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Nature, to Be Commanded, Must Be Obeyed

June 06, 2013

Working for Free

Have you just started working as a software developer? You will eventually be asked to work for free, or for a ridiculously low compensation[1]. If you are self-learned (like me) and you haven’t had the chance to compare your work against others’, you might fail to respond appropriately.

Let me just get to the point; if a potential client or employer undervalues your skills and tries to get you to agree on an unfair renumeration, you need to learn to say no. It’s plain and simple. I am not saying you should get angry or defensive. On the contrary, best response is to stay cool-headed and reject the proposal without compromising on your professionalism. Take a look at this video:

Here is the transcript of the conversation:

  • Conrad Hilton: Don, this is friendly.
  • Don Draper: Connie, this is my profession. What do you want me to do.
  • Conrad Hilton: I want you to give me one for free.

  • Conrad Hilton: …next time somebody like me asks you a question like that, you need to think bigger.
  • Don Draper: Well. Connie, there are snakes, that go months without eating. Then they finally catch something. But they are so hungry, they suffocate when they are eating…

Why should you sell yourself short, if you have spent years honing your skills?[2] There is usually a carrot, a promise of future work, bestowmend of experience and so forth. And there is also a stick, but it would have to be subtle of course, this is a one time opportunity, perhaps your reputation will be damaged if you refuse. This is called manipulation, it is abusive behaviour, but it is employed often in negotiation situations. There is no point in complaining, get used to it and get better at dealing with it.

Joker is right:

  • Chechen: What do you propose?
  • Joker: It’s simple. We, err, kill the Batman.
  • Maroni: If it’s so simple, why haven’t you done it already?
  • Joker: If you are good at something, never do it for free!

Here is a chart to help you determine if working for free is alright, or not. I have an even simpler heuristic for you:

If you feel even a little uncomfortable, say no.

Not everybody tries to take advantage of their employees or contractors. If you feel like the other person is trying to take advantage of you, get out. You will eventually encounter decent people.

For more information you can check out FAQ About Spec Work. It’s primary audience is designers but the principles apply to software developers as well.

[1]A.K.A. working for peanuts.
[2]Remember, even if you are just starting your professional career, you probably have spent a considerable amount of time, if not years, just to learn the basics. Besides there is a good chance the person in front of you is on the other side of the digital divide if he is making an unfair offer.

If you have any questions, suggestions or corrections feel free to drop me a line.