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Devs don't want to be owned

Theodore Bendixson on March 15, 2018

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 c... [Read Full]
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This is great! This was a super important consideration for me before starting at Triplebyte, which I clarified before accepting the job, only to learn that I wasn't the only person here with a profitable side project :)

The reality is that engineers who are capable of building and launching things independently have valuable, relevant business skills that go beyond normal engineering work, and those ought to be valued by employers -- not crushed!

I'm curious to know if this is more regional, as I definitely felt more pushback in Boston. Now in the Bay Area, it doesn't seem too unusual.


Yeah, that would be interesting to map out. The place I interviewed at was located in Maryland. My current employer is in New York City.

There is one consideration. I actually think the whole trying-to-own-people thing is less of a concern within the software industry itself. That godawful interview took place at a biotech company in Rockville MD. I think they may have a more strict view of intellectual property, given that it's way harder to spin off and do a biotech startup on your own. So maybe the culture just hasn't adjusted to an audience of people who can.

But I really don't know. I'm just idly speculating here.


Considering where the biotech field is today, it is highly likely that they are ultra paranoid about IP. (Consider the GMO seeds which produces an enhanced-yield crop which is only viable for 1 generation... forcing farmers to buy seeds each year.) Biotech is undergoing ridiculously accelerated growth right now, so they may be betting a lot on IP developed right now.

I do consider it an industry-related difference. They probably aren't used to hiring iOS developers who have the ability to just up and launch a product at the drop of a hat.

Still, this guy in particular was a real dick about it. I've made a lot of changes over the past year to push myself towards an earlier retirement (saving an even greater percentage of what I earn), and I attribute most of it to the feeling I got after leaving that interview.

I'm in a better spot now, but every time I stash away an extra thousand dollars, I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing people like that have even less power over me.


I agree with you 110%. But I wanted to also link to the other perspective.

Joel on Software - Developer Side Projects


My current contract says that I can work on side projects (and own them) but I need to get approval from the company first, to guarantee they are not related to our actual product. I find this to be a good compromise that prevents such legal complications while still allowing developers to work on their side projects.


In my opinion it is a bit weird that something like that is even in your contract, as you probably already have something like a confidentiality part in that same contract.

I get where the company is coming from, but it is not reasonable enough for me. I mean, are you in reality actually asking approval for every side project you have in you your own free time?

If on the other hand the company provides time for you to work on side projects, then it definitely is reasonable :p


I would be careful, but if they say something about "your time" and stuff like that in relation to what you just said... be weary. If it's to confirm a non-compete clause that sounds alright to me. I signed a non-compete in relation to this sort of stuff and it seemed reasonable to me, so I did so.

However, if they start talking about time, resources, your time in the office (while you're a 9 to 5 or 10 till 6... well you get it -- standard employ), I would be careful. Use your good judgement.

I'm famous for not being owned... I found it really crippling. I need a lot more autonomy than normal, I think, but I'm not sure.

Oh, and I'm not sure if I have to write this... this is just random thoughts from a dev, not a lawyer. Definitely not a lawyer.

This is project-based, not time-based. Sometimes I have to work on company code off the clock - and it's still theirs.


Thanks, and it is good to point that out. Any developer who is offended at the notion of their employer having ownership of their side projects should simply not take the job and choose to work with people who don't take explicit measures to own their free time.

This is a capitalist system with free choice, and we have the right to execute that choice


I agree. I do tend to work on unrelated things in my free time, so I definitely don't want to work for anyone who tries to own my side work.

I guess the linked article just points out that employees can be sue-happy jerks too, and the agreements most business force you to sign are to defend against that even if they don't want to own your free time. It's a pretty crappy situation that greedy, short-sighted people (both employers and employees) have ruined for people of good will. At the end of the day it is a matter of finding the right fit with the right company.

I've been fortunate to not run afoul of corporate lawyers in my side work. Although the fact that I haven't made any money off it probably ensures that. But I don't anticipate any problems even if I did based on the people I worked with.

Yeah, it's definitely a people thing. I could tell from my interview that the guy interviewing me just wasn't a decent human being. Heck, I might even sign something for posterity if I knew I was dealing with good people, or if there were some caveat about my idea not competing directly with their core business. Fine.

It's too bad he soured the tone of our very first conversation and gave off a bad smell that made me run miles in the other direction.

Good for you! I'm sorry that employer doesn't understand. I just don't want folks stepping into possible parts if it's related to the business, which is fair. I probably would have done the same thing as you. I feel uneasy when folks want to own my IP to that level, it makes me feel very uncomfortable.

I make clear distinctions between the business and my stuff. My stuff is random... very random. I work on work stuff on their laptop that they provide and they make it that way that you have to. I have clever IT folks knowing how to use tech to make clear distinctions on intention and usage.

However, I do cross pollinate when you learn something new about teams, or work, or coding something, which is fair game, IMHO.


You made the right call. You should have halted the interview, since you already knew that it was not going to work out.

Even if they allowed you to keep you side projects, you had already learned it was a bust.

But... it would have been nice to respond with "Well, I can certainly take down those apps. But we'll have to up my salary by $###,### to compensate." Just to see the reaction.


Haha, that would be interesting. I think it would have required an upfront payment to the tune of about $50K, which is the amount of money I would need to have invested to in order to get the same passive revenue my apps make (between $1500 to $2000 a year).

Even so, it's not a business that competes with them in any way, and if you research the product, it's a very self-contained thing that takes up a very small portion of my spare time. Where I am now, I just let the apps sell and ride the gravy train


Very thoughtful piece here. As a developer with both professional and personal experience, it's great to hear that you are able to add insight for those new to their careers.

Respect and trust are two-way streets. And if both sides put some effort into these professional relationships, you can achieve some great things with that kind of honest and authentic communication.

I certainly wish I had this perspective instead of taking so long to leave my last domineering boss before losing countless hour of personal time and life.


Thanks for your insight. I'm building side-projects as well and I always warn my potential clients and employers that I do that. I do run into a lot of "khm, I'm not sure we want you to do that" vibe. I actually got so tired of hearing this, that I decided to do a leap of fate -- and went full time to build something that could sustain myself.

I do still miss working for clients -- it's always interesting to see what other teams have been doing, what issues they are solving with their business.


I think that's a point that is often not stated. I hear stories of freelancers who moved on to fully supporting their own products, and it's interesting to note that many of them do miss the social interaction they got from working with their clients. When heading towards doing your own thing, you have to be careful not to take away all of the support structures you rely on all at once.

In most cases, that uncomfortable vibe comes from a lack of trust and initial skittishness. In most client situations, I tend to avoid mentioning my side projects for that reason. But once they get to know your work, and the level of dedication you can give them (a.k.a. once you make enough deposits into the trust bank), you can start to be more open about the things you do.

Non-makers tend to be less comfortable with it regardless, and I think it comes from not necessarily being able to empathize. Imagine telling Leonardo Da Vinci he needs to spend his career painting insipid advertisements for used car dealerships, and it's a close enough analogy. The dude just wants to set aside some time to paint something beautiful that makes him happy.


I've been on other side of the fence (CTO) -- and I've been positively impressed by people that manage to do something on the side (side projects, business, open-source, meetups..). I was actually more likely to hire them as well -- those people learn on their own expense. Not a single regret hiring such a person. Even if they quit, they still rooted for companies success as much as they could (recommended to their friends, gave technical advice for free then we needed)

I grown so accustomed to this. That I've been open about this to my potential clients -- "Hey. I know what it takes to run a business. I have offline business that works without me being around, I built my own apps. I can speak your language, I can understand your business challenges".

Your not the first person who mentions that I shouldn't speak about that. But I have issues with lying... and it feels so wrong that people see this from a negative side...

It's all about who you're working with and how it's done. In an ideal world where we didn't have to sell ourselves to eat, we would be able to turn down every gig where we get a bad feeling about the other party.

But as we start to build up that bolus of cash to buffer ourselves from people we don't like, we get more opportunities to be our authentic selves. I wish this didn't have to be the case, but that is the capitalistic system we live in.

The last thing I want to do is tell people not to be their authentic selves. That's horrible. It's the reason I'm working so hard to build a cash machine that sustains my creative endeavors. Life is way better with more freedom.

Still, some people are at the very beginning of their careers, don't have a lot in investments, and face a situation where they have to work for someone they don't like, just to get started. And in that situation, I think it's fair to say, "just play along until you've saved up enough money or find something better. These people you don't like don't need to know your life story."


good read! I'm trying to figure out if I can make iOS apps and live off that or do remote work, because my last position promised all this stuff about being able to own our code and make side projects etc and lied! but seems like if I find the right company I don't have to "choose"!


It is a challenging market out there, and especially dangerous if you go it alone. I happened to find a particular niche within the action sports community and built a targeted product just for them. But even I feel like it was a rare idea, and I don't believe it's so easy to replicate that success.

Lately, I've been giving client work the highest priority, doing my best to invest the largest percentage of my earnings, and riding that train until my investment income + side project income == living expenses.

If I have extra time between projects, that's when I go all-in on a side project (lol or just go snowboarding a ton).

But I feel like one of those ETF commercials you see on CNBC. All side projects, just like investments, have some amount of inherent risk. Be careful to shoulder yourself from that risk. If you have a sure thing on your plate, give it 100% of your attention, especially if you like the people you're working with.


Yeah, I do have to constantly keep myself in check like you recommend. Although the "iOS gaming renaissance" I keep reading about makes me feel more optimistic, I realize that it's a fools move for me to forego finding a job (even if its not great and pays poorly, as long as I can just do it long enough to try out my idea.) Of course I think my niche idea also has the potential for mass appeal - the same thing every iOS gamedev not making a platformer or arcade game probably thinks!
Still, this article and your comment are kind of a balanced reminder that I can return to if I let myself get too cynical or too naively positive (about being self-employed from an app or even making worthwhile money off it).


I had another experience that you might relate to. I was looking for a job and ended up interviewing with this startup with two employees, the interview went well and I got an offer. During the interview I was made aware that they would require me to move to a neighbouring (far more expensive) city. They asked me how much I was making and matched it in the offer, I asked if they would offer equity in their new business (as employee number 3 I was expecting to get some), they told me no.

I told them that I was interviewing for other companies and would get back to them in 1 or 2 weeks as I had to think about it, one of the founders started acting up on me saying that he doesn't want someone who is not committed to his vision and seemed to be angry of me even been looking at other companies. I was perplexed, so he wants me to move to another city, for a relative lower pay, with low job security (startup) and without equity. I didn't give an answer then and never bothered to call back, they didn't bother to call me back either.

The founder that was acting up was not the tech guy, the tech guy seemed cool about it. I get that founders can get really attached to their idea and company but I would call this guy downright delusional. If you want me to share your commitment and dedication your need to give me equity.


Yeah, it's kind of funny. Like imagine how he would feel if presented with the "opportunity" to work on his own idea with no equity stake. Ideas are great, and it's a wonderful thing to be motived for ideological reasons. But they tend not to be the sole motivator. You usually have a ton of other things mixed in (potential financial independence, feeling like you own something, getting public credit for your own accomplishments instead of being anonymously mixed in with "the team", etc.) The last one is a bit shallow, but whatever, I'm human.

If he wouldn't feel excited about the offer he's giving you, then I can't see how you should either.


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?

Couldn't have said it better myself. This is a really good piece.


Indeed! It's not just a programmer thing. I chose the title because it chimes with the site and the audience


This is a bit funny since so many tech companies actually want to hire people with side projects.


Trying not to be too cynical, but here's what they really want. You can have side projects as long they're open source and don't make any money. This not only proves that you are willing to work for free, but your employer gets to be your sole income source as well. Can't have the devs being too optimistic about free enterprise. It keeps their butts out of the Hermann Miller Aeron Chairs.

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