How Not to Get a (Python) Job – a rant

May 27, 2012

How Not to Get a (Python) Job – a rant

At PyCon 2011, Brian Moloney (of Imaginary Landscape here in Chicago) gave a talk titled How to Get A Python Job”. It wasn’t really so much about getting specifically a Python job as about how to land any job. It was the same sort of advice you can find in a lot places – hints on how (not) to apply, how (not) to present yourself, how (not) to interview, how (not) to impress interviewers, and so on. If you’re looking for a job, go watch it and take his advice very seriously.

I went to Brian’s talk because I had just found my own Python job and I was curious about his perspective. I had started my own job search with my fair share of negatives – the economy was in the toilet, I was over 50, I didn’t have much formal training, my experience (in private education) wasn’t exactly mainstream, etc. And yet within 3 months of sending out my first resumé I had a job, and even had to turn down other offers. Even as I settled into my new job, I was frequently contacted by recruiters looking for Python programming help. And yet, I’ve heard many people complaining quite vocally about how difficult it was (and is) to find programming jobs in general and Python jobs in particular.

As the IT director and lead developer at a startup trying to grow its tech staff, I’ve been heavily involved in searching for and interviewing developers. In that process I’ve seen people of all ages and backgrounds painfully ignore the basics of getting a job. So the idea behind this post is to put one more voice out there, sharing some of the things that make me not want to hire an applicant.

Here are the things that make crazy. Take from them what you will.

Not knowing the market. Several candidates have said, “it seems like no one is looking for Python people.” Say what? I get called regularly by recruiters looking for Python developers. We’ve been searching for a Python dev for months. Admittedly, the market is better for more experienced people and you might need to relocate, but even junior Python dev positions are going begging. Ask any recruiter, we’re a hot commodity. When someone tells me that no one is hiring for Python, that tells me one of two things… either that person doesn’t know the job market (at least around here), or they aren’t really a Python developer. In the first case, I’m a pretty firm believer that the responsibility for finding jobs lies with the job seeker and not having done research on the market it a bad sign. If you don’t care enough to do research to find your own career, why should I expect that you’ll have the initiative to solve problems and help our team move forward? And the alternative is worse – in a market where knowing how to spell the word “Python” (at least on a resumé) should get you at least a few calls, not getting any traction is a red flag.

Not knowing the craft. This is so obvious that it shouldn’t need saying… except for the fact that it needs saying. “If you’re applying for a Python programming job, you should know as much as you can about Python and programming.” That means a basic understanding of the language, some basic knowledge of programming, some familiarity with the common or hot tools and technologies, etc. Obviously the depth of that understanding will vary depending on your experience, and for junior positions, particularly, you’re not expected to know everything, but you still should have some idea of the field.

I’ve interviewed candidates who couldn’t tell me how they would approach a problem, or what libraries they would use (or even have used), who’ve never even heard of Django, and so on. I’m no fan of springing little programming puzzles on candidates, since to my mind that mostly tests the ability to solve little puzzles, and I don’t expect lengthy dissertations on advanced programming topics, but I do expect you to be able to know the basics of coding and Python syntax, to have at least a nodding familiarity with current technologies, and to be able to discuss the approaches, tools and pitfalls involved in some of the coding you’ve done.

And speaking of the coding you’ve done, particularly for junior developers, you may not have done that much professionally. However, if you haven’t done anything outside of classwork, I’m going to be pretty skeptical. There are tons of opportunities to get involved in open source projects, to create your own web site, to help with something for a business, a club, or even just scratch your own personal software “itch.” It doesn’t matter how big or how successful your projects were, what matters to me is that you’re interested enough to be in the game on your own time.

Not knowing us (and the job). It’s been said before, but if you don’t care enough to do some research and thinking about us and the position before you come in for an interview, why should we think you’ll care once you’re hired? You’ve got the job description, probably some names of people at the company, and the entire Internet as resources. Even if you don’t have absolutely all the information, you should be able to find out enough to ask questions and maybe even float trial solutions. Why do you do x? How do you deal with issue y? Have you ever thought of trying z to solve this problem? Even if you’re completely wrong about your assumptions, the very fact that you’re thinking about our business is very compelling. If you want to be really sneaky talk about how “we” might solve some of those problems together.

And speaking of sneaky (not really, since it’s clear if you’ve done it or not), if you know who you’ll be interviewing with, look the people up online. Google and LinkedIn are your friends here. At worst you’ll have a feeling of control during the interview and at best you can work in a comment or question relevant to the interviewer’s background, which is almost always good. I’m not going to support hiring you just because you looked at my LinkedIN profile, but it does tell me you cared enough to do some research, and that’s a good thing.

Not selling yourself. Don’t go into your shell – there is a job open and somehow you’ve gotten an interview. So take advantage of it! You may be an introvert, it may be hard to talk about yourself, or maybe you just don’t think you should have to “market” yourself. Whatever… but in this situation you’ve really got to go for it. Show us how interesting you are, how much you care about the work, how cool you think the job is, how much you would bring to the team. If we hire you, we’ll have to work with you every day, so why should we look forward to that? (In a business sense, of course – promising to keep everyone loose with dirty jokes is probably not be the way to go here.)

We can only hire a few people and we need to get a lot of stuff done. We have lots of problems crying out for solutions so we want someone who is eager to tackle those problems and has some chance of succeeding. As Joel Spolsky succently put it, “smart and gets things done.” You may not have the exact sklls to fix every problem at this moment, but that’s not the entire point – as a startup none of us had the exact skillset for this business when we started. But all of us were ready to dig in, we figured it out fast, and we got the job done. And that’s the sort of person we need.

Note: this is not the same as emphasizing how good this job would be for you. I understand that you want to move from that old job to a new, more interesting area. I applaud the fact that you just love to learn new things. I’m totally on board with how wonderful this opportunity would be for you… but we need to move and scrub a ton of data, polish the UI, analyze customer behavior, and keep thinking of new ways to stay ahead of the game. How are you going to help us do that?

Please feel free to ping me with comments or questions: comments are not automatically published, so if you have a question or comment, please feel free to leave a comment and indicate if you want it to remain private.

Edit: If you’re looking for Python jobs you might try the Python Job Board, which as it happens is where I found my current position, or the PyCoder’s Jobs site (I have no direct experience with this one, this is not meant to be an endorsement), which is dedicated to Python jobs and run by the same people who do the Python Weekly newsletter (which I do find very useful, actually.)

[edited to add company name and contact info]


Installing Python 3.0 on Ubuntu

January 14, 2009

In the course of updating a book for Python 3.0, I’ve had a lot of need to test and compare code in Python 3 and Python 2.6. The first is obvious, and the second is needed because Python 2.6’s -3 commandline switch is a  key step in the process of converting code from the 2.x world to Python 3.

Python 3 vs Python 2.6

In this post I’ll talk about installing Python 3.0 from source. Python 2.6 works much the same way except that you need to exercise some caution to make sure that 2.6 doesn’t replace 2.5 as the default Python. This is a bad thing because all the Python packages and libraries you install by way of Ubuntu packages are tied to the default Python 2.5 installed automatically. If 2.6 becomes your default Python interpreter, suddenly you lose all of those packages. Python 3.0 on the other hand will not set itself up as the default Python interpreter unless you explicitly tell it to.

The problem with Ubuntu

The problem with Ubuntu is that I’ve been running it for a few years and I’m spoiled. Using synaptic or apt-get to install software has become second nature to me, and it’s been a while since I installed any significant package from source. So when I needed the latest Python installed, my automatic reaction was to look for packages.

The bad news wasn’t unexpected – there are no Python 2.6 packages in the standard repo’s, which is really no surprise since 2.6 wasn’t released until after Intrepid. However, there were packages for Python 3. Beta and RC versions, to be sure, but there were packages. The problem was that while the base Python 3 package installs just fine, there seems to be no compatible Tkinter package. No Tkinter, no IDLE. Since the book I’m revising makes some mention of IDLE, this was a deal-breaker for me.

Back to the source

So out of necessity, I figured out how to make source installs of Python 3 and Python 2.6 (mostly) happy on Ubuntu 8.10. If you’re familiar with compiling from source on Linux/UNIX, just grab the packages listed below and get to it. OTOH, if you’re new to compiling, I’ve given more complete directions below…

General Prerequisites

In general, you need the following packages installed before you try to build Python from source:

  1. build-essential – the compiler and tools to build pretty much anything.
  2. libsqlite3-dev libreadline5-dev libncurses5-dev zlib1g-dev libbz2-dev libssl-dev libgdbm-dev and tk-dev – these packages (and their dependencies) are needed to build various Python libraries. Note that you need the “-dev” versions. Having libsqlite3 installed, for example, won’t be enough to build the Python libraries.

If you’re already at a terminal prompt the fast way to handle the above is:
doc@x60:~$ sudo apt-get install build-essential libsqlite3-dev libreadline5-dev libncurses5-dev zlib1g-dev libbz2-dev libssl-dev libgdbm-dev tk-dev

If you installed the Python 3 Ubuntu packages, you should uninstall them before going on.

Installing Python 3.0

  1. First you need to get the Python 3.0 source from – choose either of the compressed source tarballs and save to your home directory (or other convenient spot).(For the following steps you need to be in a terminal window)
  2. The next step is to unpack the tarball – switch to the folder where you saved the tarball and…

    doc@x60:~$ tar xvf Python-3.0.tgz
  3. The tarball should be unpacked into a folder called Python-3.0, so switch there…

    doc@x60:~$ cd Python-3.0
  4. There are 3 steps to compiling from source – configuring the package, compiling, and then installing. You configure the source package with the configure command;doc@x60:~/Python-3.0$ ./configure (the “./” is important here)

    This command checks your system and sets up the correct options for the build. It should end with a statement “Creating Makefile”. If there are errors instead, they must be fixed before you go any further.

  5. The compile step is pretty easy – you give the “make” command:

    doc@x60:~/Python-3.0$ make

    The make command will take some time, since it has to compile everything. Again, if the make ends with an error, you must fix the error to go on.

  6. The install step is the big one, since it actually puts  Python 3 on your system. By default Python 3.0 will not replace your existing Python, so it’s safe to go for it:

    doc@x60:~/Python-3.0$ sudo make install

    You need to use sudo because the install will try to place the files in spots where a normal user doesn’t have access – by default under /usr/local/.

After this, you should have python3.0 and idle3.0 available from the commandline. Creating menu entries,shortcuts, etc, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.