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Announcing HackStars (techstars.org)
49 points by brianculler on Apr 3, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 105 comments

If you're going to donate this much of your time, spend it writing open source software. Stuff that you can take with you. Stuff that will remain in your toolkit and in your portfolio until you decide otherwise.

In general, any sort of unpaid internship biases against people who aren't well enough off to work for free (i.e. whose parents won't support them while they do). It's really a kind of class discrimination that prevents people from lower socioeconomic standing from having much of a chance at certain jobs (like in the finance world) that tend to rely heavily on unpaid internships.

One thing I've always liked about my profession is that we tend not to do that in the software industry, which I think makes it more egalitarian and at least helps open up opportunities to people who actually do need to get paid for the summer. It's disappointing to see a reversal in that trend.

Besides any ethical considerations about class-discrimination, unpaid internships are illegal unless the intern gets class credit, because it is a violation of minimum wage laws. Calling a job an "unpaid internship" does not revoke the minimum wage laws. However, these laws are not enforced, which results in more and more companies offering unpaid internships...

IANAL, but I believe a strict literal enforcement of minimum-wage laws also prohibits founders working for their own corporation without salary. (Equity doesn't count for minimum wage calculations.)

Much of the bootstrapped-startup culture we celebrate may thus rely on lax enforcement of these laws.

Good point, but only employees must be paid the minimum wage. If you founded the company, you are not an employee because you direct your work. The IRS says an employee is "anyone who performs services for an organization is an employee if the organization can control what will be done and how it will be done" (http://www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=131137,00.html).

But as soon as you incorporate, take on cofounders and investors, and adopt a title, you're essentially working at the direction of the organization. Your equity is likely subject to a vesting schedule and (given the right constellation of agreement among the other founders and investors) you could even be 'let go'.

Also, the IRS doesn't enforce minimum wages and labor laws, so its definitions aren't necessarily relevant. (For example, it will tax equity compensation that doesn't count toward minimum wage calculations.)

So you may be right, but I'm not yet convinced. The strict letter of the law seems to suggest that corporations must pay even their founders minimum wages.

And if there's some 'bright-line' rule that clearly tells us when this is not the case, I've never heard it. (For example, if "5%" is traditionally enough ownership, by statute or administrative ruling, to count someone as an owner rather than employee, that would be very good to know -- you could have exactly 20 equal founders and no investors and still have founders bootstrap with their own donated labor.)

I'm pretty sure it's tricker than that because there are a number of high profile executives with their $1 salaries and now even some of the bank folks that are in non-executive positions that have elected to take no salary. It seems like those would be more prone to scrutiny than unpaid interns.

No that is incorrect. If you are not being paid then you are volunteering your time, minimum wage laws only apply when you are being paid.

This article makes it clear:

"In order to qualify as an unpaid internship, the requirement is simple: no work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company. That is, you can not deliver mail, sort files, file papers, organize a person’s calendar, conduct market research, write reports, watch television shows and report on them, read scripts, schedule interviews, or any other job that assists the employer in any way in running their business."


Actually I know quite a few people in my unpaid internship (programming) who don't have "real" jobs and are not exactly rich either. What they do is learn the trade by day, and go home at night to contract out their work on e-lance or something. It's basically a homework assignment that pays for your education.

Well, that's a good plan. But it doesn't exactly erase the unfairness of the practice. Lack of sleep and stress will cost you both happiness and performance, though you may not recognize that when you're nineteen ;)

How is something consensual unfair? If a person places a low value on their time or a high value on the experience that will be gained, it seems like it might be a reasonable trade. This seems especially true if the person giving up their time isn't in dire straits... i.e. If you offer to pay pennies and breadcrumbs to a starving man, that might not be cool. If you offer a good unpiad experience to a hacker/designer who is otherwise darned employable, it doesn't seem evil at all.

If I lived in the Valley and had an opportunity to hang out at YC dinners in exchange for a bit of free work, there was probably a time in my life when I would've taken that opportunity.

Random other note: cool that you play the banjo! I've recently begun teaching myself the fiddle.

My response to this has turned into something the size of the Lord of the Rings, so I'll blog it instead of clogging this page.

I need to get back to practicing the banjo. Perhaps one day we can hold a jam. The fiddle is awesome; I recommend the works of Darol Anger, and if you're near the Bay Area watch out for his concerts. Get on the Freight and Salvage mailing list if they have one. (I miss that place, although they have plenty of equivalents in Massachusetts.)

It might not be impossible for everyone, but it's certainly a huge disincentive, and not everyone has the skills or energy to hold down another job that actually pays the bills, or to contract out. On top of that, many internships (like in finance . . . or least like finance used to be) would expect interns to work 60 or 80 hours a week, which would make any sort of additional paid labor basically impossible.

Just because some people manage to make it work doesn't mean it's not hugely discriminatory.

The thing that really galls me is that most of the time the companies that do this sort of thing are perfectly capable of paying their interns, at least well enough for them to eat and pay rent, they just choose not to because they can get away with it; there are enough college students trying to get a foot in the door and who have other support systems.

Any software startup that would accept an "intern" on the team is failing one test of viability. The last thing you need in startups is more than one level of hierarchy. [1] You don't want people to expend valuable mental and emotional energy trying to figure out if task X is "right" for a mere intern, or if it's really important not to have conversation Y in front of the intern, or (in general) whether or not the intern is really a member of the team. One likely result is that your team will not gel. Another is that the team will gel, but suffer a breakdown when the intern inevitably quits. A third is that the team will defend itself by shutting out the intern, assigning him or her to go mend broken XHTML tags or make coffee while everyone else does the real work. Which is another good reason not to be that intern. ;)

Interns are for big companies, where they make only a tiny marginal contribution to the already massive political overhead. ;)


[1] Two levels, if absolutely necessary. But the best leaders are the ones who always manage to convey the feeling that it's really only one, that they're only the leader because somebody has to have their name on that line of the corporate charter and be forced to take tedious phone calls from big clients.

I can also attest that, if it grows, eventually your software startup will need a hierarchy. But at the beginning it's probably just unnecessary friction.

I think this is a great point. At the stage a TechStars company is at, they need founders and advisors. Anything else is going to create inefficiencies. And if they're lacking in hacking talent such that they need one of these interns, then they just don't have the right founder mix.

If a team is missing some key capabilities for producing a functioning prototype, then it should bring someone else in and provide some equity.

$6,000/founder and as many 0.375 FTE slaves as they can round up - MBAs around the globe rejoice, TechStars has solved the "I've got this amazing idea, if only I could find some developers" problem.

How many do you think they'll round up? If I was fresh out of college and didn't need any money I'd just start my own and hang out at the meetups instead of working for free for someone who may or may not have a clue.

I am going to reserve judgement on this for now, but I am really going to be surprised if this works out well for the TS companies. The old adage, "you get what you pay for" is especially true with developers/UI designers who are interested in startups. Without some sort of compensation, whether it be cash money or equity, I wonder if you are going to get the "right" kind of interest.

You have to ask yourself, who is their target talent here?

The real talented AND motivated developers/designers in Boulder and probably Boston (AKA "The Gurus"), who have an affinity for startups and TechStars probably applied to the program themselves and didn't get in. Either way, they know the value of their time and are hard at work on their own startups.

The other talented and motivated people are probably consultants or working full time at a company. Despite this being a poor economy, I've found that there is no shortage of work for the "right" people.

And of course, there are a fair share of those that fit a combination of the above.

This leaves us with the last two groups. The people that are either talented and unmotivated, or lack talent, but have the motivation. My suspicion is that you will get people volunteering to the HackStars program who are TechStars fanboys at best. They like the idea of doing a startup, or being a part of the "startup culture" but in truth may not want to put in the work, or worse, are benched because no one wants to work with them.

I may be totally wrong. Either way, I don't fault the TechStars team for test driving an idea like this. But if I were a founder who made it in to the program, I would be very skeptical of the value of the volunteers.

Even if this program deserves a critical assessment, that doesn't belong in a sarcastic headline.

Agreed. Headlines are not supposed to editorialize. The HN editors should fix this one.

Yes, lets sanitize and PC everything, instead of calling things like they are. Read all the other comments in this thread.

there is a time and place for everything. everyone is being allowed to express their opinions. just not in the headline.

snark is never productive. it only serves to harden other people's opinions against you. if you believe techstars is in the wrong here, you're certainly not going to change their minds by mocking them.

So, like, I can be in the same room with the mentors? WOW!

You mean I'll finally get to meet Paul Graham?! No wait... that's not TechStars...

I can't help to wonder if adding more people that are "Learning" won't just get in the way of the founders actually getting work done.

Cf. Fred Brooks.

It's all about mutual benefit. For example, I'm going to be doing a few server installs for a friend while I'm traveling, in exchange for some cycles on those machines to use for my own project.

My friend is happy, because he doesn't need to spend $2k per server to have an engineer fly out and install them. I'm happy, because I'll be traveling anyway, and I get to use a pile of machines around the world without having to pay for and install them myself.

No money is changing hands, and we both benefit in a way that we find acceptable.

An unpaid 'internship' for a 'guru'? Fifteen hours a week for no pay and no equity?

I think not.

If you really want to commit 15 hours a week to doing free work for an up-and-coming startup, don't do it this way. Make a list of the top 20 companies you're fascinated by, and contact them directly, one by one.

If you can't be bothered to "sell" free dev/tech work to the companies you're most interested in, you're not going to make it as an entrepreneur anyways.

Unpaid internships are becoming EXTREMELY common (if not in the CS field, certainly elsewhere). In NYC this used to be only the case for fashion, but has now spread to basically every other industry.

We had a discussion the other day at lunch whether this was legal/ethical. I'm still not sure how I feel about it...

I'm in an unpaid internship right now and I love it. The employer actually hires most of their talent through the unpaid internship program. They get to see if the people who do the internship are really there because they want to learn and contribute regardless of monetary compensation.

I know everyone can't do this because at some point you need compensation, but the arrangement has taught me a great deal about how to program scalable applications that I will definitely use in the future.

I know everyone can't do this because at some point you need compensation

Which is why using unpaid internships to screen your hires is unethical. It's an artfully disguised form of class discrimination.

Lots of very smart and hardworking people cannot afford to work for free. Apparently those people are at a severe disadvantage when applying to work at your company. And it's not as if unpaid internships offer financial aid, like schools do.

I think it's fine to screen prospective employees as paid interns. I also think it's fine to try them out as consultants first, or even to have them perform a few hours of work for free, as a test. But in general work should be paid for. Unless, as I've said elsewhere, it is 100% free-software work.

Of course, just because it's unethical doesn't mean it doesn't happen or that you can do anything to change it.

Unethical is way too harsh. This is NOT class discrimination. If you ask me,judging on the basis of GPA alone is class discrimination. Poor people don't stand a fighting chance.

But that's a slightly different argument. Unpaid internships don't impose requirements that would keep you from getting paid elsewhere, so regardless of your economic situation, you can decide how much you want to work. My employer doesn't care if you work 30 hours or 2 hours...they just want to see how much you enjoy doing the work.

Any smart and hardworking individual wouldn't be at a disadvantage because they could find a way to make it work.

For the record I'm pretty poor myself. I have two jobs to pay my bills. But I don't see anyone who has significantly more money having more of an advantage than me.

they just want to see how much you enjoy doing the work.

Here's what I'd say to that: "I enjoy doing work that adds value. If you have something valuable for me to do for your company, pay me what it is worth. If not, I'll be happy to sit in your air-conditioned office writing free software that has value for me. And then you will be able to see how much I enjoy doing that."

But you probably shouldn't say that out loud. You're not in a very strong negotiating position, after all.

This illustrates another reason why unpaid internship is pernicious: It doesn't teach anyone how well you add value. Because your time is unmetered and unpaid, you have no incentive to spend it wisely. And your employer certainly has no incentive to track it -- at least not out loud. (Imagine the conversation: "Wow, last week you worked 10 hours for free and saved the company $100k. Have a muffin!") What, exactly, is either of you learning? I guess your employer is learning how much value you can be coerced to add, for free, without you noticing or complaining. And you're learning how to look and act like a model employee.

Onward. "You can decide how much you want to work?" Yeah, I guess. I could also "decide" to live in a cardboard box and save on expenses. If I have a family, I could "decide" to never see them because I have to work two jobs instead. If I've got elderly parents I could "decide" not to take care of them.

But, more likely, an unpaid internship requirement will tend to select for young people with no family and a lot of time to spend at work. How convenient. Especially since overtly screening your employees for these traits is against the law.

Do you see why I'm tempted to call this "unethical" yet?

Anyway, none of this is to suggest that you're doing the wrong thing. We have to live with the hands we're dealt. Congratulations for finding a way forward, and good luck with your jobs.

Wow. You are very passionate about this aren't you? (I'm not being sarcastic, I really admire you for voicing this).

I guess I just don't see this practice as unethical because if I look at the whole spectrum of unethical behaviors, this seems very minor to me. Does that make it excusable? Probably not. But to me this is just about acquiring a skill which I previously did not have. It's not about recognition or compensation.

But even still, I fail to see what my employers are doing wrong. You will be compensated for the skills you bring to the company and what you produce. And if you're middle aged with a family to support you could get a paid job there if you had the skills. If not, you could apply for the unpaid internship.

But nothing bars you from getting hired, so that's why I don't view it as an injustice. At the end of the day, its a choice, and if you didn't like the terms, you are perfectly free to go somewhere else.

You are very passionate about this aren't you?

I went to graduate school. A Ph.D. program is like being an unpaid intern for six years.

(And, yet, in some ways it's better. There is some pay. And a Ph.D. is a regular old-fashioned apprenticeship program: The bad news is that you're a slave, but the good news is that your adviser has a fairly strong incentive to help you graduate. The commitment goes both ways.

And, of course, if you've got an apartment and a web connection you can teach yourself to be a professional programmer -- especially if you already have a CS degree -- but you can't say the same for semiconductor engineering.)

No, it's not unethical. It's downright criminal. It's called fraud. Someone is being misled into supplying someone else with labor. What are the falsehoods? The purported benefits to be obtained in exchange for the labor.

You've gotta be kidding me. Being poor prevents you from having a high GPA?

Prevents? No. I didn't say that. But being poor usually means you don't have access to the same levels of education. Read the comments in this thread. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=520836

No -- you didn't say anything about education level, which is tangential to GPA. What you said is "judging on the basis of GPA alone is class discrimination. Poor people don't stand a fighting chance." In other words, if you're poor, you don't stand a chance of (i.e. are prevented from) being able to achieve a high GPA. My experience says differently.

I've read one of Gladwell's other books, and I think he makes the same mistake you are making. A correlation does not necessarily imply "discrimination" or that the odds can't be overcome. For instance, women have higher GPAs than men, on average. That doesn't mean that using GPA as an indicator of performance discriminates against males. It might mean that males might need to work harder or do something a bit differently in order to get the same GPA.

In the end, my admittedly subjective take is that the biggest factor is individual motivation. We all have our setbacks and obstacles to overcome, but that's just the craps of life. I can verify, however, that it is indeed possible to go from moving out of your house at 16 with no money to graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford (not me, but someone very close to me). Difficult, yes... but it shows that there is almost always a "fighting chance."

Alright. You got me. I shouldn't have made such a strong statement, but I think it's safe to say that you would atleast be put at a pretty big disadvantage. But you're right in that wherever there is a will, there is a way.

"But in general work should be paid for."

What about equity? Most stock options end up being valueless. I'd say that a free summer at TechStars (or YC for that matter) would have a greater chance of tracing to some monetary reward than equity in most startups.

We hire people through internships. So do a lot of other companies in our field. Of course, we pay the interns. Because we're not, you know, assholes.

So someone with absolutely no experience can apply for and get a job with your company, work however many hours they want, and wouldn't be expected to produce work that you could charge for...and still get paid?

A few months ago, a guy from DePaul sent me an email and we got coffee. His "weekend" was during the normal work week, because of his shift job. He was looking for something to do during that off time. He had no work experience in our field. We picked him up. He's been excellent.

So your (somewhat strange) questions, broken down:

"Apply for and get a job" --- Check.

"Work however many hours they want" --- You need to make a commitment; you can't just come in Wednesday this week and Friday the next week. But if "however many hours you want" means "I'll give you days X, Y, and Z of every week", then, Check.

"Wouldn't be expected to produce work we could charge for" --- I have no idea what this even means. Who produces work for no reason at all? Of course we're going to want you to do real work.

"And still get paid" --- Check.

If your intern does work that you charge your client for, then of course it makes sense to compensate him or her.

At my unpaid internship, I came in with no programming experience. They basically paired me with sr. programmers so I could learn how to program efficiently, but was still too inexperienced to give me actual client work they could charge for. Believe me, I wouldn't want to charge the client either for the crap that I put out initially. But their investment will eventually pay off because when my skills strengthen enough to meet their standards, they'll hire me.

Our interns aren't "billable", but there's always plenty of work to be done to support the people doing billable work. Last year, one of our UIC interns wrote (in what I believe to be his first ever actual start-to-finish "program") a programmable symbolic process debugger for OS X, in Ruby:

Nobody paid us to do that, but that debugger work is now Ragweed, our house debugger, and we've got it working under Win32, Linux, and a couple embedded platforms. It's extremely useful. And we scored an excellent blog post out of it.

(Timur works for us full-time now, of course).

I don't have to compromise the work we deliver for our clients to put interns on useful projects. And we're a special case: we do hard core programming work on a billable basis. Most of the companies people talk about on HN don't have that problem. There's a million useful things an intern can do without jeopardizing product quality.

"I'm in an unpaid internship right now and I love it."

Just think how much you'd love it if you were getting paid!

Actually in Austin TX it's been a common practice for a very long time. The reason being, in many degree programs at University of Texas students are required to do a semester internship to graduate. Therefore, it can actually put a pretty enormous burden on companies in the area to facilitate internship programs twice a year. Because it is tied to degree programs, there's also a fair amount of documentation and work that these employers must do. In addition, interns require training which costs money and wastes time, and they usually quit as soon as their requirements are complete.

That said, unpaid internships are justified and common here. However, as a general best-practice I always advise companies to pay their interns if they are working on billable / revenue-generating work. If they are just doing mindless work, then I feel they are compensated with 3 hours of school credit and the cost/time sink.

Having worked with a lot of interns from the school, you get a lot of fickle results and often it's really more of a waste of time than beneficial situation for the company. And I damn sure would not trust an intern to work on mission-critical projects until they proved themselves, which often takes longer than their internship requirement. To any UT students, I was able to get out of mine and get 3 hours credit because I was self-employed w/ 2 companies. :)

(EDIT: I believe) It's ethical; (I'm not a lawyer, but lawyers have told me) it's only legal if the student gets class credit.

(Disclosure: I'm one of the founders of Devver, one of the TechStars 08 companies)

I think that some of the variables will likely need to be adjusted (for example, 15 hours per week seems high to me), but I think the fundamental idea is interesting, although it's clearly not for everyone.

At 15 hours a week, it's clear that a volunteer developer is not going to come close to replacing a technical founder or a full-time employee. Any team that tries to primarily rely on volunteer developers will suffer for it.

I can imagine this appealing to developers (including those in college) who are strongly considering doing a startup or working for a startup, but want to learn more about the process and want to make great contacts (both technical and business).

There may very well be problems with the quality of some applicants, but assuming the application process doesn't filter them out, I would guess things will work themselves out during the summer. That is, the so-so devs will be a net drain and teams won't ask for their help, while any talented hackers won't be donating their time for long - they'll quickly get snapped up by the companies they help out (either during the summer for all equity or after a funding round for salary + equity).

Of course, this is all speculative. Maybe it won't work at all. But I suspect that connecting a group of hackers with teams that will, either immediately or in the near future, want to hire hackers could work out for everyone involved.

Just something to consider - there were at least two TechStars 08 teams that had summer interns that they have hired as employees. Granted, they worked more than 15 hours per week (and I think one of them was paid, but I'm not sure). In any case, if HackStars can successfully make more matches like these, it'd be a good program.

Fuck That! - EDIT

I think that they should at least mention what the benefits of such an arrangement would be. Just hanging out with cool people doing work for free people isn’t really that beneficial.

Everyone also knows, once a developer starts working on something like this it will be more than 15 hours of work; they will work all night and day to get things done. It should be more formal and give the developers something in return. The companies will be looking to sign up "real advisers" during this time but they will get something in return. Also this will need to be very carefully orchestrated because if people are working on things that are patentable; the volunteers will need to be listed on the patents.

+1, Hilarious Insight Into The Compositional Process

Jeff said it best when he was asked the question at an event in Boston, "What is better, YC or TechStars?"

Jeff's answer: "You can teach a hacker business, but you can't teach a businessman how to hack".

'nuff said.

Ah yes...there's something magical about hackers that means they can learn business, but "businessmen" can never learn the mystical arts of hacking.

Give me a break.

Actually, rather than repeat myself, here's my comment from a couple weeks ago:


It's not so much that there's a difference in the types of people as in the types of knowledge. Business has a large overlap with common sense. At least, the kind of business you need to understand in a startup does. Whereas hacking is a pretty specialized skill. So a hacker who needs to do something business related faces a nice smooth learning curve, whereas a non-hacker business person who needs to get a technical problem solved faces a step function.

Magical hits it on the head, except not the way you think. Magical thinking is what you can't do and be a good hacker. Magical thinking won't stop you from being a good business person with good instincts for opportunities who understands the bottom line, or from being a great sales guy who can close faster than a bank at 4.

The subset of hackers who can learn "business" is greater than the subset of business people who can be hackers because the particular style of thinking needed to succeed as a hacker has a unique rigor and need for persistence, and is comparatively rare.

This is true for comparing any less common skill to a more common one. The subset of NFL quarterbacks who could be good programmers is surely proportionally greater than the subset of programmers who could be NFL quarterbacks.

It isn't all about arrogance (although I don't deny arrogance is a factor).

It's not arrogance when it is the truth.

If I could stay awake long enough, that MBA spiel is ELEMENTARY


Ah, so you have an MBA? Which you earned while sleeping through that simplistic spiel? Please talk about your experiences so I can develop a similar distaste for an oversimplistic overhyped major, or else stop talking about things you have no personal experience with.



Here is one you can understand:

Successfully represented myself in US Federal Court as a plaintiff in a civil rights case, and won! no legal training at all, just read a couple of books, went at it, won, no help, nothing, just me and a couple of books, oh, and I did most of this over the US Postal service, while locked up in a US immigration jail, with a barracks full of neanderthals around me whom I didn't get along with (but I held my own, no one fd with me), and neanderthals in uniforms on my case . . . want a docket number? 98-0711-CV-W-2-P Roman v. Conard, US District Court for the Western District of Missouri, Kansas City, Missouri . . . Law is at least a somewhat interesting topic that I can respect, it can at least be intellectually challenging (for some time anyway) at times . . . but MBA crap? PUUUHLLLLEEEEEZZZZZ PUHLEEZZ

The subset of hackers who can learn "business" is greater than the subset of business people who can be hackers

This is a common notion but after years of working in the software business I'm not convinced it is true at all. The successful biz guys I've known could easily learn some subset of programming. Most of the programmers I've known could not be a successful business person if their lives depended on it. YMMV.

Business is a broad arena, but if you were to narrow it down to "sales" I might agree with you.

The statement is an oversimplification that only makes sense when you throw a 25 year old hacker by a 25 year old businessman with novice levels of experience in their fields.

"Ah yes...there's something magical about hackers that means they can learn business, but "businessmen" can never learn the mystical arts of hacking."


Sure, some MBA can click on menus or slap whatever together.

That's not hacking.

You sound like the type of person that does not belong on any start up team. You have to learn to get along with people (even businesspeople), especially because you will be working with them for 18 hours per day.


yah MKAY

So I speak the truth, and that makes me a non "team player"


When I went to the Techstars for a Day thing last year I did notice that many of their teams were light on developers. Several had people who learned to program right there or one person who could program a little but all had at least one who knew what he was doing. This may be more of an unofficial way to fill out the teams a little as someone else noted it would be hard to do only 15 hours a week. Either you are in all the way or your not serious therefor likely not reliable except maybe as a programming mentor if you drop by once and awhile.

I think part of the problem is that some hackers might sign up thinking it will give them an inside track to TechStars in a future round. But, giving 3 months of part time as an uncompensated intern is a high price to pay for the possibility of a second look at your application.

One problem is that they will not get good developers. According to Joel Spolsky, good developers never look for jobs (they re always working), so they are not likely to work for free...

Question - does anyone else get offended by the name "coder" I've always found that people who write code prefer to be called developers or hackers. I'm a bit of a hacker myself, so maybe i'm overly sensitive, and i know this is a small point, but i always feel like the people who use the word "coder," don't understand them or what they do.

This is offtopic, but...

...the problem, as always, is that the words have different connotations depending on the community.

As you probably know, the word "hacker" means "computer criminal" to the majority of the English-speaking world. As a result, calling yourself a "hacker" only works if (a) you only care about your reputation with other hackers, or (b) you are trying to cultivate an ambiguously dangerous persona. It is not a word I would put on my resume if I were applying at SAP, unless I were already well known for being Steve Wozniak.

So you're down to "programmer", "developer", or "coder". My impression is that most people use "developer" as a highfalutin synonym for "programmer"... but in some environments it connotes "a person who spends a lot of time talking about software but never uses the computer except for Outlook, Office, and Twitter". So, if you want to emphasize that you actually spend the majority of your day in emacs, lean towards the other words.

Sometimes "programmer" carries too strong a connotation of "code monkey". I find it best to just avoid places where this is true.

I don't like the word "coder" -- it doesn't offend me, but it's ugly. So I use the other words at random as whimsy strikes me.

i don't think it is off-topic because "coder" is exactly the terminology the author used in the blog. I believe it reflects his general misunderstanding of programmers/developers/hackers

Here's my initial impression: 15 hours a week? Is that even going to get anything done?

Basecamp was made with 10 hours per week. Doubt you'll find a DHH working for free.

Basecamp is among the only applications I know of that were built on 10 hours per week (assuming that's true), and even then it was a side project.

Most successful start ups I know of were spending that much time in a single day.

The Apple II was a side project


Mind you... it might be much better use of time than jobhunting.

but then you'd have to seriously compare with Open Source contribution - a faster way to learn, smarter people to work with and more social benefit...

OSS work likely has even more commercial potential...

Um everyone mentions that the money isn't the real value of TS or YC. This lets hackers that didn't get accepted into the program get many of the benefits. They get to meet the mentors, see some of the presentations, spend time working with and getting to know the community. I don't see how that is considered so much worse of a deal than the actual program. Consider hackers still in school, hackers not ready to make the leap and start their own companies...

It seems like an interesting way to become involved and learn a ton about the start up process.

(disclosure I was part of Techstars 08)

(disclosure, I've received a lot of free help and advice from David Cohen and Brad Feld, two of the main TS backers)

I would have changed the way they presented this but the idea of opening up these sort of programs to the wider community is a good one. TechStars offers a _lot_ of benefits to its members, this is another door to getting involved.

I agree working for free would be foolish. But, once you meet your prospective team just ask them how much equity you'll be able to get. If it doesn't meet your standards I think you could just say no thanks. Seems like a reasonable way to join an interesting startup (if there are any interesting ones in their summer class). If you have actual skills they need, you do have a good bargaining position.

I guess there is a real market niche that ycombinator flushed out-

namely, Impedance matching between -

  a) investors with too much cash and too little time for small startups
  b) startups who don't need or want large amounts of cash

You'd think it would be more efficient to cut out the middleman, but I guess the aggregator / 'broker' serves a valuable role, as a retailer.


Right. Directly from their blog post:

"If you are a UI/UX guru and/or a strong coder with PHP, Java, Flex, .NET, Ruby/Rails, or Javascript skills"

Students looking to learn new skills are not "gurus". And gurus do not work for free.

Considering all the hurdles that a 3 month startup has to overcome, is it really prudent to be taking on greenhorn 2nd year students looking for internships? They've got 3 months to get a finished product out the door, they need rockstars to make it happen, not unpaid interns.

The point of these programs is to trade mentorship and money to technically competent teams in exchange for equity. If the startups are then turning around needing technical assistance from the get go, what exactly are they bringing to the table other than an MBA and an idea?

Let's have a TV show, I think in the US they are called "American Idol"? In Germany we have "Germany's Next Topmodel" and "Germany's next Superstar", both concepts could be easily extended into a show that portrays the making of a HackStar.

I am sorry, that would be NAUSEATING.

wouldn't you agree internships are a good opportunity for students?

Seems like a similar thing but specifically orientated around startups. They should get (a slither) of equity, maybe..

To me, an unpaid internship can make sense if you're making coffee and hoping to absorb some experience/wisdom from the bankers/lawyers/whoever you're working for. But if you're someone with actual skills (e.g. " a UI/UX guru and/or a strong coder with PHP, Java, Flex, .NET, Ruby/Rails, or Javascript skills"), making an actual contribution, you should be paid.

"should" is a word that doesn't belong in this discussion. The "hackstars" don't have to take this opportunity. They can choose to find a paying job.

I agree with you 100%, and my reply nearly included that if one believes in free markets then one can't call it unethical. The only thing that gives me pause is that interns are often young and inexperienced and may not realize that their skills have value. While the burden of such education is on the interns (intern candidates, young 'uns, hackstars, whatever), it still seems morally questionable to me for companies to intentionally exploit that inexperience.

I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment, however I think the intention (if not the wording) of the gp is that hackers should skip past this opportunity if they actually have marketable skills or that hackers should expect compensation/equity if they are "gurus and/or strong coders."

I agree to an extent. But what if you just want to learn and you DON'T have skills. I realize most people just teach themselves. Fine. I did that too. But there is a definite benefit to working with teams on programming projects that you wouldn't get otherwise unless you worked at a company...and most companies wouldn't pay you outright unless you had skills. So in this scenario, I think the unpaid internship idea makes sense.

I started clocking real money, admining unix systems, when I was pimple-faced and fresh out of high school. The trick is to run your own 5k shell-account service and drop a heavy resume on someone's desk :-)

You can always do your own things and "get experience", fuck these pricks man. That shows more initiative to real entrepreneurs who want to hire you later. IMO, internship just tells me you did your time being someone's in-house rookie.

Yep. Pretty much.

There's a big difference between working for no money and working for any amount of money (or for equity). Even if they agree to pay you minimum wage you at least have a job to point to -- and a starting point for future negotiations. There is no raise so difficult as the one from "free" to "$x".

Another point I'd make is that working cheap like this is a deal that might make sense for a few hours, but which will make exponentially less sense as you do more and more work. And you'll know it, too. The first three hours of free work you do for someone can feel great, but eventually it will rankle.

[ I've moved the rest of this post to a separate comment. ]

What really gets me is how these types, the come-work-for-free scammers, don't give up - but then again that is assuming they have enough presence of mind and brains to realize that

A. This has been tried before, many times

B. There are many who have seen this, and can see right through it

Never fails to amaze me, the room temperature IQ crowd. The crowd that really thinks that someone who is bright enough to do what we can do will - at the same time - be dumb enough to fall for a 7th grade level scam.

They can spin this any way the want, at the end of the day, they're trying to do one thing:

find programmers dumb enough to work for free.

Notice how bright the suits are?

The people that would get into that, are EXACTLY the kind of people that they need least.

Why is this us vs. them? Starting a successful company requires a balanced, capable team, a ton of luck, and long hours. If this is your attitude, I would not want to hire you regardless of your self-proclaimed technical prowess.


out of all 4 strawmen you posted, you hiring me was the funniest . . .

"self-proclaimed technical prowess"

Ok buddy, please quote me proclaiming my technical prowess or do STFU

Some people also call this slave labor.

Dark comment: Could this be the perfect opportunity for a genious hacker with enough "fuck you" money (yet doesn't care about their own reputation afterwards) to sneak behind enemy lines (whatever that means), work for nothing, and provide a totally unexpected mentor experience - possibly have them running around in circles and setting up a bunch of startups for failure?

"You're using PHP! That doesn't scale! You'll need Java. I'll show you how."

"You're using Java! Performance will grind to a halt! You'll need PHP. Lemme see that keyboard."

An infamous HackStar, indeed.

Nobody with "fuck you money" got it by caring that much about what companies in a third-tier seed fund are doing.

I think that there are some people on this forum that are missing the point. Just because you are a hacker, does not mean that you have the ingredients to make a successful company. As some have already noted, this is a program for those people who were rejected from TechStars initially to get into the program and glean most of the benefits by donating some of their time. Fifteen hours per week is only two hours per day, and that time could be spent simply providing another set of hacker eyes to a new feature (not building the whole thing from scratch), or another techie to bounce your idea for server architecture off of. What I don't understand is why they do not provide this same system for business types to "hack" into TechStars.

"I think that there are some people on this forum that are missing the point. Just because you are a hacker, does not mean that you have the ingredients to make a successful company."


Who cares?

You are talking as if making a "successful company" is the be all end all and the ultimate objective of hacking.

Hacking is about Hacking, it is not about money, companies, meetings, sub 90 IQ's in suits, etc etc etc

Well, I think that based on the context of this forum (YCombinator is a seed stage incubator fund) we can assume most people here are interested in either starting a company themselves, or getting involved with one. So, is making a "successful company" the be all, end all? No. However, TechStars is attempting to open a door here, and many people are slamming it shut.

it is called Hacker News for a reason

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