TechHui

Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

I recently responded to a posting on craigslist (http://honolulu.craigslist.org/oah/sof/1228743261.html) looking for a software engineer to work in exchange for equity in the company, on a project that would provide what they believed to be a unique new service for websites. In my reply to them I asked some questions about the project such as how it would differ from similar services (such as those already offered by Google and others), what their target customer was, how much of the underlying algorithms were already defined, and similar questions.

These all seemed like reasonable questions, given the fact that they were basically looking for a "partner" (paid by equity in the company) and that the success of the project, and therefore any possible income to me, would depend entirely on the true potential of the product and whether they really knew their customers and how to market it to them.

Their response frankly blew me away. They said:

"From a marketing perspective, we are not inviting input or commentary from any potential programmers. In fact, for any potential programmer to harbor qualms, doubts, and/or opinions regarding the marketing aspect of this project would unneccesarily belabor and cloud an already daunting task. If we wanted marketing advice or personnel we would advertise for such."

When I pointed out that anyone taking equity in such a company would of course have questions and concerns about every aspect of the project and the organization, and that most companies would welcome employees who took a sincere interest in the overall success of the company their response was, well, unprintable. Suffice it to say they called me some pretty nasty names.

So, my question for the TechHui crowd: Am I being unreasonable in expecting to get answers to questions about the overall project or should a programmer simply "shut up and code", as this company seems to expect, or are there actually companies who value engineers who look beyond the immediate task at hand and truly take an interest in the viability of the company, especially when the programming is postponing immediate pay for potential future reward through an equity stake in the company?

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Roger,

Don't sweat it. Most of those "Equity-Stake" projects are First-Timers who just want a cheap (free) programmer to come in and build a solution -- without breaking the bank should the idea fail.

My basic litmus test to weed out the First-Time posers from the Brilliant Businessmen: A good lawyer, and a well-written (yet mutually fair) Non-Disclosure Agreement executed before the first face-to-face meeting. If they haven't found a good lawyer to draft a solid NDA, they don't have their stuff together yet.

Any "partner" or boss who expects you to just "shut up and code" isn't worth the time of day. Unless you're in a financial pinch, I'd say keep searching for better opportunities. Your questions are absolutely valid as a potential partner in such a venture -- don't ever let anyone under-value Your Precious Time and Expertise! :-)

Good luck, I totally feel your pain.
I've also noticed some limited perceptions of the role of a developer in Hawaii craigslist posts. I wonder if it has to do with business culture in the islands. Of course, Craigslist business propositions tend to be a bit eccentric, but looking over from the Bay Area the expectations of these posts sometimes seem dated by a decade or more.
Of course you are not being unreasonable. Another warning sign is when a start-up is too secretive because they are worried that someone might steal their idea. In the early stages the problem is almost always convincing people they need your new product or service. Once you prove there is a market, THEN the big boys will come and try to poach your market share.
As a long time reader of TheDailyWTF, it's surprising how regularly I've seen similar stories posted, and what has happened when people have turned up for interviews for such projects. On there it seems more often than not it seems the visionary leader has no idea of the complexities involved in their "simple but revolutionary" project.

I will happily sign an NDA if a company requires it, but I won't set foot through the door without at the least half an idea of what it is I'm being hired to do.
Ditto everyone -- the above comments are all spot-on.

Laurence: I'd be more interested in a partner offer that didn't come with an NDA from someone that brings something extraordinary to the table, like a signed contract from an anchor customer, or demonstrable expertise in design or marketing. Also, if I were in a "financial pinch", I'd be less likely to accept a project like this.
Shawn:

Hm, re-reading my original post, that should've read "if you're in a financial pinch", not "unless you're in a financial pinch". 'Guess that's what I get for hacking on Linux Kernel code 'til I'm bleary-eyed before dropping a response on Techhui. I totally agree, pass on the offers that have no money in it if you're in a financial pinch.

Though, I do prefer meeting under an NDA, as it demonstrates that they're making an effort to properly protect their Trade Secrets. I've never encountered any equity-stake project that was willing to reveal customer lists or give up secrets of their Marketing Kung-Fu without an NDA; but then again, I've rarely been in a position to seriously entertain many of them, either. They almost always come off as wanting a "free" programmer.
Hi Roger,

Your concerns are reasonable, even if you're not working for equity. Your paycheck depends on the start-up's ability to succeed, or to get funding at least. But don't take the offer personally. Just forget about the stupid scheme.
Thank you, one and all, for your responses. It's good to know that this fellow doesn't represent the typical (well, at least the more professional) entrepreneur.

But another, somewhat related question:

I also replied to another ad for a C++ programmer and went for an interview. They had me take a programming test, to test my skills in C++. Well, I've been a software engineer for thirty five years and this is the first time I ever had to take a test. Now, maybe if you're interviewing a person who is just out of college and has no actual real-world experience, you might want to find out if he's retained anything from the classes he's recently taken. But I would think that if the job candidate has been in the industry for an extended period of time (and for software engineering thirty five years covers nearly the entire time that the industry has even existed) then you should be more interested in the breadth of experience the person has had rather than whether he can find the typo in a section of code in one minute or less.
If you want to waste a day, google "coding test job interview". Start with http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000781.html "Why Can't Programmers.. Program?"

I am not advocating coding tests, but it seems they are not uncommon.

Ken

Roger Garrett said:
Thank you, one and all, for your responses. It's good to know that this fellow doesn't represent the typical (well, at least the more professional) entrepreneur.

But another, somewhat related question:

I also replied to another ad for a C++ programmer and went for an interview. They had me take a programming test, to test my skills in C++. Well, I've been a software engineer for thirty five years and this is the first time I ever had to take a test. Now, maybe if you're interviewing a person who is just out of college and has no actual real-world experience, you might want to find out if he's retained anything from the classes he's recently taken. But I would think that if the job candidate has been in the industry for an extended period of time (and for software engineering thirty five years covers nearly the entire time that the industry has even existed) then you should be more interested in the breadth of experience the person has had rather than whether he can find the typo in a section of code in one minute or less.
I wouldn't be too offended by the test. That type of thing is designed to weed out the applicant that appears to have good credentials, but actually can't read/write code worth a damn. Literally, people that would be confused when reading a simple for loop. I've heard there are a lot of them.
When somebody is asking you to work for equity, they should have to prove themselves to you as much as if they were approaching a VC for funding.

To quote software developer Glenn Engstrand:

"Most customers think that what they are paying for is
software because that is what they need to advance the strategic goals
of their business. This is true. However, good software development is
a factory that cranks out decisions. A lot of decisions get made in
the software development process."

And now from the company that advertised the post:
"we are not inviting input or commentary from any potential programmers"

If they plan to build their product in this manner, they will probably wind up with something weaker than otherwise possible.

In any event, it's all a little bizarre since this company seems to be confusing your valid request for information with you giving them advice.
Brian Russo said:
I think tests are silly in the sense that they don't really test much; you can't ask anyone to do anything worthwhile in a short period. Perhaps sending a code sample or some sort of code review makes more sense.

I agree here. Any good code or code review takes time. But I've used to work in a company that does give programming tests. I can tell you that these tests aren't trying to determine if you know a 'for' loop. The tests are usually designed to determine something very specific. Of course, each company is testing for different things.

It is my opinion that these tests aren't trying to determine your knowledge of general programming, but rather to test whether you will fall into the company's fold for programming philosophy. I.e. if the company uses a lot of multiple inheritance, then they will create tests to see if and how you handle these programming paradigms.

Of course, I still don't believe in these tests though. Anyone who can code it, can discuss it verbally. As for entry level positions, these tests are still useless. Since I'm going to do code reviews anyway, knowing whether they can read/write code is not useful. I rather they understand the programming concepts. If they understand the programming concepts and good programming techniques, then teaching them a new language or how to effectively use a language they already know would be very easy.

Given the choice between a candidate who practices good programming techniques, but not familiar with a language vs. a candidate who doesn't use good programming techniques but knows the language inside out, I would choose the former. Teaching someone a language is easy. Trying to get someone to change their bad programming practices isn't.

--jc

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