Home > Articles

Finding and Hiring Great Programmers

A step-by-step guide to finding, recruiting, and hiring great programmers.

Save 35% off the list price* of the related book or multi-format eBook (EPUB + MOBI + PDF) with discount code ARTICLE.
* See informit.com/terms

This chapter is from the book

There are Many Programmers. However, there are not that many great programmers.

“Exceptional engineers are more likely than non-exceptional engineers to maintain a ‘big picture,’ have a bias for action, be driven by a sense of mission, exhibit and articulate strong convictions, play a pro-active role with management, and help other engineers,” said an insightful 1993 study of software engineers.1

Frederick Brooks in his classic work The Mythical Man-Month2 cited a study3 from 25 years earlier that showed, among programmers with two years’ experience and similar training, that the best professional programmers are ten times as productive as the poorest of them. The researchers had started out to determine if changing from punch cards to interactive programming would make a productivity difference, only to find their results overwhelmed by the productivity differences among individuals. They found 20:1 differences in initial coding time, 5:1 differences in code size (!), and 25:1 differences in debugging time!

Barry Boehm, 20 years later, reported a 25:1 difference between the most and least productive software developers and a 10:1 difference in the number of bugs they generated.4 In 2000, Boehm and coauthors updated their study to examine teams and concluded that teams of experienced top-tier programmers could be expected to be 5.3 times more productive than teams of inexperienced bottom-tier programmers.5

While there are some IT organizations that pride themselves on hiring “ordinary” programmers, there are few product companies and professional services organizations where you can be successful managing a software team without the ability to staff some part of your team with “great” ones. It’s no wonder, given the kinds of people programmers can be, that finding and identifying exceptional programmers can be a challenge.

Hiring is far and away the most difficult-to-undo decision that managers make. Being successful at staffing will ease the rest of your job. The worst of unsuccessful hires can cast a plague upon your team for months, undermine your leadership, incite dissension and strife, delay or derail your deliverables, and in these ways and in every other way demotivate and demoralize your entire organization. Not to mention how hard it is to get rid of underperformers and other bad hires.

If you’re hiring not only programmers but also managers of programmers, remember the rule Ron heard at Apple and Mickey heard directly from Steve Jobs:

Steve’s point was to emphasize how essential it is to hire top-notch managers, for the combinatorial effect they have as they make hires.

We’ve both been fooled. Ron had already been hiring for a decade when he interviewed a manager he was convinced would be a stellar contributor to his organization: “I was certain, given how well he talked the talk, that this was a guy who would really deliver. I called two of his references, and both shared stories and anecdotes that convinced me he’d walked the talk many a time before.7 My interview team was unanimous in making a ‘hire’ recommendation. It was a time when I’d inherited a bad apple or two, but I’d never hired one. Until then. I realized it fast and I acted quickly to communicate the change I wanted to see in his behavior. Luckily, when I called him into my office, not even two months on the job, for a change-or-leave meeting, it was he who opened the conversation: He didn’t feel like he fit; he was giving notice; he needed to leave. I was lucky.”

While it can happen, we’ve figured out a few principles that have resulted in the vast majority of our hires being good ones.

Determining What Kind of Programmer to Hire

It all starts with knowing whom you want to hire. You’re hiring not just a programmer, but also someone to fill a role and a need in your organization.

We outlined in Chapter 2 how to build a job description for the kinds and levels of programmers you need in your organization. But those are generic descriptions.

For individual hires, only by consciously thinking through the skill sets, values, ethics, and orientation you need are you likely to hire the right programmers for the slots you need to fill out your team.

Think through whether your focus will be on experience, or on energy and passion.

Do you need

  • A programmer who can mentor the team in best practices?

  • A coder with a mind wired to ferret out the gnarliest design flaw?

  • A designer who can sense the big picture and envision how your requirements can be broken up into modules and components?

  • A developer who is comfortable being proactive and collaborative with management?

Or do you need

  • To churn out thousands of lines of code in short order?

  • To prototype features important to your customers that your veteran programmers blow off as “fluff”?

  • The flexibility and speed to iterate routines over and over as their essence becomes clear?

These are not mutually exclusive sets of characteristics. But the former type of programmer is more likely highly experienced. And the latter type is more likely a fresh, passionate one. Be conscious of which you need.

You also need to know whether you are better off with a full-time employee or a contractor.

Do you need

  • A programmer for the long term?

  • A fully integrated member of the development team?

  • A developer with an evolving set of skills and tools whom you expect (and are willing) to train and grow over time, as needs or technologies change?

Or do you need

  • A highly developed set of specialized skills and tools now?

  • To fill a short-term need?

The former is likely an employee; the latter, a contractor.

Finally, will you consider distant candidates, either to move them to your location or to have them work remotely? Are you unable to find the candidates you want in the local pool, or is the skill set you need so rare that there is no pool of candidates, short of thinking regionally or nationally? Can you afford to pay moving costs? Or are you up to managing a geographically distributed team?

If so, you’re likely to find yourself conducting some or all of your interviews by phone or videoconference. Conversely, you can leverage national trade shows and conferences to meet and recruit programmers who are uniquely qualified.

While at Apple, Ron frequently sought out hires at the Applefest and MacWorld and OOPSLA conferences. After giving a talk one year, he was approached by a programmer with laryngitis who was madly scribbling messages on pages of a 3” × 5” pad to communicate his interest in Apple. It was an odd approach, but he soon became a stellar Apple hire.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020