Small startup shows us the wrong way to incentivize programmers

A small Los Angeles-based company, Bee Technologies, recently made a stir on Reddit by asking potential unpaid interns to complete a fairly complex software product before they were “hired.” The resulting conversation is interesting simply because it shows where “passion” for a job stops and “ridiculousness” starts.

The exchange began innocuously enough. A programmer, Sina Astani, applied to the unpaid internship, fully willing to take a quick salary hit to try something new. Bee’s response was this:

Thank you for applying for the Back End Software Development Intern position. Before we we get you in for an interview, you will need to pass this development test: Project Guideline: Here at Bee we are content heavy, so this project is designed to test how well you can manage content. Here, the front-end would like to send a JSON encoded API request to your server in order to upload a photo to the site. It is on you to create an endpoint that can handle this upload, then find a way to view all the photos that have been uploaded to the site in an efficient manner.

While programming tests are common in tech and unpaid internships are not unheard of, this request goes above and beyond. Bee is asking interns to create an integral part of their technology, from scratch, for free. Uploading a JSON-encoded images using a public API is one thing. Displaying all of those uploaded images “in an efficient manner” begins to seem like work. Then there was the response. Astani asked about the job and Bee replied.

“Happy to clarify,” wrote one of the founders. “This position is paid after a 3 month training. This is non-negotiable and keeps us from hiring engineers that end up being toxic to our long term goals and just looking for a pay day. As for the project, you will have one week from today. We wish you the best of luck and hope to have you on our team within the month!”

The Reddit poster, Sina Astani, is an experienced dev working on a MS in computer science. He found the test to be a little excessive.

“I don’t think highly of any company that asks you to do free work for them before any kind of personal contact,” he said. “I’ve been interviewed by Google, Hulu, IBM, and worked at a startup. This is ridiculous.”

“I would not complete the project. Its basically asking me to build their platform, then I get to work for free for three months with their ‘leading engineers.’ Its totally out of line. I don’t know anyone, except maybe for someone who is naive and without experience who would do such a thing. The fact that they post this on Indeed is offensive.”

There is, obviously, a fine line between asking someone to work for free because they will soon be an integral part of the organization and asking someone to work for free because you can. In fact, had the company simply hired for the “Junior Front End Engineer” they had posted and offer 2-5% of equity, they would have been fine. Plenty of people have bet on startups that failed and worked for sweat equity.

But then there’s this line, full of high-tech hubris and bravado:

I’ve reached out to the company but they’ve pulled most of their social media presence and I haven’t heard back on any channel. It would behoove them to remember, however, that there is a fine line between “disruption” and “opportunism.” In this case, they crossed it.

UPDATE – Bee writes:

We were shocked. It was especially hard having to sit there knowing that I had spent weeks reading California law and working with the team to create a program that helped us find fellow college students who wanted to work with us to create something cool (people we currently have on our team). We are just four college kids with no money trying to change the way people connect with their brands. We knew we couldn’t cut six figure checks, so we set aside 5% of our company to give to employees and offered college credit to those still in school.

I don’t think this was a good strategy. There is no way to explain how hard we worked to do the right thing and our job post should have gone into more detail. One of our core values is transparency and I now realize our job posting and my emails do not achieve that. All I needed to do was call him and explain our situation and none of this would have happened. 

I thought that people would assume we did things the right way and I was mistaken. We are now going to be very forthcoming about it being unpaid. Historically, that was the first email I sent after they applied. I didn’t for this job, and it was a mistake. Especially when it comes to the engineering community, there are a lot of companies that try to take advantage of young engineers. A lot of the hate we received seemed to be about something more than our post – it’s the way companies take advantage of their skills for free. From now on, I will be fully transparent from the original job post. We do not want to be one of those companies and are doing everything we can to make Bee worth it.