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I have an initial phone interview coming up with a company for a Senior Web Developer position and in the email they asked to prepare by signing up on their site because they'd like to hear my thoughts about it and suggestions for improvement.

I've heard stories before of companies that do this. They interview 10 people and then if everyone gives advice, then they've got a lot of free consultation.

I believe this is the first time I've ever been asked to do something like this so I wanted to hear other people's thoughts of whether it is free consulting or if I'm just being paranoid.

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Possible duplicate of programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/98619/… though from a different angle –  ChrisF Aug 15 '11 at 9:47
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If someone paints their living room, and asks you if you like the colour, it doesn't mean they're trying to mooch interior design advice off you. Sometimes they're just looking for opinions for things they hadn't thought of. –  Shawn D. Aug 15 '11 at 16:54
    
Wait, you're going in for a Senior Web Dev position and you've never been asked this before? –  Erik Reppen May 23 '12 at 4:04

11 Answers 11

up vote 54 down vote accepted

I think you are being paranoid.

If they are interviewing phone screening 10 people, that's roughly 10 man-hours they are spending in on this phase of the interviewing. Plus the cost of advertizing the job, reading a bunch of resumes, etc. And they are getting random ideas from 10 developers, many of whom are probably "also rans" in the employment race.

Then ask yourself:

  • What is an hour of your time really worth?
  • How much are your ideas really worth?
  • Do you want the job or not?

So, they might end up using some ideas from people who they don't employ. It could be construed as free (albeit slap-dash, second rate, etc) consulting ...

But so what?! Ideas are easy to have. Successful execution of the ideas that is the hard (and expensive) part.

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I think your math is off. The shortest interview I've ever had was 2 hours. Most were 3-4 hours. One was a grueling 6 hours. Interviewing 10 people would be closer to 30-40 man-hours. For a large company, the rest of the post doesn't change - they could easily cover costs of interviewing 10 people. But for a smaller company, 30-40 hours interviewing 10 candidates is a lot of time, plus other engineers not doing work toward the product - getting some free labor out of it might be advantageous. –  Thomas Owens Aug 15 '11 at 11:37
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@Thomas The question mentions that it is an "initial phone interview", which I assume is the basis of the math. If you mean that you had a six-hour phone interview, then I agree that is grueling! –  Corey Aug 15 '11 at 13:12
    
My longest interview was 6 hours but I find it hard to believe your shortest was 2. Either you don't interview much or you talk incredibly slow. Especially a phone interview –  Rig Aug 16 '11 at 3:09
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@Corey - exactly. I'm assuming a 1 hour initial phone interview. But if the interviews take longer and involve more people, that only reinforces my point ... which is that this is NOT a cheap way to get "free" consulting. –  Stephen C Aug 16 '11 at 3:52

If the company looks so dodgy that you expect this to be the type of scam you expect, then why interview for them in the first place?

Otherwise, if they look OK and you have done a little background research - run the risk, the worst case scenario is you waste a couple of hours, which is a risk you run with any interview process.

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Yes it is free consulting. Does that matter? I dont think it should. Its a constructive question that helps them get to know how you analyse and improve sites. The fact that it points up a few things they may need to consider improving isnt a bad thing.

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There was a similar question recently about submitting code for an interview.

So, what does their web site look like? Does it look like the web site of a company that's so desperate for help that they have to rely on a sham interview process to get good advice, or does it look like they have a pretty strong clue about web design? And are your suggestions for improvement so deeply insightful that you're loathe to give away your secrets?

It's a judgement call. You'll probably be able to tell if they're just fishing for free advice -- they'll be less interested in you and your experience and eager to talk only about their web site. Don't be so concerned about looking for that that you screw up the rest of the interview.

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Would you feel better about this company if they didn't ask you to review theirs or any other side, solve a coding problem, or mock up some sort of design? They could use any of this as free advice. Others have mentioned it would be cheaper to find some focus group to review their site.

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There's a difference between asking "real world" questions and trying to get work for free; you have to judge based on the actual questions themselves. If you don't care about the job, then if they ask blatant things that they would have to pay for if you were consulting for them, simply state that during the interview that you aren't going to do work for free, and leave (since you didn't want the job anyways, and only a true scumbag would try to hoodwink potential employees to get free work, it doesn't matter if you burn that bridge).

I've often seen companies ask real world type questions but it's always vague enough that they aren't trying to just get free work done.

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Why the downvote for sound advice? –  Wayne M Aug 15 '11 at 14:59
    
My guess would be that you suggested people have a pouty attitude and burn a bridge. That is not sound advice. Better to turn down the job in a polite way. BTW I did not down vote (and can't since i'm not registered). –  jojo Aug 16 '11 at 2:05
    
@Wayne M - they probably didn't think this is sound advice. –  Stephen C Aug 16 '11 at 5:34

As an interviewer for a Senior Web Developer I'd certainly expect that the candidate come with not only a resume and some work examples, but also a sign that they've done some research about my company and examples of the way they can improve our product - i.e. the materials to "sell" themselves to us. I wouldn't think of this as scamming them; it's a rather normal part of the interview process, expecting the candidate to show a good reason they should be hired.

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I believe this is the first time I've ever been asked to do something like this so I wanted to hear other people's thoughts of whether it is free consulting or if I'm just being paranoid.

Another possibility is that they know already what is wrong with it (with "the boss won't let us fix it") and they're looking to see how observant you are.

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That's an idea worth exploring in the interview. If the project team know that there are problems and think the management won't let them fix the problems, in my book that's an employment smell. The team might be genuinely hamstrung, or they might be making excuses for sub-par work; either way they probably aren't very happy. –  user4051 Aug 16 '11 at 9:23

If they're asking you for a 12 page report on specific lines of code, I can understand the paranoia. If that's how they're interviewing, then you'd better think twice about working there.

However, we - a smaller tech agency, consider questions like that par for the course. It's probably the first question you'll be asked if they hire you, so I think there's some paranoia here for sure (yes, I read the maths above, and yes, they do have some merit in some cases).

It's not unusual to ask someone to complete a small task or project, or ask for improvements to a product. In terms of my experience having been on both sides of the table, I'm always looking for positive and results oriented team members, and I'm often looking for specific examples. Why? Well, there are a lot of people who can talk, or point to work experience, but when it comes right down to it, a lot of people expand their roles in projects or "boast" a little bit on their resumes. It's so important to be able to demonstrate your awesomeness when you're interviewing, and you could look at this as an opportunity to do just that.

If you don't feel like that's what they're giving you, interview somewhere else. :)

Jonathan

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I'm a manager, usually interviewing candidates toward the end of their on-site time. I almost always ask candidates (for any position, from accountant to QA to programmer) for feedback on our site, usually with an open-ended "do you have any questions or comments on our site?". I'm looking for a few things:

  • Did they do any research on our company before coming for an interview?
  • How well do they communicate their thoughts about the site?
  • Are their comments or questions well thought out?

We don't specifically ask candidates to prepare for this questions, and some admit to not having looked at the site (baffles me that they would not even look at the home page -- we are a well-known internet brand), but it often gives good insight into the candidates inquisitiveness, thought processes, etc.

Once in a while, this results in something that I'll send on to our design or product teams, but mostly it help to get to know the candidate better.

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... And if they don't spend time on your site, they really just want a job - any job! (as opposed to wanting to work for your company). It astounds me how few candidates do even basic research on companies to prepare for the interview. –  Scott Wilson Aug 16 '11 at 1:18

I remember my previous company asked me the same question on the interview. What I came to know about this is that : - Normally product companies asks you these kind of questions, since its their own product and obviously they require new ideas to implement on it, they want their products to be great. And its even obvious that they will look for people who can even give them nice ideas on their products rather than just doing the job which you were asked to. They expect your suggestions, improvements etc.. So if you can give them awesome ideas, and if you have already met with their technical requirement then they will try to buy you at any cost.

My Experience in this:

When I was asked to give suggestions and improvements: I just went through their websites one by one, their main product was local city portals. I just clicked each link and whatever came on my mind, I just noted down . And when they asked I had a huge list to tell them. Few of them were these..

  1. The site had a lot of different app like realestate, education, QA, gallery, article etc.. But a global search was missing.

  2. Their education part was so week that I didn't get what I expected.

  3. I suggested for including a "Movies" section. Since the site mainly focus on local city users, Placing list of movies playing in their city, their showtimes, trailers etc.. can attract more users

  4. Including comments and user reviews for all the sections. Good for SEO

I had a huge list and even I got the job.

I just gave you my experience on this, Hoping that you will get some points from this.

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Ashin - there's a good chance that your huge list helped you get that job. –  Stephen C Aug 16 '11 at 5:36

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