(Shhh! This seal is writing good code.)

A Good Engineer is a Lazy Engineer

The customer care manager at my company was hiring for a position that involved responding to customer emails. As part of the application process, she asked candidates to respond to a sample customer complaint.

One applicant submitted a response that sounded oddly familiar. After conferring with her colleagues, the manager figured out what had happened. Posing as a customer, the applicant had taken the sample complaint and submitted a very similar query to our customer service staff. She then applied for the job, copying verbatim the response she had received from our team as if it were her own work!

The manager related this story to the rest of the company, adding: “Not getting hired.” I have a feeling this wasn’t a difficult decision. The applicant used the customer care team — the very people she was supposed to be impressing — to avoid doing the work she was assigned to do. She failed to provide work on which she could be evaluated. Worse, her conduct was underhanded and lazy.

Still, there is something clever and even delightful about the applicant’s strategy. It’s a judo throw of a maneuver, using the enemy’s weight against it. This feeling of delight crystalized for me when my colleague Alp Aker, a software engineer, quipped:

The Product team would like to offer this person a programming internship.

The applicant’s approach was utterly inappropriate for the context, but the same kind of approach applied to a software problem would be utterly elegant. Why solve a problem anew when there is already a well tested system that was designed for the very purpose of solving that same problem? Reusing existing functionality is a central feature of good code.

I was reminded of this mode of problem-solving recently when my old friend Michael Sands told me about recruiting billboards Google put up in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, MA way back in 2004.

The stated intent of this campaign was to smoke out “engineers who are geeky enough to be annoyed at the very existence of a math problem they haven’t solved.”

Of course, once the problem had been out there for a while, you didn’t need to be the “math or computer whiz” Google wanted in order to solve the problem. If you were clever enough to devise the right search terms, you could just…Google it.