Tech Stories: A Conversation With Randal Schwartz

If you’ve never heard of Randal Schwartz, you’ve probably never had to deal with Perl. But if you’re an experienced Perl programmer there’s a good chance you would have run into this guy’s name at some point in your career. He’s one of the original Perl gods and famous (or infamous) for the Schwartzian Transform. Of course, there’s other aspects he’s well known for but the main thing is his skills with Perl. Years ago at the race parts company, we managed to get a phone conversation with him one night as part of our little OC Perl Meetup specials.

Now, if you’ve never done a meetup with some god of your technology, you should make a try for one. Getting various veteran programmers and people with the same passion for that technology will provide new insight that goes beyond work.  If anything, you should do it simply to make yourself a better technologist.

At any rate, my company every month would host a Perl event and it was great for getting a known person. So Randal Schwartz was a real treat because on top of being an expert on Perl, he does stand up, making his talks quite a hoot. I can’t remember the questions we asked him but I do recall addressing some code from one of the O’Reily Perl books. The specifics escape me but the gist was how there were multiple ways of handling this block of code as with Perl typically. Randal Scwartz’s response is one that would stick with me for the rest of my career:

This is why I have 15 years of experience (at that time) and you do not.

Back then it kinda made sense to me. Now, it totally makes sense. What that 15 (or however arbitrary number of years) of coding experience really is about is the natural instinct you, as the developer, gain in doing things over and over. These days, I know when I can be strict on myself vs when I can be loose. We all want in our hearts to write perfect and elegant code (at least those who care) but not every situation can afford that luxury. Sometimes I have to be sloppy or succinct when I need to achieve something quickly. It really depends on the situation. But as someone who has done this for numerous years, I have that instinct for knowing when and why to do something.

There’s a great quote from Arn Anderson who talked about his opinion of pro-wrestling. Arn may not have been the top wrestler in the world, but he was a seasoned veteran. He (paraphrased) stated that his 15-20 years of working in the business allowed him to earn that opinion of what the business is. As someone who has paid his dues in this industry trying to improve himself at every opportunity, I feel the same way. That quote by Randal Schwartz is another version of what Arn Anderson meant.

Part of the reason I bring this up today is that I’ve been conducting interviews with various candidates. What’s surprising is those who consider themselves at a senior level. Some people use a number to determine whether or not they’re a senior. Another might point at how much concrete knowledge one has. In my case, I feel that the more I know, the less I know and that only by having a constant state of doubt, hunger and self-awareness paired with that gut instinct you develop over time, can one call themselves a true senior.

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