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Don’t work for free

I have this standing rule that I break all too often: Don’t work for free. I had this bad habit of giving too much and asking too little. I like seeing people happy; that is why the stage is so appealing to me. On the stage, you instantly know if the audience is happy and, if they are not responding well, you can change the show on the fly to fit the audience. In the business world, not asking for your worth is a guarantee that you will not survive. The customer is temporarily happy but because you undercharged or over delivered their expectation will not be realistic. For future work, you will either not be around to service them because you went out of business due to not making your expenses, or the future work will appear exorbitantly high since they received so much for so litle from you in their previous experience.

I entertained a phone interview recently. The recruiter had explained that if the interview went well, the company would ask me to write a sample webpage. At the time, I thought this made sense. All creative types should keep a portfolio to demonstrate your worthiness. However, when you start running at the pace that I keep there is little time to manage a portfolio; simply pointing to work you have done is no good because other hands change it. For example, if my job was to paint a mural by the interstate, overnight my artwork could turn into a mess of graffiti. The Internet is very similar. You might make a wonderful site that validates and is Section 508 compliant but the minute your influence is gone from the company you cannot expect that website to stay compliant.

Section 508 requires that electronic and information technology developed, procured, used, or maintained by all agencies and departments of the Federal Government be accessible both to Federal employees with disabilities and to members of the public with disabilities, and that these two groups have equal use of such technologies as federal employees and members of the public that do not have disabilities. [Source]

Doing a sample website could show my skills that portfolio, pages due to time or lack of budget, may not reflect. Like I said, seemed like a good idea at the time. I did have the wherewithal to ask the recruiter if I would have an hourly rate for the sample project…no. When the interviewer got to that part of the phone interview, I was graced with the sample project. "Could you set aside 5 days?" My jaw dropped!

I have a checks and balances when it comes to estimating projects. I have dollar figures defined for lengths of commitments to clients. I do my estimate based on the specification but then I check my standards to see if my estimate is accurate. That means if a client says they need me for a day the estimate should be between $a and $b; if they need me for a week, the estimate should be between $m and $n; and if they need me for a month, the estimate should be between $x and $y. A week generally looks like $dddd.dd.

I mentioned in a chatroom, with ambiguity for client confidentiality, the request to write a sample website and asked if that was common. The online community of chatters responded with outrage stating that a portfolio should be sufficient or that questions in an interview should easily ferret out the developer’s skills. The people speaking are big names in my industry; I could walk through Borders and point to several books written by them. Frankly, they suggested I not consider the company and asked, "if this their expectation in an interview, what will their expectations be as an employer?" They implored me not to do the sample project and reinforced that such a trend could be bad for our industry.

Now in all fairness, I interpret 5 days as "we are giving you five days so that you can show us you can meet a deadline and we understand you have other work to do." The interviewer said that it really shouldn’t be a day’s worth of work (that would look like $ddd.dd). I hope he is right that it doesn’t need the full 5 days otherwise I have already blown the job possibility. This week I also had a small project that turned out to be somewhat painful. Additionally, a client was holding payment while I worked out a bug in an application so that had my focus. I have 3 people waiting on estimates (estimates are the hardest part of my job and they pay $0). I got the go ahead on the next phase of a client’s project. Another client said I could begin working on his project because he is certain the end client will give the go ahead on Monday. And a maintenance client needed me for half a day because their network went down; they also need me to upgrade their accounting software this weekend. Sounds equitable right? Maybe in a perfect world but if you read it again you’ll see that almost none of that pays until down the road (if at all).

I suppose I could have ignored everything except the sample project on the premise that I will nail this job. That would have shown a huge lack of ethics toward my existing clients plus I have assured them that if I step out of consulting or take a long term committed project that I will give them sufficient notice and make sure their work is uninterrupted. This potential job is with a company that I admire. And, if this sample project is indicative of how they organize their actual projects, working with them will be an absolute pleasure. However, I must manage my risk and assume that the job will not come through. I know the interviewer is a big blog reader so I am certain this post will appear in their feed reader. Hopefully it is not read negatively.

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