Hiring Good Coders Shouldn't Be That Big a Gamble—And Now it No Longer Has to Be


Solving the challenge of knowing who you’re really hiring before they walk in the door is an age-old conundrum

In the late 1990s, I broke the website of the small business I was working for, and I had no idea how to fix it.

What’s unimaginable today though is this: I got away with it. For nearly an hour, no one could use the site—for an event-ticket reseller in Washington DC—and no one at the company even realized it, let alone cared.

Here’s how I got the job being the “webmaster:” I talked my way into it. As a college sophomore who was a bit of a computer geek in high school, I assumed I could figure out how to program and manage a website with ease. I had heard of HTML, after all. How hard could the rest be?

It would be unfair to say that the situation today is the same for entry-level technical jobs, but 20 years later, there are few, if any, standardized ways of determining whether a new employee has any clue at all what he is really doing—until a company hires him, and puts him in front of a keyboard. Even a degree or professional certification is no guarantee of aptitude. Skills atrophy. Techniques change. What a programmer learned in college or at a coding boot camp five years ago might quickly become obsolete.

Programmer interviews—where hiring managers make job candidates write out code on a whiteboard—are usually just simple tests of whether a person can think algorithmically. For ease, they are often conducted in “pseudocode”—a kind of programmer shorthand that allows coders to communicate concepts without getting hung up on syntax that the computer needs to make the thing actually run. While that’s a useful shortcut for discussions, it’s nothing like the job a coder is being hired to do—to write thousands of lines of code that solves complex problems, runs correctly, and is both understandable and editable by other human beings.

These days, programmers also have their Github repositories to show off—public collections of their coding projects, much like a designer would have a portfolio website. But these aren’t live tests; the code in these repositories can come from anywhere—preexisting libraries, stealing of others’ work, or snippets from Stack Overflow, a message board where coders help each other solve problems. Unless a hiring manager is going to play detective, or a job candidate is dumb enough to try to pass off well-known code as his or her own, there’s no way for employers to know if the code in a person’s portfolio, and therefore the skill and ability that the code represents, matches up with the person seeking to be hired. Additionally, many developers can’t post the code they work on to a public repository—it is, after all, usually the property of their employer.

This isn’t a simple problem to solve. Coders borrow and steal all the time. Modern software and web development is so complex that coders (or developers, or engineers, the terms are nearly interchangeable now) all rely on libraries to do some of the heavy lifting for them. Libraries are prepackaged batches of code that provide higher-level functions to handle certain tasks. Using them can be incredibly powerful, even essential—it’s like the difference between getting into a car and turning it on to get somewhere, or building your own car from scratch.

Where coders can distinguish themselves is in being able to piece together the right combination of libraries, bespoke code, ingenuity, and vision to solve the problem at hand—and to do so in a way that is easy to follow and improve upon by other coders, whether in a team environment or by someone inheriting the code. You don’t want to leave a mess for others to clean up.

Solving the challenge of knowing who you’re really hiring before they walk in the door is an age-old conundrum: If only Jesus had known Judas Iscariot had a loyalty problem, right? Solving the problem for coders, where the end result can be quite clear—it either works right, or it doesn’t—has been similarly intractable. But a company in Utah is trying to change that.

Pluralsight, if you look quickly enough, seems like yet another online coding academy, somewhere anyone can go and watch a video about Javascript or Photoshop. In some ways, it is that. But, through a series of innovations, the Utah-based company is attempting to completely upend its competition and solve a problem not just for coders looking to learn new skills, but for businesses looking to hire these newly skilled coders. And in solving those problems, they actually have their eyes on a much bigger one—trying to push technology, code, and software into being a force for positive change in the world rather than, well, whatever it is right now.

Pluralsight offers online courses with specific instructions and guidance tailored to each student’s skill level, learning style, and skill-building needs. Completion of a course comes with a certificate, but there’s also a comparative score called an IQ—an actual number that tells the world just how good they are at, say, Python. And if you’re a chief technology officer who has bought a Pluralsight subscription for your engineers, you get a god’s-eye view of the skills and abilities of your entire organization, in a dashboard that lets you direct how and what your employees should be learning next. You don’t get a box of parts to build a car. You don’t even get a car. You get a parking garage, and you get to stock it with every make and model of car you need—a couple Ferraris, a bunch of sedans, and maybe a few pickup trucks—to get your enterprise to where it needs to go. For the first time, you have total visibility into the strengths and weaknesses of your technical team, combined with the ability to do something about it.

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I broke the website as I was trying to update some links and navigation graphics. The graphics changed, but whenever I clicked on the menu items they linked to, like “contact” or “sports tickets,” the page wouldn’t load properly—it would take over an entire side of the browser window, but was impossible to read, hidden by scroll bars. Meanwhile the area where I expected the content to load would be completely blank, or wouldn’t refresh at all.

A week earlier, I had been stuffing envelopes for a university fundraising office. None of the books I had read during my crash course in web design gave me the slightest clue how to fix the mess I had made. I didn’t even have the books on me. Baffled, I called my older brother, a real, trained developer, and asked him to pull up the website on his computer and take a look.

Calling for help after a problem happens is not an option for most enterprises today, particularly one that handles trillions of dollars worth of transactions every month, as Heather Abbott, senior vice president of corporate solutions technology at Nasdaq, can attest.

To say her customers are demanding would be an understatement. They want the latest and greatest. But they need reliability above all else. Not surprisingly, Abbott says her developers preferred to stay in their comfort zones when it came to updating applications. Without access to relevant training and education, few developers had the skills, or the chutzpah, to roll out a new piece of software written in a different language, even if doing so would lead to greater efficiencies and cost savings over the life of the product.

Training seemed crucial to the cultural change she needed. But, “it’s not a success strategy to mandate learning,” Abbott says. At work these days, no one likes to be told what to do. Abbott turned to Pluralsight to embolden her developers by cementing their skills, and to assure Nasdaq brass that no one was taking up challenges they weren’t demonstrably equipped to handle.

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Systems have to be built in ways that people want to use. Witness Slack, the wildly popular group-messaging platform, adopted first by startups, now by companies and groups across all sorts of industries, and even by people who just want a space to chat about things.

Most Slack adoption has come from its freemium model. One day, a small team at a company decides to start using it to cut down on email—used properly, Slack can be a genuine productivity enhancer—and before you know it, the whole company is Slacking away, and then corporate is looking into subscribing so that everyone can access premium features, and the archives don’t expire after 10,000 messages, which medium-size companies, trust me on this, can blow through in less than a day.

Pluralsight sometimes finds its way into organizations in similar fashion. A developer is looking for a way to solve a problem, or learn something new. They hear about Pluralsight from a friend or colleague. They sign up for a free trial, start to watch the service’s coding videos, and then take a Pluralsight IQ test—where they learn they are better at Python than 90% of their peers. If they are part of a corporate account, their boss learns this too. Maybe they post it to their profile on Stack Overflow, the developer message board. Bragging rights.

The enterprise-level view—god mode, if you will—is the creation of Nate Walkingshaw, Pluralsight’s chief experience officer. I saw Walkingshaw demo the system at a small dinner in Manhattan last year. For a company that is pushing the envelope on how online education and training is delivered and used in the enterprise, the most accurate description of the system I can come up with is that’s it’s very human. It’s not a stack-ranked list of coders from which a CTO can trash the bottom 10% and go to lunch. The views on the dashboard are much more nuanced, showing courses that employees have completed that are mandatory, and which courses employees are going above and beyond their duty to complete. Of course there is a way to identify weak links, but the emphasis is on surfacing the hidden talent in an organization. In large companies, this doesn’t just mean the shy, young programmer in the corner—it could just as easily mean the junior developer in Bangalore or Bulgaria, who you’ve never even met.

That the design is humane isn’t a big surprise given Walkingshaw’s background. A native Utahn, he previously designed a device that allowed for easy evacuation from buildings of people who are paralyzed, disabled, or otherwise immobilized. Eventually moving into product management, Walkingshaw teamed up with Aaron Skonnard, Pluralsight’s CEO, to design a tech education system that, in Skonnard’s words onstage at Pluralsight’s first-ever client conference last year, seeks to “democratize technology.”

“By equipping people with the tools they need to architect solutions to the world’s greatest challenges,” he told a packed audience in the ballroom of Salt Lake City’s largest hotel, Skonnard hoped the result would be that “the more people have technology skills, the more progress we’ll see in the world.”

Pluralsight’s board includes Arne Duncan, US secretary of education under the Obama administration—“Technology can be not the but agreat equalizer,” he told me—and the company is joiningother prominent tech companies in pledging 1% of its product, time, profit, and equity to help close the technology skills gap in underserved communities, and to work on creating tools to help those working on the refugee crisis in the Middle East. It’s doing this as part of the Pledge 1% initiative pioneered by Salesforce founder Marc Benioff.

Skonnard, a Pluralsight cofounder, used to go around the country as a tech educator, and came to realize that the very skills he was showing groups of 30 developers on a whiteboard, one classroom and town at a time, would soon allow for the very best educators to reach thousands of developers around the world at any time, potentially leveling the playing field for students and educators alike. Some of Pluralsight’s most popular instructors have made hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in royalty fees, paid each time a student watches one of their videos.

If that kind of pay sounds out of whack for a nerd standing between a video camera and a whiteboard, know this: The videos are good. Otherwise they wouldn’t be watched so many times, and Pluralsight wouldn’t be disrupting the first generation of online tech education companies, like Lynda.com. In any case, aren’t we always saying how teachers are chronically underappreciated and underpaid? Isn’t it nice to hear about some of them making a mint sharing what they know for the benefit of others? Can’t we maybe imagine a world where someday a teacher is making a mid-six-figure salary because they kick ass at explaining fourth-grade social studies?

* * *

My mistake was frames. Remember when websites were chunked into rectangles on the page, and you could click in one area, and it would be unchanged, but new content would load in another section of the window? No? Well, trust me, that’s the way webpages used to work. And I didn’t understand the simple code needed to “direct” a link into the proper frame of the browser window. That’s why the page data wasn’t showing up in the right place. My brother was able to pull up the site on his computer and quickly deduce what I’d done. He had to explain frames to me, because I had never heard of them before. It’s a simple concept, and once it made sense to me, I was able to go in and fix my code, and keep my job.

These days though, as A N Rao, head of Cognizant Academy, the learning arm of tech consultant Cognizant, told me, developers aren’t just trying to keep up with a handful of skills to do their jobs. To code modern enterprise software, they have to understand how 40 or 50 different systems, languages, and concepts work and interact.

There is a whole other education movement at large tech companies that is about encouraging coders to learn more about the things they are interested in, and to experiment and fail, in the hopes of keeping them engaged and energized, and eventually capturing the value of their successes for the enterprise. To facilitate that, the companies need something like a Pluralsight—yes, a library of online courses that teach skills, but also a system that provides accountability and encouragement to coders.

Technology used to be on the edges of the company, a place for the weirdos who ran punch cards for the quarterly report numbers. Now it’s the center—yet many companies are still catching up to the idea of treating developers well and giving them what they need to do their jobs. I don’t mean the “superstar” treatment that was common at high-flying startups a decade ago and is still in vogue in Silicon Valley. I’m not referring to ample snacks and on-site baristas. I mean treating their work with value, and building a support structure around developers that allows them to thrive and flourish (and write lots of good code).

That’s what a Pluralsight IQ score posted to your account (where your CTO can see it) or posted to Stack Overflow (where a potential employer can look at it) actually delivers. Proof. Validation.

It’s being tossed around that the next big “blue collar” job is coding. That’s not an insult. Because it’s so popular, and so commoditized, millions of people around the world will make a good living sitting in front of a computer screen and turning out security certificates, or pushing updates to servers, or managing cloud backups, or edge caching, or administering email accounts. These people need ways to distinguish themselves from guys like me, who try to sneak into jobs they aren’t qualified for and then screw everything up. (I eventually learned how to not screw up a live system, and taught myself to be a decent coder, in a bygone era, before becoming a journalist. But that’s a different story.)

It’s that kind of education—the basic competencies of tech, democratized for anyone who cares to learn them—that is going to keep massive data breaches and information hacks from happening in the future. That is going to mean the woman who stares at her screen for 12 hours a day and genuinely likes it is also recognized as a top performer and given important tasks, and isn’t left to rot in a cubicle like an Office Space extra. That, with Pluralsight’s partnership with Google in India, for example, will continue to provide the tools for people to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and into air-conditioned offices, and then into a world of vacations and increased economic opportunity.

Pluralsight is valued at over $1 billion and may be preparing itself for an IPO. Many thought it would come in 2017, though, if it’s also like Slack in this regard, maybe it doesn’t need an IPO at all, or at least not soon. This month, the company announced plans for a huge new headquarters building in Draper, Utah, in the heart of the state’s “Silicon Slopes,” where it remains one of the fastest growing companies, with around 800 employees. It also continues to make strategic acquisitions of other e-learning companies, acquiring both technology and talent to bolster its lineup of over 5,000 courses, which Pluralsight says are being used in over 40% of Fortune 500 companies.

What’s most interesting about Pluralsight’s growth is how it mirrors the rise of software eating the world, as Netscape-cofounder-turned-venture-capitalist Marc Andreessen famously described in 2011. It’s not just changing how non-developers (as I now count myself) do their work. It’s changing how everything works, turning traveling teachers like Skonnard into CEOs of billion-dollar companies, putting developers in the, pardon the phrase, developing world, on par with their counterparts in Silicon Valley, and giving the rest of us tools to manage our lives and businesses in ways that would’ve been unthinkable just a generation ago.

Yes, there are bumps and hiccups, fake news, and hacks, but we are just at the very beginning of the journey—the first 1%—and already we are living at the best time to ever be alive in history. It is up to us how these tools are used, after all. That’s an agency that people are only just starting to understand, let alone act upon. It takes time.

If only all this had gotten started a little sooner, I might’ve never broken that damn website. Then again, we learn by failing, and failing safely. If not for that moment, I might never have thrown myself at learning to code for real and enjoyed an eight-year career of doing it. The failure was its own form of feedback, alerting me to the things I had to learn. Pluralsight, at its core is doing is something similar—generating feedback for individuals, managers, and companies that shows them where they are today, and encourages them to go a little further tomorrow.