You have the right to see code samples in an interview

Joel Spolsky writes about 12 steps to better code, and elsewhere about how candidates should write code in interviews.

The reverse conditions are true, too. If you’re a candidate, you should evaluate the employer against the 12 steps, and you should also see code samples. How else will you know what you’re getting into? You really have the right to do this, and you should exercise the right. If you don’t, you’ll get stuck in a crap job maintaining crap code. [dramatic voice] It happened to me.

In many companies, you can see code they’ve released as open-source. (The fact that they’ve done this says a lot about them.) But in others, you’re going to need to surprise someone and say “pick some code that’s not sensitive and show it to me.” Something simple, like the HTML for the search form on their website, or a utility to do some systems administration task. Any company is going to have a lot of code like this that they can show you.

The other approaches I see are to ask about it, assume, or ask the interviewer to write some code for you.

  1. Asking is a valid approach. If you see hesitation, or if someone says “well, it’s not as nice as we’d like, and we’re hoping you will offset that” run don’t walk, is my advice. If you’re reading this as you consider your first job out of college or something, I strongly suggest not getting a job with a company that wants you to improve the way they do things. You should be learning from them, not vice versa.
  2. You can also assume. “Oh, they use Perl? Nevermind.” That’s a stupid approach. Really. Is it acceptable to judge people’s character by the color of their skin? Then why would you judge their code by the language? In all seriousness, I have actually written very elegant, clean VBScript. And I mean, good-quality code by anyone’s standards. It’s hard in VBScript. It’s easy in Perl if you follow the Dog, which is a sign of great intelligence. Think about it this way: people who write beautiful Perl are people you should be eager to work with; they are rocket scientists. You will be the dumbest person in the room, and that should make you happy.
  3. I’ve never asked an interviewer to write code for me. Let me know how it works out for you.

I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.