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One of my friends has been laid off. When I talked to him, he said they didn't let him take a copy of anything he worked on. When he asked how to show what he worked on to another employer in an interview, he was told that he will have some explaining to do.

Should we, as programmers, be allowed to take samples of our previous work former employers? What sources of code should we be expected to show off in an interview? When almost every employer asks for sample work, how are we to justify what can be sent? Is it our responsibility to maintain after-work projects for our entire life so we have code we can legally show to our next employer?

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@Craige Nice edit, thanks. I reopened the question temporarily, I think the current version is borderline. If answers go south, it might get closed again. –  Yannis Rizos Feb 8 '12 at 20:35
Commenters: if you have an answer, leave an answer. If you want to discuss the topic of this question, take it to chat. –  user8 Feb 8 '12 at 23:37

13 Answers 13

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Title 17 § 107 of the U.S. code outlines the circumstances in which a copyrighted work can be copied for fair use, whether the work has been published or not. As copyright law is what usually protects source code, it's relevant to your question.

I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not aware of any case law establishing this either way, but in my opinion copying short examples of your work would fall under fair use, provided it is a small enough sample as to not be a complete working program or module, and that it doesn't reveal any trade secrets. One of ten files from your implementation of a driver for a chip with a publicly available datasheet is not going to hurt your former employers in any way. Your implementation of the company's top-secret algorithm you helped design is going to get you into trouble.

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That's what I mean, if you recorded a video showing the tool then it wouldn't be reproducible since you don't give away the source code. –  Joan Venge Feb 9 '12 at 22:09

I am not sure about the Legal part but what I think of it, you should never be allowed to take your work with you. You were paid for the work. That is not your property but your company property.

It is common people take their work with them for reference or other reasons, without informing the company. That is the only way you can do it. You are still responsible for it, in case it leaks.

I had a similar situation where I could show my old work and that probably would have boosted my profile but I choose not too and I do not regret it. That was my old company asset and it should be that way. If your communication skills are not good enough to explain what you did, you should not be blaming your previous employer.

Note: I am not sure what type of work is being referenced here. That might matter to some extent.

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It's not high trade secret, stuff just internal tools he wrote for the company. –  Joan Venge Feb 8 '12 at 20:12
No, you can explain it to them. Or you can rewrite it to make it your own but showing the exact same thing is out of question. –  Noname Feb 8 '12 at 20:16
I see what you mean, but rewriting would take a long time, and if you try to explain, they might as well think, you must have done something bad for your past employer to do this to you. –  Joan Venge Feb 8 '12 at 20:18
I mean explain "what the project was", not "why you dont have the code". If you were paid for the code, that is not your code. If it take longer to reproduce, simply explain what it did or create a quick mockup. –  Noname Feb 8 '12 at 20:25
Are people allowed to keep memories of their work? Especially people with eidetic memory? You are paid to solve problems not to produce code. –  Den Dec 6 '12 at 10:04

If someone came to an interview and showed me something that was clearly confidential property of a previous employer (including source code for a public website), I would have serious reservations about hiring that person regardless of his or her other skills and abilities.

Which is to say, I suspect that this is perfectly legal and acceptable, and any subsequent employer worth working for would understand the situation.

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Are you sure, because I have been to many interviews as sort of an observer and I didn't come across someone who didn't show anything. In fact I remember seeing lots of NDA work. I even know of companies who asked the person applying for the job, what tools can he bring with him, 100% srs. –  Joan Venge Feb 8 '12 at 20:11
@JoanVenge: You seriously don't want to work for such employers. If they specifically ask you to reveal confidential info from other companies can you trust them about anything? –  Goran Jovic Feb 8 '12 at 20:15
@JoanVenge: I mean, your friend doesn't want to work for such companies :) –  Goran Jovic Feb 8 '12 at 20:16
@JoanVenge, No. because if they're willing to something morally/legally questionable to a competitor, they probably won't have any scruples about doing something equally unethical/illegal to an employee. –  Charles E. Grant Feb 8 '12 at 21:09
@JoanVenge - Yes, I am completely sure. This raises a red flag about the ethics of the employee. If his or her previous employer could not trust him or her to understand who owned the work done for the previous employer, I as the new employer have pretty convincing evidence I could not trust the candidate either. –  James McLeod Feb 8 '12 at 21:16

In my experience, employers are more interested in the results of your past work, or hearing you describe the architecture of it. They're not interested in going through pages and pages of actual code. If they actually want to see your coding style, they'll usually ask you to do some trivial task.

Personally, I ask my employers if I can take screenshots of my work to add to my portfolio. I'll do some image editing to remove company-specific data, or populate the app with dummy data, so they're usually fine with it. I can then use these screenshots to describe the application to potential employers, and they can see the results of what I've done in the past.

Just remember to ask your employer first. I would not take anything, even screenshots that had company-specific data removed, unless they were OK with it.

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Not sure where you draw the line on looking at copies of code or a question about how you solved a particular problem. How much detail can you go into without revealing something important about the code?

If you bring me a printout, how do I know you wrote it? Of course you'll be asked to explain what it does and why you did it that way. It could be just as easy to have you look at someone else's code and explain what it does and how you would improve it.

Eventually, you'll just need to prove you can write code and I hope the way you do that is by actually writing code.

It can save some trouble if you work on an open source project and get a recommendation from a trusted source who can verify your contributions. I doubt your current employer will lay claim to it, but I don't know the law where you live.

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Well, you need to understand that it is not your code. You have no right to show it to anybody, and your former employer certainly has a right to protect their as sets by not letting you leave with a copy.

Code that you would typically show in an interview would consist of hobby projects, and/or utilities you churned out in your spare time. If you don't have any of these to show and you're looking for a job, then start working on one. A public git-hub repository is a great thing to show off in an interview.

Furthermore, I think showing off a previous employers code in an interview is in poor taste, and will likely cost you the interview. Any and every bit of code COULD be riddled with bugs that may expose a vulnerability.

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Recently I started a blog recording my experiences in tackling the challenge of learning to program. As I'm quite a late starter, I don't have a wealth of prior projects so this is also a way to document my progression.This blog would also be a viable online public portfolio of my skills. Nothing in it is built in work time, or relies on work libraries or proprietory concepts that may be covered by confidentiality.

This site is possibly the only code I'd have already to hand-if asked for it at interview; it's public and has a track history-though it would be better if the whole source of such projects were hosted on GitHub or similar.

If I couldn't hand write the basic syntax and concepts for an interview question in the chosen language, I probably wouldn't be good enough for them.

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Everything I say applies to normal, at-will employees. If you are a contractor, then the rules may be different, though I'd bet not much with respect to these points.

If you are a regular employee, then everything you did is the property of your employer. That means you can't take it with you, without permission. It's theirs - that's why they paid you to do the work! And they don't necessarily want it shown all over the industry.

They are perfectly within their rights to not let you keep a copy.

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Yes but then why do they even tell him that "he will some explaining to do (to future employers)", as if he was fired? –  Joan Venge Feb 8 '12 at 20:08
Note that Canadian labour law does not permit "at will" employment; the measures of protection for employees here are apparently much stronger than in the US (to the great but sometimes humorous chagrin of American CEO'S who come to Canada and expect it to be as cheap to get rid of someone as it is in the US). –  James McLeod Feb 8 '12 at 21:20
@JamesMcLeod - true, but that's not going to change the 'we paid you to make it, so it's ours' relationship. –  Michael Kohne Feb 8 '12 at 21:26
@MichaelKohne - Absolutely true. Just some trivia to remind us that different jurisdictions have very different laws. –  James McLeod Feb 8 '12 at 21:31

After you have been laid off / let go it is too late, IMO. (Well, it's not too late but now you have work to do in your new "free time").

You should be doing OTHER PROGRAMMING PROJECTS in your spare time. Shareware, smart phone or tablet apps. Work on open source projects. PICK ONE, and then do it.

SO - when the prospective employer asks for samples, you have lots to show from your 'free time'.

I agree - stuff you did as a paid employee for your previous employers should never be taken and certainly not shown.

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It's the company's property (unless otherwise noted in his contract if he has one). They can do whatever they want with it including not allowing him to access, show, or copy it. They paid him to produce something, it's theirs.

From what I know of my other co-workers, people easily get the stuff they worked on
(without informing the company), and either make a video or take some screenshots of it
without any problem.

This could be seen as stealing and very well could be illegal.

I am not a lawyer.

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A key part of a developers job is communication. If you can communicate you past work history and knowledge well then there is no need to give previous code.

Also the company that you work for would in the vast majority of cases hold the intellectual property of the code that you write, so why should they or indeed would they just hand it over?

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You may not have been able to take your work with you that you did for your employer, but what programmer doesn't have pet projects that he could show?

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Yes but employers claim they own that too, i.e. anything you do after hours. –  Joan Venge Feb 8 '12 at 22:04
@JoanVenge, some may claim that, but whether it's a valid claim depends on the nature of your employment agreement. In my experience most companies don't care as long as it's not in their business arena. –  Charles E. Grant Feb 8 '12 at 22:11

I would never take and show the code that I wrote for a previous employer. I also wouldn't trust someone that I interviewed who brought code from their last employer (are they going to steal code from us next? Did you actually write it?).

A solution for this would be to work on an open source project or a personal side project if you need to demonstrate your code. While I have done this, and have offered to show the code that I have written, most employers don't want to see previous work (it's no proof you actually wrote it). When I have interviewed people in the past I have asked them to write snippets or answer programming related questions. You can't BS that.

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