Dumb Hiring Shibboleths

— 3 minute read

A shibboleth is any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another. Shibboleths have been used throughout history in many societies as passwords, simple ways of self-identification, signaling loyalty and affinity, maintaining traditional segregation, or protecting from real or perceived threats.


(I'm going to use development as the example here. The same applies to UX, Product Management, etc. The shibboleths are different. The bad practice is the same.)

Getting more than a little cross with people who turn the way they became a developer into some kind of magic shibboleth on who can code well.

Yeah - I grew up on little eight-bit microcomputers when I was a kid. Typing in programs from magazines and hand-assembling code.

But guess what…

It’s not the 1980s anymore. Not everybody did, can, or should learn development that way.

I know great developers who started off hacking their myspace pages.

Great developers who started off by messing with neopets.

Great developers who started off by wanting to add a contact page to their boyfriend's band's website.

Great developers with CS, Maths, and Engineering degrees.

Great developers with History, English, and Philosophy degrees.

Great developers without any degrees.

Great developers who started off via a bootcamp.

Great developers who learned out of books.

Great developers who learned on the job.

Great developers who are lousy at maths & abstract logic puzzles.

Great developers who came from manual testing.

Great developers who started when they were a kid.

Great developers who never touched a computer until they were in their 30s and 40s.

Great developers who spend their spare time hacking on open source and side projects.

Great developers don't touch a computer outside work.

Great developers who never play computer games.

Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

So if you're looking to recruit great developers — or folk who can turn into great developers — and discard people who don't have active github pages, or play computer games, or whatever other category you think separates "real" developers from the wannabes then you are filtering out great developers.

You don't have a pipeline problem. You have a "don't realise people can be good at the same thing you are without having an identical background to you" problem.

Being exacerbated by the great developers you didn't even look at — or dismissed for foolish reasons — mocking you in all the communities where great developers who aren't exactly like you hang out.

Which sucks.

What sucks even more is the problem is so easy to start fixing.

(This post is a version of a twitter rant from last year. It has more swears in. It makes me sad this topic comes around every few months as regular as clockwork.)