General: HOWTO: Spotting the Low-Level Techie
Posted on 2011-11-13 @ 20:42:32 by r00t

I frequently visit and read an atheist and science-oriented blog called Pharyngula. Not too long back, Pharyngula moved from ScienceBlogs to its new host at Freethought Blogs. Earlier this week, there was a server upgrade, and things got wonky; comments went missing, comments were assigned to the wrong posting, etc. PZ is understandably upset and exasperated. On that blog posting, one of the commenters, ColonelZen, posed a question that I thought I would try to answer, one that I have been asked in the past. My answer may not be the greatest, and it might act as a chainsaw where a scalpel is needed - but sometimes, drastic surgery is the only real option to getting the answers needed...

@ColonelZen posted the following:

As a low level techie I can, after a bit of tech discussion, tell whether Im talking to someone of similar (or rarely better) skill than I at that low level stuff. But if I could tell a non-techie how to identify that kind of techie, Id write *the* book that corporate suits in tech dependent industries (all of them now) have wet dreams about and retire to a Caribbean beach.

My answer:

Depending on the "non-techie" and how willing they are to do a bit of research, that could be easy - just ask the prospective candidate a few questions:

  1. Who was the first computer programmer, and what was she "famous" for (ie - importance to computer history)? (two possible answers here, only one of which is truly correct IMHO)
  2. Who was Claude Shannon, and why are his theories important today?
  3. What kind of minimal logic feature is necessary for the development of a Turing-complete machine?
  4. Can you describe (schematic) or build that feature, using simple mechanical components?
  5. Have you ever dreamed in code - and did your code compile after you awoke and implemented it?
  6. What's the lowest level form of programming you have done, and why did you need to do it?
  7. What are your hobbies? What do you think about when not thinking about computer problems?

Items 1 and 2 are history questions; IMHO, you aren't worth your salt if you don't know your history (especially the answer for number 2; very relevant for the internet and networking). Number 3 shows how much said techie really knows about the underlying hardware of computation - or whether it is a "magic black-box" to them. They should be able to answer in affirmative number 4 if they got number 3 right. Numbers 5 and 6 show how dedicated they are to software development; there isn't necessarily a "correct" answer to these, but the answers might reveal interesting insights into their person.

Finally, for number 7, if they answer anything but "I am always thinking about computers and/or computer problems, and how to solve them", you might want to find another candidate. Maybe it's a bit unfair, but typically the best in the tech world tend to be so dedicated to the craft, that to not be thinking about such is an anathema - it is almost completely unthinkable.

I am sure more than a few here (perhaps even yourself) could rattle off all the answers to these questions without needing to google any of them; I don't consider any of them to be particularly difficult.

I'm not giving away any answers here (I think the hint for number 1 is more than generous), but how many can you answer without looking (be honest!)? Leave your answers in the comments if you want...

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