Programmers’ CVs – 20 years behind the times?

Posted in Software Development, The Internet by Dan on October 24th, 2009

Take a programmer’s CV/résumé from the late 1980s and one from today and, aside from the content, what has changed?

Not much. Both will typically be approximately two pages of static, word-processed, black text on white A4 paper (or US Letter in North America). Maybe the text doesn’t always arrive on actual paper these days thanks to the miracles of electronic document transfer, but the format of the typical CV has not really changed since the demise of the typewriter.

NOTE:  Just to be clear, I am considering CVs and résumés to be equivalent. Wikipedia makes a distinction but I’m assuming that’s mainly an American thing. In the UK there is typically no distinction and the Latin term “Curriculum Vitae”, abbreviated to “C.V.”, is almost universally preferred to the French “résumé” (I’ve no idea why there isn’t an English word for this type of document).

Have we really found the optimal way of communicating our skills and experiences, or has the humble CV been neglected by the Internet revolution? The IT recruitment industry seems wedded to the Microsoft .DOC format. This is partly because of the ubiquity of Microsoft Office in the corporate world and partly because agents prefer to receive CVs in a format that they can easily edit (which is why I insist on sending my CV as a PDF).

Dynamic CVs

Where’s the innovation? Shouldn’t a CV be something more dynamic? And why are we still e-mailing attachments every time we want somebody to see our CVs?  Attached files very quickly become outdated. I often have recruiters that I’ve spoken to in the past phoning me to ask for an updated CV. If my CV was a URL, people would always be able to see the latest version (assuming I let them have access). We do have LinkedIn profiles, which are fine in the context of your LinkedIn network but don’t really work as a general purpose CV.

Fortunately, there are some people trying to drag the programmer’s CV into the 21st century. Ben Northrop’s provides a free online home for your programming CV. The documents are nicely presented and the timeline view is a neat way to display your own personal history. VisualCV goes even further and embraces multimedia content, though the site is not IT-specific. Maybe it’s not a good idea to have a video as part of your CV but it’s nice to have the choice.

If you are planning to break a few conventions with your CV, either on the web or in a static file, it would be useful to measure the impact of any changes that you make, so you might be interested in, which I saw announced today on Reddit. You use it to make documents trackable in pretty much the same way spammers embed 1-pixel images in e-mails in order to see which messages get read.

StackOverflow Careers

Another attempt to bring programmer CVs into the Web 2.0 age is the recently announced StackOverflow Careers.  The main Stackoverflow site has been a phenomenal success. Co-founder Joel Spolsky has had previous success with the Joel on Software jobs board and we are reminded that he wrote a book on recruiting programmers, so this kind of job-related monetisation was the obvious next step.

Voting peculiarities and reputation anomalies aside, StackOverflow is a meritocracy of sorts and it is this that Joel and business partner Jeff Atwood are attempting to exploit. A CV posted on StackOverflow Careers will be accompanied by a reputation score and a history of contributions to the programming community. The careers feature is currently in beta and is not particularly sophisticated at present but I expect it to expand over time.

I like the idea of expanding the scope of a CV to include other online evidence of programming competence. In this case it’s StackOverflow reputation but it could be Ohloh data or information from Google Code/SourceForge. However, at $99 to list your CV for a year, the current pricing is ridiculous. Most recruitment sites charge employers but let candidates use the service for free.  Joel and Jeff are taking a fee from both sides. The justification for charging candidates is that it will ensure that the only CVs listed on the service will be from people who are actively looking for work, increasing the value of the service to potential employers. It should also mean that your CV page is kept free from advertising.

I suspect that Joel and Jeff are aware that $99 is too much but it’s easier to start out too expensive and reduce the price than it is to do the opposite. The $99 figure also serves to make the introductory offer of $29 for 3 years look more reasonable in comparison. The problem with the introductory offer is that it only runs until 9th November. The site is still in beta and the functionality for employers to sign-up has not been launched yet. So, if you sign-up now to get the reduced rate, you’ll be paying $29 to list your CV on a site that is not used by any employers. It’s an unproven platform with a boot-strapping problem. Most programmers won’t want to pay money for a speculative premium service and employers are likely to be reluctant to sign-up to search a database with so few potential hires.

Netflix Prize Snatched Away at Last Moment?

Posted in Software Development, The Internet by Dan on July 26th, 2009

30 days ago, the BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos team submitted the first qualifying solution for the $1 million Netflix prize.  The prize is awarded to the best performing solution 30 days after first submission that achieves the 10% improvement threshold.

BellKor achieved 10.05% on 26th June and have since moved on to 10.08%.  Several teams that were close to the qualifying mark responded by forming coallitions in a frantic race to find a hybrid solution that would surpass BellKor’s mark before the end of the 30 day period.

The Ensemble is one of these super teams.  They achieved the 10% mark two days ago and then today, on the very last day of the competition, they appear to have dramatically snatched the prize with a submission that is just 0.01% better than BellKor’s.

UPDATE: BellKor subsequently submitted an entry that matched the Ensemble’s 10.09% only for the Ensemble to trump that 20 minutes later with a score of 10.10%, 4 minutes before the submissions closed.

UPDATE 2: Simon Owens has posted an interview with one of the members of the winning Ensemble team.

UPDATE 3: The Ensemble themselves have posted an account of the nail-biting final minutes of the competition.

First Qualifying Solution Submitted for $1 Million Netflix Prize

Posted in Software Development, The Internet by Dan on June 26th, 2009

The word on the street (well Reddit actually) is that the BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos team today submitted the first qualifying solution for the Netflix Prize.  If nobody submits a better solution within the next 30 days then they will claim the $1 million reward that has so far eluded the best efforts of thousands of programmers and researchers since the competition was launched in October 2006.

Netflix is a US-based online DVD rental service.  One of their features is that they make movie recommendations to customers based on their previous viewing history.  In order to improve their recommendations system, Netflix has been offering a million dollar reward to any individual or team that is able to develop software that increases the accuracy of these recommendations by at least 10%.

The financial rewards and intellectual challenge of the Netflix Prize have encouraged almost 50,000 individuals and teams to attempt to solve the problem using a vast array of different AI and data-mining techniques.

The BellKor team have overcome such obstacles as the Napolean Dynamite problem and will no doubt have the champagne on ice while they nervously wait to see if  anybody else is able to surpass their results within the next month.

Opera Unite Divides Opinion

Posted in The Internet by Dan on June 17th, 2009

Opera Software would have you believe that yesterday they reinvented the web.  The launch of their new Opera Unite service has received a decent amount of publicity. By now you’ve probably heard all about it, but if not you can read the details here.

The 10 second summary is that version 10 of Opera’s web browser contains a web server that allows users to serve web content directly from their desktop machines or laptops. However, this description doesn’t really capture the potential of the platform.

Some commentators have dismissed the announcement with a “so what?”. Opera Unite content is only going to be available while the user’s computer is switched on and running Opera and will be constrained by their available upload bandwidth (which often isn’t much thanks to the ‘A’ in ADSL). That doesn’t really cut it when compared to low-cost web hosting packages capable of serving thousands of users, but then the comparison isn’t particularly helpful.

I don’t need Opera Unite to host my personal website from my desktop. I can install and configure Apache, tweak my firewall/router settings and find a solution to dynamic IP address issues. The point is that with Opera Unite, you don’t have to do any of that.  Opera have completely eliminated all of that hassle and in doing so have made web serving accessible to even non-technical users.  But that’s only half of the story. Serving your personal home page via Opera Unite is still sub-optimal. If you want (semi-)permanent web hosting, pay for some cheap PHP hosting or get a account.

If somebody gives you an Opera Unite URL, you shouldn’t expect that resource to be still around tomorrow or next year like you would with a link to Wikipedia. The real value in Opera Unite is in ad hoc sharing and transient collaboration. Things that were possible but bothersome previously are now trivial because you don’t have to worry about server configuration and networking issues.

For example, say I wanted to invite every reader of this blog to join a chat session. I could try to find out which IM clients you all use and try to arrange something via MSN Messenger, Skype or Google Talk. Or I could install and configure my own IRC server. Or I could try to find a third-party server to host the chat room. With Opera Unite I can simply open up my lounge and give you all the URL (regardless of which browser you happen to be using). It just takes a few clicks. The service is transient.  When we’re done, I kick you all out.

In our chat session I might decide to share some photos or other files with you.  I could send them via e-mail or upload them to an FTP server or a service like Flickr, but again it’s simpler with Unite. I just enable the appropriate service and share the URL. You can browse my shared directory and grab what you want directly from my machine. The link probably won’t work tomorrow, but you won’t need it tomorrow. Temporary is fine when it’s this easy.

The other service that I’m already finding useful is the media player, which enables me to remotely play my home MP3 collection from the office. The Unite platform is based on open standards, so it will be interesting to see what other ideas for services people come up with.

From Antipathy to Ambivalence – The Great Twitter Experient, Day 14 (The End)

Posted in The Internet by Dan on February 25th, 2009

The two weeks are up.  The Twitter experiment is complete.  Did I find the dolphin, or am I still waiting for the magic?

If nothing else, I’ve achieved a greater understanding of the dynamics of Twitter, but I don’t think that it has yet had a significant impact on the way that I communicate or the way that I consume information.  I have to admit that the experience was less awful than I thought it might be.

If you use Twitter, get a client

The first thing that I discovered is that the web interface to Twitter is just not usable.  It’s a decidedly less confusing and more dynamic experience using one of the many desktop clients.  I’m currently on TweetDeck having previously tried Twhirl, though neither is the one Twitter client to rule them all.  The static nature of the website and the way that it displays conversation fragments out of context was one significant reason why I didn’t see much value in the service.

Content is king?

I don’t feel that my initial complaints about the general unimportance of most tweets, and the plain pointlessness of many, were unfounded.  And when somebody starts tweeting every minute about the film that they are currently watching (a film that I am not watching), it becomes incredibly irritating.  They say that on the web Content is king.  Well, since the advent of Twitter, Content has abdicated and crown prince Banality is now running the show.

However, I did find that I had a higher than expected tolerance for tedium, mostly because I could easily consume/ignore most of the tweets that I received without suffering much distraction.  And even if the tweets were mostly superfluous, they did occasionally raise a chuckle, such as Wez’s new software development methodology.

They have real people on Twitter now?

I was not expecting to be able to interact with people I knew in the real world on Twitter, because two weeks ago none of them were on Twitter, but Wez and David have signed up since I started.  David is already well ahead of me in terms of followers, and all without the help of a series of self-promoting blog posts.  He is the next microblogging celebrity.  Meanwhile, Wez is using Twitter to stimulate the global economy.

But what do you actually use it for?

From the start of this experiment I’ve struggled with what to tweet.  I wanted to stay on-topic.  I thought maybe I could use Twitter to complement this blog.  I don’t think that this approach is particularly easy or even that useful.  It’s easier just to go down the stream-of-conciousness route and write anything that comes to mind.

In this regard, I wouldn’t be surprised if, for many, Twitter is effectively a write-only medium where everybody’s contributions are welcomed and few are valued – a kind of voluntary collective delusion.

Moreso than with blogging, you are subscribing to people rather than topics.  If you want to use Twitter, you have to accept that even if you pick compatible people to follow, a lot of what they write will not be of interest to you, particularly when it concerns the trivialities of daily life.

One use case for Twitter that does makes sense to me is within a development team for posting status updates that can easily be consumed and responded to by other team members.  Yammer offers a Twitter-like service well suited to this niche (access can be restricted to selected people only).

In conclusion…

If I could change one thing about Twitter it would be the 140 character limit.  Countless times I’ve sat there trying to figure out how to remove 13 characters from a message without altering its meaning. This involves creatively removing punctuation and finding abbreviations or shorter synonyms.  A limit is good for keeping messages concise and to the point, but a few more characters would go a long way to improving the quality of the content.

I found the global eavesdropping aspect kind of interesting, although it’s a bit hit-and-miss as there is no way to filter by quality.

Twitter is mostly harmless but, as far as I can see,  does not deliver on much of the hype that surrounds it.  I’m still indifferent to Stephen Fry getting stuck in a lift and wary of news organisations such as the BBC treating it as a reliable journalistic source.  Twitter is not the harbinger of a communications revolution, it’s an occasionally relevant diversion.

I suppose that the big question is will I continue to use it now that the two weeks are up?  I don’t know.  Probably to some extent.  It’s there, I have an account, it won’t take much effort to continue.  On the other hand, if Twitter disappeared tomorrow I wouldn’t miss it.  I might not even notice for a while.

Global Eavesdropping – The Great Twitter Experiment, Day 13

Posted in The Internet by Dan on February 24th, 2009

It’s been over a week since my previous post on my Twitter experiences.  In the meantime I’ve only been using it sporadically (so much for being addictive). Time flies and I’ve almost reached the end of the two-week period that I had assigned to this little experiment.

Ask a rhetorical question on Twitter and somebody will answer it within a couple of minutes. What surprised me when I pondered the usefulness of OSGi is that the person who responded was not one of my followers but somebody who I had not interacted with before. This highlighted an aspect of Twitter that I had not previously paid much attention to. As well as following individuals, you can track particular search terms. So anybody monitoring Twitter for discussions about OSGi would have been alerted by my tweet.

This is particularly interesting to me because my number one complaint about Twitter has been the utter pointlessness of most of the content (including that which I have been contributing). Focusing on this aspect, you don’t have to follow anybody. You could use Twitter in a similar way to Google Alerts, surfing the zeitgeist ready to pounce on any discussions that include your favoured keywords. This way you participate only in on-topic conversations and avoid the what-I-just-ate messages. Unfortunately, there’s still no quality control.  No Digg, Reddit or DZone equivalent to promote the good content and ignore the bad.

On a related note, you can get an overview of what topics are presently occupying the thoughts of the planet’s bored masses via TwitScoop, which provides a real-time word cloud and top 10 topics.

140 characters should be enough for anybody. Really?

One thing that I’ve held back until this penultimate post is something that I knew would irritate me right from the start: the 140 character limit. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s not enough. I understand the benefit of having a limit; it forces people to keep their entries concise. However, 140 characters is too restrictive.  Sometimes not even enough for a fully-formed sentence.  Twitter doesn’t need to be restricted by SMS limits.  The future of Twitter does not lie with SMS. Everybody who is using it from a mobile phone has Internet access. A limit of 250 or 300 characters would be altogether more civilised.

Tweeted URLs: A regression in web usability

When you start adding links to your tweets it leaves less room to provide context.  The URLs are necessarily shrunk and obfuscated to save room, making each link a leap into the unknown. It would be very nice to be able to attach the link to particular words in the message (you know, like we’ve been doing since 1992). Twitter takes you back to the days before hypertext.

Eating Navel Fluff – The Great Twitter Experiment, Day 5

Posted in The Internet by Dan on February 16th, 2009

Time for another status report from Twitterland (is that the correct name, or is it “twitosphere” or “information super bridleway” or something?).  Here are some more disjointed thoughts (is Twitter affecting my ability to combine multiple sentences into coherent prose?).

Since I started this little adventure I’ve been paying more attention to the media coverage of Twitter. Andrew Orlowski at the Register lays into Twitter and the media’s (the BBC’s) obsession with it:

Writing about Twitter is the journalistic equivalent of eating the fluff from your navel.

…The rest of the world, however, completely ignores it. But with the journalists’ attention fixed firmly on each others’ navels, they don’t seem to realise what a fringe activity Twitter is.

…Twitter is a bit of a charity-case itself: both technically and financially, it’s a lost cause. That’s plain to everybody, it seems, except the journalists who use it and who can’t stop Twittering about Twitter.

Orlowski’s piece references “Twestival”. I tracked down this disturbing footage of the London event via the BBC (who else?).  It’s a few dozen geeks with iPhones standing around ignoring each other while sending tweets to other people who aren’t there. These people need to get out less.

After 5 days, the initial novelty has worn off.   Maybe I should approach tweeting in a different way? Perhaps every message should be a haiku?

One problem with Twitter content, regardless of who you are following, is that each obfuscated URL is a leap of faith and the messages are usually too truncated to provide any meaningful context.

I haven’t posted many Twitter messages in the last two days.  I’m still trying to figure out how best to use Twitter.  What should I tweet?  Should I stay on-topic (software development and tangentally related things) or should I branch out to anything that comes to mind?  I’m thinking this would be counter-productive as people who are following me mostly came via this blog and are unlikely to share my other interests.  Without some kind of focus it becomes Facebook without the functionality.  I’m also proud of the fact that I’m 5 days in and I have yet to tweet the details of anything that I have ingested.

I also need to find more people to follow.  I’ve been through Jurgen’s list and picked out a few more people that might be of interest.

Talking to Strangers – The Great Twitter Experiment, Day 2

Posted in The Internet by Dan on February 13th, 2009

Previously on New Adventures in Software: Dan signs-up for Twitter to try to figure out the attraction of self-stalking.

I’m starting to get a feel for Twitter now. Not so much in terms of finding it useful, or even particularly interesting, but I have a better appreciation of what it is.

So what is Twitter?

Twitter inhabits a space somewhere between a feed reader and an instant messaging client. If you use it via the Twitter website it shows its more reader-like tendencies. It aggregates messages in a very static way.  You just go there and see what’s been said since you last checked it. If you use one of the myriad clients (today’s client is Twhirl), the experience is closer to using MSN Messenger or similar.  Messages pop up in the corner of your screen, not in real-time but via polling.

I rarely have IM programs running because I find them to be incredibly damaging to productivity. Conversations spawning at random, all requiring attention, distract you from whatever you were trying to do on the computer. Twitter is not quite as distracting. Messages arrive but you don’t have to respond, whereas on IM it would be rude to ignore them.  Then again, on Twitter, the messages usually aren’t directed at you. You are just tapping into other people’s stream-of-conciousness thoughts. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the real attraction of Twitter, though people might not like to admit it. It’s nice to get these little reassurances that you are not alone in the world, right now there are other people out there doing “stuff”. You select a set of people that you like, or admire, or find interesting and you tune into their stuff. The nature of that stuff is unimportant, just so long as you are in the loop.

Of course, there is also a conversational aspect to Twitter. The people you are following might not have addressed their messages to you, they may not even know that you exist, but you can jump in at any point and respond to something that they have said. This is the “global conciousness” aspect that Twitter fans highlight. Yes, you can ignore what your parents and teachers told you and talk to strangers. It’s not a proper conversation though. It lacks the depth of e-mail and it lacks the immediacy of instant messaging.

You also get to see the conversations that don’t involve you. This is incredibly irritating when somebody you are following replies to somebody you are not following. It’s like when you are on a train and the person next to you is talking on their mobile phone and you are forced to listen to one half of a conversation. You just get some out-of-context sentence. You can try to track down the original message, but that’s just one more distraction. It would be better if the Twitter clients defaulted to not showing you messages that were addressed to other people.

Today’s Highlights

I now have 13 followers, and I am following 19 people.  It seems that there are a few people who signed up for Twitter in response to my original post.  This is no longer an experiment, it’s a movement. They too are trying to see what all the fuss is about.

I also have to abandon the “nobody in the real world uses Twitter” argument now since David has signed up and I can confirm that he is a real person that I know. Go on, you can follow him too. Maybe he’ll say something.

I’m not going to write a blog post for every single day of this 2-week experiment. I will report back again in a few days.

Finding the Dolphin – The Great Twitter Experiment, Day 0

Posted in The Internet by Dan on February 11th, 2009

I’ve said it before, I don’t get Twitter.  For me, the hysteria generated by the flat-lined signal-to-noise ratio of this limited medium is deeply confusing. The last time I felt like this was back in the early 90s as I stared cross-eyed and frustrated at one of those Magic Eye pictures, trying to find the dolphin. How come everybody else can see something in it while to me it’s just nonsense?

Since I last wrote on the subject of Twitter, the hype has increased still further. Somebody used TwitPic to post a picture of the AirBus that landed in the Hudson River in New York. As a result, this “citizen journalist” earned himself 15 minutes of international fame, including featuring on the BBC’s television news at least twice. I somehow suspect that had he chosen to upload his snap to Flickr instead, the BBC would not have been nearly as interested. Somebody at BBC News is a Twitter lover. The corporation’s online coverage of the recent attacks in Mumbai prominently featured information sourced from Twitter, whether accurate or not.

If further evidence were needed that with Twitter the medium really is more important than the message, it arrived last week. What was this seismic event that many are heralding as the tipping point for the microblogging revolution?  Stephen Fry got stuck in a lift. No, really, that’s it. Had General Melchett used his Blackberry to phone a journalist instead of to tweet, he could not have bribed them to write about this unfortunate but utterly banal occurrence.

I am not alone in my dismissal of Twitter as an irrelevance. Terence Blacker writing in the Independent aptly described it as “self-stalking” and summed it up as follows:

Twitter may have novelty value but it is more than mere surface silliness. It is anti-thought, the deadening white noise of modern life with all its pointless business. As for the dotty idea that short computer messages are full of wit, insight or observation – that is, to quote the master twitter himself, “arse, poo and widdle”.

I discovered the Independent article via Graham Linehan’s blog. Linehan (co-writer of the peerless Father Ted) has a different take on the value of Twitter:

…the manifold possibilities of Twitter are enough to make you giddy. This is a new world, people! We are officially in the future, not with jetpacks, but with something much cooler – the hive mind. Ignore those grumpy luddites in the broadsheets and elsewhere, who don’t understand it, can’t be bothered to learn how it works and are frightened at the prospect that people are entertaining themselves in a way that doesn’t involve accepted media forms.

By now, I think that I’ve firmly established that I don’t really see the point of Twitter, but I don’t want to be dismissed as a “luddite” who “can’t be bothered to learn how it works”. So it’s time to take the red pill and see for myself how deep this rabbit hole goes. Today I’m embarking on an experiment: a two-week trial to see whether there is any substance to the Twitter hype. I’m deeply sceptical but also approaching it with an open mind. Will I experience a higher level of conciousness or will I endure and proliferate a fortnight of pointless anti-thought?

I’ve just signed up for a Twitter account. If you’re already a Twitter user, I need some followers (sounds like I’m starting my own religion here). I also need interesting people to follow. Please also send me tips on how to get the most out of Twitter. If you are one of the many people who responded to my previous post agreeing that Twitter was pointless, I will report back here at regular intervals in the next couple of weeks and let you know how it’s going on the other side.

Stand back, I’m going in…

ACM User Experience Fail

Posted in Software Development, The Internet by Dan on February 6th, 2009

I received the following e-mail today:

  On February 9, 2009 ACM will be replacing some book titles in our
  Safari Online Books Collection with new titles, including titles
  that have been requested by ACM Members.  In choosing which titles
  to remove, we look for the ones that are used the least often.

  Unfortunately, according to a recent usage report, some of these
  titles were on your bookshelf.

  *** Please remove these titles before February 9, 2009. ***

  Effective Java™: Programming Language Guide


  If you fail to remove the titles by the deadline, you will notice
  that the "slots" for the removed books will still be counted
  against your bookshelf, but you will no longer be able to access
  the books.  At that point, we will need to refer your case to the
  Safari Customer Support desk.

That’s from the Association for Computing Machinery (“Advancing Computing as a Science & Profession”). Firstly, I should state that the ACM’s online books facility is an excellent service that justifies the membership fee on its own. But surely there is a better way for them to perform this update than requiring potentially every single user to logon and manually perform this task?

I don’t know if it’s the ACM or O’Reilly who would be responsible but, whoever it is, they already know which users are affected and which books are involved. I refuse to believe that this process could not be automated.

The reason they are removing Effective Java from the library is that they are replacing it with Effective Java 2nd Edition. The path to full customer satisfaction ends with them just swapping one for the other on my bookshelf. I shouldn’t need to get involved.

I particularly like how they make it sound like it would be my fault if they had to refer me to the Safari Customer Support desk. They also do a good job of making that fate sound a lot more sinister than it should.

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