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I'm struggling with a potential conflict of interest regarding an upcoming job interview. I'll state it in terms of the two conflicting interests:

Interest 1: I'm a software engineer (15 years commercial experience) and previous to my IT career I was a primary school teacher for a few years. I've recently been job hunting, still in IT, and was contacted by a recruiter regarding a job which sounded attractive on many fronts, at a small company making software in the education space, mainly for teachers, school administrators and parents. The company is about 5 years old, 20ish employees, recently been publicly awarded with some big contracts so are expanding. I understand part of what they require is to increase their mobile development capabilities.

I met with the recruiter, impressed him with my iPhone app DriveTime Traffic and we're heading towards an interview with the client.

Interest 2: I have had for quite a while what I think is a very good and original software idea which sits somewhere in the "school administration" area. My wife is a teacher and I regularly witness the frustration that a particular problem causes for her and her peers, and I have a potential solution which I believe could almost eliminate this frustration entirely.

I know how large a project it is likely to be, requiring app servers, database, web and mobile front ends. To that end, I'm not currently in a position to implement this myself as I work full time and don't have the financial ability to risk setting off on the grand adventure of quitting & forming a team & getting investors etc. It's the sort of software that would be a PERFECT fit for this potential employer's current suite of products.

Soooo....on the one hand given that I can't really ever see myself being able to implement it myself, I'm tempted to discuss the idea with this company - it would show interest/motivation and perhaps if they took both me and the idea on I would be able to help drive the project somewhat.

On the other hand, I'd be just giving them the idea and if they did go anywhere with it then all I get out of it at the most is my salary. And a job interview is not really the place to talk about any other sort of motivation I might have for this, e.g. having a financial stake in the project over and above the role of employee.

My gut feel is that I probably shouldn't mention it, but then if I don't get the job and nobody implements this idea, I'll be left wondering.

What should I do given this conflict of interest?

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    Also consider that getting employed by this company may cause intellectual-property complications for your idea. – jcm Jun 25 '14 at 10:17
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    This is not really a conflict of interest. A conflict would be if you were developing the product already and the company wanted you to come on board and help them develop a competitor to it. Since you would be in a position to sabatoge the companies project that would be a conflict of interest. All you have here is a personal dilemma. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 25 '14 at 13:58
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    If you think you might ever want to develop this idea on your own, ask about what legal agreements are required at job offer time. You don't want to find you have to sign any surprise on your first day. – KatieK Jun 30 '14 at 16:58
  • This is probably a legal concern, but you should talk to an employment lawyer and have your idea documented and specifically excluded from being developed by the company unless they give you some sort of documented compensation. If you end up running with this idea, your new employer may try and claim, legally so, that you came up with the idea while employed there and hence the idea belongs to them. – Bill Leeper Apr 27 '17 at 21:54
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The chance that they are enthusiastic about your program idea and that they are willing to spend resources on it, are slim. They have their own agenda (and plenty of work, judging from your post), so they are unlikely to start anything additional coming from a newcomer.

Bringing your idea up in the interview can increase or decrease your chances:

  1. They see this as a great opportunity (increase).

  2. You're bringing complications into the interview process that they don't want to deal with (decrease).

Since my first paragraph essentially says "Don't bet on 1. happening", you'll probably lose. Together with your own doubts about them 'taking the idea', I would not bring it up.

For now, just go for the job, period. Do you want that job without your idea coming into play at all?
Your project is not going to happen (yet).
Sour, but that's the way it is.

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    +1. The worst possible case would probably be if your potential manager wonders just why you bring your idea up in the interview. He could think you are interested in the job solely to make contacts... or already thinking about poaching colleagues for your startup... The possibilities for honest misunderstandings are endless. So, better to keep your idea to yourself. – Stephan Kolassa Jun 25 '14 at 9:59
  • Thanks so much - it was hard to pick an answer from all of this well-reasoned advice. I think I knew deep down that it's not the appropriate time to mention it, but all of you have helped me clarify the issues and non-issues in my head. Cheers. – user22563 Jun 26 '14 at 5:17
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This is not a conflict of interest in the usual sense of the term. As long as you don't attempt to create and run your 'great idea', you're not in conflict with your (prospective) employer. Conflict of interest is working for the Air Force and quitting and getting a job with a big Air Force supplier - a situation where your objectivity in requisitioning might be compromised by the prospect of a job with one of the vendors. Under the circumstances, there is no other organization to which you might or should have loyalties.

Do not mention this during the interview. It would leave them with the impression you are distracted. In other words, you aren't fully on-board.

If you are hired, rather than simply show up with the most senior person you can reach, do some homework. Create a sample app, interview some teachers, do something that shows this isn't purely your 'blue sky' thinking. Also make sure it hasn't been done already.

Then make your case to your employer.

If you aren't hired, then consider your idea your job. Pursue the startup until you start getting 'downvotes'. Many angel investors will ask for followups if the idea passes initial inspection. Don't assume that it can't be done until all other interested parties drop out.

  • Your conflict of interest example is odd. I think you mean that you are in a position to select a contractor's bid for a project, select said contractor, then right away leave your position to go work for that contractor. Because working for the Air Force and quitting and getting a job with said contractor is done daily by people working for the Air Force. – Donald Jun 26 '14 at 13:29
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This is definitely not a conflict of interest in any ethical sense. Nothing you do at this point could deprive your potential employer of anything in which they have a stake, so don't sweat the ethics.

It sounds like you're joining an emerging startup at a point when they have a whole ton of work to get done. That's a great place to be for you: they need to focus on that work, and so do you. If they do it right, they'll get to the next level as a business and you'll be part of that.

When you sign on, there may be an intellectual property and non-disclosure agreement to sign. Read it carefully. You may even want to seek legal advice. Satisfy yourself that you can work on your idea on your own time at home without giving up your rights to it to this employer.

So, in your interview and in your job, focus on getting the company's work done well. Those contracts you mention need to become cash cows for the company, without maintenance or support nightmares.

You can say in your interview that you're always thinking about ways to improve the lives of educators and students, and that you like to pay attention to their unmet needs. If they say, in the interview, "say more about that", toss out a couple of observztions about your spouse's workplace needs. This shows you to be a thoughtful product developer, not just a code monkey.

But emphasize that you understand their need to get their work done.

But they're still small enough that the founding team remembers their early days. You'll be in an company with an entrepreneurial spirit and perhaps even some early-stage investors still around. That's a good environment for you to be in.

As you do your part to make this company successful, you'll also develop the relationships and skills to get your idea off the ground. Many entrepreneurs consider it a badge of honor to have their best employees move on to their own businesses after making them successful, and investors love it.

From your relationships will come your choices about your big idea. Focus on the relationships for now.

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A job interview is not the place to bring up your own ideas, no matter how impactful they may be on the company's bottom line. Just interview for the position and let that be the current concern.

When it comes to your idea, once you're in place, you can always slip it into conversation with your boss or manager that you've had an idea. Put a bug in their ear about it. Note: You may likely not be able to push something like that on your own once you present it to the company. That would be competing with them directly, and most positions have Non-Compete agreements (as I'm sure you know).

Once you have the job and you think the position is stable and see how you fit into the culture there, you can work on presenting it to your superiors as a "new" idea you've had, with all the bells and whistle presented in that format. Who knows, going about it this way might net you a trophy or a raise. ^_^

  • Companies rarely want to receive ideas from people who are not already bound by an IP agreement. The problem is potential legal claims if they do something similar, no matter how independent their project is of the idea proposal. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 27 '17 at 17:30

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