Home > Uncategorized > When does an interview become free consulting?

When does an interview become free consulting?

June 30, 2015

I recently had a weird and negative experience applying for a job.

I went for standard the day-long interview, and answered a bunch of questions, and met a bunch of people, maybe 9. In one of the interviews, they asked me how I would approach some of the data questions they were working on, and I gave them some spur-of-the-moment advice. In one case I exactly outlined the approach they were actually taking. All this is fine, and to be expected.  In fact I felt like the interview had gone well, and I had liked and been liked by most of the people I’d met.

Then, when I was about to leave for the day, they told me they wanted to send me “homework.” This is not something they had mentioned to me beforehand, but I was exhausted from the long day and I responded in a vague way, something like, “um, OK, well, I’ll take a look.”

When I eventually got it, the homework was very open-ended and very very hard. In fact I was guessing that it was probably an NP-complete problem, although I didn’t look it up (although I’m sure I could have, which is also weird). Moreover, it was directly relevant to the company’s business.

I felt like it was a fair question for them to have me work on if I had been hired, but it seemed too much to ask for me to work on it before then. Moreover, I was (and still am!) working very hard on my book, and I’d already given them a full day of my time. It seemed like they wanted me to give them free consulting in addition to applying for a job. I decided to write back to them and tell them I was very busy, and that I’d rather not do this homework “unless it was a dealbreaker.”

Here’s what happened next. First, the person who had sent me the homework told me it wasn’t a dealbreaker, and that I’d hear back soon. Then, nothing happened. Nothing at all. I didn’t hear from them for weeks, so I figured that was all the news I needed to know.

I finally wrote to a friend of mine who worked there just to say, hey, no hard feelings, I hope you’re well. By then I had totally given up on the job, but he was curious as to why. After telling him the story, the next day I got an email from his boss’s boss explaining that he had been waiting for me to go ahead and do the homework, and that he was disappointed I hadn’t been willing to. So it had been a dealbreaker after all.

So my question to you kind folks is this: when does an interview, and homework afterwards, become free consulting? What are the standards? Do you think I should have done the homework? Do you think it was unreasonable for them to ask of me? Or do you think it was OK for them to ask me but not OK for them to mislead me about whether it was a requirement?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 30, 2015 at 7:28 am

    “Toy” homework, perhaps a case study or typical scenario, to demonstrate your work, seems reasonable. If it should take more than an hour or two for a qualified candidate to complete, then you should be reimbursed a market wage for your time. Or negotiate a number of hours and agree to a short term contract. But this is getting weird already, and maybe they want to put you on as a consultant on retainer.

    Another path is for you to sketch how you would approach the “homework”, without actually giving them much for free. They may just want to see you thinking out loud, displaying your knowledge and experience, and covering the bases, while showing some creativity.

    It’s a good thing this fell through. If their formal recruiting communication and institutional awareness is lacking, it suggests other areas are as well. Sometimes their response to your homework is more important to you than you actually doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lauren
    June 30, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Two things going on here– one is the content of the homework, the other is more systematic. I think both are problems. They want to suck your brain for free AND want to find out if you are a person who willingly sacrifices (ie, exploits) themselves for the boss/ the team. Was it a deal breaker or not? Was it an internal miscommunication (bad), or an intentional mindfuck (worse– lets see if candidate does the work even if it’s ‘not required’)?
    The fact that it wasn’t explicit earlier is unprofessional and disrespectful. Imagine you had knocked yourself out showing them your stuff and weren’t offered the job?! If this is a workplace that — consciously or not— screens for people who will jump through hoops for doggie treats, it couldn’t be a worse fit for MathBabe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vaag Mosca
    June 30, 2015 at 8:45 am

    I think it depends on the nature of the job. The higher the level of the job, the more may be expected of you during the application process. If you really thought this might be a great job, then I would give it the benefit of the doubt and go ahead and do the homework . . . unless you feel compromised by the nature of the homework, that they may be trying to pry “secrets” out of you and then ditch you in the end. When I applied for the job of “director of mathematics” for the Belmont Public Schools, I endured six interviews over a period of three weeks, plus an on-site set of interviews at Diamond by the Superintendent and his assistant where they interviewed teachers, students, parents, and admins. In the end, I got the job. It was worth all the hassle, even if it meant I may not have gotten the job.


    • Jack
      June 30, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      It’s the opposite, the higher the job level, the less they expect from you. Can you imagine them asking a CEO to do homework?


      • Vaag Mosca
        July 1, 2015 at 7:16 am

        I expect that a potential CEO would have many more (and more difficult) hoops to jump through.


        • July 11, 2015 at 1:31 pm

          They’d be more thoroughly vetted, but not in infantilizing ways, I’m sure.


    • July 1, 2015 at 5:20 am

      What you described is consistent with interviews for municipal, county and state jobs. About ten years ago, I interviewed for a 20 hours-per-week library clerk position for the City of Phoenix. It paid $11 per hour. I was interviewed by an extremely formal five-person panel, and if I had been chosen for a call-back interview, I would have had another round with three of the five in separate half-hour interviews. A few years later, when I interviewed for a statistics job with two direct reports, with the State of Arizona Dept of Health Services, I went through something like you described for director of mathematics, but not quite as grueling, as my position was not as senior as yours.

      These experiences were VERY different (and much more unpleasant) than my interviews for quantitative finance and hardware engineering jobs in the private sector.


    • July 1, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      Extensive interviews are not the same as homework. Interviews: they are spending the same time on you as you are on them (and are therefore equitable and reasonable). Homework: you are spending time on them with no quid pro quo (and is therefore not reasonable).


  4. msobel
    June 30, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Both of the above comments make sense to me. My reaction, given that I haven’t been in a job interview this millennium, is that a job interview is like a date, only opposite. You are trying to see if a long term relationship makes sense and feelings about how the other person acts are important. These people don’t seem to be people with whom you want to be intimate.

    They didn’t make it clear what they were asking for. They were asking for a lot from you with no commitment to reciprocate.

    Since you liked the people you interviewed with, it sounds like the problem is with the boss’s boss and in general it’s a bad idea to work for a company with immoral leadership. (But you already know this from your work in Finance.)

    It’s the opposite of a date, because on a job interview you start out saying yes, and you can always say no at any point.


  5. June 30, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Don’t know, but I had a doctor’s appointment turn into free consulting… weird. And still got a bill.


  6. June 30, 2015 at 8:59 am

    I have recently started using the HW assignment when I interview. Not surprisingly, it has become the best screener for a candidate’s skill set. We try to be respectful of the candidate’s time though. I’ve designed a “test” that should probably take about 4 hrs. We tell them well in advance that this is part of the process and to expect it. As annoying as this may be for a candidate, it’s becoming a pretty standard interview technique. As DS has become so popular, more and more people are applying who don’t really have any direct experience, other than a technical degree and a MOOC or two. These two things don’t really guarantee quality, so the HW assignment is proving itself as an effective gauge. So unfortunately – you may have to just swallow this time and do them. But do look to see if the test can reasonably be done in 4-5 hrs. If not, then it might ultimately be a reflection of how the company respects people’s time, and that might be a signal for you to avoid said company.


  7. Christina
    June 30, 2015 at 9:02 am

    They’re either sleazy or very poor communicators. Neither are your type of people!


  8. June 30, 2015 at 9:37 am

    If I had been positive up to that point, as you indicated, I would have treated the homework like a case question in an interview, though with a little more polish. In other words, I would outline a plan of attack to solve the problem and add some comments about alternative methods (compare and contrast). I would target to spend an hour on it, but probably end up taking 90 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how interesting I found the question.

    One other thing that I’m sure you, Mathbabe, know, but didn’t write about in your description is that the job interview process is also an opportunity for you to assess whether you want to go to work at the place. At my stage of career (and probably Mathbabe’s, too) that could easily include a period of contract work for projects where both sides continue to feel out the potential relationship. Personally, I would only do this if I felt there was a real spirit of partnership on both sides but I guess I’m lucky to be able to be picky.


  9. June 30, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Several weeks? Just for confirmation, check with your friend in a couple of months and see if this ‘position’ was ever filled.

    This kind of audition has been around since they demanded you bring in some game before they considered letting you come into the cave. Asking for free consulting work as part of a job interview is notorious is fields like advertising, web design and any other field were a specific short problem can be presented.

    The thing is, it is very difficult to know upfront if the request is legitimate or not. If you are a consultant and hence are interviewing for work a lot of the time you can develop a feel for this but even then it is not completely reliable. This lack is one of the reasons consultants charge three times there ‘real’ wage as a rate; you have to get paid for the work you did and never got paid.


  10. Mike Williams
    June 30, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Substantial take home projects are (and terrible communication) are now par for the course for recruitment for serious data science roles, based on my experience interviewing in NYC earlier this year.

    Some of the homeworks I was asked to do were very substantial, likely taking a weekend. In one case I was offered a fair hourly consulting rate for my time.

    However, none of the projects I did were conceivably of any direct use to the company. They were all public datasets. That they asked you to work in depth on a current business problem of theirs is either laziness and a failure of imagination, or, as you say, an attempt to get free work. Either way, steer clear.


  11. Daniel O'Neil
    June 30, 2015 at 10:25 am

    As someone who has done many hires that included a rigorous technical screening (i.e., “homework”) as part of the effort, I can assure you that companies don’t get free consulting from untested potential hires. This is for two reasons:
    – most of the answers aren’t good enough.
    – The problem’s solution space has to be well understood to the hiring team because otherwise they can’t evaluate the applicant’s ability.

    An alternate interpretation from the hiring side (and you’re not going to like this) that if it felt like “free consulting” to an applicant that it might have been too difficult for you to do well and you might not qualify for the position anyway.


    • Johnny Bonny
      July 1, 2015 at 1:11 am

      What makes you feel you can “assure” anyone in a situation you know nothing about?


  12. Gordon
    June 30, 2015 at 10:34 am

    I think the line between “interview problem” and “consulting” is defined by whether the interviewer is using the homework to test your solution against their own model, or to generate answers to a problem that they haven’t already solved.

    We have used assignments to test job candidates’ skills, and that’s worked well for us; in cases where we’ve asked for de novo investment theses, we’ve offered to pay for time spent on the work, but I couldn’t tell you how many people have accepted that compensation.

    With respect to the other issue you raised (communication), I have a partner who will never call a candidate back until they’ve reached out to him; it sounds simplistic, but he looks at the speed and form of a candidate’s follow-up after an interview as a proxy for their initiative and the level of desire they have for the role.


    • June 30, 2015 at 9:33 pm

      Does the partner actually tell the other person that? Or does he say, “We’ll be in touch” and then do the opposite?


      • Gordon
        July 2, 2015 at 11:45 am

        He says that he “looks forward to speaking with them in the future”, and thanks them for their time. So, no: he doesn’t tell them that he’s going to get in contact and then stay mum; he also doesn’t tell them that he expects to see a follow-up, because he’s explicitly looking for people who will take initiative with respect to communication.


        • July 2, 2015 at 12:11 pm

          That’s deceptive and pretty foul.


        • July 11, 2015 at 1:38 pm

          In other words, he intends to filter out introverts.


    • Cranky Observer
      July 3, 2015 at 8:00 pm

      Back in the day when I was hiring I would put candidates who “reached out” more than once (or at all, if in violation of specific instruction not to) at the bottom of the pile. Quite a conundrum.

      I was in the business world when ‘contact’ and ‘call’ were replaced by “reach out”. Wasn’t impressed then and time has not been kind to that neologism. Belongs in the ash can with “around”.


  13. June 30, 2015 at 11:28 am

    How would you have felt if the HW assignment was just as hard, but wasn’t directly on their business? So it wasn’t consulting?


    • June 30, 2015 at 11:35 am

      Better. Also better if it was not so open-ended, also better if they had warned me in advance, also better if they had told me it was required.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. June 30, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    Standards? There are no standards. Firms nowadays feel free to try anything to get good, cheap people who fit in.

    The general reality is that only inside candidates ever get hired because bosses generally hire people they especially like. So if you are an inside candidate, you know how to assess an “Innovation” as an artifact of corporate culture. And if you are not an inside candidate– ie you do not know how to assess…– then you instead assess an innovation (1) on its potential for making you an inside candidate and (2) on how badly you want the job.


  15. Guest2
    June 30, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Yes, common. It takes advantage of the fact that you are willing to bend the rules to get hired. Welcome to the snake-pit that the American workplace has become.


  16. johnrodat
    June 30, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Interesting challenge. Here are a couple thoughts:

    1. They should have told you in advance that this would happen in the final stages of selection.
    2. During preliminary or intermediate stages, asking you to outline potential approaches is fair, but asking you to do the actual work, without compensation, is iffy at best.
    3. Then, they should pick two or three finalists, tell them they are, pay them for doing the work.
    4. Most importantly, what I tell my kids and others I mentor, is never forget you are interviewing them too. Part of work is the technical and production side. But part of work, especially in effective organizations is also how well they function and in behaviors that generate loyalty and even excitement and pride.


  17. josh
    June 30, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Putting myself in your shoes, I’d ask if I really want to pursue the opportunity. If yes, the first step is to clear up the communications and expectations. If the company blows it here, then the path to no is clear.

    If the company responds well (implying that the organization/people can learn from mistakes of various sorts) then it’s a different game.

    But I would offer, at least to your friend, your take on the experience so that it might filter in to the company culture, even if highly diluted.


  18. June 30, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    I have very mixed feelings on this.

    They clearly did a poor job of communicating and it doesn’t benefit them at all to put up arbitrary barriers to hiring by hiding the requirements. My guess is that this was an internal communication problem rather than intentionally misleading (I usually assume incompetence rather than ). As others have said, this may be an indicator of poor communication within the organization which could be a reason to be wary. I also think that it’s bad practice not to explain the entire interview process unambiguously at the start.

    In addition, they should be giving you the shortest time commitment version of such a problem that can still adequately test the skills they’re looking for.

    However, on the homework side, I think that a job relevant problem really is one of the best ways of assessing how well someone will perform in a role. I’ve seen several poorly performing people who were hired because of credentials or apparent experience. In all these cases, they would have not have been hired if they had actually had to produce something relevant prior to being hired.

    This is also a reason not to use toy problems, because making one that actually captures the job relevant skills is pretty difficult. Taking a real problem guarantees its relevance to the job. Ideally, a company would use a real problem they encountered but had previously solved, as this would give them a benchmark to assess against.


    • June 30, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      I mean, yes, but doesn’t it count that I solved one their problems on the spot? Why isn’t that enough evidence that I can solve problems?


  19. kevin mcconnen
    June 30, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Heck no. Their request was unreasonable. I’ve consulted forever at over a 120 large companies in computer apps and my rule is I never give away work for free. free means either the client is taking advantage of you or their don’t sufficiently value you. they had more than enough exposure to you during the day to judge your value to them


  20. chaletfor2
    June 30, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    You did the right thing. They used you. After a full day, homework with no quid pro quo? They were ill prepared for the interview–not knowing what they were looking for and fishing for someone who could clarify their own questions. You may call it consulting but I would call it usury. There may even have been no position available.


  21. June 30, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    I started to get this a decade ago in computer games. I was prepared to interview; take an on-site coding test; bring in a portfolio of prior work. But then I started to get requests for a custom game, under some specifications, taking days or a week. This really pissed me off.

    Having digested it afterward, my metric is now: Where’s the quid pro quo? A day of my time should be worth a day of your time — a standard met in a face-to-face interview. If I’m working on my own for days then I should get some sort of compensation. Even if a bunch of other commenters say this is now standard, I get too pissed off for too long afterward at having been bullied to participate anymore.


  22. linuxster
    June 30, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    A good interviewer has enough experience to find the right questions and appropriate depth to classify potentials within 60 min. Also so much of work today is collaborative and involves self-learning. Good interviewers can also assess that. Therefore I like the approach of taking on people in a probationary way and assigning a sponsor (current employee) who can help with the more permanent hiring decisions. Job descriptions and panel tech interviews are often very disorganized and not realistic as questions are not standardized and assessment is not agreed. Has anyone ever received interview training? My guess is no. Therefore most companies follow the mythical man month style of interviewing. Throw enough problems or people at it and what comes out must be a good result. Finding unicorns with an interview process is a waste of time and there are no stats to back it up and often signs of insecure management. Overfitting job descriptions and long tech screenings are bad signs and usually mean incompetency And/or bad culture. Could also be a sign that data scientists are poor and don’t fight for talent.

    And your friends inability or low influence to vouch for you are also warning signs to me that this place places value in or with the wrong people.

    Without knowing the content of the problem it could be they just want to assess meta-data about you. Ex. if/how you take tasks, how much you want the job.

    Perhaps they just want a worker bee and your more the queen bee at this point in your life.


  23. ar
    June 30, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Clearly some poor communication here, but a homework problem like this is fair game and not something you should be paid for unless the time requirement is excessive. While probably less relevant in your particular case, for candidates who have good academic credentials but a limited publication record or work experience, this can be a useful screener. For example, is the candidate someone who, in a compressed timeframe, can come up with something beyond the simplest cookbook solution, or perhaps digest and synthesize relevantly new ideas that are only carefully discussed in recent academic work?

    Another useful aspect of a homework problem is that it can help identify a strong candidate who nonetheless stumbles on simple toy problems in an interview, or who is asked overly specific questions outside their area of expertise. For example, some interviewers might choose to ask a candidate with a PhD from a top program, multiple decent publications, and 5 years of work experience to solve some random undergraduate textbook problem (suppose I have 5 black balls and 7 white balls and…), then reject the candidate when they freeze up on this. Likewise, they might ask a candidate who is an expert in panel data to write out the Newey-West estimator or discuss how to estimate a vector autoregression with time-varying parameters, which said person might be hard-pressed to do when they haven’t done much time series work.


  24. David
    July 1, 2015 at 12:02 am

    Yes, this is unprofessional on their part in asking for your time on
    a project that normally would be paid. At the very least, they should have
    informed you before the interview so you would be able to decide whether you
    wanted to go through with it. From my own experience, Linuxster is probably right
    on why they did this.


  25. Haim T
    July 1, 2015 at 1:22 am

    Welcome to job search, where corporate america shows it’s sociopathic side. In my years as a candidate and hiring manager most recruiters I met were incompetent, arrogant fools, and most hiring processes ran poorly with zero ownership, poor communications and no measure of success except butts in seats. Don’t take it personally, we all go through it.


  26. July 1, 2015 at 2:46 am

    Is it possible, in a sort of Dunning-Kruger way, that they were ignorant of the difficulty of the problem – they actually thought that someone suitably ‘mathy’ could knock out an answer in an hour or two?


  27. July 1, 2015 at 6:25 am

    MathBabe, you know the answer already. You did the right thing, in not allowing yourself to be exploited with free consulting (couched as an interview), or at best, a huge imposition on your time given the situation. It doesn’t matter if you were busy writing your book or if you had nothing better to do! Don’t feel as though you need to justify your logic.

    Obviously, the company’s request was unreasonable:
    1. Asking you to solve an NP-complete problem as part of an (uncompensated) job interview is bizarre, whether it is or isn’t directly related to their business. They aren’t a dissertation committee or running a computational complexity contest.
    2. If the employer, and/or the position is in the USA, rules about pre-employment testing of job candidates apply. Every person that the company interviewed for that job would need to be given the same homework assignment, with the same guidelines, e.g. return your solution to us in X number of days. If not, it would be a discriminatory hiring practice. This is true in the USA, regardless of whether the company is an Equal Opportunity Employer. If the company considered the homework to be a mandatory part of the selection process, they needed to tell you explicitly and give you a specific time limit for completion, in order to establish consistent standards for fairly evaluating candidates. The company clearly didn’t do that. If weeks passed and they were still waiting for your results, they should have contacted you, or at least gotten back to you about the status of your candidacy for the position.

    Standing down from my soapbox, I’m curious about why you said this:
    “In fact I was guessing that it was probably an NP-complete problem, although I didn’t look it up (although I’m sure I could have, which is also weird).”
    Why was it weird that you could have looked up whether or not the problem were NP-complete? I’m not saying that you should have been put in that position to begin with as part of an interview, of course. If it isn’t too revealing about the company or their business, could you explain why you considered that aspect to be weird?

    The entire thing is weird, and I hope it is atypical among your future interviews! If not, I am worried, as I wouldn’t want to have that happen to me 😮


    • July 1, 2015 at 7:25 am

      OK, a couple of things. First, I wrote back to the CTO telling him I found the whole process unfair and deceptive. Also, I though it was weird that it was googleable, because that meant it was more of a test of my googling abilities than it was of my problem solving abilities.


      • jouhabi
        July 1, 2015 at 8:16 am

        If the solution of the problem was googleable why do you think it was free consulting ? Anyway I agree that their communication sucks and that you are better off anyway 🙂


      • July 1, 2015 at 9:40 am

        Good for you, writing back to the CTO. Wow, you are actually trying to make things better! Next, thank you for answering my question. Finally, please, don’t be irritated by my too-lengthy comment? That was kind of rude, but WordPress doesn’t allow editing and pruning. I promise that I won’t do it again.


      • Laocoon
        July 9, 2015 at 11:24 am

        Cathy, this is revealing in itself. If it was googleable, that strikes me as two red flags. One, they aren’t smart enough to create a new or challenging problem; and, two, in that vein, the job may turn out not to be very challenging or interesting. I’m in the camp that if they spent a day with you and then gave you homework, you don’t want to work for them, for all the reasons everyone has set forth.


    • July 1, 2015 at 10:50 pm

      @Ellie: Excellent points, particularly #2. Related, our HR dept went so far as to instruct all hiring managers that we had to ask the same set of questions during pre-interview phone screens, i.e., phone calls with candidates where we decide who gets an on-site interview. I can’t imagine us giving candidates homework assignments but, if we did, I’m certain we’d get a lot of attention from HR to ensure that we weren’t doing something which could be considered discriminatory.

      My view is that asking someone to do homework is inappropriate. If one day on-site isn’t sufficient to gauge their skills then have them back for a second day. Call their references. Ask to see a portfolio of their work (provided their prior work isn’t proprietary). There are perfectly reasonable ways to gauge someone’s skills without asking them to do homework.

      Liked by 1 person

  28. nat
    July 1, 2015 at 8:23 am

    I’d say you were given a peek at what it’s like to work there. Among other things, they lied from the getgo. It doesn’t get any better after that.

    Looking back, in jobs that turned out to be unsatisfying or frustrating, I have noticed that there were plenty of signals of what was to come given in the interview, or even in my initial contacts with the organization. Very useful to be in touch with those feelings that tell you “this ain’t right and I want out.”


  29. Uncle Bruno
    July 1, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Went through something similar recently. Was asked to provide a (proprietary) report done for a previous client, supply client references, and take a personality test. I got the sense there was a fear of making a commitment to a hire and insecurity about what they’re looking for. Of course, potentially they could use the client leads and steal some ideas, but I didn’t see that as a goal.

    Mostly, the process is about feeling out power dynamics. Will you do what you’re told? How much do you want the job?


  30. July 1, 2015 at 11:02 am

    I’ve been set homework when applying for data science roles, some of which have been on company related topics. I’m quite a fan: it’s nice to have the freedom to use google (which I do all the time when programming) and to implement a robust solution, rather than a 5 minutes at the whiteboard hack; if the task is well selected it’s a fairer screening process (picking the 5 / 50 best homework answers as a way of selecting interview candidates has fewer opportunities to activate unconscious biases than screening CVs alone); and doing the task well gives you a high probability of being interviewed, even if your CV is unconventional (like mine).

    However, these homework tasks have always been before any interviews, are not hugely time consuming (about 4 hours work at most), not hugely sensitive to the business, and well-signposted from the start of the application process. Springing a massive task on you right at the end of a whole day of interviews (when it’s clearly useless in its usual purpose as a pre-interview screen), misleading you as to its importance, then going silent on you seems more than a little unprofessional.

    What I suspect happened is that there was an internal conflict over the importance of the task. Your interviewers, who had met you, were happy to evaluate you on the interviews so didn’t care about the homework; their boss (or someone else in the company) had spent a long time thinking up (or about) the homework and wanted to see it used (or solved). Hence the miscommunication.

    One slightly ballsy way of handling it could have been to spend a short amount of time appraising the problem (first hour of consulting is free) and write a couple of paragraphs outlining your proposed solution, a sketch of the implementation (algorithms, assumptions, caveats etc) and the time you think it would take to get a prototype / full-scale deployment running. Then send it to them as a proposed solution and ask whether this is sufficient, or if they want the whole thing. If you’re lucky it’s enough (and you get a job offer), if they want more politely point them to the amount of time it will take and ask if, since it’s a considerable body of work, they would like to pay you at your standard consultancy rate. If you get lucky again they pay you AND you get a job offer; if not, well they were asking you to work for free, so probably you didn’t really want the job anyway.


  31. curlydan
    July 1, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    I’ve been ripped off in a similar situation by a company in 2004-2005 (Strategic One in the Kansas City area that was later acquired by Convio that was acquired by Blackbaud). They asked me for some recommended methodology on clustering project, got me to write it up, then said in an email “oh, we’re going internal for this solution”. Ohhhh, it ticked me off.

    I prefer to avoid homework when I interview candidates and make any “test” work occur on site and last no more than 1 hour.


  32. stachyra
    July 1, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    Back in 2013, I spent about a year unemployed, while attempting to make a strategic transition from a ~10 year career in the defense industry to, well…just about any other field. I have a STEM Ph.D. in a math-heavy discipline, and although most of my job titles in the past have been things like “Research Scientist” or “R&D Engineer”, a lot of my actual skills and responsibilities have typically been things that a data scientist would quickly recognize. During my year-long career transition period, I applied to numerous “data scientist” positions, and completed many of these so-called “homework assignments”, but not a single one actually lead to an offer. Happily, I’m back in the workforce now (going on 17 months at a small biotech firm that makes software for computational biology, so the transition ultimately was successful), but the thing that lead to my current gig was actually showing them an existing offer letter, and telling them that I was planning to say yes to it. It was amazing: after a year of trying (and failing) to prove to employers that I was awesomely competent, the thing that actually got me the job offer I really wanted was demonstrating that there was competing demand from another company.

    Fast forward another year, and roughly 5 to 6 months ago, I was asked to start participating in recruiting efforts for my new/current employer. That exercise has been a real eye-opener. The company that I work for now doesn’t use these kinds of homework assignments as part of their recruiting strategy, but based upon the volume of resumes that we receive, I’ve quickly concluded that the companies that do do it are doing it because they can; there are literally dozens of other candidates in line applying for most positions, right behind you.

    In spite of that fact, somewhat counterintuitively, given my own bad experiences with these types of tests, I actually don’t recommend doing them for free. Hopefully that doesn’t sound hypocritical–I mean it in a “learn from my mistakes” kind of way, and not “do what I say, not what I do”. Here’s the problem with the whole system, from the job candidate’s perspective: even if you complete the homework assignment and you are awesome at it, that still doesn’t change the fact that there are literally dozens of other candidates in line for the job right behind you. Being awesomely capable for a position isn’t nearly enough to get you hired these days; it’s only a minimum requirement. I’ve begun to suspect that most of the time, when companies do finally make an offer, there are usually a whole bunch of other hidden factors in play, in addition to the fact that they also perceive you as a highly qualified candidate.

    From hard experience, I’ve come to believe that one needs a way of doing what sales people call “qualifying their prospects”; i.e., weeding out the tire kickers so that you don’t waste a ton of your time pursuing leads which have a low probability of leading to an offer in the first place. The next time a company tries to pull this kind of stunt with you, bear in mind that what they are really asking you to do is perform a hiring risk mitigation exercise, for free, and for their benefit. As you know, having worked in finance, risk mitigation is never offered for free by those who deal in it professionally; there is always money exchanged when one party accepts it on behalf of another.

    With that in mind, the next time you have a job interview, I suggest you prepare by watching this short video for inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVkLVRt6c1U (it’s aimed mainly at consultants, but also highly relevant to job candidates tasked with “homework assignments”), and then challenge your next prospective employer to fill out a 1099 and agree to a 2 or 3 day contract, if they actually want you to complete such an assignment.

    The probable effect of this (I don’t know for sure yet, because I won’t have a chance to try it out for myself until my next job search) is that most potential employers will likely demur. But that’s actually a good thing!!! It doesn’t mean you lost a potential offer; rather, it means you got rid of someone who was never all that serious about hiring you in the first place.

    If that line of reasoning sounds suspect to you, then stop and think about the dynamics of the situation for a moment. The whole point of even being in an 8-hour interview with nine people in the first place is because both of you are contemplating entering a relationship that will likely last at least a year, if not several. Whomever the company eventually hires, even if it’s not you, they’ll be paying that person a six-figure salary for a long time to come. If they’re truly serious about you as a candidate, but the ONLY THING holding them back from extending an offer is their residual fear that you might not be sufficiently qualified to do the work, then paying you for a 2 or 3 day trial period is basically chump change compared to the length of the relationship they are already contemplating.

    This means that demanding compensation in exchange for your work, even if it’s just a weekend or a couple of days worth of work, and even if it’s just a contrived piece of make-work which somebody dreamed up for a test scenario, is actually a potent bullshit detector: folks who are for real will pay you the money gladly, and the folks who aren’t, you’d rather not be dealing with them anyway.


    • Laocoon
      July 9, 2015 at 11:28 am

      What a thoughtful and useful outline for how to handle it.


  33. Stephen Liss
    July 1, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Maybe it works for them – getting free, in-depth consultations from an expert. I think your instincts and handling of this are absolutely correct. Playing chicken with me on a sidewalk is not a good idea.


    • July 1, 2015 at 4:16 pm

      Huh, I guess you’re right. It’s kind of like playing chicken.

      The thing I keep coming back to is that people like me (i.e. competent and self-assured) are going to walk away from this request, and they presumably actually do want to hire people like me. Or maybe they really only want to hire insecure people?


  34. July 1, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    The cost of their hiring process was shifted on to you. Good for them, not so good for you. I used to own an auto repair shop as automobiles were transitioning into computerized space ships (1985-1995). I would ask some basic questions about the operation of some of the more common sensors, call the references and make a decision. One hour of his time, maybe two of mine with the calls. The process continued after the hiring. The new employee was started on easier repairs and gradually given more difficult work until I knew what I had. Between, college costs (training), healthcare cost sharing, loss of pensions, etc. I am not sure how much more employees can afford to subsidize their employers expenses. But unless we can learn o use Government or some other entity to organize and negotiate a minimum for us as a group it will get worse.


  35. FluffytheObeseCat
    July 1, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    If the “homework” task felt like free consulting to you, then it was. Even (perhaps especially) if much of it relied on googling. Your ability to find, assess and make use of information using something as witless as a a public search engine is wholly a function of your skill set. Both search and analysis are WORK. Of the kind that should be paid for.
    I understand the arguments above, that “homework” assignments are valuable in-depth skill tests. However, companies should compensate prospects for this level of effort. Full stop. The normalization of this practice is an artful new form of wage theft, targeted at the middle class intellectual.


  36. interviewer
    July 6, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    I recently sat on a hiring committee for a graphic designer at a small college, and this topic came up. Apparently there is a code of conduct among graphic designers which prohibits them from doing certain work for free (I’m not sure of the details, maybe this related specifically to job prospects?). Yet we wanted to see if someone’s skill in, say, advertising could translate to the college setting. So we gave them a task to create a flyer for an event at our college – an event which had taken place the previous year. We made it clear that the candidate would retain full intellectual property rights, that the flyer would never be used, and that they were welcome to watermark it. Plus, it was for a conference that had already taken place. Was it right to assign homework? I don’t know, but in any case we tried to be clear we were not simply seeking free work. Seems like this should be possible in the data science realm as well.


  37. LizG
    July 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    I recently had a “homework challenge” for a creative job at a digital agency. I contemplated whether or not to do it. They asked for 1-2 campaign ideas and activations for each in a week. All put into a deck. It took me probably more then 10 hours to research, ideate, and put together. I ended up sacrificing time on other projects and prepping for other interviews. Then I was told I didn’t have enough agency experience which they knew before asking me to do the ‘homework’…. Maybe the deck wasn’t up to there standards although they said I did a good job. In my mind, I know given the right team and time I could’ve produced something awesome. Normally a pitch deck would be put together for a team of people. I would have access to pre-designed templates and in general more time. I didn’t have those access to those things.

    I think asking this was totally unacceptable. It is common when interviewing for consulting jobs this is the first time I’ve seen it with a creative agency…but really its not ok. At a previous company I worked at, we used to bring people on for a couple hours of work on a small project to test them out. This was a bit of a pain for us…but at least people were compensated.

    This also made the company I interviewed with look very bad. Whether they used my ideas or not it made it look like they were getting work for free. The job was posted through my tight grad school network. I will have no problem letting other people know what happened if they ask about this company. Not only that, the company did not get my best work (maybe that is ultimately why I didn’t get the job.) They did get some great well-researched campaign ideas. However, because they did not have me present it, they missed a lot of info which would’ve have been related verbally. Aside from not being able to make enough time. This bothers me the most. They will get the basic ideas with out really understanding the full reasoning behind them and why I thought they were great ideas.

    Ultimately it is a issue of not valuing ideas. Good, well-researched ideas formed in a collaborative environment can be extremely profitable in the long run. Yet, generating ideas and knowledge does not seem fit neatly into an hourly rate. Sometimes I come up with something while laying in bed or on public transportation. Or have knowledge of a technology because I’ve been reading tech articles in my spare time. How do I charge for this? We just don’t have a way of valuing this type of work. And some of us desperately need one.


  38. zhoujianfu
    July 11, 2015 at 8:51 pm



  39. gstally
    July 13, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I have gone through something similar to what you’re talking about. Though it’s not quite quantitatively on par with your experience it is qualitatively in the same ball park. Not too long ago I was applying for secondary jobs at various minimum wage facilities. The current job hunt is exhausting because of the obscene amount of paper work (all tedious online forms and mind numbing and your standard egregiously insulting IO Psych batteries nowadays) involved in applying from job to job. What happened to days where you dropped off a typed up resume and they looked it over and called you over to see how it goes eye to eye? Well interestingly enough after applying for an opening at a fast food chain I got a call from an outsourced hiring agency that tried to sell me on all sorts of educational opportunities! You can get your masters, we have GREAT loan opportunities! Hey, they even offered to sign me up for their mailing/calling list for all sorts of special deals! Now, keep in mind the position I’m in. These are the people through which I have to work with in order to get a job. Simply genius on their part.


    • July 13, 2015 at 5:22 pm

      How did you know they got your name through the hiring process?


    • gstally
      July 13, 2015 at 5:26 pm

      Yes I think it was bullshit and if the company is unwilling to be honest and open with you from the start then you don’t want to work there. Either A) they were asking you to do free work or B) they were seeing if you’d be manipulated into doing work without pay under the impression it’s totally optional. You start a relationship off right or you don’t start it at all. I say call it what it is: an abusive situation. They’re never really worth it and if you find it’s absolutely unavoidable, you are being situationally coerced, take your goods and services elsewhere. Don’t support bad practices by rewarding the ones those who practicing them.


      • gstally
        July 13, 2015 at 5:27 pm

        *and unless you find it’s absolutely unavoidable


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