Enslaving your interns for evil and profit

I should be in the middle of an interview right now. About fifteen minutes into it, in fact. About the part of my interview where we stop talking about awesome stuff the candidate has worked on in the past and start diving into writing some actual code. A stack with O(1) data access that also always knows its maximum, for example. Or perhaps a rudimentary mark-and-sweep garbage collector. It’s usually my favorite part of the interview: I get to see how the candidate thinks, how they process information, how they problem solve, and how they code. The best candidates even teach me something in the process.

But I’m not in the middle of an interview right now. I’m in Emacs. And instead of being excited about watching someone solve an interesting problem, I’m upset and full of righteous indignation on behalf of the now-former job candidate.

The Kiln Dodo monitors your success with gusto
You see, the candidate works for a company that is very scared.1 I know this because they made the candidate—let’s call him Bob—they made Bob sign a non-compete contract.

Non-competes are annoying, but not the end of the world. I can understand why, say, Apple, might be legitimately angry to have a senior iPhone manufacturing executive jump ship to HTC: a large part of the candidate’s value to HTC would be his knowledge of the internals of Apple’s manufacturing process. But very few jobs work like that. And even there, most companies don’t forbid you from working at all for a competitor; they forbid you from working in the same area of expertise. So, for example, maybe the iPhone executive couldn’t work on HTC’s manufacturing operations, but he could still head a software development team.

But Bob’s company decided that, nope, Bob couldn’t come work for us, because the existence of Joel on Software’s careers board made us a direct competitor with them.

Let me tell you something about the Joel on Software careers board: Fog Creek doesn’t even make it. We outsource the whole thing to a little-known company called StackOverflow.

It’s true. The lie exposed. If you’re in doubt, take a look and notice the admittedly subtle similarities:

Shocking, I’m sure.

Yet based on this, Bob’s company told him that Fog Creek and his firm were direct competitors, and therefore he couldn’t even come to work with us on, say, Kiln.

Here’s the thing: Bob’s a junior in college, and the company doing this to him is one he merely interned at. There is no way that Bob has inside knowledge of how a job board runs that could help us. And even if he somehow did have that knowledge, we don’t even run the job board! There’s no way he could actually give us anything that would help us! But Bob’s company made him turn us down, before we could even interview him, because they were absolutely, utterly terrified that their intern, who is still in college, was so amazing that his coming to work for us could crash their entire company.

I actually feel really bad for Bob’s company. They’re so unsure of their own ideas, so negative on their own potential, that they believe a former intern being physically near a company with an outsourced jobs board would be enough for that company to absolutely crush them. I don’t want to imagine what it feels like to get up every day and face that world. But that’s no reason to inflict such a morose world view on your interns.

So I’m upset on Bob’s behalf. Bob got shafted by a company he interned at. A company that has so little confidence that they’ve decided the best route to their success is to limit Bob’s choices. Limits that mean we miss out on an awesome candidate, and Bob misses out on an awesome job.

I’ve got two real points to make, at the end of the day:

If you’re an intern, don’t sign a non-compete contract. You have absolutely no idea where your life is going to take you, and you don’t want your direction being shaped by one crappy employer. And, trust me on this: no reputable software company I know of (Google, Microsoft, or Fog Creek) makes their interns sign non-compete contracts. You can find a job that won’t make you do that.

If you’re a company, don’t be a vampire. If you’re so scared of everyone else that you believe that you have to give your interns a non-compete contract in order to stay competitive, then guess what? You’re not competitive. Get a better idea.


  1. And based on the quality of their homepage, probably with good reason, but that’s neither here nor there.