Where did all the PHP programmers go?

During the last six month or so, I’ve been looking to hire a PHP programmer for at least three companies.  I have spoken to quite a few people on the phone, reviewed a bunch of resumes, and even interviewed a few.  Out of all those candidates I recommended to hire exactly zero.

Before you start bashing my high standards, let me explain.  I wasn’t looking for a rocket scientist or anything remotely similar.  Not even a senior PHP developer.  Someone with enough knowledge to take over maintenance of a couple of projects, both of which are based on famous open source software – CakePHP and WordPress.

I can understand that not everyone have worked with or even heard of CakePHP or WordPress.  I can understand that getting used to that source code and going through documentation might need some time.  I can understand that not everyone is familiar with open source software development model and that not everyone has worked in groups, so familiarity with version control software, documentation tools, and bug tracking was never a requirement.

What I cannot understand is why a person who have (according to him) developed more than two dozens of web projects with PHP and MySQL cannot write the simplest piece of code with pen and pencil.  What I cannot undertand is how a “senior web developer” with years of PHP experience and team leading becomes useless when his Dreamweaver is taken away.  What I cannot understand is why people with more than one Bachelor Degree in Computer Science recommend using bubble sort.  What I cannot understand is why programmers start teaching the potential employer about the interviewing process instead of answering technical questions.  And what I don’t understand is why technical people with years of team work, get pissed off or burst into tears when you ask them a technical question, and a simple one at that, during the job interview.

If you are wondering what sort of questions I’ve been asking, here is an example.  A simple questions would be something like: “What is the difference between the stack (also known as FILO) and the queue (also known as pipe, also known as FIFO)?“.  Most of the answer is already in the questions, isn’t it?

Those of the candidates who were boasting about their years of experience and prevoius projects, were given a simple programming task, which could be something like: “Using PHP programming language, create a list to store information about people.  For each person you’ll need to store name, age, and gender. Populate the list with three sample records.  Then, print out an alphabetically sorted list of names of all males in that list. Bonus points for not using the database.“.  Each candidate was given a piece of paper, a pen, and unlimited amount of time.  And in the last six month I haven’t seen one candidate who could write the code to solve that problem.

We’ve been through all job sites, newspapers, local and foreign forums, and recruiting agencies, trying to find the candiate.  We haven’t found even one.  At least three are needed right now.  More will be needed in the nearest future.

Hopefully, by now you will agree with me on that the situation with the human resources on the island of Cyprus is disastrous.  There is more demand than there is supply, and it’s not getting any better.

Those of you who argue in favour of Cyprus being a small, unimportant country in the middle of technological nowhere, might want to wait.  Last year I’ve been in Greece at the Greek Blogger Camp.  This year I’ve been in Amsterdam at The Next Web Conference.  At both events I’ve chatted with a lot of people from all over Europe and the USA.  I’ve also been all over forums and job web sites both local and foreign.  And the feeling I’ve got is that the problem is not Cyprus specific, although, of course, Cyprus has it a bit worse than others, due to its position in the technology world, as well as geographical location.

While still spending a lot of time looking for a PHP programmer, I was thinking about the roots of the problem.  PHP seems to be quite a popular language.  So, why is it such a problem to find a good PHP programmer? (note: “good”, not “great” or even “very good”) Thinking about the roots of the problem, I got this theory, which isn’t even a theory yet, but rather a raw chain of assumptions and conclusions.  Here is how it goes.

PHP is an ugly language

I know a few good programmers personally.  I also read blogs and comments of a few more good programmes on the Web.  And even though many of them use PHP often, or even on a daily basis, I don’t remember anyone of them every saying that they enjoy PHP.  If given the choice of a programming language for a new project, they’ll pick anything – Java, C, Python, Perl, Ruby, Haskell… Anything, but not PHP. PHP has its pros, but being a beautiful or convenient language is not one of them.

PHP is newbie safe

One of the reasons for why PHP is so popular is because it is newbie safe.  You don’t need to know much about anything to start programming in PHP.  Most of the hosting companies will provide you with a PHP enabled hosting account for just a few dollars a month.  You can write PHP in any text editor, so you won’t need a high end machine or expensive IDE.  PHP.net web site has all the documentation and examples that you’ll ever need, so you don’t need to study hard in college or pay for subscription to developers’ network.  All of these make PHP very attractive to beginner programmers.

PHP avoidance

Most of the good programmers that I know, have learned PHP to some degree.   Most of the bad programmers that I know, have also learned PHP to some degree.  But for good programmers PHP was either not the first programming language under their belt, or they’ve moved forward to some other programming language.  Most of the bad programmers that I know, only know one programming language – PHP – and they don’t know it good enough.  So, for good programmers, learning and using PHP is more like a temporary state, while for the bad programmers using PHP is more like a constant state.

PHP is rich with secondary reasons

There are many reasons for why PHP is so popular.  It is free.  It is open source.  It is easy to setup.  Most hosting companies offer PHP-enabled packages, as well as a lot of PHP software pre-installed.

With primary technical reasons (execution speeds, required resources, development speed, etc) not being very different from many other programming languages, PHP wins a lot of popularity with its secondary powers.

PHP is getting mature

PHP started off as a handy Perl library for web development.  It grew and expanded over time.  And so did the projects which were written in PHP.  If, before, most of PHP scripts were doing the simplest of things, such as contact and registration forms, visitor counters and some templating, then now most projects are closer to full scale applications with user management, financial operations, high availability and load balancing setups, etc.

The moment of conflict

And here comes the moment of conflict.  The complexity of PHP applications is growing higher and higher (see above).  And the language is not beautiful enough to attract good programmers and make them stay (see above).  The result?  More and more applications are written by underqualified programmers, and it becomes harder and harder to find qualified personnel (the complexity of your own projects are growing too).

Questions?

How can we attract good programmers to PHP development?  What are really the reasons for using PHP all that often, if it shares the biggest problem with the other languages – impossibility of finding qualified personnel.  Is there any other programming language that can solve this problem?  Is there any solution at all?

Solutions

These, of course, I don’t have, as usual.  But.  I am looking with interest at hosted application services.  The ones like from Amazon and Google.  I think these will mature of the next few month and years.  And there will be a few more (Yahoo, Microsoft, and IBM maybe?).

The way I see hosted application services is like this.  They will split the programmers into two categories.  The first category will be all those novice programmers, who don’t know how or don’t have the resources to take care of everything.  They’ll be using hosting, databases, libraries, and programming interfaces provided by hosting application services. (Of course, good programmers will be using these too, but they will have a choice, not like the newbies).  Hosted application services will (not yet though) make it easy to cover the ignorance and help to make a few bucks here and there.  Exactly like PHP has been doing it for years now.  The good programmers though will mostly participate in in-house projects and customization developments, which won’t be fitting into hosted application services, and will require additional knowledge and experience.

Summary

If you are a PHP developer looking for a job in Cyprus, please let me know.