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Stackoverflow developer survey asked in 2015 about number of weekly hours dedicated to side projects / open-source outside of work (or programming as a hobby).

This is an interesting question and I am thinking of using it during the interviews for software developers positions (intermediate-senior level). This should provide an insight on intrinsic motivation of that particular developer. As a personal note, I find that intrinsic motivation is very important and that the company should strive more to find people that have it.

However, this might wrongly suggest working overtime and my company is very careful of not working overtime unless it is really needed and it is always payed appropriately.

Question: Is it appropriate to ask a software developer about extra hours spent for side projects and open-source (as a hobby)?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Masked Man Jun 16 '18 at 5:50

22 Answers 22

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I don't think it is inappropriate, but I would take care how you word this question. Make sure the interviewee understands why you are asking it. I once had a job where basically everything I did outside work was 'forbidden', so this question would make me hesitant if I didn't know why you were asking. There are companies out there that consider every line of code you write their IP, whether in your free time or at work. Other companies feel that, as a software developer, you have to use your free time to keep up with current developments, programming blogs etc. and that not doing this shows a lack of 'passion'. And everything in between.

Also, I do not think people that do a lot of side projects / programming as a hobby will necessarily be more intrinsically motivated at work. For me personally this doesn't hold up.

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    I'm genuinely concerned that anyone felt they had the right to control how employees spent their free time. Sure, there are some roles in which this might be seen as being appropriate - conflicts of interest concerns for example, or if the person is in a position of public trust (e.g. police officer, judge, etc), but those jobs are few and far in between. Which country wasthis in and did they attempt to enforce this? – user1666620 Jun 15 '18 at 15:41
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    I'd also be afraid of a company that wants to know what I do outside of work. Some companies consider programming you do, on the clock or not, to be theirs. Others feel if you're going to code, you should be coding for them. And still others on the opposite side of the spectrum feel if you're not spending 4 hours at home on personal projects in addition to your real work, you're not passionate enough as a programmer! And all of them can take their opinions about what I can and can't do outside work and stick it in /dev/null! – corsiKa Jun 15 '18 at 16:14
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    As someone who has worked under a contract that essentially said "any code I write, on or off the job, is property of the company" that's a pretty solid way to kill programming side projects. It was also a solid push for finding a better company :) – TemporalWolf Jun 15 '18 at 18:59
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    I actually once had an executive tell me “I just need your signature for [big VC investment firm], and don’t give a f—- if you actually follow the agreement... tell you what, list out any software side projects you have or are thinking about and we’ll call them pre-existing exceptions.” Which included total get-out-of-jail free cards like a side LLC, Github, etc. IME, these things are like those legally worthless disclaimers some companies put at the end of email signatures - legally, they’re about worthless, but they’re also about free, and probably intimidate some ignorants into compliance. – HopelessN00b Jun 15 '18 at 21:08
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    As somone who codes for Fun and Games at home regularly, I can tell you from experience that no, it does not make me more motivated to work on Miscellaneous Data Entry Form #267. – Draco18s Jun 16 '18 at 2:34
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Would you ask a refuse collector if he cleans the local park on his days off for fun? Ever heard the phrase "Bus-drivers Holiday" (it means "Doing what you do for your work on your holiday")?

Side projects outside work are irrelevant. I've been a programmer for over 30 years. I know how to program, and if someone wants me to write a program, they're paying for it. I have a family and a full life outside work, and I'm not going to spend it throwing together some stuff on github just for an interviewer to drool over.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jun 18 '18 at 22:21
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    The comparison to other occupations is irrelevant (many traits and habits are occupation-specific). That others "have to pay you to program" is a straw man. To me this sounds like you disagree with the premise of asking the question because you might be statistically discriminated against. You're not really answering whether it is appropriate to ask that. – FooBar Jun 19 '18 at 8:08
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    PeteCon, I think that you dance around an important point here. You give all of the background without explicitly stating what FooBar has said: When this question becomes standard practice, those with families will have great difficulty finding jobs (definite discrimination). It is a sad state of affairs that folks have to devote 90% of their lives to coding just to be seen as a good employee. Whether coding outside of work is correlated to better employees remains to be seen, but it makes sense so it will exclude the family man from decent positions. I hope your attitude wins this argument. – Joshu's Mu Jun 19 '18 at 13:09
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    Absolutely this. It is a discriminatory question. It is should never be asked. – HLGEM Jun 19 '18 at 13:28
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    There is something to be said about a person with 30+ years of experience who compares that life to a garbage collector. It's exactly the kind of candidate they want to weed out. Your implying that the question is offensive, but at the sametime you prove it's necessary. Your logic doesn't work for musician, painters or good programmers. I know plenty of 30+ year developers who are leaders of open source projects. You can't turn off passion, but what if you never had it. – user7360 Jun 19 '18 at 15:14
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While I do not think the question is inappropriate, I also do not think it is going to give you the results you are looking for. Programming as a hobby does not necessarily directly correlate to intrinsic motivation. I say this as a very motivated software developer who does zero programming outside of work.

While I enjoy programming and am a motivated and efficient employee, I also have plenty of other hobbies that I want to pursue when I am not at work. Yes you can find plenty of developers who do program as a hobby, but you can also find plenty who don't, or don't very often. That doesn't mean they are less talented or won't be great employees.

As a comparison, I don't think many people interviewing accountants ask if their hobbies outside work include bookkeeping or payroll. Why does the same hold true of software developers?

I personally think that asking about a candidate's hobbies, interests, or passions can indicate their motivation more than "requiring" or expecting that hobby to be in a specific field.

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    +1. Interesting perspective. However, accountants + payroll hobby is not the same as programming as a hobby. Programming is way broader: e.g. I make web apps at work and spend some 2-3h/week toying with machine learning frameworks. – Alexei Jun 15 '18 at 14:32
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    @Alexei very true! That comparison is fairly rough. My final sentence sums up what I was trying to get at but I had a hard time thinking of a good real-world comparison. – aeryform Jun 15 '18 at 14:51
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    why not - many accountants will work as group finance person in their hobby groups, even if its only the local cricket team or dog fancier's association. – gbjbaanb Jun 15 '18 at 16:48
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    @gbjbaanb - Can confirm. I am employed as an auditor and I frequently engage in financial/accounting/auditing topics outside of work. Local organizations often lack this kind of professional capacity and love to have the help. – indigochild Jun 15 '18 at 17:48
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    @gbjbaanb Absolutely, but you wouldn't think less of an accountant who doesn't do accountancy in their spare time. If you were interviewing an accountant who voluntarily does the books for the local cricket team, you'd think "This person is passionate about their local cricket team and generous with their time", not "This person is more passionate about accountancy than the other candidate whose free time is spent with their family and playing sports". – user568458 Jun 17 '18 at 8:47
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Would Not Ask Question As Stated

I don't see it as particularly appropriate or helpful.

Some people see hobbyist programming as a sign of passion, but some really passionate people put all their programming effort into their work. It's not a lack of passion, but a lack of time for outside projects.

There are potential privacy concerns. You have no way to verify a hobbyist's claims unless he provides access to his repository. But now you know his online identity (or at least have the ability to narrow it down substantially).

From Personal Experience

I work closely with a department that has several excellent programmers in their ranks. One of them is your stereotypical open source fanatic, and he contributes to multiple FOSS projects---huge hobbyist. The other is a strong family man and doesn't code outside of work.

The bottom line is that hobby programming isn't a strong indication of passion and skill.

Alternatively...

If someone has done top-notch work as part of their hobby, that is worth knowing. Instead of asking if applicants program as a hobby, ask if they have worked on any projects they are particularly proud of.

You can detect passion from the way they respond, and that passion could be due to either their work or their hobby. Plus, they can do this without worrying whether their hobby is under scrutiny or whether you'll push for excessive overtime.

This gives you a natural lead-in for a followup question. If they are proud of something, you can ask for details---and you could try relating it to work done by your company to sell yourself to the candidate. If they say they're not particularly proud of anything, then ask why not or what kind of work would they be proud to do. Again, you'll have an opportunity to sell yourself if your company has what they're looking for.

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    So many upvotes I wish I could give, because the last half of this answer gets at the heart of the matter – Wayne Werner Jun 16 '18 at 14:11
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    +1 The question should be phrased as an opportunity for the candidate to mention anything extra they wanted to talk about/they're proud of - and not as an additional criteria that judges people badly for not having out-of-work projects. – Bilkokuya Jun 18 '18 at 11:18
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    This is a strong answer. I like that you touch on what is my fear as a family man - that this kind of thinking will preclude me from advancing positions. I am have always surpassed expectation as a DB Developer, but when I'm not at work I try to be physically active so that my brain and body don't fail from sitting all darn day. I spend every minute with my kids when not at work (which may change when they're older). But questions like this really terrify me, because I value my free time and try to be a diverse human being, not a silo. – Joshu's Mu Jun 19 '18 at 13:15
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You can ask about that, and in my experience it does positively correlate to people who are intrinsically motivated to program. People who love doing it will do it in their spare time.

BUT

It might not mean they're intrinsically motivated to work on your code, in your open-office, project driven hellscape. Some people really enjoy the freedom of hobby coding and if your company doesn't offer similar freedom (or other perks that are motivating but are unavailable at home) the motivation might not translate.

And perhaps more importantly, while most people who hobby code are intrinsically motivated, the opposite isn't really true. There are lots of people who would be intrinsically motivated who you're excluding with that question. Worse, the sort of people who hobby code tend to be the same sort of people. People without spouses or children to attend to after school. People who don't need that second job to make ends meet. People who can go to meetups or programming forums without being hit on and harassed at every turn.

In short, the question will significantly harm the diversity of your team (and candidates once it becomes broadly known). Given the downsides, I wouldn't recommend asking it, even though there's nothing strictly inappropriate about it.

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I used to think that finding a candidate with successful side projects was The Holy Grail of indicators. Nothing was a better indicator for success in a role than someone who demonstrated they could identify problems, research solutions, and follow that research through to completion completely on their on passion and initiative without leaning parasitically on anyone else.

"Now I know [I thought] we've found someone who is good at all the technical parts of their job, not just a mindless hanger-on who was part of a successful team! We've got a doer, dang it! This is their code. This isn't a quick coding exercise. This is how they can work, showing what they produce."

The scary thing is that finding someone with great, complete, cradle-to-crave side projects really is a great indicator of individual ability.

Unfortunately, looking for such side projects is replete with social bias, and the question, however useful it seems, is exceptionally unfair.

@Kozaky comes closest to saying why, but doesn't take this far enough:

Bear in mind that some candidates are simply incapable of taking on personal projects due to obligations such as family, travel, other hobbies etc. By all means, ask if they spend time on open-source projects but keep in mind that an answer of "zero" should not be a black mark. The technical test is usually how you can find out if they are keeping their skills up to scratch.

The argument is this: If my present situation doesn't allow me the time and space to have "hobbies", I'm not going to have time to make a great side project. Having time is a marker of exceptional privilege.

What do I mean by "not having time"? How about...

  1. I'm working x > 1 jobs to put myself through school.
  2. I'm working x > 0 additional jobs or working overtime in my 'extra' time to allow me to support my family.
  3. I have family members whose care requires all of my non-work time.
    • Could be parents, spouse, kids, siblings, neighbors, friends... you name it

That is, I'm not just talking about people having things like kids, a partner, nearby family, religion, friends -- "a life" -- your candidates could have serious backstories that are none of your business, pun intended.

And there are worse. Let's just mention one: "I'm abused at home." You won't learn this during an interview. In the US, eg, you can't ask, thankfully. But that's sure as heck going to stop you from completing la-dee-dah side projects.

I never really realized the amount of bias this question involved until a long Twitter thread pointed it out to me. If I can find it, I'll come back and add it. The point, and it's a point I think the other answers here largely miss, is that assuming you have leisure time for any activity, much less time for coding is, let's kindly say, a classist assumption.

You have to position your questions in a way to determine, "Does this candidate exhibit evidence they have the ability to fill this open position effectively?" based on fair, in-bounds experience. If they have relevant work history, you have to ask specifically about their job. If they have relevant school history, you have to ask about what they did in school.

If you want to see them code a full project independently (in place of an overly contrived tech interview), you hire them as a contract worker to show you, and pay them handsomely for their time. And I don't mean for a week. I mean for three months, or whatever the two sides negotiate. And note that "them" here isn't "someone without a side project". It's any serious candidate.
You also realize not everyone can drop whatever they're doing now to work for you on an interim basis.

If they offer side projects as evidence, I hope it's fair to keep what you learn "in scope", so to speak, as you debate merits later, and not necessarily punish people who are privileged and self-motivated for showing they also have the skills needed for your job, but you have, have to realize there are much more motivated people with practical, real-world priorities who will never put takes care of father with dementia or cares for autistic child as bullet points on their resume or use as topics of conversation in their interview.

And yes, this is a very difficult issue. Can you try and see if someone's a good teammate by encouraging them to share how they spend time with their coworkers outside of work? You could, but is it a fair measuring stick? Ultimately no, it's not. Your candidate could be the best coworker, but have much more important things to do than have the team over for dinner or hit a bar on Friday night.

So no, you can't ask that question, not in good faith.

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    Software engineering, particularly when it comes to the web, is an extremely fast-changing industry. Is it at all reasonable to expect employees to keep up outside of working hours? Probably not, but on the flipside, is it at all reasonable to expect employers to not hire someone who is more likely able to keep up over someone who isn't? At the end of the day, if the answer is "no because it's not fair because not every one has free time" as opposed to "no because it doesn't imply they are a better software developer" then I'm not sure why an employer should care. – ESR Jun 18 '18 at 4:03
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    If someone has a second job coding, that means they're getting more experience with programming than someone who comes home and does other hobbies -- they're in the same category as the person who does a recreational programming project. None of this is about being 'fair', it's about determining who will be the best employee for the company. Of course you want to phrase the question in a way that allows for answers like this. – Charles Jun 18 '18 at 13:48
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    @Charles -- I was assuming a case where some or all of the work being performed wasn't directly applicable to the current role. But don't miss the point for the examples. What's important is that there are very important reasons someone might not have free time. Could be a stocking job during 3rd shift, taking care of a loved one, or something "delicate" that's none of our business. "Fair" here means ensuring you don't penalize someone who'd be excellent at the job in the company's time (reasonable working hours) because they don't fit a privileged conception of an ideal coder. – ruffin Jun 18 '18 at 15:04
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    @ruffin It may not be fair that someone working a second job stocking shelves is at a disadvantage to someone working a second job coding, but the person working a second job coding will actually be a better candidate, all else being equal. I used to work on coding projects in my spare time, and I no longer have spare time for them as I'm about to become a father. Fair or not, that will make me marginally less valuable as a programmer than I would have been otherwise. – Charles Jun 18 '18 at 16:32
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    @Charles I think we're talking past each other. I'm not arguing, "the person working a second job coding will actually be a better candidate, all else being equal" -- though I don't necessarily believe that's true (twice crap is still crap. Twice competence is still competence!). What's crucial is that we determine fit in ways other than asking, "Do you have side projects?" Asking about additional related jobs is fine. Asking @ what someone's gained by stocking shelves is too! But idealizing best candidates as those with projects finished in their spare time enforces a cultural bias. – ruffin Jun 18 '18 at 16:49
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This could be viewed as a "Gotcha question".

Many companies have a rule either prohibiting outside work, or requiring that you clear it with management. In the old days, "outside work" meant moonlighting for another company: simple and understandable. Today, the line is very much blurred - with volunteer projects, the ease of writing smartphone apps, and freelance job-matching websites. If you're contributing to Firefox's image resizing engine, is that "hobby" or "job"? How about your iOS Solitaire app that makes you $600/month? The (trivial) programming required to keep your bitcoin miners running?

Certainly the applicant knows that many companies have an outside-work policy, and possible he's been burned in interviews etc.

So even though you're fishing for "job or lifestyle", the interviewee may think you are fishing for red-flags that would disqualify him. And of course he would find that very unjust.

  • "the interviewee may think you are fishing for red-flags that would disqualify him. And of course he would find that very unjust." - umm ... isn't that the entire point of the application process? How can that be "unjust"? – O. R. Mapper Jun 15 '18 at 19:16
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    @O.R.Mapper There are now rules on which questions you can and cannot ask (or to be more precise, discriminate against). As such, interviewees have cultivated a sense of "questions that make them feel uncomfortable" beyond the mandatory. You bet an interviewer can ask a question which rankles the candidate or makes them seriously question working there, which is not the purpose of the interview. – Harper Jun 15 '18 at 19:31
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    I fully understand some questions are off-limits. I just do not see how that could possibly include questions about experience relevant for the job. I concur with other posters who point out the asker should make clear why that question is asked, to indicate whether they consider the subject of the question a good or a bad thing, for instance. But if the reasoning provided makes the candidate "seriously question working there", again, that's a good thing. As a candidate, I'm glad if I know what a prospective employer is up to and I can decide against them. – O. R. Mapper Jun 15 '18 at 20:32
  • the interviewee may think you are fishing for red-flags that would disqualify him. And of course he would find that very unjust. Would "he"? (ಠ.ಠ) – ruffin Jun 16 '18 at 18:02
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One could argue that a person that does not do programming as a hobby will turn up to work more refreshed than those that have spent all evening thinking about other software problems.

Also, is it any business of an employer what an employee does in his/her free time (as long as it is legal).

I have never been asked about hobbies in an interview. I would not ask either.

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    Maybe it's also a regional thing? I've never NOT been asked about hobbies :) – Sabine Jun 15 '18 at 14:25
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    Definitely a "regional" thing. I've had HR departments tell me specifically NOT to ask about hobbies when I'm interviewing candidates, because they fear doing so will give the candidate fuel for a discrimination lawsuit ("you didn't hire me because I said I have X hobby which is somehow related to a protected class"). – dwizum Jun 15 '18 at 14:55
  • Sorry but being interested in side projects in your spare time does absolutely not imply that you will be more burnt out and less refreshed than someone who does not. What if that person who doesn't have a side project burnt themselves out playing badminton? Way too vague and assumptive of an argument to be making. – ESR Jun 18 '18 at 3:55
  • There is probably a strong correlation between the quality of a candidate and whether they do Github, open source projects, MeetUps. Can't see why its not valid to ask about these things. – vikingsteve Jun 18 '18 at 12:15
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For me, it depends.

I would never ask this question when interviewing somebody for, say, an Architect, or Project Lead, or Business Analyst position. How would those people ever replicate their work at home?

I might not ask every programmer. I have loved programming myself for my whole live, and have done it a lot privately. Today, for different reasons, there are long phases where I simply do not do it because there's no time or no need. So I understand if someone would not do it. I also understand that it's just a job for some, and don't judge them for it.

But sometimes, programmers or DevOps guys put out their enthusiasm for technology as a prime motivator for picking them. "I am so fascinated by this stuff that I would do everything to learn more / achieve more / bring the field further / ...". Frankly, if they pull this card, I find it very appropriate to ask them about their spare time.

This could be a honest-to-god question like "so, do you have some Linux box in your basement or something like that". If they go on to describe their HP ProLiant Nas4Free server, and are able to explain why XFS is a great thing, then I am happy and know for sure that they are fascinated. If they come up with nothing of the kind, then ... not so much. Even if they tell me that they ordered some Arduino for €5 from China, but never got around to really using it, I am happy.

Recently I had someone who was almost manic about some technology stuff related to cloud, DevOps etc.; he repeatedly told, with glee in his eyes, how he creates these complex servers for his own use. I asked him what he did exactly; he told me he setup a private mail server. I asked him what software he used and... he could not tell me. To say the least, that was not a happy incident for him. So he basically started a Free Tier AWS account (which takes roughly zero knowledge and effort) and spun up some premade mail server thingy. I did not pursue this further, but it did not gel well with coming over as an exuberant tech lover to me.

  • I'm a Business Analyst who has a side project (an open-source side project, no less!) relevant to my job. But I admit that's a rare case. – Charles Jun 18 '18 at 13:51
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    If you mention it during the interview, you can be pretty sure that I'll be all over it, @Charles. ;) – AnoE Jun 18 '18 at 19:16
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While I would agree that there is nothing wrong with asking about side projects a candidate is working on. Asking "How many hours..." can imply that you already assume they are doing something like this. The risk here is that you make the candidate feel like they won't be a good fit in your company if they answer with "Not much" or "I don't do any programming outside of work".

As a developer myself, if you bring up the discussion of hobbies or outside interests, any developer who does activities similar to their work life in their personal time will make mention of it. From here, it would not be unusual to ask how much they do. Bear in mind that some candidates are simply incapable of taking on personal projects due to obligations such as family, travel, other hobbies etc. By all means, ask if they spend time on open-source projects but keep in mind that an answer of "zero" should not be a black mark. The technical test is usually how you can find out if they are keeping their skills up to scratch.

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Going off my experience, I say ask only if your company uses a lot of open source software or provides open source.

At my company, we have a lot of open source repos available on github and one of the questions asked during interviews is what sort of personal hobbies they do outside of work that involves coding. Having open source or a github account with a lot of pull requests for open source repos are a huge plus.

Nobody seemed bothered by the question as my company put that on the job posting as well as explaining that they are into open source code.

  • Surely if your company uses open source, and any improvements through your job, you should put back into the open source project. This could be the day-to-day part of the job – Ed Heal Jun 15 '18 at 17:27
  • Right, also it shows that you are into collaboration and criticism of your code during pull requests to match coding standards set forth. Something that is very typical in open source projects that generally require a RFC, pull request, unit tests, review by someone, and so forth. By having a PR accepted, especially for a big project, shows that you are a better team player, I think. – Dan Jun 18 '18 at 19:03
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It is appropriate to ask if someone works on any development projects outside their course work/job and ask them to talk about it a bit. Be sure to not phrase it as a generic "so what are your hobbies?" kind of question; that would be inappropriate.

I've been in development for over twenty years and, in my experience, the best people work on something outside of work that is technically related. At a minimum, they listen to some podcasts or attend user groups to keep them abreast of changing technologies.

That said, I personally don't think it is a necessity that people practice their craft outside of working hours, but if I had two people interview that were identical in every other way, the person bettering themselves professionally would get the position.


Not specifically related to this question, but I feel it warrants stating:

As an interviewee, if you are offered a position and you do any "outside work" or plan to , be very sure to read the terms of employment. My last company had a clause stating they owned anything I developed outside of work (so I simply did not develop outside of work). And many companies take a position that you can moonlight, but anything you create with their resources (their computer, licensed software and so on) are their property.

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    My company cares about education. We have reading circles and have a budget for it. That includes the provision of text books, and hour per week reading/group chat. We also have tech talks once a week lasting between 15 - 30 mins. Also periodically we have hackathons - where we get the afternoon to develop something new, have free pizza and beer and then a bit more time before doing a small presentation. – Ed Heal Jun 15 '18 at 17:06
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    @EdHeal I'd love to see that as a specific question on the next Stack Overflow developer survey. insights.stackoverflow.com/survey/2018 "How does your company contribute to your professional development?" – UnhandledExcepSean Jun 15 '18 at 19:54
  • You can also ask the new employer for an exemption on a specific hobby project that you are already working on. Did this once and they were happy to grant it. – vikingsteve Jun 19 '18 at 6:59
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Ask them if they have experience with or contributed to Open Software, but stay away from questions about how many hours or if it was done outside of work.

The Open Software aspect of the question is fair game, it would be no different than asking if they were familiar with Linux or Git or eclipse or various other tools. If your company uses certain Open tools, then experience with those would be a plus, less training. If your company encourages, supports, limits, or prohibits Open software, this would be a good time to work it into the conversation.

But asking the prospective hire what they do on their spare time would be if anything, too intrusive, kind of over the line. People are hired for what they can do at work, not for what they do outside of it. Some companies limit what you can do outside of work, anything that might be considered illegal or competitive, you should get that out front, but remember that while interviewing someone, they are interviewing you, and are deciding if yours is a company that they would like to work at. If you come across as wanting to limit or track what they do, outside of work, a lot of good people will go elsewhere.

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I would suggest to avoid this line of questions, unless the candidate brings it up by himself. If you want to try to trigger such a discussion, ask about whether he has some publicly available code, this code might be hobby stuff, or it might be a paid work he has done.

As someone who contributed in all kind of ways to many OSS projects, I would be very annoyed if anyone brings it up as something that sounds like a requirement. When I contribute, I do it as a hobby, I do not apply the same development standards that I will apply to paid jobs. In addition there is a huge difference between working solo on a project and navigating the intricate web of a workplace. Working solo you do not need to be polite to co-workers, suffer the BS from marketing and be nice to the boss.

As other answers implied,this kind of question line will help you discover if someone likes coding as a hobby, and has the time for it, nothing more than that. Unless it is a very high profile project in which the candidate has a major role, the participation in OSS projects by itself will not help you know if his code is any good, nor if he can fit well in a work enviroment.

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In my country (Netherlands) this is one of the most common questions asked during an interview; mostly in the form of "What do you do to keep your skills up to date and keep learning (in your spare time)".

Basically they want to know what blogs you read, groups you follow or how often you spend time leaerning things. Of course it doesn't have to be for an open source project, what about just learning new languages/frameworks?

As long as you ask the question in a pretty open and friendly tone I assume you'll be fine, and I usually expect this question.

  • I agree. This is a completely open question that gets to the same facts whilst linking it to the candidate's own desire to keep up to date in a changing technology landscape – vikingsteve Jun 18 '18 at 13:18
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I'm not sure that asking this question really show intrinsic motivation and tendency to perform great on the job.

This question is not inappropriate, it is similar to ask "What are your hobbies outside of work ?"

But as Sabine stated, it can lead to some misunderstanding, as the interviewee may not understand if doing open source project is a good thing or a bad thing in the interviewer mind.

I want to add that people who have personal side-project are not better or more motivated than the one that do not.

As an example, I know some really great developper and mentor at work that spend their evening and week end with their family doing other activities. I also know a really great developer from school who is invested in a lot of open source project. He can't stop changing company because they are not a good fit for him, as his standard can be very high.

To conclude, the question can be great to discuss with the interviewee about what he likes to do, but should not be taken as an exclusive condition for acceptance.

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Asking about hours specifically would be inappropriate, asking if the person has worked on outside projects or independent work would have value, as would asking about volunteer projects.

Be aware, however that some companies have moonlighting clauses and clauses that anything developed during employment is considered company property, so the question may not be as productive as one might think.

  • I don't understand your second paragraph. If the applicant is passionate about hobbyist programming, and if the company doesn't tolerate that/will claim ownership, the interview would be an excellent occasion to bring this possible dissonance up. Of course, nothing stops the interviewer from prefacing the question with something like "Some of our employees are also active in their own programming side projects in their spare time". – O. R. Mapper Jun 15 '18 at 19:11
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    @O.R.Mapper Right, because saying "I'm passionate but I'm not allowed to develop" would be so useful to gauge someone's passion.... wut? – Retired Codger Jun 15 '18 at 19:15
  • Ok, I was seeing this from the applicant's perspective. I usually ask in interviews about the possibility of doing side projects, because if I already know up-front it's not going to be allowed, I can save both them and myself the time of going any further if I end up declining anyway. Of course, some people who like doing hobbyist projects might already have got caught in a situation where they cannot, but then, they can still mention this and outline what they used to do before entering their current, restrictive contract. – O. R. Mapper Jun 15 '18 at 19:21
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    @O.R.Mapper That's a good practice. I've absolutely walked away from loony contracts. One company tried to get me to sign a non-compete clause AFTER I signed on – Retired Codger Jun 15 '18 at 19:41
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People have pointed out how this question is discriminatory and I agree with that. I also want to point out that looking for people who are programming outside of work does not necessarily make them motivated to do your work. In my experience, it often can have just the opposite effect. They are so interested in their private projects that they pay more attention to them and less attention to the boring old business work. Or they are so tired that they can't focus properly because they stayed up til 3 am doing this cool thing. In any event, programming as a hobby after programming for work in not, in the long run, healthy. It is a major cause of burnout.

It is a problem in our industry that people do not have the time to train for changing technology at work. If you want to be a good place, you give them that time built in as part of the work. There is no other profession where you are expected and encouraged to spend all your time working. It is bad for the company (tired workers are not good workers), it is bad for the individual, it is bad for the profession (this is one of the major factors why people leave the profession early). Your assumption that this is a positive is incorrect.

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A different wording, for all the reasons above:

  • "Have you ever worked on a software project that wasn't part of a paid job?"

and then follow up with:

  • How did you get into that?
  • How did it go?
  • What did you accomplish?

These will probably set a relaxed frame, because it's clear it's about the past, or now, or any time, so it's not probing current or planned activities. This should remove the "threat/worry" element.

Then you can probe for what you're actually after, indirectly:

If no:

  • You've only ever coded within a job? [Asked in a curious tone, not a critical one]
  • Do you do much with computers on your own clock?
  • A lot of people get into software as hobbyists, then become professionals. Your path was slightly different...?

If yes:

  • That sounds interesting!
  • Follow that with: What kinds of projects did you get into? What accomplishments are you proudest of? Were these solo endeavours or group projects? And perhaps if you feel appropriate, then Do you still do it?
  • Some of the best programmers we've had, also have their own projects on the side. Is coding something that you keep at work, or do you have a hobbyist focus too? [And same questions as above]

This approach hopefully reassures that it's seen positively, but avoids cuing them about an "expected" answer they need to be careful with.

Mainly , be careful to present it as interest and a possible positive, by the "angle" you take (and equally, by the angles you avoid!).

Avoid like the plague, any questions that could be taken as probing dedication to the job, such as "How do you balance a hobby like that, with work?" or "How much time do you give it". Perhaps think through your questions beforehand to be sure they are ones that will not come over wrongly.

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Is it appropriate to ask a software developer about extra hours spent for side projects and open-source (as a hobby)?

I feel that it can sometimes be appropriate. However, that entirely depends on the context of what position you're hiring for and what sort of candidates you're looking for. And it doesn't seem appropriate in your case.

If you're looking for a self-starter with no previous career experience whose dream is to get into software development (because they love programming), then it's clearly a good sign that they're working toward that in their spare time. And it lets them justify their resume full of unrelated jobs, and/or how they hope to move from part-time unrelated work to a full-time career job. This is one way to get a junior level developer.

However, you say that you're looking

for software developers positions (intermediate-senior level).

At that level, people should have years in the industry, including most likely crunch time, overnight deployments, etc. You expect that they're already working full-time (or more) doing software development. By that stage of life, they are likely to have other commitments outside of work.

For that role, a strong yes answer could be a red flag. Someone who pushes themselves too hard could be burning out and hoping to avoid it by changing jobs. But that's not going to happen if they keep it up, and you could seem to be encouraging it. That wouldn't be good for either of you.

There are better questions for intermediate-senior level that could still address your concern of finding out about intrinsic motivation. Ask about things that they no longer get to work with but enjoyed/miss, and things that they'd like to learn about or work with, but haven't had the chance yet. Ask about which things they've done that they were particularly proud of or happy with, or for which they got praise or thanks that made them feel really good.

Answers could come from hobby work or from their day-job work.

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You need to be careful about any questions relating to how people spend their out-of-working hours time because what people do outside working hours is strongly correlated with gender. Consider that for some candidates the answer might be "No, I don't do any programming in my spare time, I'm far too busy looking after my young children / my aged parents".

If you're looking for programmers who do nothing but programming at any hour of the day, then you're probably not going to hire any women.

  • Based on my experience, this is precisely the reason why this question is often asked. It is intended to exclude most women. – HLGEM Jun 19 '18 at 13:46
  • I dont see what it has to do at all with gender. There are plenty of women that chose to program in their free time and if they chose not too then thats their personal choice and has nothing to do with their gender. Likewise most men are also just as busy looking after kids or parents. – ayrton clark Jun 19 '18 at 14:13
  • It's called indirect discrimination. If you select candidates using criteria that are more commonly found in one gender than another, and that have no direct bearing on ability to do the job, then you are discriminating in a way that in many countries is illegal (and is always bad practice, since you want to get the best people you can). – Michael Kay Jun 19 '18 at 16:32
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Have you though about it in the opposite way? People who do side projects maybe do them because the projects at their work are not interesting, use old technologies, or are just plain boring. Having employees do side projects probably means they are not really happy with their work projects (ie they don't fullfill them or they don't learn anything new while doing it.)

It may also mean that the person likes coding alone, and doesn't like to work with other people/in a team, which would again probably be a red flag.

I like doing my side project because I got to choose what I am doing. I don't like to do projects for others that are not personally interesting to me. But hey, you gotta pay the bills, so I am working on someone elses project although I'm not really motivated to do so. Trust me, if developers would get good money from side projects, nobody would work for other companies.

Its a completely wrong assumption that someone is better in any way if they do side projects. Besides, if I had a hard day at work coding, the last thing I want to do is come home and do coding again.

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