Thursday, July 08, 2004

A stock arbitrageur named Brooke Allen recently held a competition to win an entry-level job ($40,000). Says one participant:

"Going to those sessions was like watching a train wreck in slow motion," Mr. Bozanich said. It was, he said, "a testament to the bad economy that so many overqualified people would come in for one lousy programming trainee position."

Mr. Bozanich said he thought Mr. Allen was genuinely motivated to help the trainees find work, but he also considered the process inevitably exploitative.

Mr. Allen himself doesn't see it that way at all:

"People understood they were taking a risk and could drop out any time," he said. "No one gave off a sense of desperation."

Or perhaps the ones who did give off a sense of desperation were gone so quickly they were forgotten.

At least in this instance, the contestants were getting training -- in this case, in a somewhat obscure computer language called APL. The same article refers to another contest at an ad agency involving actual unpaid work, in which

10 people ... participated in a weeklong competition for an entry-level advertising job. The group worked on making pitches and it devised a promotional campaign for Crunch Fitness. Every night, management voted two contestants out.

At the end of which, they could either hire the winners... or hold another contest.

Update: link to the article corrected.

No link to this story in Google news, or through the Times Link Generator, unfortunately, so it will go stale...


Blogger charles said...

Drat. Wrong link, and blogger publishing is borked, so I'm having trouble publishing the fix. The story is here:

9:30 AM  
Blogger Elayne said...

Hey, $40,000 is a really really good entry-level salary! I've been in the workforce for 25+ years and I'm only making a few thousand more than that.

10:05 AM  
Blogger charles said...

For entry-level programming, it actually is kinda low. The winner of Allen's competition got nearly double that.

But it's also worth noting that "entry level" here is really... not. People who can bring themselves up to speed on a new programming language that quickly (particularly one as offbeat as APL, which has a lot of unusual features) are generally able to do that because they're already proficient in other languages, and are just learning new ways to express concepts they already know. So the position really did require professional experience, even if the ads didn't say so explicitly.

FWIW, Allen also hired a second guy at the advertised entry level salary, and helped find jobs for a couple of other entrants at other companies that needed similar expertise. I actually come away with this having more or less the same take on the situation as erstwhile contestant Mr. Bozanich -- that Allen's basically all right, but that if he didn't see a tad of desperation here, he was being willfully blind to it. And perhaps this entry is harsher on him than I meant.

(But to further muddy the waters, I also think that having prospective employees do a few temp assignments, described as common practice at the Times itself, can be a reasonable thing for both parties -- if they are paid a decent wage for it. Not only are conventional interviews at best a limited way for employers to find out about employees, they're a downright crappy way for prospective employees to learn about companies. But for a for-profit enterprise to demand work for no money is inherently exploitative, no matter how much the "internship" culture we've developed over the past decade or two makes it common practice...)

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since there is a real APL contest going on, I thought I’d respond to a report that was printed in the New York Times about me 5 years ago claiming that I had been running a contest with a $40,000 job as a first prize.

While it is true that we hired two people, and one had a base of $40,000 (and the other had a base of nearly twice that), we did not hold a contest. We ran an ad for a junior APL programmer and received over 300 resumes, so I asked everyone to download the APL language manual and solve a few problems before telling me if they were truly interested. Dozens said they were, but none had ever seen the language before, so we held a threw week training class in the hopes we’d find someone who we would want to hire. If nobody was very good, we wouldn’t hire anyone. It turned out there were a few people who were excellent, and not only did we hire two, a few of my friends at other firms hired a few as well. (Also note, in our business, people can make a multiple of their base in bonus; at the time, my base was also $40,000, and now the $40K guy is making a few times that much – not bad for someone just out of college.)

At the time, Donald Trump and his shenanigans were hot, and the Times wanted to squeeze what we were doing into their format.

Once again, you have to go to a blogger for the truth.

She observed what we did first hand (the Times did not) and was very impressed by what she saw. She could not help draw Trump analogies – which I object to – but at least she got the spirit right.

Now, there is a real APL contest going on with a first prize of a $2,000 scholarship and an all expense paid trip to Princeton to receive the award from anywhere in the world. (And there are 22 other cash awards.) Although employers might be looking for talent among the entrants, this is not a contest for a job.

You can find out more about the scholarship contest here:

Thank you,

Brooke Allen

5:39 AM  

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