagination, and innovation. That’s where scientists come from. “I don’t know” is their most important question.

Do you like hiring junior developers?

Yes, absolutely. It’s great to see people come to the table with new ideas. As the author Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities”.

I also get a great deal of personal satisfaction from teaching and mentoring.

Should applicants state they’re a junior developer on their application or resume?

Honesty is best here. If you come into a role as just developer with no “junior” attached to it, you might get an interview targeted towards mid-level or senior developers and it would be hard to be successful there.

Having that expectation right off the bat of, “I’m not going to know everything but here’s what I do know” is helpful to the hiring manager so they can ask the questions they need.

What are both the hard and soft skills you look for when you look at an application?

Certainly we want to know that the person can demonstrate programming, whether they’re self-taught or went to a code school or completed a bunch of Treehouse courses. That’s Number One.

Number Two is communication. Is your cover letter engaging and speaks to why you want to work at Planet Argon. During an interview, can you hold a conversation? Can you communicate with your coworkers? Can you communicate with clients? Those types of soft skills are invaluable.

Is there anything that makes you nervous about hiring junior developers?

Sometimes I worry that there is an expectation that being a developer is writing code all day long. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes we write code and we have fun doing it, but in the end, making a good product is about understanding the business goals, communication and collaboration.

What are some red flags?

Having poor writing skills is a deal-breaker for us. Writing goes hand in hand with what we do. Commenting on code, writing a pull request, sending an email to a client or coworker, etc.

From a technical perspective, not being able to make heads or tails out of other people’s code is a red flag. You don’t have to know everything about the author’s intent but you should know how to, as I’m fond of saying, “have a conversation about code.”

I believe we never stop learning. That’s just the nature of the industry we’re in.

Do you have any advice for the budding junior developer?

Put as much of your code online as possible – even if it has bugs in it, is incomplete, or not your “primary” language. Throw it up on GitHub or BitBucket or some other free software repository service. Those kinds of things are invaluable to a hiring manager. If they see the code you write, what code you’re interested in – functional programming or object-oriented programming – it shows us a lot versus having nothing.

I mentioned this before, read other people’s code. Even if you don’t read all of it. The more exposure you get to other people’s ideas the better.

Finally, participate in your local programming community. You can ask people for advice and you’ll make great contacts and friends.

For someone who’s a budding junior developer, that social connection is a critical one. This is especially true if they don’t have anyone to go to just yet, if they haven’t signed up for a code school or service like Treehouse. They have no one to bounce ideas off of or ask questions and that’s really detrimental. The exchange of ideas is what levels you up as a developer. Without that, you’re stuck in your own head.

Are you ready to embark on a career in web development? Sign up for a Free Trial with Treehouse and learn the in-demand skill you’ll need.

5 Responses to “#JuniorHints: How Planet Argon Hires”

  1. Celeste, Carlos, thanks for this post! This was really informational for somebody like me in the learning process.

    I Love the shoshin quote (beginners mind)!

  2. Carlos thank you for the article. I do have a question for you. Do you give priority to younger applicants looking to work as a Jr developer or do you give older applicants the same opportunity? Please be honest

    • Fernando,

      The short answer is, no. I don’t give younger junior developer applicants a higher priority.

      Some of the junior developers that I have hired (or wanted to hire) are on their second or third careers. I think it’s perfectly fine to change your mind and take on new challenges.

  3. “Should applicants state they’re a junior developer on their application or resume?

    Honesty is best here. If you come into a role as just developer with no “junior” attached to it, you might get an interview targeted towards mid-level or senior developers and it would be hard to be successful there.”

    I’ve been on the jr job market for several months. I really appreciate that some people are excited about jr devs, but I’m not sure what to make of this advice. Obviously lying about or hiding your experience will set you up for failure. But advertising yourself as a jr closes a lot of doors that you might otherwise be perfectly qualified for. Many of the interviews I’ve had are for higher level positions, even though I apply broadly for more entry level positions as well.

    My experience as left me with the impression that many companies are confused about what they’re really looking for. I feel it’s best to start a serious, personal conversation with the team you’re interested in, and I worry that projecting your JUNIORhood, your new-ness, your inexperience is an artificial conversation blocker.

    I absolutely agree you should not misrepresent yourself or lie, for your own sake at least. But I would be very cautious about highlighting your own inexperience. Knowing where you’re at, being aware of your room to grow, and being honest are very valuable virtues. But I have not had an experience where those virtues got me into a conversation with people. I would bet that least sometimes they have kept me out.

    • Joseph,

      Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it.

      “My experience as left me with the impression that many companies are confused about what they’re really looking for. I feel it’s best to start a serious, personal conversation with the team you’re interested in, and I worry that projecting your JUNIORhood, your new-ness, your inexperience is an artificial conversation blocker.”

      There are a wide variety of hiring practices out there. Some are completely automated. If you don’t match their system’s algorithms then they’ll automatically reject your application. Those systems are most likely matching on skills and time using those skills. It’s unlikely that they would respond to the word junior in the application process.

      If you’re not dealing with an automated system, they’ll know that you’re a junior developer based on your work experience.

      I think you’re more likely to start a personal conversation with the team if you tell them why you want to work for their company – in specific terms. Tell them where you see yourself fitting in their organization and how your skills are applicable.

      Best of luck on your job search!

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