Working for free and other desirable behaviors

time to read 6 min | 1110 words

I run into this link, which is Lambda school offering to place a student of theirs at your company for up to four weeks without having to pay them or the student. They market it as: Add talented software engineers to your team for a 4 week trial at no cost for your company if you do not hire the fellow.

Just to point out, this is not relevant to me or mine, so I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I run into this offer because of this:

Scott then wrote: “Pay people for their work. Pay interns.”

I think that this ties closely together with the previous posts on money and open source. On the one hand, I think that this is a pretty good offer for a student, because they are able to get over what is likely to be their biggest hurdle, actual experience in the field. It also lowers the bar on actually getting their foot in the door, after which the second step is likely to be much easier.

On the other hand, for the company, it is a great way to do test runs for entry level positions. Hiring developers is hard, and being able to trial run for a few weeks is much better than trying to predict the candidate’s ability based on a short interview.

On the gripping hand, however, there are a bunch of issues here that are rife for abuse. This also means that the only people who’ll get to this program are those who are able to actually go a month or so without pay. Or that they will need to do this and their regular work as well.

An “easy” way to fix this would be to pay at least minimum wage to the students, of course. The problem is that this would curb a lot of the advantages of the program. I’ll refer you to Dan Ariely and the FREE! experiments for the reasons why. From the company’s perspective: Paying a minimum wage or getting an employee for free is pretty much the same thing. But there is a lot less process to getting someone for free. And once there is a foot in the door, it is a lot easier to convert internally.

What I wish was possible was to be able to hire people (at or near market rate) for a short amount of time and then decide if you want to keep them on afterward. The idea is that actually seeing their work is a much better indication of their capabilities than the interview process. That reduce the pressure to perform during an interview, gives candidate far better chance to impress and show off, allow them to learn, etc.

This is technically possible but not actually feasible in almost all situations. Leaving aside labor laws, consider the employee’s perspective in this case. If they are already working, going to another company and doing a “trial run” which can be unsuccessful is a very powerful reason to not go there. A company with the kind of reputation of “they hired me for a month and then fire me” is going to have hard time getting more employees. In fact, being fired without a few weeks or months of getting hired is such a negative mark on the CV that most people would leave it all together. Because of this, any company that want to do such trail runs cannot actually do so. They have to make the effort to do all the filtering before actually hiring an employee and reserve firing someone after a short time for mostly egregious issues.

The internship model neatly works around this issue, because you have a very clear boundaries. Making it an unpaid internship is a way to attract more interest from companies and reduce the barriers. For the student, even if they aren’t hired at that place, it gives actual industry experience, which is usually a lot more valuable in the job market.  Note that you can pay the grocery bill with Reputation bucks, it just takes a little longer to cash them out, usually.

The unpaid internship here is the problem, for a bunch of reasons. The chief among them is that making this free for the companies open this up for abuse. You can put controls and safeguards in place, but the easiest way to handle that would be to make it so they pay at least minimum wage to avoid that. The moment that this is paid, a lot of the abuse potential go away. I can imagine that this would be a major hassle for the school (I assume that the companies would rather pay an invoice rather than hire someone on for a short while), but it is something that you can easily do with economies of scale.

The chief issue then, however, would be that this is no longer free, so likely to subject the students to a much harsher scrutiny, which defeats the purpose of getting them out there in the field and gaining real experience.  That is also a problem for the school, I think, since they would have to try to place the student and face a bigger barrier.

Turning this around, however, consider that this was an offer made not for a company, but for open source projects? A lot of open source projects have a ton of work that needs to be done which gets deferred. This is the sort of “weeding the garden” that is usually within the capabilities of someone just starting out. The open source project will provide mentorship and guidance in return for this work. In terms of work experience, this is likely to be roughly on the same level, but without the option to being hired at the end of the four weeks. It also has the advantage of all the work being out there in the open, which allows potential future employers to inspect this.

Note that this is roughly the same thing as the offer being made, but instead of a company doing this, there is an open source project. How would that change your evaluation? The other aspects are all the same. This is still something that is only available for those who can afford to take a month without pay and still make it. From the student’s perspective, there is no major difference, except that there is far less likelihood for actually getting hired in the end.