Joel Spolsky on Tech’s Hiring Season: Beware the Exploding Offer

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Like Steve Ballmer on a bad day.

Thanksgiving marks the start of tech’s most intense hiring season, as promising computer science students start looking for summer jobs and internships. Software veteran Joel Spolsky was kind enough to let us print some of his thoughts on how to avoid getting stuck at your second choice. The original post appears on his blog, here.

If you’re a college student applying for jobs or summer internships, you’re at something of a disadvantage when it comes to negotiation. That’s because the recruiter does these negotiations for a living, while you’re probably doing it for the first time.

I want to warn you about one trick that’s very common with on-campus recruiters: the cynical “exploding offer.”

Here’s what happens. You get invited to interview at a good company. There’s an on-campus interview; maybe you even fly off to the company HQ for another round of interviews and cocktails. You ace the interview, of course. They make you an offer.

“That sounds great,” you say.

“So, when can you let us know?”

“Well,” you tell them, “I have another interview coming up in January. So I’ll let you know right after that.”

“Oh,” they say. “That might be a problem. We really have to know by December 31st. Can you let us know by December 31st?”

Tada! The magnificent “exploding offer.”

Here’s what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, well, that’s a good company, not my first choice, but still a good offer, and I’d hate to lose this opportunity. And you don’t know for sure if your number one choice would even hire you. So you accept the offer at your second-choice company and never go to any other interviews.

And now, you lost out. You’re going to spend several years of your life in some cold dark cubicle with a crazy boss who couldn’t program a twenty out of an ATM, while some recruiter somewhere gets a $1000 bonus because she was better at negotiating than you were.

Career counselors know this, and almost universally prohibit it. Every campus recruiting center has rules requiring every company that recruits on campus to give students a reasonable amount of time to make a decision and consider other offers.

The trouble is, the recruiters at the second-rate companies don’t give a shit. They know that you’re a college kid and you don’t want to mess things up with your first real job and you’re not going to call them on it. They know that they’re a second-rate company: good enough, but nobody’s dream job, and they know that they can’t get first-rate students unless they use pressure tactics like exploding offers.

And the worst thing that career centers can do is kick them off campus. Big whoop. So they hold their recruiting sessions and interviews in a hotel next to the campus instead of at the career center.

Here’s your strategy, as a student, to make sure you get the job you want.

1. Schedule your interviews as close together as possible.

2. If you get an exploding offer from a company that’s not your first choice, push back. Say, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to give you an answer until January 14th. I hope that’s OK.” Almost any company, when pressed, will give you a chance to compare offers. Don’t worry about burning bridges or pissing anyone off. Trust me on this one: there’s not a single hiring manager in the world who wants to hire you but would get mad just because you’re considering other offers. It actually works the other way. When they realize you’re in demand, they’ll want you more.

In the rare case that they don’t accept that, accept the exploding offer at the last minute, but go to the other interviews anyway. Don’t cash any signing bonus checks, don’t sign anything, just accept the offer verbally. If you get a better offer later, call back the slimy company and tell them you changed your mind. Look, Microsoft hires thousands of college kids every year. If one of them doesn’t show up I think they’ll survive. Anyway, since we instituted that 13th amendment thing, they can’t force you to work for them.

If you do find yourself forced to renege on an offer, be classy about it. Don’t do this unless you are absolutely forced to because they literally refused to give you a chance to hear from your first choice company. And let them know right away you’re not going to take the offer, so they have a chance to fill the position with someone else.

Campus recruiters count on student’s high ethical standards. Almost all students think, “gosh, I promised I’ll go work for them, and I’m going to keep my promise.” And that’s great, that’s a commendable attitude. Definitely. But unethical recruiters that don’t care about your future and don’t want you to compare different companies are going to take advantage of your ethics so they can get their bonus. And that’s just not fair.

Joel Spolsky on Tech’s Hiring Season: Beware the Exploding Offer