A few years ago, I arrived nicely dressed for what turned out to be the worst dev interview I had ever partaken in. Sitting there in that room, I could feel my heart racing faster and faster. There was anger and sweat, and I was doing the best I could to hold it all in. I damn near got up and left in the middle of the thing.
Thinking back on it, I really should have.
Now most of you might think there must have been some brain buster programming challenge that put me on the spot in the worst of ways. And while I have been in that situation too, the horrible thing about this experience had nothing to do with my ability or inability to solve problems drawn out of a hat.
Nope. It had everything to do with the fact that I am an entrepreneur with products of my own that make me passive income while I sleep. My apps are a hobby, a "side-hustle" that I hope to use to bolster my eventual retirement from mandatory work.
The guy in the room didn't want to have a friendly fair-trade business relationship where I provide my services in exchange for cash. No no no. He made it very clear that he wanted more out of me.
"So these apps of yours," he said. "If you start with us, you'll have to take those down."
This is the part where my heart is literally beating out of my chest. Because those apps are like owning a stock. They provide dividend payments every month, and who the hell is this guy asking me to stop selling a product I've offered long before I ever considered working for him?
Okay, deep breath.
"So you are saying there are certain things I can't do in my own free time, like on weekends when I'm not working for you?" I said.
He paused for a bit and then tried to diffuse some of the tension. "We'll talk about that later."
The rest of the interview was a blur because I knew from that moment forward I didn't want the job. These are people who want 1984-style totalitarian control over my life. They care about what I'm doing on the weekends, and not it an encouraging or friendly way. They only care because they view my hobbies and my job as a zero-sum game where one has to eventually drown out the other.
But what if there were another way? What if my hobbies and side businesses give me skills that make me better at my job? What if they teach me valuable lessons in programming, design, business, and human relationships? What if it's not a zero-sum game, and we can all benefit from experimenting and doing our own things?
Fear is at the heart of all dictatorships, and I believe that's what was at play in this interview. I think the interviewer didn't want to be upstaged in his own job, and if he hired a self-starter who gets things done, it would make him look weak in front of his boss. Better to mow down the tall poppy and move on to a more subservient candidate.
The people I work with now, Tanooki Labs, are the polar opposite of this. Just yesterday, we had a monthly call where everyone from around the world gets together to discuss their side projects.
How cool is that! Instead being all "psst here's a CD with the source code for an indie game I'm working on, but make sure the boss doesn't see," we can openly talk about the things we're building, ask for help, and promote our work within our growing community of friendly makers.
Tanooki Labs isn't trying to own me. As a matter of fact, we recognize that talented people are often very ambitious themselves, so it would be ridiculous to assume they're going to stay in the same place forever. If you want to get talented people to buy into your project, the project itself needs to be interesting. And if you can't swing that, you at least need to make people feel respected by giving them some degree of autonomy.
Whether you like it or not, people are individuals with their own priorities and agendas. You are not, and never will be, the most important thing to them. If you want to be given a higher priority, you need to be likable. And let me tell you something, trying to own another human being is not a good look.
How amazing would it be to hire an ambitious employee, grow together in your relationship, and when that employee launches a successful side project, instead of being the horrible boss they can't wait to escape, they turn to you for advice?
Perhaps instead of spinning off and doing their own thing, they decide to bring their business under your roof, and everyone is better off because of it.
Such things can only happen under the banner of friendship and mutual respect. Sure, you can bring in a team of lawyers and make your employees sign away their intellectual property rights to fun things they do on the weekend, but you're just going to piss them off and ensure an even faster departure date.
Why be the enemy? Why try to own people? Life is way more fun when you don't have to speak about your side projects in hushed tones. Finding common ground in your hobbies creates this amazing thing we call real human connection, and it can only grow in an environment where one party isn't trying to take advantage of the other.