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A company I recently applied for a job at asked me to do a test-project during the recruitment process which would take 8 to 16 hours. My gut feeling is that this crosses the line for a test project (most technical interviews in my experience take at most around 2 hours), so I wondered, what's the maximum typical amount of time an unpaid test should take during recruitment?

To be very clear here, I am not asking for opinions, what I am asking is for answers speaking either from research or extensive experience covering recruitment processes from a large number of companies. Something the answers currently give, but which I feel merits focus, as some (mostly close and down voters) are misreading the question as 'hey, how many hours do you like to spend on a test?'.

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I've seen this before, it is almost ALWAYS a company trying to get free consulting work in the guise of an interview.

A friend of mine had a major company try to pull this on him in the interview by asking him specifics about a project he'd worked on previously. He caught on, and basically laid it on the table: "Hire me, and I'll go into as much detail as you like".

They had the nerve to report back to the head-hunter, calling him disrespectful. He fired the headhunter and got a different job.

Another friend completed a "test" where he corrected a critical problem to the company's systems. They just wanted free consulting

Any "test" lasting that long is not a test, it's an unethical company trying to get work for free. It's unethical, but sadly not uncommon. Move on, this is a scam.

  • I guess you have to know the difference between show me you can frame a wall and build me a shed. – user8365 May 13 '16 at 14:40
  • @JeffO and too many companies are out there trying to get free sheds. Once again, interviews are two way streets – Richard Says Reinstate Monica May 13 '16 at 18:26
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    I've also seen this before. In my case, it was always something that couldn't be a working product for them, or it was something that they had already done themselves. So it definitely wasn't a way to get free consulting for them, but still, I think it was a way to evaluate multiple developers with the same measuring stick with the least amount of effort on their part. In my case, I did complete a project like that and I did complete it successfully, but I didn't get the job, so I assume someone else did a better job than I did, or may be they just preferred the personality of someone else. – Stephan Branczyk May 14 '16 at 9:22
  • In either case, I felt disrespected, but at the same time, I shouldn't have agreed so quickly to do such a project. Had I been told that finishing the project on time wasn't enough to get the job, or that there was a number of other candidates who were doing the same test project as a final test for their interview, I wouldn't have done it. But ultimately that's on me, I was a sheep, I agreed too readily to their request. – Stephan Branczyk May 14 '16 at 9:31
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If you are not desperate

Just figure out how much two days is worth to you, what they are asking from you is to make an investment in their company of €400+ for a chance for a job. If they aren't willing to make the same investment in you then what good is such a company? Does this company respect you as an employee the way you want to be respected?

If you are desperate

Even if you're desperate for a job you might be well served to stay away from a company like that, as it means that you will end up in a team of sub par developers. Only developers desperate for a job or straight out of school will apply for a job at such a company, which means that the entirety of a company likely consists of these kind of people. Now, some desperate developers willing to do these kind of tests will be actually great developers, but it's very likely that the majority of these developers will be inexperienced and/or fired from their previous jobs.

The risk of a scam

It's not impossible at all that they might give you production problems to solve as correctly noted by codenoire. This isn't necessarily the case, and they might actually give you a pure 'perfectly normal' (aside of the size) test, but this is extremely unlikely as a normal ethical company wouldn't ask for such an investment from a candidate, as this would result in losing out on the majority of qualified candidates.

My advice

Raise your concerns with them openly, and make it clear that you're willing to do a normal technical interview with one of their developers. That way both parties are equally invested in your application. If they are willing to dedicate a developer for 8 hours to sit with you for an 8 hour technical interview: go for it. And the same goes if they show in different ways that they are willing to invest in you, if they are willing to fly you over from another country to do a full day of testing in their headquarters: it's a bit over the top, but sure, that's worth considering. More than likely however when they are asked to make a similar investment they will quickly lose all interest in you (or if they are an actually ethical company change their recruitment process).

You might also want to consider reviewing their company on sites dedicated to this purpose like glassdoor.com to warn other potential employees. Thus helping both the rest of the community and other companies with more respectful recruitment processes. The danger of course being that they might try to retaliate, so whether you risk it is up to you, but it's definitely appreciated by the rest of us.

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8 hours means that they are giving you a 'production' problem to solve. If the test you are doing produces a result which will further the interests of the business, what they are doing is highly unethical. They could be interviewing and giving each person a different part of a problem to solve, and getting work done for free. I've encountered this before.

Don't be afraid to raise your concerns. If they are working unethically now, it's not going to get better when you get the job.

  • Yep, seen this too many times over the years – Richard Says Reinstate Monica May 12 '16 at 17:47
  • Do companies actually do this? I mean, for a moment it sounds like it might work, but then how many candidates do you actually have to interview to find the ones that will actually produce a usable result for your 'product' with this method. – Brandin May 12 '16 at 20:59
  • @Brandin - I'm imaging a lot of monkeys at keyboards right now "it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times" – HorusKol May 12 '16 at 23:21
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    @codenoire - I'd be carefully with "highly unethical" - never attribute malice where naivety could be the explanation. Either way, I wouldn't go for it. – HorusKol May 12 '16 at 23:23
  • @HorusKol no, it's highly unethical and malicious. Never forget that the malicious know that you will ascribe their malice to naivety – Richard Says Reinstate Monica May 13 '16 at 17:04
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I would never do (or ask a candidate to do) a test that takes more than an hour. 8-16 hours sounds more like 'spec work' than an actual employment test - if you can't gain insight into someones ability from a one hour test and their resume, then the problem, I believe, isn't on the candidates side of the table.

  • I had one with hour and a half limit. – PM 77-1 May 12 '16 at 19:39
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There is no maximum time, but there must be an equal investment of time and effort on both sides. Whether you have a 5 minute interview or an 8 hour interview, both you and the company invest the same amount of effort, so it's fair. If they send you off to do a test on your own, even for two hours only, that's two hours of your time and no effort on theirs.

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WordPress is known for a lengthy hiring process for developers. After having you build something that will take several hours (sorry I don't know the cut-off), they will hire you as a consultant for 3 months to see if you work out. The big difference with their approach and what you're asking is they pay you for your time for both. They're also open source, so they want to know you're a contributor.

Research the company and the people doing the hiring. If the task seems too close to their product/project, I would be leary. Ask if you can post the code on your github site. Their reaction may provide all you need to know. Maybe you won't get this job, but you can use it as part of your portfolio (A good reason why you would want to do this.).

Finding good programmers is difficult. At some point you have to demonstrate you can do the job. In Workpress's case, they have almost all remote workers, so inviting you in for an interview or asking a few trivia programming questions makes it difficult to find who is a good fit. Weight the time against the quality of the company and how bad you want the job. Asking you to spend 10 hours writing a text editor with auto-Klingon-correct for a petroleum company isn't exactly something they're going to put in their refineries, but if the lead dev is wearing a StarTrek uniform...

  • From the official instructions I received today: "Once you submit the test project you agree that it becomes a property of STRV and we can do anything we want with it." and "The aim is that it should not take more than 2 days (16 hours) to complete this test project for experienced developers." – David Mulder May 13 '16 at 16:00
  • If they didn't want you to divulge it because other candidates could get the code, that's one thing, but they want ownership? What a huge red flag. I would make a change to that contract that you get ownership if not hired and agree not to post for 90 days so they can fill the position. – user8365 May 13 '16 at 16:17
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    I totally agree with you, when I saw that document I also was shocked. Till that point I actually was still sort of giving the benefit of the doubt... – David Mulder May 13 '16 at 16:50

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