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NDA expired, let’s spill the beans on a weird startup (shkspr.mobi)
1328 points by pimterry on July 9, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 447 comments

Reminds me of something.

I used to work with a senior guy who went freelance and then bunched together with several other freelancers, also seniors, to form... "an operation". The MO was that one of them would go and interview for a permanent job, impress the heck out of everyone and then say "there's more like me, be happy to help you out, but on a contract basis and as a group." They were basically bait-n-switching them to outsource parts of their development and in some cases it worked, because their fees were very reasonable. And the fees were reasonable because they did very little of the actual work themselves and instead re-outsourced it to some Ukranain dudes.

Looked fishy as fuck and I'm not sure how it ended because I felt out of touch with the guy.

Bait-and-switch is consulting 101. Entice client in with the most senior person with the impressive resume. Assign someone else to do the actual work. That's what you generally get with any big-name consulting firm.

This is not necessarily bad! The senior in this case is more like the "brand" of the operation.

And - sorry about going now into stereotypes - Good Eastern europeans are really good coders. Would not hesitate a second outsourcing any development to ukraine or romania if the contractors are vetted and proven to deliver value.

Every company brings the A-team to win the bid for a contract. Later they'll gradually switch them out with the much cheaper juniors they hire for that particular project. With IT consulting or MSPs this tends to be a far more extensive practice than in other fields from my experience.

Whether the last hop of the outsourcing is in India, Poland, or Spain is not that important if you still get what you expect. The problem is when you get a fraction of what you expected or pay for.

Interviews have been used as opportunities for evangelization, attempts to get technical assistance, or extract information about the competition or potential customers since forever. I haven't seen one which was overtly illegal but they're all certainly as shady as they get.

I used to work in state government. There was no "gradually switch them out" - we got the D-team as soon as the sale closed and the project started.

Many federal contracts require naming key personnel during the bidding phase to try to minimize this. Resumes for the key personnel become part of the proposal.

Aha! That explains an odd case where my company was subcontracting with another company to work on their project that was ultimately state-funded. This was essentially a museum installation, VFX work for a projection thing, and they wanted the names of the people who were going to be involved.

This was very odd to us, since our names wouldn't mean a thing to anyone on the client's end, but we chalked it up to red tape. Your explanation finally makes sense of it.

I've worked state engineering jobs like this, where the RFQ is basically nothing but the combined resumes of the A-team. The contract says they do the work, but it still gets sent to juniors.

At most, it gets the A-team's PE stamps, so they're at least professionally liable for the quality of work, but first project coordination/ outline meeting & final review are all they usually do. Occasionally take a call from a VIP.

Which is probably going to be followed by a no-cost contract modification to switch out the name of personnel who couldn't possibly wait for a job as long as it takes the contract to get to approval/award. Just in my experience.

How does that work in practice? Say the personnel in question leave the company.

That would depend on the government to notice and take action. I imagine if one person left and the company put a suitable replacement in, it may not be noticed and wouldn't likely draw any lawsuit. But swapping in a "D team" as described would likely provoke a response.

You'd have to have a major screwup mid-project, and they'd either freeze the project and/or start executing liquidation/damages clauses as soon as they realize the scalp they want isn't there to be had.

And when the project freezes indefinitely, so do the payouts.

When I was doing contractor jobs, in one of the projects personnel rotation was met with a hefty penalty. So the PMs tried their best to keep us happy, which meant a lot of the guys took advantage to ask for a generous raise. This was BTW a pretty non significant and easy support operations support project, so I imagine this terms were standard for other projects.

In those cases the customer has to approve the replacement (within reason). Comes with a price premium though.

Oooookay. That explains... Some of the weirdness of applying for a Federal Government project. The number of wild gesticulations they asked me to do with my resume really turned me off from trying to take the job.

I asked why they were doing it, but no one gave me a straight answer. I mean, I get for them it was Tuesday, but when a major contractor starts asking you to brush right up against the line of equivocating, I can't justify moving forward without some serious explanations and levels of frankness I don't think many recruiters are comfortable with..

My first job out of college was a practically fly-by-night video game development house that had primarily D-team members except for a couple of contractors and me.

After my first successful project for them, their biggest client started demanding that I be assigned to their next big project (or one of the external contractors). We both ended up taking jobs elsewhere, and that client quit using the developer.

And the client? They were a full-on shovel-ware developer that barely cared about game quality. They just needed a game that would run reliably enough that Nintendo would approve it. So to be fired as a developer by that company was really embarrassing...

Here is one such "key personnel" clause: https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/48/2052.215-70

It's the same with large state contract I've seen as well. They key personnel may actually be provided in the request for proposal even before the agency signs a contract.

That was my experience when I worked at Boeing in IT. As soon as the contract was signed we got the most mediocre people.

Occasionally we’d get someone good but as soon as the consulting company figured out that they were good, they’d get rotated off our project and replaced with someone mediocre. They also never gave us any warning when they were going to switch someone.

But how much does Boeing pays for the service?

Because what I've seen happen is a large company uses its size to negotiate really the cheapest prices, and the only way the consulting company can make profit is by hiring the cheapest people, and even with that, the margins are thin at best. So obviously, they don't exactly get the best.

The worst part is that all these D-tier, fresh out of school guys gain experience and some may even get good at their job. Unsurprisingly, these people start asking for raises and promotions, and the consulting companies tries to charge their customer more, I mean, we are talking quality now.

But the big company financial department doesn't like it, so they make a new call for cheap contracts, get a new round of incompetents, etc...

In the end, everyone loses. The consulting company makes little profit, sometimes even losses and the big company always get shit service, which usually costs them more than what they save. As for the employees, the work conditions are often terrible and they usually quit at the first occasion. But the financial department is happy, they have a lower number in the "expense" column.

I've worked for an organization that had a mixed hardware/software/services components. These were $50mm - $100mm+ contracts running for 5+ years, and the Service Component was just charged out at person years - flat fee, so - a project manager might go for $600k/year, an application engineer for $500k/year, a field-engineer for $300k/year and so on. Each project would then have so many person years at each stage of the project - project manager would be pretty flat at 1 project/manager/year, but in the initial years, it would be 3 application-engineers, 2 field engineers, etc...

Once the contract was won, we'd sub-contract to a local (to the region) contracting agency, who would in turn essentially do the equivalent of a craigslist search for a body, that we would interview to ensure that they could be taught, and then we'd take 30-60 days to teach them our product - depending on the initiative and experience of the candidate, the customer (who remember, was paying us $500k/year for an application engineer) - might get a recent-high school graduate that was making $30k/year and had never even heard of our technology a week prior.

> Because what I've seen happen is a large company uses its size to negotiate really the cheapest prices, and the only way the consulting company can make profit is by hiring the cheapest people, and even with that, the margins are thin at best.

I have trouble feeling sorry for the consulting company in that situation. If the budget your client offers is insufficient for the job, demand more or turn it down. Don't lie that you can do it and then bait-and-switch.

It’s been several years since I worked there but if I remember correctly it was a little more complicated because these were basically subcontracts under one larger contract. The company had a huge contract agreeing to purchase some volume of services from the consulting company. For each project a smaller contract would be created to define the terms of the project and the resources would be drawn from the parent contract’s pool of purchased resources.

This created a lot of internal pressure to use contract resources as much as possible.

Is that how we ended up with the MCAS debacle?

And were constantly wrestling with integration because neither side really understands or even cares about the other's domain.

Hiring contractors to work on your house tends to end up the same too. So much of what the early people say just magically disappears when the actual work gets done by a completely different set of people.

As an example, when we had our bathroom done, the guy they sent to finish things up couldn't even center and level the towel racks.

I saw this first hand while working for a high-end landscaping company. The first team sent out to a job site would be the A-Team and they would do about 50% of the work, whether they were done for the day or off to do another job. The next day (most jobs took 2 days ATL, some took more) another crew of less experienced workers would work the site until finished, then the owner would come inspect. The owner was on the "A-Team" and his work was amazing; I was on the "B-Team" and though I always put 110% into my work when I physically could, I constantly worked with slackers and corner-cutters who also came and went. It made sense the way it was explained to me, which was that the people working odd jobs who don't really care will get bummed out by the B-Team labour and pay, and if they don't they're added to the A-Team after a few months of good work and some more training.

I noticed that the contractors who sell projects tend to be good looking guys. The ones who finish it tend to be not so good looking.

Especially when the customers are female.

A different flavor of this (in home re-modeling, hardscape etc.), is that the people who come to do the estimate are different than the people who come do the job. They are typically younger and pretty much clueless as to how the work would have to be done. So you can't ask them any detailed questions. All they can do is run the spreadsheet on their laptop and show you pictures of other work their company has done. They were trained on how to make a sale, that's it.

Had to go with someone who I had a little trouble communicating with, but at least I could verify he knew what they were doing and understood my concerns about how the work got done.

absolutely; with house builders. Next time around, I'm inclined to manage the build myself.

Talk to someone you trust who did the same thing. Managing anything related to construction can ruin marriages, and lives, the whole ordeal could last for years.

I would do this as a “Sales Engineer”. Not interviews but as sales support to handle any technical questions and win over our client’s internal devs. We didn’t outsource, but it’s really just sales.

I actually think it’s essential in medium+ size companies. The authenticity of having a highly technical person in sales works wonders.

> Every company brings the A-team to win the bid for a contract. Later they'll gradually switch them out with the much cheaper juniors they hire for that particular project.

Generally, you need the A-team at the start because there's a lot of very critical work that needs doing. After a while, it's mostly maintenance, so it's silly to keep your top people there... you can still call them in when they're needed.

This is just resource efficiency.

And yet the client cost generally doesn't come down...

The cost is already estimated with junior-levels in mind. If you want the A-team to be present all the time, say it upfront and surely proposals will be changed.

Presumably you'd pay a lot more to always have the A-team.

Ha. I work for an engineering consultancy and I pointed out that we actually do the opposite: bid on a project using a senior engineer rate, then when the project starts, realize that all our senior engineers are booked and only the Principal engineers (who cost about 30% more) are available.

I honestly wonder how this place makes money some days!

Not _every_ company does this – the consultancy I work at does not. We never outsource to third parties without the customer being involved, we do not hire [juniors or anyone else] for specific projects.

I imagine you also send your best not worst engineers for a bid or demo. For the rest, as I said it's just far more extensive in IT than in other fields. There will be exceptions.

And being able to scale on demand is a big part of providing a service. Otherwise you can't absorb any unexpected spikes in demand from already existing projects, or have to pass on lucrative opportunities, or you pay to keep a buffer of people on payroll.

We send the team that would be working on the project, to the extent it's known at that time.

But yes, bigger consultancies absolutely do this.

This is only true for large companies that care about nothing but their shareholders and quarterly reports. There's another group of companies that not only care about delivering real value within the budget, but also have fun while doing it. I'm fortunately in a company part of that second group. The reaction we get from clients when we deliver more than they asked for, repeatedly, is priceless.

any company can do this, its just that the more people who feed themselves in the food chain, the more likely it is someone will start a race to the bottom of profit taking.

And it is OK. You do not want to hire who doesn't have an A team (so to speak) which cannot pull off the project if there is trouble.

As someone who was part of that A team used to sell things, I spent a year jumping between projects fixing the problems the D team caused. Maybe it would’ve been worth it if I got paid more but I doubt it. It was stressful, you never learned much, and ultimately I burned out.

> ultimately I burned out

Can I ask, does that mean you got so worn out so you couldn't work, had to stay at home / away-from-work for some time?

I wonder what happened afterwards. Seems you now work as an independent contractor now? (looking at your external profile, I hope you don't mind)

Honestly, I had quit and wanted to do a startup (not the best way to deal with burnout though). But we were also expecting my son so I took a pretty steady 9-5 job for 18 months.

But after working on the same problem set for that long I got interested again in solving tougher problems and went back out on the consulting scene.

But that job forever changed my views on work life balance so I am now very aggressive with balancing hours for people that report to me even if I don’t balance my own hours.

In theory all is fine. The problem is the A-team shows they have the skill, not the capacity. So in practice you'll never see that A-team again because that's not their job.

You'll see one or two of them again when the project crashes and burns, haha

The A team is the sales team, not the team that fixes the problems from outsourced work.

Technical Sales

Some of the most successful engineers I know, got there by migrating over to engineering sales. I'm almost convinced if you are a moderately skilled software engineer, are very good looking, very charismatic, and have maybe a spoonful of general business knowledge, you can pretty much name your salary. They'll stick you in a suit, fly you around with the bizdev guys, and you only have to do anything if the client brings their tech guys to talk. You'll occasionally do some coding: write a few demos, maybe integrate your company's software with some other company's workflow, but mostly smile and talk about architecture, frameworks, blah blah blah. Nice work if you can get it. I was too much of a cynic and critic to make it in such a role, and I have the looks of a toad, so I never bothered.

Pretty much describes one of my (former) neighbors. She was a programmer who discovered that she could make a ton more money doing sales instead. Then moved up from there into a Sales Management position and never looked back.

How does one get one of these jobs? :-) It sounds lovely. Listen to all kinds of different business ideas and build proofs of concept. Talk to other nerds and hear about their experiences. Travel and get points (this last one, not so much).

I meet all of those qualities, maybe I should take a look at this!

As long as the job can be delivered to a mutually-satisfactory state, then it shouldn't matter if it's done by an A/B/C or D team. A lot of times in software "consulting" firms, the "profit" margin diminishes or is negative the closer you approach the top levels of developer in terms of quality/seniority. So it's in their best interest to get the most out of less-senior developers, otherwise they simply don't turn a profit.

The clients though, they want to pay the consulting firm relatively the same price they would pay for a standalone developer employee, per hour. The entire industry is broken and a lot of it has to do with broken recruiting, the recruiting industry, the "consulting firms" (body-shops) that are just resellers, and onerous employment regulations that make firms prefer outsourcing to shady outfits instead of hiring in-house developers.

The problem is that during the sales process, the client is led to believe that the "mutually-satisfactory state" that they are paying for is a certain bar of quality and will be built by "the A team".

But then, after many months and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars are already spent, their bar for "mutually-satisfactory state" has been lowered to "I guess we will accept this pile of mediocre shit that the D-team built, because we already wasted months on this and we are desperate for something, and it would be too expensive and just waste more time to try and argue with the consulting firm to fix it".

I spent a long career as a consultant at one of the top "prestigious" firms. Consulting firms almost always prey on this hope that the clients won't complain too much, even though everyone knows the end product that is delivered isn't anywhere close to what was pitched during the sales phase.

"As long as the job can be delivered to a mutually-satisfactory state"

When has that ever happened?

I've personally been part of many, of varying size.

>Good Eastern europeans are really good coders. Would not hesitate a second outsourcing any development to ukraine or romania if the contractors are vetted and proven to deliver value.

The problem is not that America has a monopoly on good coders but that the good coders in any country will not work for the Ed-Edd-n'-Eddy type foreign contracting firms.

I have seen this happen so often. A large company will want to outsource some of their development to India, hire some shady agency to facilitate this, pay half of the going rate for good talent, then come away with the conclusion "Indian developers are terrible".

Great point. But also, if that’s what happens, that’s the reputation that develops.

"Ed-Edd-n'-Eddy type"

This is now in my lexicon. I loved the show as a kid and this so perfectly captures how I feel about some shops.

"aw man, Plank is sending us PRs now"

Suppose you were looking for good quality foreign contractors. How would you go about finding them?

Upwork, it's one name that springs in my mind. And as any marketplace, it has its slackers and hard workers.

If they are good, they have already moved to the US or some other higher income country. There’s probably a “good quality foreign contractor” living down the road from you.

A significant amount of people don't like to move really far away if they don't have to.

As someone that decided to stay (even after getting visa sponsorship offers), not necessarily (although Uruguay is probably a "higher income country" these days).

Although the good contractors are SWAMPED for work, I definitely have to up my rate.

Just wanted to pipe in with my own experience, but I've seen it come from the clients perspective too. Initial phase of the project is very visible and critical to the client and is delivered with the A-team. Client starts to care less as the bottom barrel of features start being implemented and they want to reduce costs. Instead of losing the contract, we start dropping some of the more expensive devs save for 1 or 2 very good ones to keep the project moving and we backfill with more junior to increase their experience. The client starts wanting to reduce the expense even more and we keep the 1 or 2 very good devs/architect and we bring on a few near-shore devs. Project coasts for a year or two until they're done with us or they have another high priority item that kicks the project into overdrive again.

"What's this 'sek-u-rity' thing?"

"I don't know. Wow what do all these words in capital letters mean?"

"Oh that doesn't matter. As long as you use the same words in the deliverable report, noone will ever double-check the code before the sale."

True and everyone knows it at some extent. I worked for a large consulting firm in the past for almost a decade.

I was the bait, indeed I was nearly not touching the projects at all except if the replacement failed it hard and then my employer would send me few days there to fix the mess.

My working time was divided between pre-sales and fireman to save projects from total failure.

It's almost that the more senior you are, the less you get to do the "poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine" thing.

Are we mixing consulting and contracting here? I worked as a consultant for more than 10 years.

Every single time customers want to :

- Review the Consultant CV

- Interview the Consultant

- Accept no switch unless for the obvious reasons of sickness or holidays.

- And the team that starts is very much the team that finishes the project.

It's not exactly "consulting vs contracting", its "hiring a single person vs hiring out a project". Many "consulting" shops do what you call "contracting", because "consulting" is a more "elite" word.

But a single person can be a "contractor" too.

(At big companies and non-IT fields, a contractor is often used for temporary professional employee-type labor for flexibly scaling the labor force that includes employees doing the same job, but a consultant is someone who provides a skill you don't have in house at all.)

I recently accepted a job at a consulting/contracting firm for a specific contract as a data scientist. I had three separate interviews with the company I'd be working indirectly for, and I wasn't the only one they'd been interviewing. There'll be no switching me out for a junior.

Along with “land and expand”. Where they use a small project to get over the initial hurdle, foot in the door so to speak. Then, they start trying to rebuild everything your company touches

IBM Global Services is particularly known for this.

Their flavor involves hiring people with a very high tolerance for complexity, and letting them propose the most complex solution to any problem. Eventually your own people get tired of trying to keep up with even the summaries, and just abdicate. Now that part of the system is only understood by IGS, and the rot begins to spread.

15 years ago when I was changing jobs one of the roles was Sun Microsystems - which I liked the company but the role was to suggest and be embedded in a company and embed Sun products into every project (and I assume prevent competitors). Did not take it.

I like the term “provide and conquer” as well.

Google turned up very little, please elaborate

As opposed to “divide and conquer.” Presumably the same idea as “land and expand,” but you conquer the client company by “providing” successively larger projects.

I've also seen the bait-and-switch with recruiters. Many years ago when I was young in my career, I decided to respond to a recruiter who worked for a recruiting firm. We had a good talk and there was a company he was working with that I expressed interest in and felt I was qualified for.

Nope. He kept pedaling this small, 10-15 person startup to me that I clearly wasn't qualified for and honestly was not interested in as there were some red flags. The commission must've been fat cause he didn't pitch me any other company and kept "circling back" if I changed my mind about them.

Not just consulting, also law firms. Same thing, you might get a partner when they are selling you, then the juniors do the actual work (and unless you are a big company that they actually care about, you’ll probably also get subpar work).

Benn there, done that, got a t-shirt. Two t-shirts actually. The first year was great, the second year with new developers was okay, the third meh, the fourth was a huge drag. We switched to another eastern-european outsourcer and the story reset: first year great, second year new team and meh, then I left but I doubt it went anywhere but downwards. Moral of the story? Longer term contracts are dangerous for you.

I can vouch for Eastern Euro developers. They do quality work. Their code is clean. I remember even when there was the whole issue with Russia, our developers in Ukraine were still highly productive.

I absolutely agree with this, been there first hand on both sides of the aisle.

And my experience of those I've worked with, has been that the smaller projects that remove this potential to deceive (not profitable or large enough for bait-and-switch - not enough get-foot-in-door to be worthwhile to take at a loss). And by smaller I mean less than £/€/$ 500k, and not leading to multi-million deal later on.

And go away from the RFP process that sucks and is just trying to get the lowest bidder, for a fixed-end-goal, rather than bringing good and experienced people to support your business/organisation/project on achieving something.

I'm trying to launch this myself, and I feel you can get the best of both worlds: great talented people who you pay fairly with a scale model for (eventually needed) growth, and some cost control for mid/longer term projects as you can't really have a fixed price.

At the same time you have to remove some of the downsides like this lack of transparency (and honesty?), whilst having the needed support in place for projects to succeed!

>Entice client in with the most senior person with the impressive resume. Assign someone else to do the actual work

That's not "Bait-and-switch"

That's smart business

The "most senior person" (or, more likely, team) is still available - they're just acting as an escalation point, not doing grunt work

Same basic concept as having a secretary to do the [necessary] grunt work of any specialized employee/team

You don't send Babe Ruth to fetch foul balls, you send Babe Ruth to hit homeruns

But without the ball boys going for fouls, Babe Ruth doesn't get to hit as many, or as fast

I first experienced this getting legal work for setting up an LLC which the principal gave me the pitch and then handed the job to his paralegal.

> if the contractors are vetted and proven to deliver value.

But how can you tell this is not just bait-and-switch itself? The most senior person with an impressive resume is vetted and proven to deliver value, but how can you know if the actual contractors you are getting from wherever are good?

Your last sentence made me wonder if there's a company that vets programmers.

Bait and switch is not necessarily bad?

You are defrauding the client by not providing the service and/or personnel advertised. How is this not, at a minimum, a criminal act?

Lots of parallels here as well between research/academia and consulting -- the senior PI is the name on the proposals to get funded but everyone knows the work is done by grad students at exploitative wages to keep research cheap.

That isn't really a bait-and-switch. Years of experience doesn't make people type faster (quite the reverse, really). It is good for making high level decisions that crop up about once a day or once every other day.

It makes sense to have juniors do the work and seniors to oversee the work.

The problem is that one senior person can’t oversee tons of unmotivated juniors on multiple projects. It’s not that the senior people aren’t typing all of the code, it’s that you’ll never see them again and your “architect”, “tech leads”, etc. will be a couple of people who have a couple years of excreting Java code into legacy apps for a bank.

When the project falters, attempting to parachute the actual skilled people back in will fail because of both Brooks’ law and simply their mandate being to stabilize things to the point where they can claim minimal satisfaction of the contract requirements, which will likely not include fixing the deep architectural problems.

> it’s that you’ll never see them again ...

> When the project falters, attempting to parachute the actual skilled people back in will fail ...

The argument there seems a little inconsistent to me. The skilled people aren't going to be rushing from failed project to failed project - that is less productive than just getting involved to start with.

> The skilled people aren't going to be rushing from failed project to failed project - that is less productive than just getting involved to start with.

You're thinking about it from the perspective of the customer, not the an ethically-challenged contractor focused on maximizing revenue. If you have an A-team which you use to close deals, cycling them from project to project to close the deals which you will then staff with the C-team will generate more revenue than having them work on just one project as long as you don't have many disasters where you have to eat the cost of fixing the project.

If the client is either overly-trusting or made enough mistakes to plausibly share responsibility and the punishment for failure is more billable hours, you're _way_ ahead financially if you get to bill 14000 hours of C-team-masquerading-as-A-team instead of 2000 hours of actual-A-team.

Splunk Proserve ABSOLUTELY does this (they have a few superstars they spread thinner than a WW2 kid spreads butter). They get in at the beginning, hand the project over to less experienced people, then parachute in only after the project has gone so far off the rails it's unrecoverable to a point that's truly what the customer needs, but good enough to get the customer off their back.

Source: extensive experience on projects with Splunk proserve.

I wonder if the provider is really that interested in productivity though. They are not usually bidding fixed price. The longer the project can go on, without the customer just getting so frustrated they admit defeat and cancel, the better for the vendor. So it makes complete sense to keep a close watch on the customer's pulse, and only send in the cavalry when cancellation is looming.

Having senior people write all of the code shuts down your ability to create new senior people. If you have a bimodal distribution of employment longevity for your devs, this may be why. If nobody gets promoted for three years because you can't trust new developers with the code (until they've memorized everything) this is probably why.

Nobody wants to touch the lead's code. The more of it there is, the slower things go. Or the more workarounds/end runs (duplicate functionality) you find in the code. It's best if the leads only stick their fingers into code that absolutely has to work, has a low expected rate of change, and relates directly to architectural or (better) operational concerns. Everything else they should keep an eye on, insist on quality, but otherwise butt out.

People write code that seems obvious to them. Very, very few of us make a conscious effort to do much more than that. You can write a great deal of solid code that is still write-only. Too much of this, and it makes it difficult to improve your bus numbers, and grooming people for growth is a huge investment of time, energy, and social capital (if you can do it at all). Rather than bringing the whole team up, people play favorites, because that's all they can afford.

I once interviewed a guy who put on a great show during the interview. The kind of interview that feels more like a well-practiced sales pitch than an honest conversation with the candidate.

Checking his LinkedIn, I discovered that he had a consulting company that ran concurrently with his most recent jobs. His most recent jobs were all less than 12 months of tenure, and the start/end dates didn’t match what he provided on his resume in some cases.

Curious, I started digging more. Through some LinkedIn friend-of-friend backchannel references I eventually deduced that he was trying to run his freelancing shop as his primary job while getting full-time employment at companies with flexible and/or remote employment where his real daily activities could go unnoticed (for a time). He collected a paycheck and benefits while running and building his freelance company. He would also try to recruit some of his coworkers to become part of his consulting company “on the side”. I suspect he was trying to outsource his own work to his freelancers as well.

Eventually each company would catch on and get sick of his behaviors, strange lack of availability and presence during the day, and work output that varied depending on how much contract work he was trying to do.

Then he’d move on to the next company to continue collecting benefits and a paycheck remotely while running his freelance shop.

Sounds like https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27454589

"I currently have 10 fully remote engineering jobs"

One of the comments there raises an interesting question: this is plain old criminal fraud, right? (Whether this person is actually telling the truth is another matter, of course.)

That can be done in a non-sleazy way. For a long while there were effective caps on what you could earn as an IC, no matter how good. Everyone talks about 10x devs, but a decade ago the only real way to capitalize on it was to hold multiple remote gigs, each where you're accurately emulating the performance of say a $150-200k dev. 2-3 of those is very do-able, and a darn nice income if you're outside the major tech hubs.

As long as you're performing akin to your salary for each position, and you read your employment contracts carefully, I see nothing wrong w/ this approach.

He could have done his job and met all the requirements, including attendance, and had his side business. A former boss of mine worked for a city office where he was in the morning that let him have a flexible schedule, owned a consulting business where he worked in the afternoon, and was a partner in a gym where he worked in the evenings. He did all that for 6 years and eventually reached his goal -- no boss, all passive income (ownership of the gym, tanning salon, real estate), paid-off house, etc.

He could have, but the less than 12 months for all the recent roles is a red flag.

I’d say that depends. I got sucked into a couple of different “opportunities” that turned out to be clown shows and I had to leave under six months both times. It was pretty hard on my CV, but what are you going to do?

I got you beat (no offense intended). Back in the dotcom boom my company hired a guy who would come in to the office, throw his jacket over a chair and then go to his other full time job. It took them two months to catch on.

True hero of the resistance

Not really. His team paid the price of carrying the burden of his laziness/treachery for a year. If they hired a competent person, they would have been better off.

Exactly. He was taking advantage of everyone around him to enrich himself. The companies were fine (most caught on quickly and fired him) but he left a mark on the teams he left behind.

There’s nothing heroic about joining a team and then sabotaging their work.

Hey, it's just business

That's their problem...shoulda worked less hard

There's a gradient there if you ask me.

There's the "gives everything up for the company, no questions asked" types of people. Tesla et al come to mind for companies that like to hire this type. I don't get that to be honest. Your family and life are not worth whatever they're paying you, even if the work is 'fun' and engaging. YMMV as always.

Then there's the opposite end which you're alluding to but I'm not entirely sure where on the gradient you are. The slackers or someone like the guy described by the OP. I had someone like that recently. I caught it within the probation period and he was gone after 2 months.

Then there's what I would consider the proper position on the gradient line. You do your work, you do your best, every day without question or being 'made' to. But in return you ask for the company to be reasonable too. Proper pay and benefits, flexibility, nice perks but not the kinds of 'perks' that are just designed to make you 'live' at the office, mandatory 'fun' etc. No BS 'do this yesterday because I say so' requests. The list goes on.

There are companies out there, that are close enough to that/let you do that if you don't just say yes to everything :)

>Tesla et al come to mind for companies that like to hire this type. I don't get that to be honest. Your family and life are not worth whatever they're paying you, even if the work is 'fun' and engaging. YMMV as always.

On the other hand these companies are producing some great results. I religiously watch the teardown analysis of the Tesla cars vs others like the Ford Mach-E and the Tesla is just so much better designed in pretty much every regard(except things that require slow methodological improvement such as fit and finish). Whats more, all the Musk companies are moving at the speed of thought. They are so much faster in implementing any new innovation that any competitor makes that they dont have and incorporate it into their product faster than any other company does.

>Then there's what I would consider the proper position on the gradient line. You do your work, you do your best, every day without question or being 'made' to. But in return you ask for the company to be reasonable too. Proper pay and benefits, flexibility, nice perks but not the kinds of 'perks' that are just designed to make you 'live' at the office, mandatory 'fun' etc. No BS 'do this yesterday because I say so' requests. The list goes on.

Don't you think these companies are going to eventually be eaten by the companies that have the demanding work environment? For better or worse all else being equal, those companies get more done in the same amount of time.

I am experiencing this at my company, an old bloated payroll company. They have superb work life balance, I get my work done but I know the company is sinking to Silicon Valley rivals, its just a matter of time. The product is old and competitors are just doing a better job. Im currently in a dilemma where I get paid fairly well but not doing any advanced projects, that will bite me long term but the freedom and 0 stress is just so good. I get my stuff done and have time to take hour long breaks.

That's why I mentioned the gradient.

The kinds of people that work at such companies I am very very sure would do great things regardless. In fact, I know quite a few people like that, some of which I work with, which is awesome. It's like finally finding your true 'home' company wise, when you have that feeling that your are mostly working with people that both know their stuff and just want to do great work together.

In my book there's a huge difference in whether you have your own company for example and you work on something you love with other like minded people in every free minute you have. But when your kid is sick and needs to be fetched from daycare and mommy has an important meeting to attend it is absolute clear that you won't be working and instead driving to the daycare and nobody even blinks an eye at that and there's no bad feelings on your end, worrying what people might think. Of course you will take care of your kid. And no you won't be working all weekend long just because some sales guy promised the moon to a customer, you will actually be playing with your daughter. Some days you will work 10 hours because you just want to finish that one thing as you're on a roll or there's a Prod incident or something and your SO has got your back. Friday after you definitely go home early and enjoy the weekend. What's not OK is for some VP to have dragged his feet on something and when he remembers about that important presentation the next day he tells you to "get him those numbers by EOD or else".

The proper point on the gradient that I like is definitely _not_ the old bloated payroll company you are referencing. I think that sounds like the kind of company that has tolerated a probably >90% slacker population for way too long and I would be miserable, because I'd constantly ask myself why those guys get paid to be on Facebook all day or pretend that adjusting the background color of that button takes a whole sprint. Taking hours and hours of breaks and nobody blinks an eye is absolutely not OK at all. That's not "You do your work, you do your best, every day without question or being 'made' to". Absolutely that company _should_ get eaten.

>The kinds of people that work at such companies I am very very sure would do great things regardless. In fact, I know quite a few people like that, some of which I work with, which is awesome. It's like finally finding your true 'home' company wise, when you have that feeling that your are mostly working with people that both know their stuff and just want to do great work together.

This is not what I am talking about. Yes brilliant people are a prerequisite but I am referring to squeezing them hard to get that extra improvement out of them. You see it in the Tesla car vs something like the new Ford. They are both good cars clearly made by talented people. But then when you tear down the Ford you see how the battery pack is made in a manner where they didn't wring out every extraneous cost and they didn't squeeze every last bit of potential out of it. There is so much room for improvement compared to the Tesla. It seems as if Tesla just forces their people to burn 100 hours weeks all the time just for that little extra that ends up in their end product.

>or pretend that adjusting the background color of that button takes a whole sprint.

Im actually in that position right now getting paid 100k. It is depressing as I am wasting my late 20s early 30s but at the same time I see people like Elon getting insanely rich while so many people in the country are sinking beyond salvation. He is actually getting rich off not only the backs of the people he overworks but the parents that raised and invested in those people and the local communities that spent decades molding those people. And what happens in the end? He burns them out and replaces them with new blood.

It makes me realize that 95% of this tech stuff is BS and the few jobs that actually have some innovation are locked behind gates or require sacrificing everything else to achieve. If you are not naturally gifted to be in the top 5% then it is just not worth sacrificing everything else. I guess thats why companies like mine end up filled with people who take a whole sprint to change the background color. There is so much money floating around these companies that are all majority owned by a few mutual funds anyway that its downright stupid not to take as much as you can from them while you can.

Oh come on, that attitude is shameful

I got bait-and-switched as a candidate thinking I was going in for a sales pitch to find out it was an interview. I thought it was my company they were hiring (which I guess they were, but with me being butt-in-chair at their office).

I got weirded out when they asked for a resumé mid-pitch, and I said, I don't normally hand anything like that out, and I could give them our portfolio. I kept using the words "we" and "our" they kept using the word "you" and eventually it all clicked. I had been recruited for a job not a sales meeting. I handed them a 5 year old resumé that was kind of crumpled up, gave them my spiel and our rates, still using "our" and "we" then left feeling like I just wasted half an afternoon on nothing.

Less than an hour after I left, I was offered the gig at a 5% discount from my rate but with a guaranteed 30 hours a week. I never thought I would hear from them again. They are actually still one of my "best" clients.

A second anecdote - Half a year later, I was asked my opinion on converting a HUGE legacy project to a different web framework in a rewrite attempt to modernize it. To which I discussed another clients project and how easy it was to get off the ground quickly using the new framework, but said I wouldn't recommend it for such a large legacy conversion. And the Manager asked, "wait, you have another job... you are supposed to work for me." - Apparently he was unaware of the fact that they hired a company to consult them, not a developer.

This happened to me with Google in 2002. Back in the heyday of the desktop widget craze, Google approached me several times via email wanting to discuss acquisition of my widget application. Bear in mind, this was when Google was just buying stuff up wholesale, rather than absorbing the team behind an acquired product. I eventually responded, and the rep and I set up a phone call - solely to discuss the sale of my code to them. I was pretty surprised when the person I spoke to jumped into a full-blown tech screen. I humored it initially, and was then subjected to meeting-reschedule-pinball. Super weird bait and switch by the googs.

Google flew me from the USA to Europe to do this in the late 2000s!

I thought I was going for two days to discuss Google acquiring my (very small) product and company. What actually happened was half of a two-day long tech interview, and me being a tourist with my second day...

I feel like I should be annoyed, but weirdly I look back on it all fondly. They obviously didn't get what they thought they were going to get - but I got a weird, interesting, day with them, a stay in a great hotel, and a free day of vacation...

I have issues with the lack of ethics on display, but as someone very senior and aging out, I’d much rather work with a group like this for a few years than simply retire now-ish which is my current plan.

I wish there was a way to discover/join groups like this. My specialty at this point is SW project rehab by just being a realistic, experienced adult. Modernization but avoiding the blog-oriented design plague. It would just be very nice to work in a mission-specific context with a very senior team.

Same here. I've talked to friends a few times about doing this, minus the sub-contracting and sales-by-interview, but nobody wants to do the admin/actual sales work.

I ended up retiring, and 3 years later got re-hired on a very part time, hourly contract basis.

I’ve had similar discussions with friends. The thing is we’re all spread out all over from a timeline perspective. I’m ready now, many of them won’t be for several years.

Ah well.

> It would just be very nice to work in a mission-specific context with a very senior team.

It would be for EVERYBODY. This is why it's so hard to find such an opportunity - there are very few senior people who love to get stuck in a 9-5 cubicle job instead of doing crack projects :)

Had a Candidate come in from a recruiter that I had worked with before without incident but from the very first question the guy turned it a pitch for moving all our development to his outsourced team in India. I was so caught off guard that I let the guy talk for a good 5 minutes before cutting him off and ended things. I laughed, the recruiter was thoroughly embarrassed and sent someone else.

Never happened before, hasn’t happened since.

This is more common that you would think. I’ve seen situations where it’s been hard to untangle ownership stakes in outside firms, and folks not disclosing family ties to new suppliers.

Makes me realize why there is so much red take on new vendors at large firms.

The red tape is important for ensuring that bad outcomes don't happen during the process.

Bad outcomes outside of the process like it taking years to buy software? Not any one person's fault.

Some of the "bad outcomes during the process" can cost the company more in legal fees than a multi-year software project. Red tape tends to be concentrated in such areas. For example, exports control and anti-money-laundering regulations. After sitting through trainings on the former, I'm very glad I don't have to deal with traveling or sending physical devices around the world...

Compliance is painful because it’s hard to come up with precise NPVs on “we need to do it to avoid bad outcomes and because of the law.” It’s a shared tax that grows as the company grows, but the benefit is unseen. So compliance becomes a function of the political power of the leaders.

Apparently surgeons can do something similar. The experienced surgeon you talked to is just there you get to you agree to surgery, without explicitly telling you a first year (poorly/un)supervised resident will do all the cutting.

I'm not sure it's that straightforward, if it's their name on the case and they was totally absent, that would be a huge liability for them and the hospital.

Newbies need to learn, there's only so many cadavers you can cut into before you need experience on living flesh. Experienced surgeons are often observing the procedure, and step in as necessary if there is a complex part, or if the junior isn't doing something correctly.

Beyond just the surgeon there is a good number of incredibly professional secondary staff who are running the whole operating theatre, from imaging, instrument preparation, to labs and vitals. When you speak to a surgeon you're not just getting them, you get their entire team, junior to professional.

but that's exactly the same scenario as software - the experienced guy isn't just there to be a pretty face to make the sale, he's there because he's staking his reputation on the ability of his juniors to get the job done. if the juniors can't get the job done, the senior and the consultancy firm lose credibility.

100%. True experience with ACL surgery in New York: It's an assembly line with the junior surgeons cutting open and patching up. The main guy goes OT to OT and does the most critical part and then moves on to the next one. They schedule 6-7 surgeries at once; the whole process is quite impressive.

Exactly the same process for my mom's knee replacement in India. By the time the actual knee guy walks in, patient is knocked out, opened up and ready for the heavy hitter.

I'd say thats something different: letting others do the time-consuming routine parts, so the senior surgeon can concentrate on what he does best. This is actually desirable: more patients benefit of his skill that way.

That’s standard practice in nearly all hospitals worldwide.

In the UK, the most senior doctors are actually called “consultants” - they consult on the work being done by the others

This happened with my wife’s anesthesiologist during labor - the resident did his first epidural on her. I didn’t love it, but everyone has to learn at some point - and calling it out at the time could have caused more frustration, concern, and delay in the procedure (missing the window for getting one due to contractions). I also didn’t ask how many he had done, but I overheard it prior to him starting. I think asking him about his experience could have caused him to get nervous.

It turned out fine.

Experienced that. I was under a local anesthesia, so I could hear the surgeon hissing at that poor fellow things like "no, not there! here! - this is how you cut it!".

I would be suing the surgeon and reporting them to the surgical regulatory authorities if something like that happened.

This does pose a sort of chicken-and-egg problem for residents, although I would hesitate to call it a bait-and-switch.

In a vacuum, everyone would choose the best care available to them. Of course this is expected. How can anybody be expected to do otherwise when it's their life (or family member's) at stake?

Atul Gawande talks about this experience in Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science [0], where his son had been cared for by a full team of cardiologists, ranging from fellows in specialty training to attendings who had practiced for decades. However, due to certain complications, they needed to choose a pediatric cardiologist with which to schedule follow ups and decide on what procedures would be necessary in the future. One of the fellows, who had been the one putting most of the time in caring for his son, proactively approached them the day before discharge and suggested setting up an appointment.

It's common for fellows to receive patients this way, and at any teaching hospital, an attending is there to supervise and take over if needed. The entire system is set up such that residents and trainees are given opportunities to learn.

He says:

> A resident intubated him. A surgical trainee scrubbed in for his operation. The cardiology fellow put in one of his central lines. None of them asked me if they could. If offered the option to have someone more experienced, I certainly would have taken it. But that was simply how the system worked—no such choices were offered—and so I went along. [...]

> The advantage of this coldhearted machinery is not merely that it gets the learning done. If learning is necessary but causes harm, then above all it ought to apply to everyone alike. Given a choice, people wriggle out, and those choices are not offered equally. They belong to the connected and the knowledgeable, to insiders over outsiders, to the doctor's child but not the truck driver's. If choice cannot go to everyone, maybe it is better when it is not allowed at all.

[0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4477.Complications

If everybody refused to let junior surgeons operate on them, juniors don't get the experience to become seniors. Fast forward 15 years, suddenly there's zero seniors left to operate on anybody.

Juniors have to learn somewhere. The reality - in Australia, at least - is that juniors learn in the public system where patients don't really have a choice.

I've never had surgery - how would you know? Is it even against regulations? (I imagine this is country dependent)

You would know just before the surgery. The surgeon is supposed to be there before you are put down. At least it's what happened to me twice.

Last time I had a different anesthetist than the one I saw before. But I was happy because I did not have affinity with the one I met and the one I had was very welcoming and kind. Which is a really good trait for the person that is responsible to supplant your vital functions for some hours.

Bait and switch is illegal everywhere, right? If the surgeon stated that they were the one that would be doing the job, they are guilty of this.

It depends on how you’re defining as the job.

The nominal surgeon usually does the “heart” of the procedure: replacing your ACL, removing a tumor, etc. Their assistants just get you into/out of the state where that happens.

Surely you don’t expect the surgeon to personally do everything related to the case, right? Wash the drapes, prep the instruments?

They most likely didn't though as it would be a flat out lie. He probably explained the procedure etc but never commited to doing it himself specifically.

Or maybe something more important came up just prior. Ultimately people have the learn and have a go at some point - with your attitude they would be no more doctors.

There doesn't have to be any deception on anyone's part for their to be new surgeons. If a new surgeon is doing the operation, he/she should be the one to meet the patient and explain the operation

Exactly, there are "teaching" hospitals where the entire premise is that it's for newer doctors to learn. They're usually cheaper as well and people know this.

> "there's more like me, be happy to help you out, but on a contract basis and as a group."

Deception aside, this seems like a reasonable idea, and I've wondered if anyone might do this as a result of covid (as in, "we quit en masse when our employer wouldn't let us stay remote, wanna hire us?"). A mature team that's already worked together and gone through norming-storming-performing sounds like they'd be better than 5 freelancers thrown together.

> as in, "we quit en masse when our employer wouldn't let us stay remote, wanna hire us?"

Hiring entire teams together is risky. It can be difficult enough to integrate individual hires into the company’s way of operating, especially when companies grow quickly. A team that has already worked together can have a lot of resistance to changing their ways or integrating into the rest of the company’s way of operating.

I’ve been at companies that tried this in the past. The teams that came in together wanted to isolate themselves and operate independently, and they had little interest in changing anything or adopting the same tools that everyone else used (one team tried to refuse to adopt git because they all used and liked subversion).

Usually these teams were laid off together. A team that quit en masse because their employer wouldn’t cave to their demands would be even worse for trying to integrate with the company. You don’t want to bring in a group of people who tries to be the tail that wags the dog and will quit en masse again the next time the company doesn’t give in to their demands.

Funny, I've seen this happen multiple times and by any measure the companies and teams both did very well.

If you're spinning up a new project/org/whatever hiring all the expertise in a single shot is so much more efficient than one-by-one. If they have agency, it's often a recipe for success.

I meant as contractors; the attraction would be that they don't need to be integrated.

> we quit en masse when our employer wouldn't let us stay remote

I don’t think “we held our previous employer to ransom” is the sales pitch I’d go with.

What a surprising response. What's wrong with quitting your job because you want to work remote and they won't allow remote work?

This is like rainmakers in law firms with associates doing the work.

This kind of thing has been going on for a long time. In the late 80s I worked for an engineering consulting firm that contracted out engineers to the US armed forces. I was between tasks, and my boss pulled me into a contract w/Air Force Logistics Command for a database to track parts failures in the field.

They'd had the contract for months, but it wasn't until a rep from AFLC was going to visit and write a progress report that they cared. I coded up a demo in 2 weeks, and showed that it had all the basic functionality called for in the contract (though it had a few bugs). My boss told the rep I was their chief engineered just hired for the project (I was actually pretty junior, but happened to know a few things about databases).

I actually thought it was a fun project. I wanted to finish it, but after the rep left they put it aside and moved me to another project.

In defense of Ukrainian dudes, I have experience outsourcing to some of them, and they've always been pretty awesome. However, I don't pretend that I'm doing the work myself. That's definitely fishy.

Same here. Had experience working with an Ukrainian shop that did fantastic job prototyping some very niche kernel stuff. Very knowledgeable, felt like they knew Windows better than Microsoft. Made you wonder though how they managed that ;)

We had this happen in an interview as well, except it was outsourced to low-end “programmers” in India.

We took the bait and the code product was as bad as you would expect.

In the UK the tax system actually promotes such behaviour. But this the domain of larger consultancies that charge 1000 and up per day per developer and hire junior developers on a lowest salary they can get away with and have a senior supervising them. Now with IR35 changes this will be more common.

That's how most outsourcing/consultancy companies work, lure you with a seniors and then replace them with a juniors/mediors

This is Accenture


Reminds me of this threat model:

Long term moles at a company, able to climb high and perform well due to remote work which enables:

- never really meeting the mole

- the “mole” is a superstar because they have a team of corporate raider-employed 10x’ers evaluating and executing everything that this mole does at work. The mole’s code is written by 3x MIT grads hot swapping on the keyboard. The mole’s biz ideas come from a few HBS grads. And so on.

Productivity, business intuition, and engineering talent is off the charts for this mole. It rises far enough in the hierarchy such that it maneuvers the company towards favorable action for that corporate raider. Every idea the mole suggests, the corporate raider works in the background to enable via favorable market conditions. Whoever is the public face of the mole’a reputation might be in flames if found out, but what’s that vs netting 3% of a corporate buyout valuation.

This isn't that different from what probably happened an Nortel in the early 2000s. While their network was completely compromised by Chinese attackers, the C suite people downplayed the threat, and there are theories that this only happened because there were enough moles keeping everyone complacent so they wouldn't get too excited about the existential threat they faced. And now, after the most hostile of takeovers, they go by the name Huawei.

Edit: if you want a thorough version of the Nortel story, I recommend this podcast: https://malicious.life/chinas-unrestricted-warfare-part-1/

An alternative interpretation of what happened to Nortel is that they made a lot of money, got complacent, stopped innovating, sat on their laurels, utterly failed to adapt to changing demands from their customers, or to keep up with competing vendors, imploded, and then the C-suite covered for its numerous failings by blaming China.

"Hackers stole our sauce" may be a plausible explanation for why a competitor got a jump-start, but its not a plausible explanation for why your business fell apart - especially considering that Cisco, Nokia, RIM, and many, many other western communication vendors continued to thrive after Nortel's disaster.

Nortel died because it couldn't adapt, the same way that RIM invented the smart phone, and then died, because it couldn't compete with Apple.

Also, worth noting that Canadian tech firms don't pay well, so all the talent goes south, and then those same firms grouse about their inability to compete with the valley.

An ISP I was working for in the late 1990s, early 2000s were looking at acquiring new modem kit with higher port density (yes, this was totally sensible at the time). Among the providers we were looking at were Nortel.

Now, we had a price separation between multi-link PPP and single-link PPP and for a variety of reasons, we did this by having the multi-link calls terminate in dedicated equipment.

This worked fine for a day or so, until the Nortel CVX started rebooting in "peak dial-in time" (somewhere in the 3 PM - 4 PM bracket). And we could not for the LIFE of us understand why. Got Nortel on the case, they could not even recreate the crash in their lab. Until I happened to ask about their simulation parameters. They were doing a 1 multi to 5 non-multi mix, at about 75% of the incoming call rate we had.

That, alas, was not enough to tickle the bug, which was basically that the CVX had to shift either the first or the second call of a pair onto the same DSP, and if a new cal arrived between "start the move" and "finish the move", the call being moved would simply be lost to data corruption. And when the watchdog would go through and check for internal data sanity (once per second or so), it'd fall off the data chain and the watchdog timer would reset the chassis.

Nortel declined to fix the bug. We declined to keep (or pay) for the equipment. I was not massively surprised with Nortel eventually folding.

> An alternative interpretation of what happened to Nortel is that they made a lot of money, got complacent, stopped innovating, sat on their laurels, utterly failed to adapt to changing demands from their customers, or to keep up with competing vendors, imploded, and then the C-suite covered for its numerous failings by blaming China.

A third option is all the fraud that happened at the company. Hard to keep investor's confidence when everyone is being audited for accounting fraud [0].

> Also, worth noting that Canadian tech firms don't pay well, so all the talent goes south, and then those same firms grouse about their inability to compete with the valley.

Why would they do that? I recall someone telling me that an internship at BlackBerry was a positive signal, but a full time position not so much when looking at resumes. How do they think they can compete for talent?

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nortel#After_the_Internet_bubb...

I don't think low investor confidence was the reason for Nortel's spectacular negative cash flow, as much as customers losing faith with crappy, overpriced products.

That, and basing their business on selling film in an age of digital cameras.

Wow this is fascinating. Can you recommend any further reading on this subject? This is a degree of corporate espionage I've never thought of before.

Edited my post to add a multi part podcast recommendation.

Fantastic. Thank you for that! Excited to give it a listen

Direct link to the podcast episode of the Nortel story: https://malicious.life/episode/episode-113/

I want to say there was a darknet diaries episode on something related to this - a long term IR engagement, about to kick out the attack, suddenly attackers disappear. Few days later, M&A announcement. Hacking as due diligence.

> And now, after the most hostile of takeovers, they go by the name Huawei.

I was curious about this statement but on reading up on the topic, it doesn't seem to me that Nortel was "taken over" by Huawei?

Sorry, I was being a bit too sarcastic for plain text. All the exfiltrated IP went to Huawei, which rose to global preeminence 5 or so years later, while Nortel was imploding (mostly decay of a complacent giant, as others have pointed out.)

Fair enough!

From my understanding the technology was stolen and produced/sold cheaper by Huawei undercutting Nortel and putting them out of business.

This reminds me of the Key and Peele robber sketch when the heist plan is to get a job at the bank, work there 30 years, and get a regular paycheck so the bank is giving you the loot without ever suspecting it.

Here's the Key and Peele sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceijkZQI1HM

This is commonplace. It's called a no-show job. (Yes I get the joke. Just saying)

No, it’s a show-up-every-day-for-30-years job.

It's a job, not a no-show job.

no work job. you show up, but don't work

Love it. I'd watch this movie.

In the real world, I suspect most corporate threats require significantly less effort.

When I first started interviewing candidates I was surprised at how readily some people volunteered confidential information about their previous employer. I frequently have to ask people to stop sharing confidential details about their current projects or even problems their current employer is having.

I've long suspected that the easiest way to extract confidential information from a company would be to pose as a reputable recruiter from a glamorous company with high wages, then simply get in touch with a company's employees and ask them what they're working on.

Absolutely. This is less of a threat to a corp, and more of an extended takeover that avoids the challenges/risks with other forms of takeovers.

This would be a more plausible conspiracy theory with state-level actors; I imagine the TLA's have the resources to do this, and it might make sense to do at somewhere like google/intel/microsoft with some juicy payoffs. Otherwise it seems like more work than actually starting a company to do whatever the mole is accomplishing. I like that the mole's preferred pronoun is "it"..

This is more common than you may think, but is carried out by state-sponsored actors because random people and corporations won't have the time, resources or even a real need to plan a decades-long operation. Also whether the position is physical or remote has very little bearing. Moles can be planted either way. Heck the Manhattan project had Soviet agents working for it.

Ya fairly common to catch PLA plants in priv sector/universities, agreed.

This is possibly the most interesting thing I have read this week. It is possible this happening now. The pinnacle of a social engineering attack.

So how would this be detected and countered? It seems undetectable if the mole has perfect opsec. I guess an organizational structure with a lot of checks and balances might be resilient to their manipulation…

There are not really any effective counters. You can assume most major tech corporations have moles from most major intelligence agencies.

Insider threat programs, ultimately. But it would be hard to catch if it's actually operationalized in this way.

It's an interesting idea, but ascending the ladder (beyond "senior" or "line manager") usually has very little to do with productive output.

Right, but in come the MBAs and acting classes, and corporate raider smoothing the path on all strategic decisions this mole makes.

Even doing all the right things, it's so rare to ascend without quitting.

Spending 3 years, earning a single promotion, and then (not immediately but shortly after) quitting and going somewhere else (for another promotion) is the surest route if applied consistently. Another route is to parlay one's background as a senior at a large company into an outsized role at a small company. Perhaps even CTO if it's a startup. After a few years as CTO, that person can work his way back into senior management at bigcorp.

It's difficult to see how someone could turn this into a profitable business. But if the backer isn't interested in profit, it's a great way to get assets inside the upper echelons of a lot of major companies...

What backfills the motivation to do this is:

1) who is behind it, actually.

This isn't about dogman144 making CTO. It's BlackRock/private fund/whatever steering companies of interested towards long term, favorable outcomes, at the cost of the salaries for 20 people mole-strike team, tough NDAs, a large finder's fee at the end, and at the benefit of 0% of the negative publicity they get for doing this sort of action out in the open. No % shares reporting anymore, no PR, no protests for buying up residential real estate in bulk, and so on.

2) how much does the figurehead mole make, as this could be an excruciatingly stressful experience

Start with a fee model like 2/20 for hedge funds, and data like FireEye is getting bought out in "an all-cash transaction for $1.2 billion." At a 3% mole fee of the final transaction, thats a $36mil (edit, math :( ) payout for the mole, using FireEye numbers, putting aside 5-7 years of double-dipping Raider pay, FireEye pay. Kraft bought Cadbury for $19B. Some of the larger LBOs push $45B. There are a number of ways the incentives can work here - if this takes less time to make $3.6m than an IPO would, more surety of outcomes because you have a titan of a fund steering things, and guaranteed Partner at the fund once this is complete, and so on, the numbers likely make a bit of sense.

3) Jumping companies: also doable. Either way the mole team wants to play the long game: they really want X-company, and to do that they could do a few years of jumps. Few years at a single company, or a few years at separate companies until that "senior" mole team lands at the target company - same/same.

You nail it with this: it's a great way to get assets inside the upper echelons of a lot of major companies. And add in the above, the payouts look good too.

Is this legal, do you get on the wrong side of outside employment regs at the company, and so on? Not sure! But what's interesting to me is with remote work, this suddenly gets a whole lot more doable, an there are a lot of all-remote, pretty valuable companies (revenue, or IP access - see GitLab) out there. This puts aside all considerations of intel agencies doing this, as well.

> This puts aside all considerations of intel agencies doing this, as well.

This seems more plausible.

But still, you make a good point about the size of the reward. A low probability of success might be OK if the payoff is measured in billions.

It's almost certainly illegal, but I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know the specifics.

Wouldn’t this risk running afoul of insider trading laws, at least under some circumstances?

Pretty sure only if a party privy to insider knowledge makes a trade based upon it.

A natural charmer is more valuable than someone with high tech ability. The charmer just needs enough tech prowess to come across well in brief interactions and their outsourced hacker team will help them with the meat of their work.

This sounds like the plot for a really fun movie.

Lol. You're talking about 3x MIT grads and 3x HBS grads... the mole needs to be paid north of $1M out the gate to compensate everyone.

They're not talking about the mole outsourcing his work so he can slack. The whole operation runs at a net loss in order to place the mole in a position to support the financier's goals.

That said, given how much larger high-level position compensation is in many companies... maybe it could be a source of revenue.

Exactly. The "mole" is a team in reality, a long term payout makes it worth it. Described it further down in another comment. Ya, this would be a huge undertaking with risks all over the place. But are there enough sociopaths at the funds who care about this area of corporate takeover and at tech companies doing shades of ethical stuff? I think there are, for sure.

This would make a good movie

I love the implication that there's this shadow company, Fronk. Seemingly defunct, they're actually thriving secretly behind the facade of a failed startup.

Every marketing manager has engaged them privately to boost their numbers. Every developer secretly works for them on the side.

But no one anywhere ever talks about it until one day a former consultant notices an expired NDA.

It’s a great conspiracy theory. :-) The reality is the model survived in new firms.

This is a strange counterpoint to managers interviewing people to learn about a market.

this sound like the backstory of an SCP story waiting to be written.

Reminds me of the G.K. Chesterton novel where a cop infiltrates a criminal organization only to learn that the entire group is composed of cops who have infiltrated it. I won't name the book to avoid spoilers.

Fronk sounds like the Fight Club of the developer world. Convincingly wrapped in the busted-startup fabrication, the cult probably lives on. :')

I would think that Fronk is actually Google, but I doubt that Google would ever put an expiration date on any of their NDAs.

Since when do Google make money from people choosing to use their tech?

The ethics of this is very clear cut, it's unethical.

It's unethical for a company to interview candidates if they don't have the intention of offering anyone a job.

And likewise it's unethical for a candidate to attend an interview if they have no intention of considering a potential offer.

  And likewise it's unethical for a candidate to attend an interview if they have no intention of considering a potential offer.
This resonates with me and I'm also conflicted about it the same time.

I'm currently happy at my job, and don't think I'd like to consider another job any time soon. However, historically, in previous jobs, I usually don't notice that I want to move on, until it's too late, and I'm too burnt out to do well in interviews. It's been recommended to me, by multiple people to interview frequently, even if not interested in changing jobs, to get some practice in. But doing that feels unethical. I frequently consider it, but have never done it because it feels dishonest and unfair.

But then by the time I want to change jobs I'll be burnt out, and and out of practice interviewing, creating a very depressive loop of failing at job interviews, depressing me further.

I used to do this as well and I still advise others to do this. It's worth reframing it. From: I love my current work and there's no way I would leave... To: What would be so awesome I would have to leave?

With this reframe I was always very up front to the hiring company. "I'm happy where I am but I'm open to interviewing and hearing what you have to offer." It puts you in a pretty powerful negotiating position (assuming you pass the interviews). Then if you like the company remind them that you are happy at your current job and ask for an amount (or hours, PTO, etc) that you would have no hesitation leaving your current job for. No ethical dilemma (in my opinion) and I've definitely accepted some of those offers.

Also it's fun to interview with no pressure to actually land a job. Not a totally fair comparison but my interview success rate at these is way higher than when I was actually looking for a job.

One funny downside is that if you do enough startups you end up with a few that do really well later on and then you're kicking yourself for not joining. I have to remind myself of all the others that I interviewed at that didn't make it.

I don't think it's unethical to interview for jobs. You don't have to lie to progress through interview rounds; just say you're keen to hear more about the role and what the possibilities are.

(I also struggle with staying too long in jobs.)

I don't see this as unethical because there is still the possibility that they will give you an offer that you would consider. It's just that they'd probably have to offer quite a bit in terms of compensation and opportunity to actually make you budge if you're happy with your current job.

Although, I have never done it either. I've always been too busy at work, and I view the dishonest aspect as the potential lie I have to make up to take off a day from my current job to go interview.

Why do you need to give a reason? Can't you just say that you want to have a day off?

danluu talked tangentially about this in a recent twitt. He said that people are interviewing without intention to accept the offer, but roughly half of them end up switching jobs.

It seems that usually companies pay their long term employees below the market, and they only notice when/if they go job hunting.

What you're describing is ethical and different. You may be unlikely to accept the offer but you will still consider it.

Also, it sounds like the recruitment consultants might be in on it? If so, it’s also unethical for them to take commission on what they know is a fake candidate.

Not just unethical, isn’t that just plain old fraud at this point?

If a company agrees to pay a consultant just for fielding candidates for interview that's their problem.

The standard practice is for recruiters to be paid only in case of successful placement (and often only in case of successful probation period).

They could be paying a fee for candidates that get an offer.

Of course that incentivizes recruiters to get a single candidate multiple offers. On the face of it this is good for the candidate, but it makes me wonder about some of my previous experiences.

Yeah that was kinda confusing, did that use to be standard practice?

It's not their problem that they were defrauded. But yes it would be stupid.

They get comission when the job is filled by a candidate they supplied, not just for sending someone to an interview.

The article says otherwise, and that they gave a cut of their commission to the company supplying the fake candidate.

It may have been the case for some segment of the market one time, it is not the case now and I have never know it to be. So I'm not saying they were lying to him but given their ethics this is entirely possible.

> And likewise it's unethical for a candidate to attend an interview if they have no intention of considering a potential offer.

If FAANG recruiters keep contacting me without my applying to them, I think it's fair game to expect that you'll get a number of people who interview "for fun".

If you're going to use sales tactics to get future hires, you have to accept a certain level of waste.

Even if you interview "for fun", there's still a chance that you'll be so enticed by what they offer that you'd accept. There's nothing unethical about interviewing for a company that you don't think you'd want to work for -- it's their job to make the case that you should work there.

But this isn't the case if you're paid by another company to go to the interview and you are forbidden from accepting an offer.

I agree.

But I’d point out that tech companies farm interviewees for ideas on how to approach problems all the time and don’t hire the vast majority of qualified candidates.

It’s unpaid labor.

It’s a bit of karmic justice to hear of people turning the table and using this as a way to inject ideas into a target company.

The second trade show I went to (as an exhibitor), someone warned me that a lot of wannabe investors walk the floor trying to get a gestalt of the tech industry. Those people are not going to buy our product so don't let them wind you up on a topic.

Very much explained some experiences I'd had at the previous trade show.

I interview all the time for jobs I have no interest in. But I’m wrong about a lot and willing to hear someone else’s pitch.

It’s the interviewers job to convince me I should work there.

Plus I get interviewing practice and maybe get to meet interesting people.

There's a big difference between interviewing for a job you're not interested in, but with an open mind, versus interviewing for a job where under no circumstances will you accept the role.

I struggle with this distinction. Almost any role I'd be willing to take for enough money. If you're upfront about those expectations I believe it's fine to take _any_ interview.

I mean, he could always quit Fronk and take the job at the marketing target.

I don't think the difference is as big as you seem to think. Everyone has a price. :)

Something not mentioned in the article is how willing 'Fronk' was to match and exceed every interviewer's offer. Get offers from FAANG enough times and Fronk would be paying quite nicely to stay competitive. It's not only unethical but stupid to commit to turning down a better offer than the one you currently have.

Yet you could get convinced, which in my eyes makes what you do honest.

You and a few others have said the same, but I don’t see the honesty angle. Window-shopping is not the same as entering a grocery store to buy milk. The intent is different in both cases regardless of the outcome.

I condone the behaviour nor think it’s unethical. Talent should be able to shop the market, just as companies shop the market for talent.

Edit: Whoops! Grammar

Yes - there are plenty of reasons to interview for a job you may not take. It’s crucial to have multiple offers when negotiating, practice interviewing, understanding the range of cultures, etc.

I think it’s quite reasonable to interview somewhere if there’s a 10% chance or greater that you’d work there, which is hard to know before they’ve convinced you throughout the process.

Honestly, I really don't know if I want to work for a company after meeting a few people there.

I guess I should say that I prefer to work for small < 20 person companies. Usually in the interview process I meet enough to get a good idea.

It is also unethical to abide by a NDA if the company is doing something unethical. It might or might not also be legal to talk though, ask a lawyer. Of course NDAs might not even be legal in the first place. If the company is doing something illegal, then the NDA doesn't have any meaning for sure.

That highly depends. You need to sign an NDA to do any classified work, and if you find illegal activity, you still can't just disclose classified information to uncleared individuals. If you want to be a whistleblower, you're supposed to either go the agency's ethics office, the IG, or possibly straight to whatever Senate subcommittee has oversight and clearance, but not just release to Wikileaks or Glenn Greenwald unless you want to spend the rest of your life in prison or permanent exile.

There's no indication that company was doing anything illegal though.

ethics and legality are different things of course. You need to figure out how to handle things when they are opposed. There are no easy answers.

There is an easy answer. If you feel that there are circumstances under which you cannot abide by the terms of the NDA, then don't sign the NDA.

How would that work? Normally you don't get to hear much until after you sign the NDA.

The problem is most NDAs are for things I can abide by, and I won't know until after signing that this is an exception.

In fact in this case I wouldn't have expected the things the NDA is stopping me from talking about were even things.

Perhaps not illegal, but by definition, unethical, otherwise the NDA on the actual intended role would not be needed.

You've confused ethics and morals. The ethical action (which is about professional standards rather than your conscience) is usually to follow the legal agreement you've signed (barring something that supersedes the NDA like being legally required to report something to regulators).

So no, it isn't unethical for the author to abide by his NDA, arguably the exact opposite is true, though exposing these shenanigans at a personal risk could be argued to be the better moral decision.

>You've confused ethics and morals

Ethics and moral philosophy are synonymous. I don't think they're confused, but you can consult a dictionary if you like.

>The ethical action (which is about professional standards rather than your conscience)

No, as somebody who has studied moral philosophy academically, this is your own unique definition and not normal. Any amount of research from a credible source like plato.standord.edu or even wikipedia will support this.

The dictionary defines ethics as the field of knowledge dealing with moral principles, sure, and that's not at all what I'm talking about here. Perhaps I erred in using the word too generally and should have been specific in talking about ethics in the professional sense.

The ethical codes that are associated with a profession are different from moral principles that may usually guide us. The first example they gave when I studied this in engineering was that of a defense attorney: trying to help a guilty person get away with a serious crime violates most people's moral standards, but the code of ethics for attorneys demands that they defend guilty people anyway, because our law system is set up with that expectation.

To my original point, someone may claim a moral imperative to tell the world about the company in this article, but the fact of the matter is just about every professional ethics committee or handbook would tell you to uphold your NDA in the situation here. Wasting people's time under false pretenses may be bad, and it isn't ethical to do it yourself, but it isn't so bad that you can just drop your own obligations and blog about it.

And yes I admit some handwaving here since programming doesn't have widely adopted ethical codes yet, but I can guarantee that when they do exist, they won't tell you to violate a contract for something that won't injure anyone and doesn't break any laws.

I think the defense attorney example seems to be a bit of an exception. Even in that scenario, the law also requires a prosecutor. The partiality of each opposing side is required for the system itself to be impartial, and if the defense attorney has a sense of ethics, they will only participate if they know that someone else is arguing the prosecution's side as well (or if they're about to run out of food and have no other alternatives, but that's a different story).

Re moral imperatives and tradeoffs: even these guys had a code of ethics https://www.bullmarketgifts.com/Framed-Enron-Code-of-Ethics-... The "ethical thing to do" does not always come from a book or a committee, instead it's dictated by the moral principle most specific to the situation at hand and taking into consideration the widest breadth of weighted personal interests and needs. In any case, I'm not sure I agree with this statement "just about every professional ethics committee or handbook would tell you to uphold your NDA". Nor do I believe that I can speak for just about every committee without consulting them beforehand, so I can't know what they would come up with in this situation.

In the end, I just fail to see why ethics in the professional world should receive special treatment. Different domain, same principles and rules.

To the extent there is a difference, I'd say that "ethics" is what you say you would do, and "morals" is what you actually end up doing when placed in a specific situation.

But, it's been well over two decades I was pursuing a degree in philosophy.

It is you who is confused - ethics and morals are basically the same thing, and both are about processes to figure what is ethical and what isn't according to some set of ideas; neither is about prescribing anything, and there certainly isn't anything like The Set of Ethical Things and The Set of Unethical Things. "X is ethical" is always a short-hand for "within the framework I and/or my surroundings or audience subscribes to X can be argued to be ethical".

"Is this a moral situation or an ethical situation?"


Has he confused them? The only code of professional ethics in this industry I've ever been asked to consider is the ACM one. https://www.acm.org/code-of-ethics

By my reading of it, I'd feel obligated to publicly address this, and I don't consider it a breach of any sort of ethics I'd believe in, besides.

From the code you linked:

> Computing professionals should protect confidentiality except in cases where it is evidence of the violation of law, of organizational regulations, or of the Code. In these cases, the nature or contents of that information should not be disclosed except to appropriate authorities.

This code of ethics, like all others, has limitations. Here, it has failed to consider all cases, namely the case where the entity whose confidentiality is being protected doesn't exist anymore. That doesn't necessarily mean your quote isn't relevant, just that it shouldn't be given the final say until we've balanced it out with the rest of the document and looked at the tradeoffs involved.

Not breaking the NDA is an issue w/r/t:

  - 1.2 "Well-intended actions, including those that accomplish assigned duties, may lead to harm. When that harm is unintended, those responsible are obliged to undo or mitigate the harm as much as possible."

  - 2.2 Maintain high standards of professional competence, conduct, and ethical practice.

  - 2.7 "As appropriate to the context and one's abilities, computing professionals should share technical knowledge with the public"

  - 2.7 again "a computing professional should respectfully address inaccurate or misleading information related to computing."

Lastly, since the company's actions were clearly in violation of the Code and potentially causing harm, I could simply argue that the public is the ultimate appropriate authority (since none seem to be more appropriate in this case) and that not breaking the NDA would have been unethical by the very passage you chose to quote.

I don’t know why the ethics for this is clear cut or what priors that statement is built on. Technical interviews are a relatively new social development. People are saying x or y are unethical, but it would be nice to see some actual justification one way or the other.

It's deceptive and exploits the interviewers' time in bad faith. That is a clear justification IMO.

Similar but less clear cut whether it's unethical is when people go on 'practice' interviews where they don't have a serious interest in the position.

Because you're wasting the company's time and money, making them spend resources on interviewing someone with no intention of actually joining the company. All in order to underhandedly advertise to them without their knowledge or consent.

    Is this... what's the word... ethical?
    "Our investors think so!
Well, I mean, if the investors think so, it must be.

Not unethical if you make your intentions clear from the get go and recruiters/hiring managers are still not willing to take no for an answer. Every single day I'll reply to a cold call with "not interested" and the recruiter will still press on.

So because the recruiters keep wasting minutes of your time, you're going to waste hours of it in an interview? That seems like exactly the wrong answer.

It also just seems grueling. Some interviews are stressful for me, even if I'm a little skeptical going in.

It's not just the interview: It's picking the right clothes, going somewhere I've never been, getting there on time, and the general disruption to my day. I once went to an interview where it took me 90 minutes to find parking. Another time I got super-confused coming in the door because there was no receptionist and no one told me where to go in the building.

I would never take such a job, but it is probably a lot less stressful if you don't really care at all how well you do.

Oddly, you would probably also do much better, since wanting to do well at an interview is bad for one's interview performance. Desperation is a turn-off. You might end up with a lot of job offers. Until you decide to leave this company, of course, in which case you might suddenly lose your appeal...

I agree that it's blatantly unethical, but there's also a degree of "evil genius" or supervillain here.


It is basically spamming, not in email, SMS, or robo-calls, but in job interviews.

It seems there are no bounds to the areas that marketers will go to insert their message into your life, welcome or not.

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