re the interview question “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”

I turned on the television and heard a sentence about expecting a question during an interview – “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”. I don’t know the context or if this is a common question. I certainly hope is isn’t!

Is this an illegal question?

I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. It feels dangerously close to illegal questions though. You aren’t allowed to ask someone at an interview if they have kids. And guess what group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with young children.

Similarly, you aren’t allowed to ask if someone had COVID-19. Guess what other group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with long haul COVID-19.

Is this an insensitive question?

Absolutely. Some people had less time during the pandemic. Some were upset. Some found it hard to concentrate. Some lost an immediate family member. Also, it’s none of your damn business.

Why are you asking in the first place?

I’ll assume you aren’t being nosy or trying to cleverly find out information that would be illegal to ask. And how does it help you find out that your prospective hire is now an expert in making sourdough bread. The only answer I can think of that is relevant to the job is what skills the person has learned that are RELEVANT to the job. In which case…

What could you ask instead to accomplish the same result?

“What is the last thing you learned about technology?” – this is an appropriate question to ask. I’ve asked it before the pandemic. This question doesn’t have assumptions in it about how recently you learned something. It doesn’t suggest something is wrong with you if you haven’t had time or energy during a pandemic to learn something new, you can still list something you learned in 2019.

What would be my answer

It’s hard to answer this hypothetically because it depends on how much one needs the job. Let’s assume I do and decided to answer the question in some form.

Side note: When I was interviewing for entry level jobs, I was asked “how would you handle being treated differently because you are female.” My answer was “why? is that a problem here?” (with some attitude in my tone.) I still got an offer. I declined.

“I finished writing the OCP 11 Practice Tests book with Scott, read some technical books, passed the AWS associate architect exam and served on the planning committee for the first ever JChampions conference.”

What is my honest answer

While my answer is factually true, none of that was what I did with my extra time for several reasons.

  • I would have done those things anyway.
  • I read less books in 2020 than in any of the past years I can remember. (I read tech books during my commute.) Trying to read at home, I get distracted. Most of the tech books I managed to read were when it was warm enough to sit outside.
  • I was unable to do my annual CodeRanch “JForum Day” feature for the first time in 11 years. I really wanted to do this. But I spent the finite amount of energy I had in the winter for coding/thinking on work. It wasn’t available for my extra time. So I objectively did and learned less in 2020 than in a normal year.
  • Studying for and taking the AWS exam was a mistake. I wasn’t able to retain information even in the short term. I cried numerous times trying to force myself to do so. I’ve already forgotten what I ‘learned’ and will have to re-learn it when things are better. I wish I had noticed what was going on earlier and stopped trying.
  • I spent most of my “extra time” trying to be physically and mentally ok.
  • All but one of the people I know who is comfortable physically getting together are two train rides (and over 90 minutes) away. This means it takes pretty much a whole weekend day to have any human interaction.
  • Having video/virtual contact is more tiring than real human contact. So the energy I put into trying to keep myself ok came out of my ability to do other things.

And none of this is bad. I believe expecting people to have learned and accomplished more during a pandemic is inconsiderate. Unless you believe we are going to be under stay at home orders for another year and learning during it is a requirement for your job, ask a different question!

Coding is easy and other fallacies

The New York Times ran an op-ed with the headline “In India, parents are being aggressively sold the idea that their children must start coding at 4 or 5 or be future failures.” (It’s behind a paywall, but you don’t need to read the article for my blog post). As I read the comments, I kept cringing at some fallacies. Hence my blog post. I’ve paraphrased the arguments I want to respond to.

My opinion: I don’t think little kids need to learn how to do code as little kids. But I also don’t think it is terrible if they do. Languages like Scratch Jr let kids create cute stories and games online. This feels just as creative to me as coloring except with some logic built in.

“Coding is easy”

I wrote a whole blog post about what “easy” means. I assure you many people currently learning to code (as adults) are not thinking “this is easy”

“No need to learn early; I learned to code in 3 months at age X”

Learning to code is not the hard part. Being a programmer/software developer is more than just learning how to code. Knowing how to code is a foundation skill for being a good programmer though. (Kind of like how basic arithmetic is a foundation skill for algebra). Once you’ve learned that initial three months of coding, you can learn the harder things that make you a good developer. For example, knowing what libraries/frameworks are available allows you to solve problems far faster.

I agree that you can become a good developer at any age. But I disagree that three months is enough to become proficient. Also, I’m sick and tired of interviewing “experienced developers” who can’t solve the equivalent of FizzBuzz. That’s a foundation level skill.

“Nobody will need to code by the time these kids grow up”

I’ve been reading about coders become obsolete my entire career. And I’m sure the predictions didn’t start then. Programming will become higher level over time. It already has. Look for some assembly language developers. Look at some Fortran code. It would take a long time to write something in those languages that we could write in minutes in a modern language.

Similarly, there are DSLs (domain specific languages) for business users. Who writes these? Programmers!

I also expect more “glue” and customization code over the years. I work with a lot of COTS (commercial off the shelf) products. One would think that there wouldn’t be a lot of programming because someone else wrote the product. Yet I code almost every day. Sometimes all day. Businesses will always have custom requirements.

“Languages change too quickly to learn”

Let’s look at some dates here. Python and Java were both created over 25 years ago. Both languages have changed extensively in the last 25 years. So yes, learning 1990’s Python or Java would not make you a good developer today.

However, these are little kids. They are probably using a language like Scratch that doesn’t require reading. Which clearly won’t be the language they use when they grow up. Similarly, the won’t be reading picture books when they grow up either (comics maybe, but not picture books.) When I was in elementary school, I learned Logo (a language with a turtle.) It was fun. I learned a little about computers and math and made a turtle move.

Even as an adult, you need to keep learning as programmer. Languages change. There are new languages. Learning multiple languages up front helps you learn new ones faster over your career. The fact that something changes quickly doesn’t mean declaring defeat.

Copy/paste connected shape in Acrobat Reader

Adobe Acrobat Reader DC has a “shape” called “Connected Lines” in the comments pane. I wanted to copy/paste and move one around. This was a pain in the neck. I wasn’t expecting it to be that hard.

I ran into three problems:

1 – Pasting only works in a certain mode

I select the shape with ctrl-C. If I press ctrl-v to paste, nothing happens. Why? Apparently because I have the comment feature open. If I open the stamp feature or click “close” so nothing is open, it does paste. Ok fine. Except…

2 – It doesn’t paste where I put the mouse cursor

When I get it to paste, it always seems to be the center middle of the screen towards the bottom. This is rarely where I want my pasted item. This would be a minor annoyance except

3. It doesn’t let me drag with the mouse

A text comment box, I can select with my mouse and drag where I want it. A connected shape changes the shape when I try to select it. I can use the arrow keys to move it but that is slow and tedious… Oh wait. I figured it out. If I mouse over very carefully to the center of the connected shape, my mouse turns into a drag icon and I can drag it with my mouse.