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My friend has 15 years of programming experience and Ph.D. in mathematics. He has also cerebral palsy with speech impairment. Because of his handicap, he chose to being a software developer after his Ph.D. As far as I can see, he is still an excellent c# developer.

Nowadays, however, he has hard time to find a job for himself because most of developer jobs require good communication skills. Looking at him struggling so much, do I have to advise him software industry is not suitable for him any more? It will be extremely difficult for me to do that to the friend but I think it would be better than making him wasting his time.

What do you think?

Update: Thanks a lot for your excellent answers. I can see most answers recommend against my advice and I really really hope you guys are right. In reality, however, he has been rejected in 100 or so phone interviews. That's where I want to be a potential bad adviser rather than a politically right friend.

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I'm not sure anything you say to a guy with 15 years programming experience will deter him. –  mowwwalker Sep 14 '11 at 6:39
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I believe it is dangerous to conflate "speaking" with "communication skills." –  Macneil Sep 14 '11 at 11:38
    
This is a hard question to answer. One his speech impairment shouldn't affect his ability to be hired. While he might not be able to speak as clearly or as quickly as somebody without his impairment he certainly could write to other developers on his team. Communication is not limited to speech. Stop giving your friend bad advice. –  Ramhound Sep 14 '11 at 13:10
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What vocations do you recommend more? Every job requires communication, and in software you can do much of your communication with your fingers. Most vocations require more talking, not less. –  Eric Wilson Sep 14 '11 at 14:27
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With that same attitude... I"m sure Stephen Hawkins should give up his line of work because of how hard it is to communicate the theory of everything in his current state. Same can be said for Albert Einstein and other people with disabilities: hcdg.org/famous.htm –  WernerCD Sep 14 '11 at 15:16

13 Answers 13

up vote 28 down vote accepted

What do you think?

I think that each team can take a person with speech impairment with a positive net effect. I would consider incapability to handle one such person in a team as either a management or an ethical failure.

Just take a look around. Both PhD and college graduates, good or mediocre programmers have problems with communicating their thoughts. But a lot of what we call "communication problems" arise from the inefficiency of development processes. If a person has to "communicate" (i.e. "chat") with his peers a lot to make the development of the softwarerocess progress without failures, then there's something wrong with the process.

Efficient communication is not an eloquent blah-blah-blah or an ability to make a small talk easily. It's conveying information to others in a precise and concise manner. How well a person pronounces words is not the most important part in it; more important is how well he or she thinks.

Moreover, I'm sure that a person with a speech impairment knows the price of each word, and wouldn't toss up a lot of them. Isn't it what they call "communication skills"?

No, I can't actually give you any advice (edited). Personally, I would prefer a badly speaking peer to a less clever one, because I'm sure that an effort into setting up a way to communicate with less words would pay the team back. But I never had to make a hiring decision in my life, and the world may be just unnecessarily harsh sometimes...

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+1 for "and the world may be just unnecessarily harsh sometimes" You're also right about everything else –  Bojan Kogoj Sep 14 '11 at 9:56
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+1 I have a friend (from school) and colleague who stutters lightly. If anything it improved his communication: people tend to listen to him, rather than having side discussions, whenever he speaks. –  Matthieu M. Sep 14 '11 at 15:20

I'm sure the speech impediment is making things harder for him in his job search (especially interviewing). However I think software development is still where he belongs (I mean, 15 years experience!) so I wouldn't advise him to try elsewhere; I would just commiserate with him over the definitely tough job market.

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In reality, however, he has been rejected in 100 or so phone interviews.

Perhaps what he needs to do is tell people up front that he has a speech impediment and that it would be better to do the intial screening in person.

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My friend has 15 years of programming experience and Ph.D. in mathematics.

With that much experience and a Ph.D., I could imagine some companies wondering, "Geeesh, how expensive will this guy be?" which may prevent him for getting some opportunities. Has he considered going back into academia? Another point is whether he is looking to work as an employee or a contractor? The latter may be preferable in terms of using that experience to show, "Hey, I got stuff done in the past and I still do it well," in a sense.

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Well, there's two things I'd like to point out:

  • There's far less people out there with great programming skills, than with good communication skills. Your friend is a rare resource. Communication only adds value, if you communicate great solutions. Coming up with great solutions requires great skills. If a solution is really great, than "mediocre" skills suffice to understand it. Even sometimes it speaks for itself.
  • Having great communication skills involves also being a great listener. So somebody with great communication skills should easily be able to compensate for your friend's limitation.

I think your friend should strive to find a work place, where people really value skills and engage in a dialogue to understand, instead of throwing stuff at each other. Such places are rarer and treasured. However with his background, it sounds like he might qualify above average.

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He may not be able to become a Project Manager, but I think in the age of Electronic Communication it won't be tough for him to be a Software Developer. 90% of the communications happen via emails, even with clients too!

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One can be a good programmer with speech impairment.

Unfortunately, speech impairment could be an obstacle to being hired in almost any type of job because of unjustified biases and as mentioned above lack of management skills and relaxed ethical standards.

All things being equal then, your friend is better off looking for a job where his skills and experience are most relevant.

Having said that, generally speaking, every job seeker who has been on the market for a while (even for reasons such as a weak market) should be open minded about his prospects and alternative career options.

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I am not being flippant - the PhD can be as much of a handicap. This is, in my experience, often a warning sign that the applicant has a very narrow view. They may be the world expert on sorting integers but have no idea when it comes to sorting strings.

I would however love to have another good, experienced programmer to add to the team. If I could rely on him/her to take a specification (assuming that we can beat one out of the marketing department) and run with it to get a product to delivery then I would be very happy.

The real difficulty is to communicate at the interview, to get the hiring company to see the passion, ability and experience that is on offer.

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I have a PhD, and it's never been a problem while interviewing. Also your opinion about the narrow views of people holding doctorates is, well... a very narrow view. –  quant_dev Sep 14 '11 at 16:39
    
Achieving a PhD degree has nothing to do with a narrow view but rather the ability to focus. –  blubb Sep 14 '11 at 16:55
    
I wonder if anyone will use this opportunity to brag about having a PhD under the guise of criticizing this answer? –  user29776 Sep 14 '11 at 19:34

No, a speech impairment is in no way a reason not to go into programming.

Communication is important, but it is not restricted to verbal communication.

Back in 1986/87 I worked with someone who had cerebral palsy and, amongst others, a speech impairment. I got used to his way of speaking soon enough. For the most time we had no difficulties at all in our communication. On the few occassions when it did become difficult, we simply switch to writing or drawing. On a whiteboard, notepad, or whatever was at hand.

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+1 for sharing an actual fact –  Adrian Sep 14 '11 at 14:11

For a programmer with 15 years of programming experience and and Ph.D(irrespective of the subject) communication should not hinder in anyways. Even Bill Gates was lagged behind in the communication skills department....

Even if your fried has incapability to communicate there are many other ways nowadays to communicate....Most of the companies use the chat system to communicate within peers that does not require ant speech skills...

Its always the Programming Skills that Matters!!!

The Company he went to might not be interested in his programming skills. The company should be smart enough to know that there are less chances that person with 15 years of experience in programming would goof up than to a new programmer with rich vocab and high end communication skills...

Although after a certain level efficient communication skills are necessary for the fruitful and coordinated development of the company and the peers.

Your friend should not lose hope and you should never advise him to leave the programming field something that he has mastered over the years.

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<cynical>no, its the communication skills that matter. if everyone does enough communication in the team, the product will spawn out of thin air</cynical> –  keppla Sep 14 '11 at 7:05

I am going to make the assumption that your friend does not have a lack of communication skills. Instead he has a lack of communication capability. This shouldn't be a problem in the field of software programming since there are many alternatives to spoken word communication from email and chat to pictures and diagrams. If your friend has the skills and knowledgeto perform the task then his slightly limited communications options should not be a hindrance.

Any company or client that uses such an excuse is looking for a reason in the first place and has questionable practices in my opinion.

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depending on jurisdiction, even illegal practices –  jk. Sep 14 '11 at 8:17

I don't see any issue with lack of communication skills coming in way of a good programmer. Though, it adds value but it's not the sole criteria. If he is uncomfortable, he can state this is in his interview and ask for a job where he is not required to confront the client.

Federico idea of working as an independent developer is also good. He can visit sites like odesk , Elance and make a good out of it.

As far as i know Bill Gates was not at confronting people in early years either and still lacks bit of magic for words. But, still he is the first name that comes to our mind when we talk about computer. John Nash is another example. The point is that you can't make these small things rule your life.

A good programmer is made out of passion. You can't ask him to leave his passion and do other things. Suggest him the ways to lesser the fear of communication but don't ask him to quit because he won't succeed in other fields.

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He could always work on his own. If his programming skills are so strong I find it unfair he has to renounce to his passion because of his handicap.

Communication doesn't just happen by spoken words.

If he's as good as you tell, he won't have problems finding clients online, where nobody needs to know about his impairment.

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