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5 in 5! interview with Benjamin Pollack of Fog Creek Software

June 22, 2011

fog creek software logo 5 in 5! interview with Benjamin Pollack of Fog Creek Software

Fog Creek Software is a small company based in New York that inspires to help the world’s best developers make better software. They’ve created developer tools such as the FogBugz bug tracker and the Kiln distributed source control system.

Benjamin Pollack joined as an intern himself back in 2005, where he developed Fog Creek Copilot from scratch with three other interns. Today, he runs Kiln, Fog Creek’s revolutionary Mercurial-backed distributed version control system.

5IN5benjaminpollack 5 in 5! interview with Benjamin Pollack of Fog Creek Software

Benjamin Pollack, Kiln Team Lead

Q: What do you look for when you hire an intern?

A: Our adage has always been simple: be smart and get things done. Our interviews generally focus on how well the candidate can code, but we’re not really that focused on any one language or technology or anything; we’re just focusing on whether the candidate can solve problems with programming. We realize that any given piece of technical knowledge goes out-of-date really quickly in this industry, so finding someone that has the ability to learn and apply that knowledge is much more useful than someone who just happens to know a given stack. Plus, by actively solving new problems in the interview, we can test the candidate’s communication skills, which are important in any profession.

2. How did you get started in the industry? How can I get started?

A: Programming, like math, art, and a few other things, is something that you can get into when you’re a kid. I did a lot of programming growing up just for fun. When I got to college, I had a great leg up on a lot of my classmates as a result: I had a lot more just raw experience programming, and I had a much bigger toolbox to go to when I was trying to figure out how to do something. This ended up making it pretty easy for me to get into the industry.

Nowadays, I’d suggest much the same thing: if you’re really interested in programming, start learning how to program now. Especially with so many major open-source projects, where the code for the program is publicly available and publicly developed, it’s easier than ever to be contributing to something meaningful even before you have any formal schooling. Take advantage of it, see if you like it, and if you do, get involved.

3. What is the future of your industry?

A: I think we’re all trying to figure that out right now. A lot of amazing stuff is going into fully integrated solutions, like what Apple’s making, where a single company controls all the software and all the hardware and provides a single “experience” to customers. A lot of amazing stuff is also going into just making computing totally pervasive, like what Google is doing, where the whole concept of a computer is gradually replaced by the concept of a wide range of devices that all happen to be on the internet. I don’t think anyone knows how those visions will play out; it’s just clear that things are changing from the old Microsoft-style way of writing shrink-wrapped software to sell in a store to something else that’s a bit more transparent.

Q: What is the one main thing an intern can do to make a favorable impression? To make a negative impression?

A: The best thing an intern can do to make a quick favorable impression is to indicate on the first day that they’ve done at least some research into what they’re going to be doing. That shows up in a whole bunch of ways: asking better questions about the product, having a better idea where to dive in to actually be genuinely helpful, requiring a bit less explanation of what something means. Long-run, any good intern will get to the same place, but it makes a great impression if you’re there first.

The worst thing that they can do? We’ve had interns come in who spend their first day insulting our products and talking about how they’re going to fix it themselves. While we’re definitely not perfect, the level of arrogance required to come in and believe that you can fix it, before you even understand why it works the way it does, leaves a horrible taste in my mouth and bodes very badly.

Q: Give us a positive intern story? An intern horror story?

A: One of the best intern stories we’ve had was an intern who came back two summers in a row. The first summer, he was a great guy, but he was still trying to get a handle on programming. A lot of his stuff was interesting, but, to be honest, really weak. But the thing is, he put in a tremendous amount of effort into honing his craft over that first summer, until by the end, he was doing amazing work. The next summer, he’d kept getting better, and started off right at the beginning delivering work on par with a full-time employee. We’ve asked him to come back full-time when he finishes school next year. I sincerely hope he does.

I don’t really want to talk too much about the best intern horror story I’ve got. Suffice it to say that smoking tremendous amounts of pot and only putting in four hours a day will not endear you to your employer.

Think you have what it takes to intern at Fog Creek? Get up to speed on their latest projects by reading their blog.

Benjamin Pollack joined Fog Creek as an intern himself back in 2005, where he developed Fog Creek Copilot from scratch with three other interns. Today, he runs Kiln, Fog Creek’s revolutionary Mercurial-backed distributed version control system.

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