I was listening to the Shop Talk podcast (one of my favorites) recently and I heard guest Lara Hogan talk about the importance of contributing to other code repositories and how it is something employers should be looking for when considering a potential developer new hire. To expand on this, I think there are other ways (perhaps more effective) to gauge a potential hire's passion and skills. Lara certainly doesn't say this is more important than other aspects of developer marketability and I'm certainly not criticizing her opinion or expertise as she's incredibly brilliant and accomplished (which you already know if you follow web pioneers.) However, it did remind me of the seemingly prominent industry opinion: "As a developer, you need to be contributing to code repositories regularly." Let me set the foundational assumption before getting into my opinion on this.
I understand that the workforce demands talent, but do we really need to be deeply invested outside of our 9 to 5 in order to come across as valuable? Do we really need to "live and dream" code in order to be a valued part of the workforce? I don't think so.
When I think of contributing to public code repositories, I think of it as doing work outside of work. I've worked as a professional front-end developer for almost ten years. I think of it as my job that I very much enjoy. I've been chest-deep in code for the majority of my work days. Since I have other interests outside of tech, the last thing I want to do when I get home is to write more code!
The other issue I have with placing importance on code repository contributions is that it doesn't necessarily represent one's experience with the medium. I've contributed to tons of git and svn repositories but they are all private due to the nature of the work and corporate policies.
Don't get me wrong, I agree with the idea that an individual's activity in the community and code contributions are good ways to gauge their interest level and passion for the craft. It can also be a direct way to get a sense for their coding skills. But it's not the only way and shouldn't weigh so much.
So then, from an employer's perspective, how do you know if the potential new hire has the skills and passion required for the role? My answer is simple: talk to them.
Having a great conversation can reveal intangible contributions (E.G. Are they easy to work with and bring good energy to the team?) in addition to the tangibles (E.G. code and work samples, references.) If I were in a position to hire a developer, I would ask questions about how they would handle different situations. Perhaps even frame it in a way that asks them to tell a story. For example, I may ask, "Merge conflicts can be a huge pain in the ass! Tell me one of your horror stories and how you and your team handled it." This question not only reveals one's expertise with the technology but also how they would interact with the team and problem-solve. It also reveals a lot about their personality and you may get a good story out of it (Bonus!)
From my perspective, I love building things. I love reading about how the development and design spaces are evolving. I love writing code and building websites and apps. However, these are not my only interests. I also love playing music and spend a lot of my free time furthering those endeavors. So you won't see contributions to public repositories in my portfolio (although, you will see my experiment/playground space on Codepen.) You won't see links to public forums where I've contributed to epic discussions about moving the web forward (although I do have many thoughts and opinions on that.) What you will see in my portfolio are insightful takes on my experiences, thoughts about the state of the web, and the end-results and role descriptions of most projects that I've been lucky enough to work on.
I strongly feel that allowing my brain to be engaged in endeavors outside of the realm of tech actually improves the quality of my work. I'm not talking about hobbyist level engagement. I'm taking about having another craft of which I am completely immersed. It also helps that my artistic craft happens to involve skills that compliment and enhance my career craft. For this, I'm extremely grateful and lucky.
I believe whether you spend your life in code, or if you write code during the day and beat loudly on a drumkit at night, you have value. You have a place somewhere. In my opinion, regardless of how many hours you put into your craft per day, the ultimate way to gauge passion and expertise is to simply ask the right questions.
While passion and expertise are important when considering a new-hire, I feel potential is even more important. In my humble viewpoint, potential is defined by how you learn things, not what you already know.
Photo Credit: Anthony Norkus