What do you do in your spare time?

A post at the Canadian Developer Connection blog last week caught my eye. Joey deVilla posted about something he had read at the Harvard Business blog related to interview questions. In both posts you learn about Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely made an emergency landing in the Hudson river last month. What does “Sully” do in his spare time? Anything and everything related to aviation, apparently. As a result, both posts argue that the most important interview question to ask, is:

“What do you do in your spare time?”

I couldn’t agree more. People who are excellent at their jobs are probably passionate about what they do, and spend more time and energy on things related to their area of expertise/interest than the average person. My experience with software development definitely backs this up. The best developers are usually the ones who go home and work on a hobby project after they’re done with the “day job”. There are exceptions, of course, but as a general rule I think you need to practice your craft outside of work to be good at it.

I’m currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and right near the beginning of the book he argues the same point. Practice makes perfect. He estimates you need to spend 10,000 hours practicing something to truly master it. Gladwell uses The Beatles, Bill Joy, and Bill Gates as examples, and argues that in addition to their hard work it was a series of fortunate events that made it possible for them to spend about 10,000 hours practicing, and that’s what truly made them successful.

Every time I look at a resume, I look for the “extra” stuff. In the case of a developer, I look for programming competitions, contributions to open source projects, anything outside of school and work. It’s amazing how few mention anything like that.

I want to see passion, and by extension, practice!

5 thoughts on “What do you do in your spare time?

  1. I see your point, but the counterargument is that employers also want to see that you are well rounded person and express other outside interests so that you can relate to clients easily.

  2. She’s right. And it also depends on what you’re doing, because there are professions where it is difficult to do something closely related to your job outside of your working hours.

  3. Outliers is quite an interesting book and the contention that expertise is gained through hard work is true. (Gates also had the advantage of being from a wealthy family and he had strong business mentors in his early years.)

    The spare time question has its limits though. The developer you hire today (and I’ve hired many over the years) may be the go-to designer, architect and team lead you need in the future. Today, those types might NOT spend their spare time programming. Rather they might enjoy creative pursuits, handy-man projects or coaching youth sports teams — all of which could be useful activities that support their future positions…

  4. As the saying goes. Practice makes it perfect.

    I have not Outlier yet, but I assume that in addition to spending 10,000 hours, the book also mention that you must spend it in as short of time as possible. For example. If you spend 10,000 hours but took 15 years to go do it, I assure you you only be “okay” compared to somone who spends 10,000 in 6 years. This is referred to intensity.

    For high performance atheletes, this is well understood. World class atheletes train many hours with very little if any break in between.

    Mixed the above with a bit of luck and one gets a high probability of achieving success.

  5. True enough Megan – some professions are indeed hard to practice. There are always aspects of it that can be practiced, however.

    Good point Mike. It depends on whether or not I’m looking for a star today, or for the future.

    I haven’t finished Outliers yet, and I don’t recall him outright saying intensity is important, but I think you’re right Steven.

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