A Rough Guide to the Greek University System

Throughout my career I have had the pleasure of working with a quite a few Greek computer scientists and I have to say that I have found their skill level to be very good overall. I find a fairly higher than average ratio of female to male Greek developers, and I also find a lot of developers have gone on to study further and achieved PhDs. So it was in this vein that I decided it was time to look into what the explanation of this could be.

Greek Universities

Sunshine, Ionic columns and a high academic bar characterise the best Greek institutes for Computer Science.

Only the higher academic achievers study Computer Science

After completing the equivalent of A-levels (the Apolytyrion), Greek students who wish to attend university then take the “Panhellenic National Exam”, a national test that covers a broad variety of 6-7 subjects (making it much closer in variety subjects tested to a Baccalaureate than the more subject-specialist British A-level system). Each student is then nationally ranked and the students with the best scores get to choose what subject they want to study, at which Higher Education institute, naturally choosing the most demanding courses at the most prestigious places, and vice versa, the lowest performing students get the least choice of subjects to study, at the least prestigious HE institutes. In effect this makes highly demanding subjects like medicine and engineering (including Computer Science) at the very best universities the hardest to be admitted to.

Which means that in Greece not just anyone can choose to study computer science at University, and only the very brightest get to attend the very best institutes.

 

The Top Greek Universities for Computer Science are not “Universities”…

These are the top 3 Greek universities for computer science:

  1. National Technical University of Athens (aka EMP)
  2. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
  3. Technical University of Crete

However none of them are strictly speaking “Universities”, the “National Technical University of Athens” is a polytechnic, as is the “Technical University of Crete”, and the “Aristotle University of Thessaloniki” has two parts to it, its Engineering Faculty which is a Polytechnic and the traditional “university” part teaches everything else. This is because in Greece Computer Science is often taught by an Engineering Faculty, and Engineering is almost exclusive taught by polytechnics, not by universities.

In general the Polytechnics give a more rounded, more practical level of Computer Science education and so, as with Poland and France, in Greece it’s regarded that Polytechnics Are Better Than Universities. As you can see from the three top universities above, somewhat unhelpfully its quite hard to actually tell from the institute’s name if its a polytechnic or a university.

Within these universities, different institutes have reputations for different things. So for instance the University at Crete has a long established reputation for being one of the top Universities in Greece but today it is considered that Computer Science is very well taught there. It has a lot of new equipment and seems to have attracted a younger set of professors who are more likely to have worked or taught abroad to teach the course. Athens EMP on the other hand is considered to have a more traditional approach to teaching its course, and an older set of professors.

Honourable mentions also include the University of Patras and the University of Ioannina for their computer science departments, and it’s also worth pointing out that there are many universities in the city of Athens, and as a whole they have a generally good academic reputation, although the National Technical University of Athens (aka EMP) is considered the best for Computer Science.

athena

Athens, named after the Greek Goddess of Wisdom (and War) has many good universities to attend.

Only Public Universities Are Recognised

In Greece although private Universities exist, they are not strictly permitted and the education you receive from them is not supposed to be recognised (for instance you would struggle to get a job as a civil servant with a degree from a private university). Only public universities are recognised, and these are considered the best. There are no tuition fees to attend university, although students must still pay for their cost of living, becoming a potential factor when considering Post-Graduate exams.

 

 

How do you know if it’s a good degree?

So apart from the name of subject that was studied and the name and type of institution it was studied at, there are 2 main ways to tell if someone has excelled at their degree.

One is the length of time they have studied. It takes a minimum of 4 years to complete a university degree and 5 years to complete a polytechnic degree, which is equivalent to a Masters, or MEng. As with private universities before, the Greek Government does not recognise 3 year degrees. However, students are allowed to retake exams if they don’t get the grade they were hoping for. Meaning that in general any degree achieved in under 6 years is considered to be very good. When students take longer than 6 years to complete a degree in Computer Science you can start asking questions as to just how many times each exam had to be retaken until the desired grade was achieved.

The other key factor is the final grade. Greek students graduate with a percentage mark out of 100, in a weighting that is pretty similar to the UK system. Any mark above 80% is exceptional, a grade above 70% is very good, and 60% is still good being treated in a similar way to a 2:1 is in the UK. The professors in Greece joke that no-body except God gets a 100% mark, and that 90% is for the professors only!

 

What’s covered in the Computer Science curriculum?

Greek students will tend to begin a course in computing or informatics or applied informatics, and will then specialise their studies in to areas like programming and software engineering in the second year. Because the first year covers quite a broad computing curriculum many Greek developers will have a basic foundation in areas like networking, infrastructure, electronic engineering, etc.

It’s very common for students to have completed some kind of academically related extra-curricular activity alongside their degree, such as contributing to post-graduate research or a complimentary programming project which will often be published in an academic journal.

Alongside main stream subjects, graduating in computer science will also involve studying mathematics to quite a deep level. There seem to be mixed feelings about this, some people say it doesn’t do any harm, whilst others believe the depth of mathematical competency that must be achieved in order to graduate is too much. Any for students who want to specialise in areas like networking, it is simply irrelevant.

Top 5 Things To Get Ready For Your Job Search: NUMBER ONE, Work Out What You Want To Do

Whether you’ve got a job right now and you’re looking to take your next career move, or whether you’re beginning your search from a standing start, here are my top 5 things that are going to help you get ready to begin your search.

Getting ready

This is aimed at software engineers looking for a permanent position (PAYE), most of the things I’m talking about will be applicable to day-rate contractors, but not 100%:

NUMBER ONE: Work Out What You Want To Do

As anyone who’s recently finished looking for a new job will tell you, it doesn’t take many conversations to work out that you actually need to have a really good understanding of what you want to do next before you start to talking to anyone.

The key point here is that for the hiring managers the interview process is all about risk. Working out which candidates are going to be worth interviewing from their CVs is an obvious example (which candidates looks like they’re least likely to be a waste of time interviewing). But for the hiring manager it isn’t just the time spent on the initial search for the right candidate, what’s also at stake is the huge amount of time that stands to be wasted if the candidate they hire never really wanted the job in the first place. If the successful candidate goes on to leave after the first couple of months, then that’s potentially hundreds of hours of time wasted, involving training, mentoring, showing them around the company, including them in future plans, wasting the hiring manager’s time, their colleague’s time, their team’s time, their boss’s time…, reputational damage, their judgement and competency questioned, a huge amount of budget potentially wasted, IP at risk, etc, etc, etc.

Which means that during an interview when you’re asked “what kind of job are you looking for” or “what are the main things you want to get from your next job”, you’re going to want to have worked this out already. Because the man who walks into an orange fruit shop and starts talking about other fruit they’ve had in the past that they liked, and “that they really don’t mind what kind of fruit they buy because they’re just hungry”, or even that “actually their most favourite kind of fruit they ever had was an apple, but as they’re here now they’re happy to consider oranges”, isn’t going to go down as well as the man who confidently tells the shop keeper “I’m an orange-kind of guy. I like oranges and I’m here to buy oranges.”

So, going into the job market armed with nothing more than a bunch of vague ideas about what you kind of job you’d like to have is not going to help you.

Operational Hypothesis vs Re-iterating

Have a good think about it, talk it over with someone else, and then be comfortable with the idea that you’re probably going to refine your idea of what you’re looking for after you’ve started your search, but time spent working it out before you begin will be time well spent.

Some Food For Thought:

To help get the brain juices flowing, here are some ideas. You could say a Software Engineer can go in 1 of 3 general directions with their career:

  1. Team Management
  2. Sales and Product
  3. Architecture / Technical SME.

Here is a simple list of the main factors that Software Engineers’ tell me they’re looking for:

  • How much time you want to spend hands-on coding? Do you just want to code, or do you want to be paid for other things as well (design, architecture, requirements gathering, scrum mastering, stakeholder facing, client facing, deployment, support, testing, code reviews, people management, project management, etc)?
  • What size of company do you want to work for? A big corporate? A mid-tier company? A start-up? A small company?
  • Would you discount a company that had lots of problems, or would you see that as an appealing factor?
  • Does it matter if the team is all located in the same office or is spread around the world?
  • Are you looking for technical authority?
  • Is formal training and investment important to you?
  • Is any the “package” element of the job important to you (pension contributions, medical insurance, nice office, flexible working hours, working from home, lots of colleagues etc)
  • What kind of office locations you want to commute to / are you prepared to get to?
  • Is a new (“greenfield”) application important to you?
  • Is working with the latest and greatest tools and technologies important to you?
  • Do you have some kind of preference for the people you work with (senior to you so you can learn from them, same age as you so can easily get along, etc)?
  • What kind of industry/industries do you want to work in? Does it matter to you?
  • Is it important that the application you work on is something you find exciting or high profile?
  • Do you want to work for a well-known company?

Why are Algorithms such a popular test for a developer’s skills?

In my experience, although there are lots of different ways of assessing a developer’s technical ability (from verbal technical interviews, to logical and numerical tests to the dreaded “paper and pen” exercises) most technical interviews fall into broadly one of two schools of thought: either ask them to complete an exercise which requires solving a real-life business problem, or ask them to solve written-for-purpose puzzles by writing algorithms.

 

THE EXERCISE-BASED CAMP

The exercise-based camp always made sense to me, apart from the common trap that the hiring manager who writes the exercise basically writing a test that says “can you guess how I think” and then marking the result on how close they got to their own solution, it’s a clear indicator of what a programmer’s development skills might be on the job. Does it solve the challenge? Did they complete their solution? Does they solution make sense? Is it elegantly written in the development language of choice? Is it extendable / documented / follows TDD / etc etc? Naturally coding in the time sensitive, pressured environment of an interview doesn’t suit everyone, but it is unarguably a rock solid example of what the candidate can actually do.

 

THE ALGORITHM-BASED CAMP

And for years the algorithm test camp has puzzled me. Algorithms are often written in the main language that the job requires skills in (write your algorithm in Java if it’s a Java developer role), but sometimes answers can be written in pseudo-code and that’s just as acceptable – which seems counter-intuitive. Often when my candidates fail the algorithm writing part of the interview and are “no’ed”, they tell me that they were asked to write a kind of sorting algorithm that they hadn’t looked at since their university days (typical example is a Bubble Sort) and their mind goes blank. Which seems unfair.

bubble sort

A better gauge of your coding skills than anything you write in an IDE.

 

And I can’t help but wonder how easy it is to game algorithm-based technical tests. Many developers who are actively looking for a new position know they’ll come up against algorithmic challenges to complete during the interview process and I wonder to what extent you can simply train yourself to become “good” at solving the most commonly ask kinds of question. I know for a fact that I’ve seen some very good developers dismissed for developer jobs they were good fits for, completely out of hand after failing a algorithm test. And I’ve then seen the same developer go on to successfully complete algorithm based challenges and get job offers after having practised solving challenges at home. I personally recommend codility.com as a great preparation tool to the developers I work with.

 

It’s also very rare that writing algorithms from scratch will be a part of s developer position’s day job, so my candidates are being tested on a skills they don’t need to have to be able to do the job they’re going for.

 

So with so many pitfalls, I began to ask my candidates and hiring managers why algorithms are so highly valued as an interview tool.

 

ALGORITHMS ARE A RELIABLE TEST

The first thing I learnt is that it the ability to write an algorithm is considered one of the few reliable tests of how good a developer is (despite concerns about “gaming”). The field of study to be a competent Java developer (or C# developer or [insert chosen language here] developer etc) is so deep its hard to actually come up with a reliable, catch-all test that doesn’t take hours and hours, in the absence of a better model, algorithms are a tried, tested and trusted way of assessing how good someone’s core development skills are. When asked about “gaming” algorithm writing tests, I’m told that most tests these days can be gamed, and that its up to the hiring manager to keep the exercises fresh. Which doesn’t sound like an unreasonable requirement!

merge_sort.png

Ahhh, the old “merge-sort two step”

ALGORITHMS ARE TIMELESS

New algorithmic challenges can be written, but the principles by which they are solved still rely on the same set of fundamental skills, its just the style of implementation that changes (hence the willingness of some hiring managers to accept answers written in pseudo-code). On the basis that development languages change over time, and dexterity with the latest tool or framework will probably soon be made redundant, a test of someone’s ability to solve an algorithmic-based challenge is kind of timeless.

 

EACH ALGORITHM IS A MINI-PROGRAM

Each algorithm-based challenge is good all round mini-test requiring the candidate to demonstrate the core concepts of software development:

  • Problem solving
  • Structuring the solution
  • Refactoring it
  • Testing it
  • Proving it
  • Optimising it if necessary

They’re all key skills required to be able to “code”.

 

AN ALGORITHM CAN BE WRITTEN COMPARATIVELY QUICKLY

Its common for developers to be set 1 algorithmic puzzle per 15 minutes, with taking up to 30 minutes to complete not being considered an automatic rejection.

 

So there you have it, for as long as a more reliable, less time-intensive form of testing a candidate’s development skills is unforthcoming, the algorithm-based technical test will continue to form a common stage of a developer’s interview.

 

What is an aPaaS? Or “How not to make a (P)aaS out of you and me”!

Even though all year I’ve been talking to more and more technologists in London who have been designing or building aPaaS systems, including quite a few of my clients who have been building aPaaS’s too, there still seem to be a lot of people out there who haven’t quite mastered the difference between the three ways Cloud Services are provided (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS) never mind understanding what an aPaaS does.

What follows is the unAuthoritative Explanation:  

The Holy Trinity of the Cloud: IaaS, PaaS and SaaS

IaaS vs PaaS vs SaaS 1

It’s probably fair to say that most software today consists of the following nine layers:

  1. Application
  2. Data
  3. Runtime
  4. Middleware
  5. Operating System
  6. Virtualization
  7. Servers
  8. Storage
  9. Networking, all of which can be provided by Cloud Services.

Cloud = CapEx vs OpEx

Cloud is way of providing you with the power you need to run software, and because it’s pay-per-use, Cloud provisioning allows companies to reduce the traditional upfront Capital Expenditure of buying hardware, licenses, support contracts etc. usually required to provide a software service, in favour for an OpEx-based model, where you only pay when you actually use the service (in the same way that the modern household pays for electricity today).

With Cloud provisioning, companies now have a choice, at the one end of spectrum you have “desktop”, or “packaged software” where you must own and maintain each of those nine layers. This gives you total control of the development implementation of the Software but you also have to provide  the computing power for it to run on, making everything CapEx. At the other end of the spectrum you have SaaS, where everything is provided for you, so you have zero control of the way the Software is implemented and it’s all a question of OpEx.

Infrastructure As A Service (IaaS), Platform As A Service (PaaS) and Software As A Service (SaaS) are the main ways that Cloud Services can be accessed, depending upon what percentage of the above list you want to be provided by the Cloud, and what the you are prepared to provide by yourself:

IaaS vs PaaS vs SaaS

What is an IaaS?

In essence with an IaaS, your traditional tin-and-wire Infrastructure components of Servers, Storage and Networking (external) are provided as a maintained service by your Cloud provider, and you must provide the “programmed” part of your software service. The IaaS allows you to build (or install), run and maintain whatever software you want on whatever operating software system you want.

Whether you want to Build your own software or Buy someone else’s software (install), it doesn’t matter. You get lots and lots of control over how your IT Service is going to work, and you have responsibility for everything from its architectural design to how it goes from being a load of written code, to a live piece of software (how it is deployed to the Cloud Infrastructure). You don’t need to employ server admins, but you do need to employ people to manage that deployment (called DevOps Engineers).

What is a PaaS?

With a PaaS, your Cloud provider provides you with a platform that you can build or install and then deploy your software onto (which you maintain). So you worry about what applications you want to provide, how you want them to work, whether you want to buy or build them yourself, you have to define the application and data architecture, how they will be deployed to the Cloud infrastructure etc etc.

In this model you get lots of control over the parts of your IT Service that will be the most customised – the part of your service that makes it “your software”. So at this point an insurance comparison web application could still be run on the same PAAS that provides your local swimming pool’s website. It might be rare, but as long as they both have the same Runtime, Middleware and Operating System requirements, it would be perfectly possible.

What is a SaaS?

With a SaaS you are buying a fully built, fully deployed, fully maintained IT service that will provide a specific service and nothing else. A professional Gmail account or Salesforce is a great example of a SaaS. It’s your data that you enter into the system, and you can normally customise the interface to some extent but nothing else is your responsibility, and because you don’t own any of the underlying software, you have zero control over what services it provides and they are how it run.

So what is an aPaaS?

This is where it gets exciting.

With a PaaS, you have to define, build and implement the way the code you have written is deployed onto the Cloud Infrastructure but your Runtime environment, any required middleware and the Operating System are all provided and maintained for you.

But some people / some companies “just want to code” and don’t want to have to worry about anything beyond the design and development of their application, and some companies want to be able to choose not to have to worry about it. They like the idea of being able to deploy their software at the click of a button and pay for someone else to do the rest.

Which is where the aPaaS comes in; it stands for Application Platform As A Service and it’s a cloud service that provides everything a PaaS does, but it also provides the deployment environment too:

  1. PaaS: development and deployment is your responsibility
  2. aPaaS: only development is your responsibility

Note that an aPaaS is really only relevant if at least some of the IT Service you want to use or provide involves building the software yourself.

Just how exciting is an aPaaS?

As it turns out, very. An aPaaS is perfect for a start-up that has an idea that they want to develop and deploy and get feedback from their target audience really quickly, or perhaps they don’t already have the deployment expertise and can’t afford the cost of employing a separate DevOps Engineer to manage the deployment, or it might even be the case that although they can afford that extra pair of hands, if given the choice they’d rather use the money to employ another developer who can design and develop more revenue generating software IP.

But its not just small companies that are interested in the aPaaS concept, or companies that would choose not take the responsibility for deployment. It’s big companies too.

Quite a few of my clients that currently provide their service in a SaaS model, are building aPaaS platforms to supplement their existing suite of services.

Bob’s Online Provincial Marketplace Software

provincial marketplace SaaS

Say your company currently provides an online Provincial Marketplace software service to its clients through a SaaS model. Its clients can choose to pay to use their Online Grocery Stall service, their Online Butchers service, their Fishmonger service etc, and your platform is flexible enough that your customers can either pay to use all of services you provide, or they can simply pay for each service separately. Now imagine one of your clients wants a service you don’t provide, say a Stationary stall; at the moment they would either have to build and support one themselves, or buy another companies’ software service, which might be one of your rivals. This might be a pain for your client for any number of reasons, and no-one likes the idea of their clients being driven into the hands of a rival company that has a more comprehensive set of services than they do.

If you can turn the deployment environment that you’ve already built for your own internal development teams to use into a service that external customers can access, then you might be able provide an aPaaS option as part of your suite of software services. In our example this would give your clients the option to build their own Stationary Stall service onto your own Marketplace platform, so keeping more of their business, saving them the time and effort it would have required to find a provider and keeping them happy. You might then even find your Provincial Marketplace software ended up being used by customers who had no interest in your traditional set of food-based Stall services, and instead were using no more than the aPaaS service you provide to deploy a whole set of product options you never imagined your software would be used for!

So the aPaaS model allows traditional SaaS providers the ability to offer their clients the option to either Buy software, Build their own software or “Buy and Build”. It has the potential to massively enhance the potential revenue your software service can generate!

Video: My HR Interview Advice

HR interviews can be a sticky wicket, but they’re easy to pass as long as you bear in mind a couple of simple facts and do a little preparation before hand. Here’s my explanation of the key points:

Martin Jee’s HR interview advice

What exactly is a Grandes Ecole and what does it mean?

The French University system has always seemed to be a bit of a mystery to me. Many of their Universities have roman numerals like II or III after the city’s name, looking at people’s CVs lots of people don’t seem to have even attended a university as part of their higher education in the first place, and it’s never been clear what the best universities for Computer Science in France are. So having recently secured a French developer a new position I asked him if he could help.

Those guys who went to “Big School” and not a “University” – they’re considered the very best

So I quickly found out that the developers who attended what looks like “big school” (where you wear your “big boy clothes”???) have actually attended the very, very best institutes for higher education that France has to offer, these institutions are so good, so well regarded, that they seem to be like “winning the lottery of life” or in Mafioso terms “becoming a made man”, they are the prestigious Grandes Ecoles.

Prestigious

The most important thing to know about the Grandes Ecoles is that it is highly prestigious to attend one. In fact it’s not just prestigious, it is Elite. And its not just a prestigiously elite system, it’s actually an Elitist system, but more about that in a moment…

The reason that the Grandes Ecoles are so prestigious that the whole fabric of French employment society is saturated, dominated even, by their presence. Established in the late 17th and 18th Centuries to educate and to give practical training to country’s brightest students in engineering and the sciences, these schools were so successful in generating the minds that the country needed to the lead their industries, they did not just survive Napoleon and the French Revolution, Bonaparte greatly expanded and formally christened the system “Les Grandes Ecoles”.

 

Elite

The developers who attended a Grandes Ecole will be part of the top 5% of academic students in their year, they will be the very brightest students their generation has to offer. Each Grandes Ecole is highly selective and the entry bar is made very high.

Elitist

Today, in the right business or social circles in France, it is a common question to ask when first meeting someone what “school” they attended. In France you need to have attended a Grandes Ecole in order to get into the higher echelons of management and company leadership in almost any company, and you will certainly need to have studied Computer Science, or mathematics or something similarly related, to become a developer in the most demanding software engineering teams in the Investment Banks or a Quantitative Analyst.

Getting in

Actually getting accepted to attend is very difficult, but naturally many kids (or at least their parents) are very keen to attend. The entrance examination is called the “Concours”, but certain Grandes Ecoles will only take the best of the best (see below) and others will only consider an applicant on the strength of their own exam.

Although some students go enter a Grandes Ecole straight after the end of High School, many students will attend a preparation course, called “Classe Preparatoire aux Grandes Ecoles” which consists of a 2 year course training the student in the way of thinking and approaching challenges they will need to successfully complete this form of higher education.

Interestingly the prevailing attitude seems to be that if you are smart enough to get in, then you will be smart enough to be able to complete the course, therefore there is little focus on final grades or overall performance as in with a British or Western University system.

One thing to note is that all this means that you have to be quite a competitive person to get in, which some people believe means that the Grandes Ecoles do not attract all of the brightest young technologists in France.

 

Once you’re in

Despite the lack of a big “final grade” that will represent your performance whilst studying, the course is “intense”. Courses are academically tough, they can be up to 6 years, and some are very industry focussed, making them very relevant to careers in programming; most courses however last for 3 years (some only 2 years).

English is widely taught at the Grandes Ecoles and in my experience most Computer Science students leave with a strong academic knowledge of the English language but can lack confidence with their verbal communication skills.

And once you’re in, you’re in

As you can imagine graduates from these institutions tend to be high sought after in France, and about 50% of graduates actually secure their first job before they complete the course.

 

Some Grandes Ecoles pay their students to attend!

That’s right, because attending some Grandes Ecole is considered a form of Public Service (such as Polytechnique and ENS) these institutions pay their students to attend (though they must take some form of state employment after their studies have been completed)! Otherwise its a VERY cheap form of Higher Education, most Grandes Ecoles have very limited tuition fees – just a few hundred Euros each year.

National Rankings

So without a final grade, there is actually no real national ranking system showing which of the Grandes Ecoles / Universities are the best. Instead it seems to be fair to say that France has a 2-tier system, the highly prestigious Grandes Ecoles and the rest, the Universities.

Interestingly, within the system of Grandes Ecole Computer Science is still regarded as a “new” subject and therefore not as pure as maths or physics, making it less highly regarded and less sought after as a subject to study by the very brightest students.

The best Grandes Ecoles for Developers

From my research here the best Grandes Ecoles for Computer Science:

  • CentraleSupélec
  • ENS (École Normale Supérieure)
  • Ecole Polytechnique
  • INSA
  • ParisTech (which has the largest student population of roughly 6,000 and includes “Arts et Métiers ParisTech”)
  • EPITA (“Graduate School of Computer Science and Advanced Technologies”)
  • ECE (Ecole centrale d’électronique)

 

Criticisms

The biggest criticism is that the system of Grandes Ecoles is an Elitist one. Its critics (found amongst both those who attended and those who didn’t) say:

  • the system tends to only draw students from the sort of middle class families who push their children to compete during their education
  • that France places too much weight on attendance (or non-attendance) and that this dominance over French industry means that it divides society
  • that the highly competitive nature of the whole system means that the system actually puts off some students and therefore does not train all of the very brightest French students
  • it’s an unfair system because the French State spends more per head on those students attending a Grandes Ecole than any other form of higher education, who of course comprise of the majority of kids attending university. Leaving the parallel French “University system” comparatively under-resourced, overcrowded and less well regarded by employers
  • it’s an “old fashioned” institution, that does not teach how to programming is actually practised today, and that the system’s focus on “Computer Science”, rather “Software Engineering” means that graduates can lack an ability to write a fully functioning application to today’s industry standard. The idea that a Computer Science graduate can write an algorithm but can’t “code”.

Xavier Niel and his “42” School

Finally no article on the French Higher Education system of today would be complete without a reference to a Parisian school for Computer Science that was set up in 2014 by the French Billionaire Xavier Niel called “42”. Its free, it has no entrance requirement other than entrants must complete a simple online logic test, continued attendance is assessed on a month by month basis, the education consists of a gruelling 24/7 work regime where students must learn to code or drop-out, team work is the key to success and executives from places like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter all seem to think its pretty good. It’s a totally new way of looking at learning to code and was founded on a philosophy of “The tougher you make it, the better they do”. Here’s a Wired article all about it.

My Advice on How To Do Well At A Pair Programming Interview

I find that Pair Programming something that many developers still have little experience of, so when it comes to a “Pair Programming” session in an interview they are either unnecessarily nervous, or naively confident. Now don’t get me wrong, a little naive confidence can often be a good thing, but sometimes it does pay to be prepared.

Here some advice that I’ve collected over the years which seems to go down well – keen to hear anyone else’s thoughts in the comments! But in my experience if you follow these tips, you’ll have every reason to be confident an interview:

WHAT IS PAIR PROGRAMMING?

Whether have years of experience with pair programming OR you have never programmed before, its important to know that Pair Programming is basically just “social programming”. Something you do every day but sitting next to a fellow coder who is watching your screen and inputing ideas, and with a technical discussion involved.

AND A PAIR PROGRAMMING INTERVIEW?

Normally there is a “Pilot” who is doing the actual coding and the “Co-Pilot” who is sitting next to the Pilot and working with them on the logic and “two heads is better than one”. Typically in a Pair Programming interview you’ll be the Pilot and you’ll be given one or more exercises and asked to complete them.

TDD

As a general rule, it is a VERY good idea to follow Test Driven Development and to write your solution to the given exercises using Unit tests. This is not always “critical critical” but over the years I have discovered that this is a classic pitfall that many people forget to start with in the “heat of the moment”. Why is TDD important, basically because its another tenant of Agile and XP and if a company wants you to do a Pair Programming session as part of an interview, its a fair guess that they also follow the Agile methodology.

Be OO and follow Best Practice

Remember this is a technical round. So obviously make sure your programming is as best as it can be. So within the confines of the task at hand keep to best practice, follow OO programming principles and set out to impress without over-engineering a solution!

Try to Relax

This is what you do every day. The guy sitting next to you wants you to succeed (really they do, its awkward sitting next to someone who is having their own internalised car crash, so they’ll be keen to support you to get the best out of you as a candidate), so try to relax and be yourself.

Be Friendly

I’m sure you can agree that two people sitting in silence in front of a computer could be a bit weird. So, take the initiative and be friendly from the start. Chit chat with them as you walk over to the computer – think about inane stuff you can talk about that will help you two start to feel comfortable with each other. Stuff like football, the latest Java conference, the weather, cr@p that will break the ice before you sit down.

Keep Talking

The other part to making sure this paired programming session goes well is to keep talking. So try to describe your thought processes as you go, and explain what you are doing as you do it.

If you need time to code

A great little tip is that if you feel you need some time to get your head down and focus on some code is to ask the person sitting next to you something that will naturally need a long winded answer. Something like “Tell me about life at ABC Ltd” or “So what’s your background then?”, that way they’ll start talking and you can focus!

Don’t Be Afraid of Silences

BUT don’t be afraid of silences when they come. Some silences will be natural so don’t let that worry you.