Try Before You Buy Engineering
August 22, 2017 3:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm an electrical engineer currently in the market for a new job. A smaller company I just interviewed at for a full-time position asked if I'd be willing to do a small project on a freelance basis. I've been out of the market for about 10 years is this the New Normal?

With the exception of the job I just left, I've worked in fortune 100 companies my whole life and have never heard of this happening. I told the company that I'd be willing to do it, but with the stipulation that it was a step towards full-time, salaried employment. My web-dev brother assures me that this is extremely common now.

Engineering professionals of MeFi, Is this common now and should I have said no?
posted by Dr. Twist to Work & Money (16 answers total)
Are they paying you for the freelance work?
posted by une_heure_pleine at 3:58 PM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Uhhh no? Maybe if your resume didn't really fit their requirements, or if it was a start up or in financially tight times. Maybe they really only want temporary help. But I'm an EE manager (hardware) and we hire full time. If you don't want it, don't take it. It's not "how it is now."
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:11 PM on August 22, 2017

To be clear, it's actual, paying work at market rate.
posted by Dr. Twist at 4:24 PM on August 22, 2017

If they're paying you for the freelance work, then that isn't terribly uncommon.

If they expect you to do a small project for free to "try you out", which some companies seem to have the nerve to expect these days, feel free to decline.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:25 PM on August 22, 2017

It's a trendy thing in IT and ideas cross pollinate into engineering from there.
posted by Candleman at 4:26 PM on August 22, 2017

As a counterpoint to your brother, I am a software developer who has worked at smaller companies for my entire career (10+ years) and I don't think this is common at all. (Some software companies demand candidates complete "code challenges" during hiring which are sufficiently time-consuming that they will pay you for that time, but this is a different animal from a freelance project to my mind.)

I would be annoyed if I went through the interview process for a full-time role and was offered a freelance role. I personally would choose whether to accept or reject the freelance offer on its own merits and take any assurances they gave me about it being a step toward full-time employment with a large amount of salt—they've already been fairly deceptive toward you.

Also, keep in mind that freelance hourly rates are usually a multiple of what you'd expect as a salary (this covers benefits and time spent finding clients). If you decide to take it, don't undersell yourself.
posted by enn at 4:27 PM on August 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

I've heard of it, but I've never encountered it in the wild. I would certainly challenge the assertion that it's "extremely common." I am in software, and have worked at tech companies ranging from the biggest names down to ones no one here has heard of (all in the US). I am in a senior leadership position and do a lot of hiring. I also like keeping my options open, so I talk to recruiters fairly frequently and I've interviewed for a ton of jobs over my career. In none where I have gotten far enough to discuss it has this idea come up. I personally would not accept it unless I was desperate.
posted by primethyme at 4:42 PM on August 22, 2017

It's not "common" in the electrical engineering world.

It MAY be common in the web-dev world.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 5:15 PM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've never heard of this in software development, but I have heard of paying people for software challenges. There, the dynamic is different because the company is not getting usable product out of you- they're paying you for your time, not the end result.

I'd let them know you're not interested unless it was at least 2x your normal rate and something that you'd do if someone asked you for it straight up. Even then, maybe don't accept the job, because it seems shady.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 6:21 PM on August 22, 2017

I have seen this in biotech. They have a project, you have the skills. They may just want you to do the project because you have specialized skills or don't need to be managed closely. They may not have a full time role for you.

So I'd ask: does this project bring stale skills up to par? Does it add something to your resume? Do you really really need the money? If one or more is true and the pay is good then maybe yes but keep looking for full-time work.
posted by zippy at 7:13 PM on August 22, 2017

(also negotiate for a title that's in line with your seniority. "Senior Research Engineer" or something like that).
posted by zippy at 7:15 PM on August 22, 2017

Not common, but not unheard of in software development. In fact, there was an article going around a while back written by a developer who offered to do this instead of a traditional interview. He hated brain teasers and whiteboard coding, and he figured if he can just show he can do the work, everyone's happy. He got more than one job this way, according to his article.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:12 PM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I literally today just offered a guy freelance 2-3 months work in-lieu of an interview (I run an interactive agency that does interactive design and development). He's offshore and wasn't working and I have an immediate need on a low priority project that could be done without him if needed. Working with someone is a ton better then interviewing folks which is known to be a broken system. I don't think this is the new normal but it's "not uncommon" in software development particularly in Silicon Valley when vetting folks that are offshore or like yourself re-entering the market. Silicon Valley also has a culture of trying to find better ways to hire and working with someone is kind of recognized as the best way if it works for all the parties Not sure what this is like in EE but it seems to follow a lot of the cultural arcs of software engineering.

For someone like you who's been out of the market I think this is an excellent way both for you to renew your skills and for them to see if there's a fit. You are free to keep looking for a full time position while doing the contract work if you desire - so whats the downside?
posted by bitdamaged at 8:36 PM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Incredibly unethical.
posted by GiveUpNed at 2:02 PM on August 23, 2017

I'm a software engineer and I wouldn't call this unethical so long as they're paying you what you're worth (e.g. much more than you'd accept for a salaried full-time position), but as others have mentioned I wouldn't stop your job search if you accept the freelance work under such conditions until you have a contract signed for moving to a full-time role.

While I wouldn't call it the new normal in hiring (at least in my field), it's not uncommon, and it's basically a way for the company to make sure they don't get saddled with a bad hire that is difficult to undo. (It is always much easier to not renew a contract than it is to fire someone.) That said, I would not be surprised if there are companies that use the lure of full-time work to fill these contract positions with no intention of providing a path to full-time, so definitely make sure you scope out the company before hand; see if they receive a lot of complaints about bait-and-switch hiring on for instance.
posted by Aleyn at 2:18 PM on August 23, 2017

So I met with them today regarding the contract position. We agreed on a billing rate that is substantially higher than my usually salary and got an agreement that at the end of the project (3 weeks) they would make a hiring decision. I'll keep looking for other jobs, and they understand that. hopefully this all works out.

Thanks to every one for their input.
posted by Dr. Twist at 4:18 PM on August 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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