April 11, 2007 spout

Student who needs to interview a programmer”

Jimmy, a very polite 14-year old student of Washington Manor Middle School in California had an assignment to interview a computer programmer. I have no idea how he found me, but I did my best to help him out.

[jimmy] Thanks for your time! Here are the questions…

[jimmy] How long have you been working in this profession?
[csells] I’ve been a professional programmer of one kind or another since I was 20 years old, so 17 years.

[jimmy] How did you realize you wanted to be a computer programmer?
[csells] I had three professions in my mind as a child, first magician, then architect and by the time I got my first computer in high school, I decided I wanted to be a programmer. From that point on, I was pretty much a full-time programmer who took time out during the day to go to school.

[jimmy] What kind of education did you have to have?
[csells] BS in Computer Science from the U of MN, MS in Software Engineering from the Oregon Graduate Institute

[jimmy] What are some of the classes you took in High School that maybe helped you in your career choice?
[csells] The course that made me want to become an architect was my Jr. high school drafting courses. The thing that made me want to be a programmer was using first my friend’s computer and then mine. By the time I got to my programming classes in high school, I knew much more than the teacher (and, in fact, he would often pull me out of my other courses to fix other people’s computer problems).

[jimmy] Tell me about a typical day in this job.
[csells] For the last two years, I’ve been involved in an incubation” project at work, which means that I’m in a small group of engineers doing advanced product development thinking. We look at a bunch of problems that developers are having building software on the Microsoft platform and build various experimental pieces of software to see if they would be useful in helping developers build applications that are more secure, more robust and more full-featured, while still helping them to build them faster.

Toward that end, my day is filled with design meetings where we run design ideas past our peers, build our ideas and then try to use them to build applications the way our customers would. I spend about half of each day in verbal and written communication, e.g. meetings, presentations, emails and design documents, and half the day writing code, specifically C#/.NET.

[jimmy] What skills are important to be successful in this position?
[csells] Communication, both written and verbal, customer empathy, logical thinking, debate, compromise and willingness to live with vague, under-specified problems and requirements.

[jimmy] How would you describe the responsibilities of the position?
[csells] With my team, it’s my responsibility to not only generate and try new ideas, but also to push the good ideas into customers’ hands. That can include everything from forming my own product team, to forming ad hoc virtual teams” from existing product groups around the company, to selling” my ideas to product teams to get them to ship them with their products.

[jimmy] What long and short term problems and opportunities do you think this career faces?
[csells] Short-term, there’s a shortage of computer science graduates, so high-tech companies, Microsoft included, are doing what they can to make sure that they attract smart, motivated, educated, experienced software folks. This includes higher salaries, better working conditions and better benefits, all of which is good for folks in this industry.

Long-term, software engineering is changing rapidly, both how we build and apply our development tools and how we turn our craft into an actual engineering discipline. The tools I’m using this year are more full-featured, more rigorous and, at the same time, simpler than the tools I used even a few years ago. I don’t anticipate that change slowing down any time soon. We’ve got a long way to go before we’ve got a solid set of principles that can make software into the same kind of measured, certifiable activity that engineering fields like civil, electrical and mechanical engineering now enjoy.

[jimmy] What are the positives and negative about being a computer programmer?

  • flexible work environments
  • fun work (if you like bending a computer to your will)
  • rapidly evolving
  • challenging
  • important – the entire world is being remade by software


  • vague requirements from customers that don’t really know what they want (but they sure know what they *don’t* want…)
  • engineering discipline left up to individuals, leading to a wide-range of software quality
  • lots and lots of work to do, making it very easy to balance the work/home life far away from non-work related activities (all work and no play makes Jimmy a dull boy : ).

[jimmy] Is there anything else about being a computer programmer that you would like to tell me about?
[csells] If you’ve got the disposition, programming and related software engineering work can be extremely rewarding, not just for the fun and satisfaction of taking control of a tiny virtual universe, but also because of the real difference software has and continues to make on real people’s lives. Over the last three decades, I believe that software has literally changed the world for the better and I see that trend accelerating. Bottom line: It’s fun, flexibly, in-demand and makes the world a better place – what could be better than that?