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(pre)interview questions versus usable work PART 2

A few weeks ago I posted a message here stating how I was asked to do about 4 - 5 hours of programming work as a pre-interview question.

At the interview I was told I was the only candidate to correctly answer the question.

This evening I got a phone call from the managing director of the company saying that they want one more problem solved just to make sure I'm right. Also one of their two developers is going to leave the company in a few weeks.

I said that there was a limit to how much time I am willing to spend trying to get a job. We arranged a time of 4 pm tomorrow for his developer to phone me to tell the problem in more detail.

It seems to me there is nobody at the company that is really good at programming any more and they need me to solve programming problems for them for free.

I was slightly suspicious of this first time around, but this phone call a few weeks later confirms things a bit more.

I spoke to a friend of mine by phone and he said these people aren't necessarily nasty, but they could just be clueless and need steering in the direction of actually paying for their problems to be solved.

To make matters worse the managing director said they were about to hire another guy from Cambridge (the university I went to as well).

Savage Planet
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Obviously something is preventing them from actually hiring you.

My guess is money.  Are your salary expectations too high?

Are you missing a key acronym on your resume?

Do lots of research on the company on the internet, and in trade journals.  Call up those that compete with or are vendors for them.  Ask them what the company is like.

Otherwise, it sounds very scary.


Wednesday, July 16, 2003

So I was right.

Now, please don't tell us you are thinking of falling for this ploy: "First time fooled shame on you, second time shame on me." Tell them your rate is hourly and bill them for the work previously done since it's pretty damn clear what is going on here.

And do bill them whether you go in or not. Do this as follows, write 10 letters all at the same time and date them one per week. Each one requesting payment for services rendered at your standard rate of $225/hr and getting more and more aggresive with each letter. Stamp them and set them beside your door. Each week, take one letter and drop it in the mailbox. This way, they get all the impact of having to deal with your bills without you having to go through the stress of wondering every week if they are going to pay or not. They won't respond until at least the sixth letter, if at all. But your letters willl drive them crazy. At the last letter, filing suit in small claims court is optional. You won't win if they show up but it will waste their time and cost them a bundle since hey'll have to hire a real lawyer to argue against you. If they don't show up (quite likely actually), you will win your claim for treble damages by default!

Previous Respondent
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Time to move on. Call the MD and say you've thought about it, you're intrigued by the technical work, but you just think the interviewing process has been handled in an amateurish way and from that you infer they don't run projects or handle product strategy very well either. Thank him for his time, say that hope you are wrong, and wish him luck, but you've done one too many death marches because of the management ignorance of the dynamics of software engineering teams. Be polite and dispassionate.

Or, suck up to him and do whatever it takes to land the job because you don't have an alternative - no shame in that these days.

Jim S.
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

solve the damn problem, how hard can it be.

If they come back a third time, insist on a job :)

If nothing else the fact that they want your help is a Good Thing (tm) and it never hurts to make contacts.

Charging by the hour is just stupid, its a petty approach being advocated only by the more immature. 
Even if they pay, you wont have made enough to change a damn thing, and unless you are careful you will end up alienating the only people who have shown any interest in getting you to work for them.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Thanks for your advice. I have until now and 4pm tomorrow to make up my mind on my course of action.

The first problem took about 4 -5 hours of my time. Even that time was reduced by the fact I had a clue how to solve the problem because I had done something vaguely similar at work 3 years ago. That several weeks ago.

Maybe their problem might only take an hour to solve. That really is nothing, given I'm unemployed.

But suppose it is another 5 hour problem.

I am at the point now where I really am on the line of giving up entirely. I have been unemployed for a year now.  And I'm one of the people in this industry that actually does write code that works. I started programming as a hobby when I was a teenager.

Savage Planet
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

When I will be phoned at 4pm tomorrow by the software developer at this company (the one that is leaving in a few weeks), I will ask if they know the solution to the problem themselves.

Specifically the managing director said the problem is in code that was written some time ago and they think doesn't work properly.

Again this is not an academic problem, but a real-life problem for them.

Yeah, a few hours isn't great in the scheme of things. But I don't like being taken advantage of. That has happened too many times in the past. I still remember working weekends for clients in my job, the company billing the clients for the work I did at the weekend but still receiving a crappy salary with no overtime pay.

I think the best route for my is to do a university course and become a teacher. Just get out of computer related work all together.

Savage Planet
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Savage, don't listen to FullName and his FullNameCalling.

Look, you are right to ascertain the nature of the question. It sounds like it has been laid out that it is a problem they need solved. You already proved to them that you could write code to solve their problems. They don't need any more data points to make a decision, so it's clear they are looking to get some free work out of you. This is life. This is business. Don't be taken advantage of. Carefully question them about the problem they are having. You are a smart coder so you will see their problem, maybe it's a simple one. You tell them, "Look, you know I am a great designer since you've seen and hopefully made productive use out of the free sample I gave you guys already. I know what your problem is here and I can solve it for you. You can hire me as a permanent employee at rate R, with benefits B, with a contract, so my interests are protected. Or you can hire me as a contractor at my standard problem solving rate of $225 per hour and I'll be able to solve this problem for you in three days and you'll be good to go - that's right I'm so confident I can take care of this little problem for you that I'm giving you a fixed rate here, it's a good deal for you."

Then you leave it up to them. Perhaps they want to negotiate the rate, that's fine. But if they don't show an interest here, there is no point in proceeding with free work. You have NOTHING more to prove to them. You have already proven your skills to them far and beyond what is reasonable.

Previous Respondent
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

I am sorry about the name calling, but I really dont see how anyone could believe these people are just trying to get free work out of you.

<g>  its a totally uneconomical and genuinely stupid approach to getting work done, if the people really _are_ that stupid then they will not have lasted as long as they have, or indeed, longer than a week.

honestly, I do not believe for a second that this is merely a way to trick you into doing offence, but decent programmers are not that hard to find.

how would it work?  head programmer comes in...."we have another problem we cannot solve, can we contact that unemplyed guy again?"

Maybe they _are_ slow to make up their minds, maybe they initially rejected you for whatever reason but now their first choice has fallen through, just maybe they really are that unbelievably stupid, but it feels _much_ more likely that they are coming back to you because you impressed them the first time around.

take another chance :)

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

OK, so we both agree Savage should at least talk to them and get the requirements and be professional. After that, we disagree. I say no more free work but proposing to solve their problem for a reasonable fee is good, FullName says what the heck, they're probably nice guys and there's nothing to worry about they would never take advantage of you. So you got two possibilities there.

A parallel situation as I see it would be if I called some hous painters and asked, not for referrals and photographs of their work, but to actually come into my house for 5 hours and paint the bathroom as a sample of their work to help me decide if I should hire them. Heck, it's only 5 hours work, it's no big deal right? And so they paint it and I tell them it's a great paint job but I'm still making a decision on this and some weeks later I call them back and tell them I haven't quite made up my mind about their competance as painters and I would like them to paint the kitchen now so I can be absolutely sure.

I really see this as exactly the same situation. If I tried this with painters, they would probably beat the crap out of me. I am not sure why programmers don't do the same thing when put in similar situations.

Previous Respondent
Thursday, July 17, 2003

Some principals are worth fighting, some aren't. What is in your best interest - getting paid for 5 hours work or getting paid regularly for a full time job?

If they are pulling the wool over your eyes what are you going to lose - 5 hours! If they are genuine, then you will get the job. Being petty isn't going to get you employed.

Pete J
Thursday, July 17, 2003

"FullName says what the heck, they're probably nice guys and there's nothing to worry about they would never take advantage of you"

they probably _are_ nice guys :)

Ive always had an absolute horror of being taken advantage off, to the point where even now Im older and more mature Im still pretty likely to chop off my nose to spite my face in order to ensure that no one does.

...everyone has a phobia I guess...

But in this particular case they are very unlikely to be taking advantage of anyone.
What do they have to gain by this?  5 hours of work in a computer shop really isn't that much, we have a few projects going at the moment and even the smaller ones are quoted for ~1000 hours work.

<g> if their business model really is based around getting work done by job hopefuls then I hope they are advertising ferociously to get more hours done.

Honestly, there is no real benefit for them, but a very real chance of a job for you.  Of course you must approach it professionally, get the details of the problem, attack it aggressively etc

But dont try and charge for it, that would be madness.
What would you be trying to prove?  that even though you have been out of a job for a year and are eager for a chance, you _still_ wont go the extra yards to get work without added financial incentive?

Thursday, July 17, 2003

"What would you be trying to prove?  that even though you have been out of a job for a year and are eager for a chance, you _still_ wont go the extra yards to get work without added financial incentive? "

And doing work for free is going to help?  I seriously doubt it.  Work for pay is not a moral blunder.

Joe AA
Thursday, July 17, 2003

"And doing work for free is going to help?  I seriously doubt it.  Work for pay is not a moral blunder."

neither is doing work for free :)

particularly if doing this work proves that he can program to the level they require and they give him the job because of it.

When they come and ask him to work for free for 3 weeks first, _then_ talk to me about doing work for free.  5 hours is an _extremely_ stringent test, but it is _not_ "work for free"

Thursday, July 17, 2003

I wouldn't mind a five hour test as part of an employment interview.

Calling the "test" as such to cover up... would be "work for free".  It would make it a lie... a fraud.  And that would be a moral blunder.

Joe AA
Thursday, July 17, 2003

"Calling the "test" as such to cover up... would be "work for free".  It would make it a lie... a fraud.  And that would be a moral blunder."

?? to cover up what exactly?  you seriously believe that they have a problem none of their programmers can solve?  and that the only way they can approach this problem is by tricking an unemployed programmer into doing the (5 hour) work for them?

or what?  Id love to know what it is you think they will be getting out of this?  5 hours free programing work from every job applicant?  thats a _lot_ of job applicants to make it worthwhile.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

This really smells to me.  I can't find any interpretation of the situation as you've posted it that is credible and shows the company behaving in a respectful, responsible, and competent fashion.  (Naturally when I say 'company' I mean the people there.)

My most generous viewpoint is that they are paranoid about getting the "wrong" person -- perhaps because they got badly burned before.  In which case, if you pass the rites of passage, maybe they'll turn out to be great people apart from that.

When push comes to shove, however, eating comes before principles.  I know that given today's market, in this situation I would suck it up and do the work -- but I would let them know I wasn't happy about it. 

Do what you feel is best, and do let us know how things turn out.


Thursday, July 17, 2003


The company used to number 3 employees and one managing director. Of those 3, 1 employee left recently. He had been at the company as far as I can ascertain for 2 years. Of the two remaining programmers, one regards himself as a mathematican rather than career programmer. The other is a graduate 6 months out of university.

Of the two remaining employees, the one that isn't a recent graduate is about to receive.

So basically the company will soon be one managing director and one employee with 6 months work experience.

Because I said yesterday there was a limit as too much time I can spend trying to find work, I got an email from the managing director saying he had serious doubts about me and that my job application has been terminated.

Savage Planet
Thursday, July 17, 2003

Screw them all, Savage P.

If they're jerking you around this much before you're hired, just imagine the kind of crap they'll try to pull afterwards.  They can't even keep their good employees ...

I was unemployed for 18 months before getting hired just a few weeks ago.  It's tough out there.  But it's getting better.  If you're good, you're bound to find a place eventually.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

"I got an email from the managing director saying he had serious doubts about me and that my job application has been terminated."

Sounds like a good time to send them an invoice for the first set of consulting...

This company reminds me of one of the first ones I worked for - a small shop with a boss/owner that no one could stand. He'd have done something like this to get free work out of people.

Heck, one of the guys who worked there was actually there as a consultant and was a friend of the owner. He stopped working there after the owner paid less then the full amount of his invoice - when he asked, the boss said that he wasn't worth the full amount...

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Savage Planet, I'd write a final e-mail to the manager and the other people (CC) in the company you have talked to (this way manager can not tell them different things about your real words). Being very polite, but being as firm as the serious profesional you are.

If they like play with words (you said they expressed they had "serious doubts about me"), well, then it's just time to be plain and tell them your opinion. Short and concrete.

Of course, not even comment things like "can we talk again?" or so. The game is over, it is their turn if they want to move.

Example (it's just an idea)
When I said I have got a limit as too much time I can spend trying to find work, I really did no meant it is a simple question of time: it's a question of work.

Every company has got its particular way of inerviewing, but this time it's been the first time a company tries to get me solving  some real problems and me getting nothing from that, except your only benefit. I would had liked you stablished another way of testing if my skills match your requeriments.

Thanks for your time, etc etc etc
(being very polite)

PS: It's the thing I'd do. It's about ego, ok, I admit.
PS2: Sorry for my terrible english.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

"Because I said yesterday there was a limit as too much time I can spend trying to find work"

Thats a real shame.  learn from this, never listen to advice received from people who post to online forums.

Good luck with the future.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

If this was dating, the company is telling you "lets be friends".

I think it's time to move on.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Thanks FullNameRequired.

I do suspect there is something up though. I actually told the managing director that I had limited time to spend chasing one job before I even posted to this board the second time around. So advice from this board didn't lose me the job. Despite saying that, I did agree to take the 4pm call from his soon-to-be departing mathematican. However the m.d. terminated my job application before then by email this morning without us further talking.

It is also slightly unprofessional that he phoned me at 8 - 9pm in the evening. What about normal business hours?

Anyway at my first interview 3 weeks ago, the m.d said what would be offered at the end of the process, if at all, would be a work trial not a job. Now I've found out 'work trial' can mean that the Government pays for the first 3 weeks of your work in terms of unemployment benefit, meals and travel expenses. I don't know for sure if this kind of 'work trial' is the same of what the m.d. meant. Nonetheless I've never gone to a job interview and had it explicitly said that what is on offer is a work trial not a job.

It seems this company can write code to implement pre-worked out mathematical functions in VisualBasic, but when it actually comes to write algorithmns that do complex manipulations of hierarchial data or selections from data, they got stuck and instead wrote non-generic code in lots of different places in their codebase. They told me they are having problems when it come to modifying any little thing and need to rewrite there whole codebase.

That is they asked me to do the first time around. They had the VB code to do the maths, but never in their 6 year history got around to writing code where you really have to think about complex tree manipulations. I did it the first time round for them.

The second time around was the same situation. They could do the maths equations in VB, but after that the managing director told me they couldn't do a proper select from data.

I guess from their makeup now  of one recent graduate and one mathematican (about to leave) they really don't have any strong programmers there any more.

Savage Planet
Thursday, July 17, 2003

actually sounds like quite an interesting job ;)

I agree the whole approach sounds different from normal, but that could well be explained by the fact that their company is different from 'normal' programming companies.

<g> Im pleased to hear you were not swayed by the advice in this forum, and I hope everything goes well. 

Thursday, July 17, 2003

I'm sure you would have enjoyed working for an immature person who cares so much about his company that he chases employees away in this economy and spends his time making sure people pass his gauntlet of mystery.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Jeez, FullNameRequired, you should have a go at being an apologist for the Nazis. Oops! Did I just say the N word?

Not Me
Thursday, July 17, 2003

Did I understand it correctly... that this company expects you to do work for them that is being paid by you drawing unemployment?

Joe AA
Friday, July 18, 2003

I'm not sure.

At my original interview over 3 weeks ago, the managing director said what was on offer was a work trial, not a job, and asked if I was OK was that.

I didn't even know quite what he meant but I said yes.

After I got home I looked up on the Internet what exactly a work trial means in the UK.

My Google searches returned UK Government pages, which said a work trial was either:

1) When the government pays the employer to employ you for a limited time on the condition they pay the going wage for the job.


2) You continue to draw unemployment for a limited time plus the government pays for meal and travel expenses.

I have no idea whether this was the sort of trial the director meant - only that in the UK jobs I have had in the past not of this work trial was mentioned.

Savage Planet
Friday, July 18, 2003

This is some great material. Would make a great short story in the vein of Kafka.

Once again, reality bests fiction! Who needs TV or museums when there's the surreal enigma of JoS...

Savage, this system is in BRitain right? I've heard of it before. I guess it's similar to 'workfare' an idea over here in the US. Are here any controls on this thing to prevent employers from abusing the system like these guys are doing?

Art Lover
Friday, July 18, 2003

Yes, it is in good, ol' Britain.

I don't know of any controls though. The first I found out about it was when I did a google search for 'work trial'.

Savage Planet
Friday, July 18, 2003

I think the government is well-intentioned in setting up these systems -- they want to get unskilled people off welfare/the dole so they thought that having a system like this would work to allow a company to, at little cost, take a chance on someone who has never had a job, or is recently out of prison. The idea being that the company would provide the person with basic training to scrub floors or pack potatoes or whatever. If the person managed to come to work on time and didn't do to bad a job on scrubbing the floors, then it would turn into a permanent position.

I don't think the politicians that set it up expected in a million years that competent, highly skilled and experienced engineers would be hired using this system, nor that companies would be able to do it to fulfill their needs for short-term consulting work in a zero-cost manner.

Do you have local representatives in Britain? If so, consider paying their office a visit and letting them know how the system is working out and asking them  to help you out with any advise they have. Be humble around politicians and let them know you are seeking their assistence. I think this would be worth a try and may lead to something.

Art Lover
Friday, July 18, 2003

FullNameRequired, you would have to be an OSS fanatic,right? Live at home with Mum and Dad?

Savage, there is a fundamental principle being played out here. If they were going to offer you a job, they would have done it by now. They are NOT going to offer you a job, or even pay you, unless you make them.

You clearly have something they need, and that they are going to use to make money. But they are not being honest about it. You need to stop right now.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

The fact that, when you protested about doing extra work for free, he said your application was terminated, shows that he was never genuine.

It doesn't mean you blew your chance at a job, as naive FullNameRequired is telling you.

If someone had any intention of considering you for a job, and you raised a problem with them, they would work with you to clarify it. In this case, he would have apologised and called you in for a second interview.

Savage and FNR, there are actually complete jerks in this world. In this case, the company seems not to have any programmers. Who knows what's going on. The MD has seen that you can deliver the goods, and also that he can trick you into doing work for free.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

<g> wow, Id love to know which part of my opinion turned me into a naive OSS fanatic who lives at home with his mum and dad...

Just for the record Im a contract software developer with experience in developing for macintosh and windows operating systems in c, c++, java and various other scripting and programming languages.

I am currently paying 2 employees and also manage to make a decent wage on top :)

FYI I often put in 5-20 hours work doing initial quotes for various jobs, the way I work the quote includes a price for putting it together, but that amount is only payable _if I get the job_

Life being what it is I fairly often dont get the job and therefore I fairly often work large parts of the week without pay.

now, to cover the other questions regarding my personality:

I live in an entirely different country from that of my parents, I have only basic knowledge of OSS and although I have occasionally done some learn-as-I-go basic Linux setup stuff for clients, I am certainly not an expert.  OTOH I _do_ believe that OSS is a Good Thing (tm), so maybe that makes me a fanatic, im not sure about the criteria there..

I am not naive, as a contract developer I have actually seen the face of only 2 of my clients, all the rest live in different countries and for obvious reasons this makes payment largely dependent on the good will and nature  of my clients, and from time to time I meet the genuine assholes that inhabit this world.

But, frankly, 10 hours work feels to me like a pretty small investment compared to the chance of getting a years work, particularly when its considered that the worker in question had _nothing better to do_

Maybe there was no real opportunity there, and maybe there was.  Either way there was nothing to be lost by finding out (except 5 hours which would otherwise be spent watching tv) and a huge amount to be gained.

As for the work for unemployment thing, the first job I ever received was at a sawmill and used a similar process, the first 14 weeks were paid for by the government, the idea being that this allows small companies to risk hiring someone without going broke if that person turns out to be a lazy, useless shit.
Always seemed like a bloody good idea to me.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

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