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I am a software developer for a large software company. This is my second software job post-college.

A few months ago, after more than six months at the new company, I submitted a disclosure for a web app I was working on on my own time. It was reviewed and approved by legal, but my team manager would not approve it, and said off the books through my project lead that I should wait a few more months before even asking approval for any side projects, effectively making me unable to publish any technical side projects or websites for my first year or more at this at this company, regardless of competition.

When I revisited it recently, I still was not given a guarantee that further projects would be approved after the waiting period, and that when I disclosed I would still have to "justify [to my team manager] why these projects are beneficial to the team." No automatic approval of any projects by my manager, even after a year waiting period and no issue from legal. Word is that other managers at my company wave through side project requests with little concern.

How can I deal with this?

TL;DR: After a year at my second software job, my manager is using his position to indefinitely prevent me from doing any projects on my own time, regardless of legal's stance. I'm told this is not the norm of other managers at my company.

  • 2
    Why does your comapny have any say in your side projects? Do they use any work-related stuff? – Dave Gremlin May 1 at 21:32
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    @DaveGremlin Some companies believe that involvement in side projects can create conflicts of interest (and sometimes they can). So, as part of the hiring agreement, they mandate full disclosure of side projects. Typically this is easier to get approval for when you hire, as they projects can be listed and the company is motivated to hire you. Creating a side project after the hiring process is tricky, as they have to assure themselves there's no leakage of information, and they need to feel like it won't cut into the company's time. – Edwin Buck May 1 at 21:36
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    Yes it is legal, and standard practice. Some states have legislature that helps counteract these clauses, like CA, but not mine. joelonsoftware.com/2016/12/09/developers-side-projects – Anonymous-Dev May 1 at 21:46
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    No sideprojects allowed? What a strange concept. If you combine that with the usual obsolete enterprise legacy stack, it's a good reason to get out of dodge city for a more modern employer. Otherwise you might end up unemployable in 5 - 10 years. – Juha Untinen May 2 at 8:10
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    @dwizum If someone rips off their company's IP to start a competing business, this is going to be easy to prove and the company can easily sue the person's ass off. But I see no reason why a company would prevent side projects on unrelated matters. In fact, I think that should be made plain illegal. If I'm a carpenter, do I need an authorization from the company to build a wooden shed in my backyard during weekends, using my own materials and tools? Why should it be different for software development? – dim May 2 at 11:47
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If you need your manager's approval, there isn't much you can do apart from trying to understand where they're coming from and then trying to convince them to change their mind.

  • Your manager said you have to justify why the projects are beneficial to the team.

    The first step might be to simply ask them why how you spend your free time needs to benefit the team, and then trying to find a very polite way to emphasise that this will only be done in free time, and not doing this wouldn't lead to you doing something that does benefit the team in that time instead.

    This might not work, so here's my take on an answer to the above question:

    • You'd spend more time programming, which might also involve doing work outside your typical job duties. This could help you take on a wider range of responsibilities and help with seeing your work from a different perspective. You would be able to be more efficient and effective at writing good code, identifying and resolving issues as well as finding the best solution to any given problem.
    • You'd be happier overall, since you'd get to spend your free time how you choose. This would lead to increased productivity and improved team morale, among other benefits.
    • If your performance reviews thus far have been great, you can reference back to this and ask whether that doesn't show that you're responsible enough to decide how to spend your free time without having it affect your work.
  • Have you asked how these projects are harmful to the team?

    They may say it would negatively affect your productivity (by taking time or concentration away from your work). You could respond by saying any other free time activity might have the same effect and you hope to be trusted enough to ensure whatever happens in your own free time doesn't interfere with your work and to let your productivity speak for itself. If your performance reviews thus far haven't been good, you might want to avoid the last point (because you wouldn't want your current productivity to speak for itself).

    They may present other arguments, which you'll have to take as they come. My advice there, if you don't have a good counter-argument, would be to (politely) question whatever they say. This would give you time to think and would make it clearer what argument you're actually trying to counter.

  • You could also ask why it would be a better time after the waiting period.

    The most compelling, albeit by no means good, reason I can see for this is once again reduced productivity.

  • They might also fear these projects would become profitable and lead to you resigning (which I wouldn't expect them to openly say). If you can subtly throw in an argument against this at some point, that might help your case.

Note the above is based on the assumption that they're rational and reasonable, which may not be the case. They may simply be delaying and adding this red tape because they don't actually have a good reason; they just don't want you to.

Do not expect approval after waiting. As with many other issues in the workplace, telling you to wait is likely little more than a stalling tactic. If the above doesn't work, do whatever you'd do had they simply very unambiguously refused to give permission.

Your options for what to do at that point consist of: (in no particular order)

  • Work on it anyway and decide you'll never release it.
  • Work on it anyway and deal with the ensuing legal trouble which might come from trying to release or profit from it, while working for them or some time afterwards.
  • Don't work on it.
  • Find another job or move to another team.

    This might lead to the same problem, although you'd be trading already being in the situation with simply risking getting into a similar situation (which seems unlikely if you're open about wanting to work on personal projects). If it's really that important, you could also insist on them adding a clause to your contract to allow working on non-competing personal projects (without approval), or that the actual projects would be listed in the contract (which may be easier to get through). This would obviously need to be done before signing the contract, although I wouldn't be too optimistic that companies would agree to this.

5

As Joe Strazzere said as an edit to your question: "If these side projects are important enough to you, then you should find a new job without such restrictions." Life will be full of such situations. Be true to yourself and your ethics. My experience indicates that you will have a more enjoyable career if you either deal with the restrictions placed by your manager (after suitable dialogue with them) or leave. Don't bypass them or go behind their back. But you need to decide what ethical standards apply to you and your career independent of how others do their job.

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    My company, like most large software companies, has a hiring contract that says they own all inventions made while employed with the company, unless they legally agree otherwise (I.e. during disclosure). My manager, like a manager at any other large software company I would work for, has the latitude to block any side projects he wants through this provision. Joining another company, I would be under the same risk, depending on how my new manager decided to behave after I got hired (my current manager was very supportive of side projects in our recruiting conversations). – Anonymous-Dev May 1 at 21:45
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    @Anonymous-Dev are you SURE that a clause like that is so wide spread you won't be able to escape it? I've never signed a contract containing it, and have in fact refused to sign one particular contract unless that clause was removed. I'm not in the US though, so YMMV. But it could be worth looking around. – Player One May 1 at 23:34
  • @PlayerOne - it is indeed common among larger software companies, at least in the US. An option if you want to avoid this kind of clause is to look for jobs at non-software companies where you can do software work - i.e. writing software for a bank or manufacturer. It's much less common to be forced into this sort of policy by an organization who doesn't view software as their main product. – dwizum May 2 at 11:05
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your manager sounds like an asshole who likes using his power to be unnecessarily difficult. personally I would go to his boss and get him to sign it off, also if this is a personal project you are completing on your own time with your own resources then there is no reason why you should have to "justify [to my team manager] why these projects are beneficial to the team."(i bet other team managers don't require this). your boss won't be happy that you went around him and exposed his dickish behaviour but it might give you the chance to change teams to work under someone reasonable, it will definitely give you the ability to polish your portfolio for when you decide to change jobs.

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Why don’t you use a new name for your side projects, like what you are doing now making a new account asking the question?

There’s little you can do if your manager doesn’t believe in your side projects. New online name, don’t tell it to anyone.

  • 4
    This could get you fired, or cause the company to take legal action on you if discovered. – DragonYen May 2 at 2:58
  • @DragonYen How would they know? It's like how would we know who OP is. It's a new account. – SmallChess May 2 at 3:42
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    A big part of the reason why people do (and publish) side projects is to associate themselves with the project - i.e. so they can list it in a portfolio or link to it on their resume. If you tried to fake an identity used to publish side projects, you'd be missing out on that value. Not to mention the fact that it would be hard or impossible to conceal your identity on any side project that involved creation of new IP (which you wouldn't be able to claim ownership of), anything that was sold commercially, or anything where you were working with other parties. – dwizum May 2 at 11:02
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    Plus - is it really worth risking your job based on "I hope they don't find out?" – dwizum May 2 at 11:03

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