Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Conflict of Interest and Working on the Side

January 28th, 2009 · 5 Comments

Software development is my full-time job. It’s also one of my favorite hobbies. Over the past ten years, this tendency of mine to dabble in software development on the side has provided me with my more than my fair share of questioning glances from employers, clients, friends, and business partners, not to mention annual conflict of interest disclosures that go on for a page or two.

Here’s my latest disclosure:

  • Co-founder of TroopTrack.com, (Web-based Boy Scout troop management software for the 21st century) with Bryan Harrison and Bill Young (Currently in Beta)
  • Co-founder Uladoo.com (Chart your life) with Atomic Object
  • Publisher of TechDarkSide.com (Corporate IT Survival Guide)
  • Freelance author of articles about software development, testing, and project management
  • Independent training provider (Exploratory Testing Practicum and Automated Acceptance Testing with RSpec/Selenium)
  • Independent consultant related to automated and exploratory testing
  • Troubles of Full Disclosure
    I decided, early on, to always disclose potential conflicts of interest about my hobbies, even when I felt reasonable sure there was no real conflict of interest. I felt that, in a legal dispute, the law would favor the honest. So far, this policy of disclosure has never harmed me in serious ways.

    I have also made it a policy to disclose these activities to potential employers and business partners. This has occasionally been troublesome. For example, my partners in TroopTrack.com are rightfully worried that my involvement in Uladoo.com will hurt our partnership because of my already limited free time. I do my best to manage it, but the truth is these types of concerns are legitimate. But… would I go back in time and not tell them about it if I could? No. I’d rather they knew about it upfront rather than find out when Uladoo.com goes live in a few weeks.

    Another problem I’ve had is related to potential employers. I’ve had several job interviews that took a dramatic turn for the worse when I disclosed my outside activities. Ironically, it was exactly these activities that had drawn their attention to me, but understanding my level of involvement immediately aroused suspicion that I was less than committed to full-time employment. There have been moments over the past couple of years where I wished I had started a small business or something making furniture instead. List that under hobbies on a resume and no one will notice.

    Another issue with disclosure has been the way I was perceived by less-than-mature managers I’ve had in the past. They tended to see my outside activities as a threat to my job performance and were often critical of my passionate involvement in software development outside of my job.

    To Disclose or Not To Disclose
    So, with all of these problems resulting from my disclosures, would I change the way I’ve handled this?

    No. Absolutely not. In fact, the positive benefits of these disclosures have far outweighed the negative consequences. Here’s a list of the benefits:

  • I get to feel like an honest person. This is the most important benefit.
  • I’ve been preemptively eliminated from consideration for jobs that would have made me unhappy. Avoiding a bad job is just as much a win as finding a good one.
  • My business partners may have reason to question my availability, but they have no reason to question my honesty
  • Ultimately, it was my on-the-side activities that led to my job with Collaborative Software Initiative, a fun job at a company that ships good software
  • If you’re a hobbyist software developer/tester/whatever, and you are faced with a similar dilemma, I hope you will consider my experience when others tell you not to tell your boss about what you’re doing. You’ll be happier with the truth than with secrecy.


     

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    5 responses so far ↓

    • 1 Dennis Gorelik // Jan 29, 2009 at 3:07 pm

      I would recommend to do full disclosure to only those who would appreciate it.
      If you pushing some unsolicited info to hiring manager — you:
      1) Distract hiring manager by overloading him with information.
      2) Put hiring manager into position when he doesn't know how to handle this disclosure. 3) Make this hiring manager responsible for knowing your full disclosure, but still hiring you.

      I think "don't ask — don't tell" policy is more appropriate in that case.
      On the other hand — if the question about other activities is asked — it should be answered honestly.

      How often were you asked about your side jobs/hobbies while in hiring process?

    • 2 davidray // Jan 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm

      I'm afraid I disagree with you on this Dennis. What if I accepted a job and showed up on the first day only to find I was supposed to sign a comprehensive intellectual property agreement that gave them the rights to everything I did (my brother had to sign one of these)? Or what if they hired me, then found out about it and were really upset and gave me the boot? It's better to get this kind of stuff out of the way before you commit.

    • 3 Dennis Gorelik // Jan 29, 2009 at 4:09 pm

      1) Aren't you supposed to sign all intellectual property agreements before you start your job?
      2) Why would your employer be upset about your side jobs/hobbies if you successfully do what you are supposed to do?
      What if your employer would be upset about mismatching socks that you wear to work? Do you have to disclose that fact during job interview too?

    • 4 davidray // Jan 29, 2009 at 4:30 pm

      Ah, Dennis. I love you man. You just can't let those socks go, can you?

      Typically, IP agreements are signed on your first day of work and are only discussed beforehand if the potential employee asks about them in the hiring process. Refusing to sign an IP agreement will almost always result in an offer being withdrawn, and you will find yourself ineligible for government unemployment benefits because you have already voluntarily left your previous job. Unless you want to be in the humiliating circumstance of begging for your old job back, I recommend you ask about IP agreements and discuss what they mean in the context of your side activities.

      As for why a manager would care about your side jobs/hobbies if you're otherwise doing a good? Well, I've often asked the same question. A wise, mature manager in corporate IT normally wouldn't. Unfortunately, too many IT managers are neither wise or mature. Sometimes, however, there are legitimate concerns about such activities. For example, I was once asked by a competing insurance company to teach a private class at their location. I discussed this with our business ethics representative, and she asked that I instead provide a public course near their location, which I did. Directly entering into a contract with one of your competitors is not a good idea – you can be fired before the ink is dry. There are other areas where an employer might be concerned, particularly if they feel the technology you use in your regular job is a key component in their competitive advantage.

    • 5 Dennis Gorelik // Jan 29, 2009 at 5:26 pm

      1) "Mismatching socks" are just an example (although you should admit it's a good one :-)). Another example could be about you having kids, or having tattoo, rough youth, or whatever else could possibly make your employer being concerned.
      Why disclose your side jobs but don't disclose other stuff?

      2) If I'm not mistaken, if your employer fires you on your first day — you are eligible for unemployment benefits again.
      But even if it is not the case, the solution is exactly as you describe in the last comment: ask your employer about IP agreements before you accept the offer.
      That doesn't necessarily mean full disclosure about your side jobs.

      3) I agree that full disclosure helps to identify bad management early. But by unsolicited full disclosure you really risk to scare off reasonably good employers/clients too.

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