I'd rather work at a Starbucks

by William Grosso

Related link: http://www.craigslist.org/eby/sof/15657614.html

Let me be clear. I have nothing against "sweat equity." A number of companies were started by people with a dream and very little cash. There's an honorable tradition of starting off in a garage. And I think it makes a lot of sense that, during a downturn, a lot of engineers will work for equity, trading their skills for a stake in something that could be big.

But a lot of the advertisements being posted these days seem to go way over the line.

Case in point: a recent advertisement on craigslist. Before I spend a lot of time ripping it to shreds, I'd like to point out that I don't know these people, I have no idea who they are, and, for all I know, this could be a case of good people with great intentions simply writing an advertisement that I'm misreading into oblivion.

But let's look at it.

It's an advertisement for programmers who will be working from home at your own time and dime. That means that you provide all the infrastructure, the equipment, and the tools. I wouldn't be surprised if one programmer runs the CVS server on a personal machine, and another runs the build server on their personal machine, and so on (assuming, heh heh, that there is a CVS server).

What sort of programmer? Well, from the sound of

You should have deep experience and application of object-oriented methodologies and design patterns. You should have very strong experience with J2EE technologies including EJB, Servlet, JSP, Application Servers, Oracle

They're looking for someone who's at least an intermediate level programmer (depending on what deep means). Let's say the minimum is 5 years of experience with a substantial project or two under their belt.

In addition, they want the programmer to be:

Highly intelligent and a quick learner with good problem solving skills and ability to think outside of box

So, we're talking about a good programmer with some experience and lots of potential.

What are they offering? Well, they're explicit: this is a volunteer participation offering. That means no money, no equity, nothing tangible at all. The only promise you get is that the later stages will evolve into equity compensation based on performance.

Interesting, that. Leaves you completely at their mercy as far as equitable arrangments. And, of course, I'd bet that you have to sign an NDA and a non-compete agreement in order to participate as well.

"What about intangibles," you say. "Maybe if they were well-known visionaries with a history of inventing the future, this might be interesting?"

Nope. They're a group of [anonymous] executives from 'Blue-Chip' companies. Let's parse that further. They're people from a non-technological background who want to build Business Applications, and who need programmers. Presumably, their application isn't based on technological innovation, but on their ability to identify a latent market that no-one else has served (yet).

Since they're blue-chip executives, let's assume they've correctly identified a potential market. But, and this is the interesting part, they don't have a lot of faith in their vision. They aren't willing to risk any of their blue-chip-executive-level salaries on their idea, and either haven't tried or haven't been able to raise any money from anywhere else.

Not to mention they're, ummm, naive if they think that relying on highly qualified volunteers will work -- paradoxically, someone who matches the above description and signs on isn't going to contribute much. Either she already has a paying job, or is actively looking for a paying one. And the next guy to volunteer is going to spend a lot of time figuring out what the last guy did, because software is knowledge-intensive. It's not like, well, production lines at blue-chip companies, where you can replace the guy who left pretty easily, and the new guy's startup time is minimal.

So we've got:

  • (definitely true) Want very good people.
  • (definitely true) Offering no monetary or equity compensation.
  • (very likely) Little or no faith in the business opportunity.
  • (very likely) Little or no experience in managing a software company.

Why would you sign up at all? Well, they do mention that

You will be a vital part of the engineering team and will participate in all aspects of software development, including architecture/design, coding, and testing. You can expect to work in a fun and fast-paced startup environment, where you will make a key contribution, interact with star engineers and expand your skill set horizons.

The only problem is: this sounds ... optimistic. You get to sit at home, in front of your computer, working for them. "Fun and fast-paced" ? Yeah, and putting Velveeta on a Dorito is a party in your mouth. You get to work mostly by yourself and that's certainly better than some work environments. But will it be fun to donate your efforts to risk-averse blue-chip executives in the hopes that one day they might decide to give you some equity? Personally, I'd find it demoralizing.

Well how about those "star engineers" ? Well, working from home limits the potential interaction in two crucial ways. First, star engineers are usually busy, and you'll be far away. You can't knock on their door or cubicle wall and say "Hey! Let's talk about the architecture cause there's something I don't get." And, second, interactions over DSL tend to be impoverished anyway (e.g. they tend to be IM messages). So the interaction with "star engineers" (if there are actually "star engineers" involved, and I truly doubt it), will be limited to brief bursts of instant messages, followed by long periods of aching loneliness.

So, brought back to Earth, this really says

We'll assign you various tasks that are all over the map, depending on what we think we need right now (and, remember, we've never run a software company before). We'll expect you to complete them at home, in a sort of quasi-isolation and with minimal interaction with your peers. And, of course, forget about learning anything related to the business side of the house: we're putting you firmly in the "technology ghetto."

Not only that, we're going to use the old "fast-paced startup environment" excuse, and the carrot of a possibility of future equity, to work you hard.

"But wait," you're saying. "Maybe it's a really fascinating and cutting-edge application and I'll learn a lot about new technologies."

There's really only one response to that:

Business Applications in mobile and web-based environments.

It's probably something like "Our application will enable factory supervisors to check the production line's status from their PDA."

The whole advertisement is just depressing. The kindest reading is that some guys with a half-baked idea and little or no stomach for actually taking risks decided to see if they could get some programmers to assume all the risk and work for them for free.

The more likely reading is that some unscrupulous hacks are trying to take advantage of the downturn to build their business on the backs of the unfortunate.