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Developers, from scratch

143a2600e408b5a2edbb00c3631ed5f5?s=47 Mike McNeil
November 20, 2018

Developers, from scratch

StarsConf 2018, Santiago, Chile

Why hire a developer when you can hire a barista and teach them to code?

Since 2012, I’ve hired and worked closely with many professional developers... but I’ve trained almost as many first-time programmers myself.

It’s going surprisingly well. We’re building higher quality software at a much faster pace than ever before.

In this talk, I’ll show you how we did it. You’ll see how long it takes (at least for us) before “from scratch” developers can be effective on real-world projects, and I’ll share some tips on how to empower them to be productive even while they are still very much an apprentice.

Finally, we’ll take a look at the numbers. Home-grown training takes considerable effort, and it isn’t for everyone. But hiring even a small team of professional, full-stack software engineers is an expensive and time-consuming proposition— and it doesn’t necessarily lead to better results.

Depending on your financials and timeline, certifying some of your own talent could be the right decision for your business, your products, and your users.


Mike McNeil

November 20, 2018

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  1. Developers, from scratch

  2. Why hire a developer when you can hire a barista

    and teach them how to code?
  3. None
  4. Why hire?

  5. None
  6. because you can't do it all by yourself not fast

    enough, anyway
  7. reasons to hire

  8. None
  9. Business needs:

  10. some coding experience lots of coding experience

  11. entry-level developer $$ lead / architect $$$

  12. little to no coding experience apprentice (barista)

  13. Apprentices capture more and more business value as they gain

    skills specific to your business.
  14. Apprentices can enjoy and learn from tasks that more experienced

    developers might avoid.
  15. Apprentices don't have bad coding habits. (Yet.)

  16. What about velocity?

  17. Assigning the wrong user stories to apprentices can slow down

    the whole team.
  18. Fortunately, there's a lot of other important work to do.

  19. Semi-technical setup and configuration tasks

  20. Online account setup

  21. Time tracking (playing "timekeeper")

  22. First tier customer support (watching the "redphone")

  23. Reconnaissance (competitor research, UI research, etc.)

  24. Vendor / pricing research (and communication, when necessary)

  25. Hallway usability tests (and proactive human factors testing)

  26. Organizing the agile board

  27. Markup & stylesheets (HTML and CSS, email templates, PDF templates)

  28. Nitpicky UX adjustments

  29. Small things you might never get around to doing otherwise

  30. Custom forms, validations, modals

  31. Wireframes

  32. On-the-fly customer success hacks

  33. Open source support & triage (GitHub, Gitter, StackOverflow, social media)

  34. Looking up stuff from the database

  35. 3rd party API integrations

  36. Quality assurance (QA)

  37. The Company Managing apprentices (These guidelines work well for my

    team -- but every team is a little different.)
  38. The Company - Celebrate when apprentices catch bugs and gaps

    in requirements, even if they seem insignificant. - Decide on a process that apprentices will follow when they run out of stuff to do, and encourage active communication any time they're unsure what to work on next - You might be able to afford to send apprentices to planning meetings that would be too expensive for other developers Managing apprentices
  39. The Company - Set clear expectations about code ownership (which

    files apprentices can change without doing a pull request) - Set clear expectations about when it is appropriate to interrupt senior developers with work questions (e.g. only in the morning before or during the standup meeting) - Empower senior developers to delegate tasks to apprentices Managing apprentices
  40. The Company Managing apprentices - Never assign a business-critical task

    unless you're 99% sure you'll get to say "Nice work!" afterward. - Set an informal time window for "graduation" (e.g. 2 years) - Don't skimp on ahead-of-time training hours-- as long as those skills are sufficiently valuable to your team to be worth your $$$ and time.
  41. Training apprentices

  42. Kinds of training - Ad hoc (scattered, on-the-job training when

    you realize you assigned a task that is too hard) - "I'll set this up while you watch" (mostly replaced by video tutorials) - Drills (contrived exercises or low priority tasks) - Theory (interactive lecture / live coding)
  43. Drills

  44. Drills

  45. Things worth teaching ahead of time - Essential tools &

    expectations (editor, what is the filesystem really?, terminal, GitHub app, node, npm install sails, Heroku, customer service, communication etiquette) - Thinking like an engineer (incognito mode and Chrome profiles, screenshot hotkeys, giphy, Chrome dev tools, the REPL, the terminal, the importance of thoroughness, how to think about edge cases, collaboration) - The DOM (HTML+CSS, and how the browser works) - Logic (&&, ||, v-if, v-else, v-for, etc) - HTTP and the internet (how to read API docs, how to use Postman, <ajax-form>, loading spinners, cloud errors vs. client-side form errors)
  46. Essential tools & expectations

  47. Thinking like an engineer

  48. None
  49. None
  50. None
  51. The DOM

  52. The DOM

  53. Logic

  54. Logic

  55. Logic

  56. HTTP and the internet

  57. HTTP and the internet

  58. So does it work? - Yes. But start with just

    one apprentice - Try to only train one apprentice at a time (for us, that means staggering hires by at least 4 weeks) Background: Since going "all in" with this model last year, hiring first-time programmers as apprentices, it took a little while to warm back up. But today, we ship most features just as fast as we did with a larger and more experienced traditional team 5 years ago.
  59. Questions? @mikermcneil