By Gloria W. Jacobs (Senior Freelance Software Developer, NYC)
The expression “pink ghetto” when used in context of software development, refers to jobs (which are often offered to women and people new to the field) that will not help you grow your skill set or experience in productive ways.

During an economic crunch, these types of “pink ghetto” jobs become more prevalent and cleverly disguised. Students, minorities and women tend to be caught up in these types of offers — not knowing how to see through a bad deal, or how to look for better alternatives. After reading this article, you will learn to recognize “pink ghetto” work. I also suggest ways to find better options.

First, the requisite pep talk about personal goals, interests, and values

  1. Your time and energy have great value. Don’t ever forget this. Companies certainly aren’t. You are a resource, and your energy alone can make someone else a profit. Companies want to make the most money they can from their resources (you). Your interest is to get the most benefit you can from a company while helping them prosper. Notice a difference? The company usually does not care if you prosper long-term or not. They may give you immediate gratification perks which don’t cost the company very much, such as filling a fridge with beer, or paying for lunch/dinner. But that is usually it. It is no longer in the US company culture to care about your long term goals. In exchange, you have no reason to feel indebted to such a company when you leave for a better opportunity.
  2. You have a responsibility to yourself to make sure you get fair compensation. This is based on some combination of (a) pay, (b) ownership, (c) education, (d) experience, and (e) opportunity. The proportions of what you’re willing to accept are entirely yours. Know these proportions before you interview, know where you are and are not willing to compromise, and stand your ground during an interview. If you make a major compromise now, you could end up being very unhappy six months from now.
  3. If you’ve made huge compromises on your personal principles of compensation and conditions, make them very short-term and low expectation. In other words, if you take what you would consider to be a “crappy job”, only keep it for a short time, look for other jobs while you hold it, and keep it in the forefront of your mind as a temporary solution. Don’t get comfortable or trapped anywhere where you are already uncomfortable or compromising too much.
  4. If you’re tempted to take a job with too many compromises, make sure at least one of your goals from my second point regarding compensation are met. This way at least you are making some strides leading to better opportunities.

Understand your goals and aspirations, and know where you are and are not willing to compromise.

Now let’s decode the ways companies try to appear they will meet your goals:

  1. The administrative job disguised as a progressive tech job. Sometimes this is sold as-is, and sometimes companies lie to you. If you’re told you’ll have to do some unrelated task for weeks/months before doing what you want to do at that particular job, if it’s not for very good pay, refuse it. Chances are, you’ll be very good at doing the unrelated task, and the company will have no motivation to move you. Sometimes this job is a complete lie. There is nowhere to move you, and they just wanted you to do the tedious unrelated work for no pay. To combat this, you can get your promise to be moved to a different department by some period of time in writing. if they’re not willing to do so, don’t take the job. If you discover an employer is lying to you, leave immediately. You would not tolerate friends or significant others lying to you about something so important, so why tolerate this from any company?
  2. The internship for little or no pay, from large well-known companies which will not do (2)(a-e) for you, but instead want you to maintain old technology cheaply. This type caught me by surprise. These companies are paying recent Masters degree graduates $15/hr because they have no experience, and they are too naive to know they are being taken for a ride. The poor graduates who take these positions because they recognized the company name, and got free lunch for three months, end up leaving in frustration with an unmarketable skill set and still living below the poverty line. These companies are not Google and IBM, they offer nothing valuable in terms of research or education, they’re doing nothing at all in terms of (2)(a-e), but they pretend as if they are. They only offer the chance to maintain their older technology, which will not find you your next job. This should anger you as much as it does me, and when you come across these jobs, you should warn people far and wide to avoid this scam. If you’re a recent graduate and willing to take $15 an hour, do startup work from-scratch in a new technology, and at least build your skill set! You are a very valuable resource with a solid education. Never forget that.
  3. The startup with “no money” but lots of empty promises not backed by research, not well organized, etc. These companies are so disorganized that they can be quickly spotted and eliminated. If anything about their job description has piqued your interest, find out how much money they’ve raised, and what their plans are for the future. If your interest is still held, negotiate one or more of (2)(a-e), which is where most of these deals fail. You may want to do this for practice, with a company that does not pique your interest at all. Just like practice interviewing, this is a great exercise, and you will learn a lot about what you do not want to find with your next employer. It’s wonderful to learn such lessons in an hour over coffee, and have the freedom to walk away. I highly recommend it.
  4. The startup started by women whom have not done research or fund-raising, trying to get free work from women developers in exchange for lots of promises, but not much else (ie. the “can you do a sister a favor?” startup). This type is frustrating. I am certain people in all fields experience this phenomenon, where others try to guilt them into doing free work which will supposedly help the greater good of others in their demographic. If you feel so inclined to help, don’t take these offers. Instead offer to teach free/reduced rate classes, or offer to help these organizations for a reduced rate. Realize this person wants to make money from your efforts, irrespective of how they get work from you. Be sure you are treated fairly.

Now let’s look at snippets from job descriptions, as well as situations, to find potential problems:

  • “100% equity (or some rate below the national poverty line) with excellent pay in the future as we succeed together!” This is very popular right now. However, when you sit down and talk to many of these owners/founders, you often find they have no sensible strategy to raise funds, nor do they really understand how they will sell their end product/service. This is a shot in the dark for many of them, trying to get free prototype work so they don’t have to take a financial loss for their guess at a viable business. Many will fail at your expense, irrespective of how great your software is. To add insult to injury, they may even try to sell the software you wrote for free, to fund their next try at a viable venture. It can be a slimy world out there.
  • “Move up in a progressive, fast-paced/agile company.” This is a popular description as well, and has some hidden messages which inform you of problems before you even approach the company. Companies who use the terms “fast-paced” or “agile” to describe their mindset sometimes mean disorganized, changing direction too frequently to be productive, and in essence not managed well. “Progressive” is a better word, reflecting forward thinking without the frantic aspect.
  • “You can change the world!” or some reflection on current social trends. This description plays on the need you may have to feel good about your work. Keep in mind that you can do volunteer programming for many causes directly, without doing it through a company which may make a profit from you philanthropy and naivete. Again, compensation and your personal work goals are to be considered.
  • “Be our Rockstar.” This is interesting in that it sounds more glamorous than it ever is. It draws a certain kind of progressive, hard-working person who may work all weekend or sleep in the office. But sadly, they more likely than not will be used and spit out. Rock stars soar to the top, then fall as quickly. A rock star job is great for a short-term stint, to learn a new skill or tool set very quickly, if you learn well under pressure. Be sure to be paid well during rock star gigs, since they are usually high stress, short-term “one-and-done” type jobs. Very few “rock stars” move up in a company. Most gain skills and money by doing these crazy jobs, and they start their own companies.
  • “I want to meet/talk with you for hours/days about your experience and suggestions.” The lead-on is disguised as freelance work potential, but is only an attempt to get free consultancy from an expert. This is a terrible waste of your time and energy. Limit your first meeting with a prospective client to something between 30 minutes and an hour. Tell then you have another appointment, and leave. When they ask for more detailed planning info from you, tell them your contract rate, and offer to sell them your time and energy. There are people who will tap you for as long as you’re willing to “help”. Don’t do it.

Now the good news: There are excellent opportunities out there.

Great job opportunities do exist.

The question is, how do you find them?

One way to start is to weed through job descriptions, meet with these people, and ask them the hard questions. Realize that an interview goes two ways, and you are interviewing them as well. Feel no qualms about walking away if they cannot answer many of these questions.

The hard questions you ask your potential future employer may vary based on your expertise and the type of company, but this will give you an idea of the conversation you should be having with your potential employer/contracting company:

  • What tasks, in what programming languages, using what tools, will you have me doing on day one, when I first sit down and start work? if it’s mixed, what percentage of time will I spend doing X or Y? if I don’t like what I’m doing, how much time will it take before I can work on something else? Can I get this in writing?
  • Especially for people new to programming: What mentoring opportunities will you offer if I need help?
  • What free education opportunities are you willing to offer?
  • How is your cash flow right now? What is your strategy for raising money in the next year?
  • How will my work be used to make this company a profit?
  • Can I see your project plan? If you don’t have one, I’ll offer my services at $X per hour to help you construct one.
  • What is your goal for success this year? Are you trying to raise $X dollars, or get Y number of users? What is the goal?
  • When will you know if your current plan is doing well? How many months will it take for you to know if your current fund-raising/tech planning is in line with your goals?
  • How can I move up/around in this company? What equity would you offer me? Can I get that in writing?
  • When am I eligible for a raise? How much can that raise be, if I am successful? How will I be evaluated?
  • How many people have left in the last six months, and why did they leave? Can I pick some people at random in your office, to interview about the work environment?
  • How far ahead/behind are you on your current project plan?
  • How many hours per weekend does the average programmer work here? How many hours per weekend do you work?
  • For freelancers: Do you have an escrow account for the funds you’ve stated you’ll pay me on delivery of a product? If not, are you willing to pay per week as I deliver features, since you’ll ave the software in-hand? (If the answer is no to both, don’t accept this job).
  • I’m not sure if this is a good fit for employment, but I’d like to try it out and see. Would you be willing to contract me for N months, after which we can both make a decision?

My personal observations regarding good tech work to be found, irrespective of your level of expertise, are as follows.

Some of the most innovative, interesting and “(2)(a-e) compliant” tech work being done right now is for tiny startups. There are many well-organized, funded, small start-ups with one or two founders who are desperately looking for good, reliable tech help, and know how to raise money and meet your needs while meeting their own. They are willing to make fair compromises, such as paying full-time for two months, and re-evaluating the possibility of equity/employment after that trial period, allowing you to work any time of any day that you wish from anywhere in the world, or offering a fair internship where you learn up-to-date technology and best practices, and your rate increases as your skills do.

I know they exist because three have crossed my path purely by chance in the past two months, and others approach me asking how they can fill the developer gaps.

If you want more information about finding, evaluating or offering these opportunities, feel free to reach me via Women 2.0 in the comments below and we’ll be in touch.

I wish you great success and no time spent in the Pink Ghetto.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Gloria W. Jacobs is a Python developer and *NIX systems admin with 20+ years experience in embedded systems and app design and development. Most recently, Gloria is specializing in “from-scratch” software design and development for start-ups in the NYC area.