The Dangers for Moonlighting Developers

Monday Mar 19th 2012 by Eric Spiegel
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Developers who take on extra coding work flirt with serious career peril.

“You are going to be so busted!”

My coworker Tyler was probably right. But I didn’t care. I had been moonlighting for months writing software on the side, saving up for my latest gadget. I couldn’t wait to play with this new, cool handheld device called a PDA.

(Yes, this was ten years before Phineas and Ferb’s sister Candace made famous the “busted song,” back when everyone desired a Palm Pilot.)

I tried to walk the straight and narrow path. I knew my company had authorized all managers to purchase Pilots on the company’s dime. So when my manager Stan walked past me in the office kitchen with his new Pilot, I saddled up next to him laying on the compliments.

“Those are awesome Stan. You are so lucky!”

Sam smiled and said, “I know. I love this thing. I can actually plug it into my computer and sync with the Internet. How cool is that?”

I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. “I know! I could download articles about the latest software development trends and read them anytime. I think there are opportunities to even explore how to create applications we may be able to use here.”

As Sam grabbed a soda from the fridge, he turned and looked at me questioningly.

“That’s ridiculous. These are only useful for time management, reading content offline and playing games.” Stan laughed and said, “Not that I play any games on it.”

I responded, “Yeah but what if I could create some way to track inventory levels or project tasks? Would the company reimburse me if I bought one for this sort of research?” I stammered not so convincingly because I wasn’t even sure if this was possible.

Sam laughed again and rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, that will work. These handheld devices will never be useful for running business applications. Sorry my friend, if you want one, you’re on your own.”

I realize how ridiculous Sam sounds in today’s age of Apple iPads. Back in the late 90’s there was only speculation from the forward thinkers about the endless possibilities of handheld devices.

So as I followed Sam out of the kitchen back to my cube I formulated a plan to raise some extra cash.

The Side Job Begins

Moonlighting wasn’t something I had considered before. But as luck would have it a friend of mine needed help with setting up his small business with Microsoft Office 97 and building an office automation application.

Granted, I only needed a few hundred dollars for the Pilot, but I had other reasons to raise some extra cash. My car was ready for replacement and my wife and I were thinking about buying a home.

Funny that the main motivation pushing me into moonlighting was the shiny little gadget. Okay, not exactly shiny like the iPad 3’s amazing Retina Display, but even with its dull grayish plastic case it was shiny in my eyes.

I did my best to work at nights and weekends. But because I was also working overtime on a project for my job, my side work was becoming a balancing act requiring later nights and in some cases early mornings in the office.

My co-worker Tyler surprised me one early morning in the office. I was so focused on my laptop screen I didn’t even realize he was standing behind me.

“What are you doing here so early? And what is that you are working on?” Tyler was sharp enough to recognize the code on my screen was not something work related.

I didn’t think it was a big deal to be in the office at 6:30 AM writing code that wasn’t related to work. So I spun around to face Tyler and explained what I was doing.

When I was done, Tyler laid the “busted” comment on me.

I was taken aback. “What’s the big deal? I’m still going to get my work project done.”

“You don’t get it do you? You are using a company laptop for side work! You can be fired for that my friend.”

I honestly hadn’t thought about it. Maybe Tyler was right, but I just shrugged, spun back around and started coding again. “Whatever Tyler. I will get this done before Stan gets in. It’s not a big deal. Just please keep it to yourself.”

Tyler said, “I won’t rat you out. But be careful man.”

A Close Call

Over the next few weeks I could feel the stress building. It became obvious my work project deadline and my side project deadline were about to collide. I didn’t think ahead to see how much the deliverable timing was going to impact my ability to get everything done.

I was working 60 hours a week on my day job and 20 hours on my side gig. Although my wife was supportive of the extra pay, she was getting annoyed with me staying up late and not helping out around the house at all.

I only had time to code and sleep – with an emphasis on the coding. Frankly, I was becoming irritable at work and home.

If I wasn’t snapping at my wife or my coworkers, I was pounding Diet Cokes trying to stay awake. I’m sure the extra caffeine didn’t help with my attitude.

One night I was working late at the office and Stan snuck up behind me. (I really should have had a mirror or something because I never saw people approach me from behind.)

“You are burning the midnight oil tonight. How’s the inventory management subroutine coming along?”

My heart started racing as I quickly switched from my side work code to my day job code and spun around to face Stan.

“Uh, it’s getting there. I’ll have it ready in time.”

Stan looked over my shoulder and said with a questioning expression, “Hey, what is that. Ah, I see what you are up to!”

As I searched in panic for an explanation through my sleep-deprived mind I stammered “I can explain. I’m just helping a friend and…”

Stan cut me off. “What, helping a friend research a Palm Pilot? Come on, I know you want one. No big deal. Just don’t get too distracted – you have a deadline to meet.”

Confused, I spun around to look at my laptop screen. I had not flipped back to code, but accidentally switched to my browser where there was a picture of a Pilot. I had been reading a review and left the page up.

As Stan turned to leave for the night he said “Keep up the good work and thanks for working so late.”

Exhaustion Sets In

Now I felt guilty – and relieved. Maybe Tyler was right. What if Stan had seen what I was up to?

That night driving home I came very close to falling asleep at the wheel, steering back into my lane just in time to avoid an oncoming semi.

I was, finally, simply exhausted.

Fortunately both coding projects were done by the end of that same week. I collected my moonlighting check that Friday, slept most of the weekend, and thanked my wife with wine and chocolate. The next week we had a project review with Stan and the team.

Oh, I forgot to mention I picked up my Palm Pilot!

Before the meeting started I was showing off the stylus and Graffiti handwriting recognition to Tyler. When Stan walked in and saw my Pilot, he said. “I see you have your new toy. I wish you had as much enthusiasm for testing as you do for that thing because the results from the quality assurance team are in and it isn’t pretty.”

My heart sank. Tyler pushed his chair away from me and looked down, not wanting to be guilty by association. Stan went over all the stupid mistakes I had made.

“I don’t understand it. Your quality is usually top notch. Tyler – please spend time with him to make sure the next version doesn’t suck as much as this one.”

As Stan and the team filed out of the conference room, Tyler lingered behind with me.

“See? Busted.”

I lifted my head from my hands and looked at Tyler. He was smiling.

“Well, not really. But bad enough.” I said.

Tyler said, “That’s alright, let’s get your code fixed and then, how about you and me spend some time trying to figure out how to integrate that toy of yours with inventory management?”

I yawned and said, “Nah, I’m done with side work – especially if I’m not getting paid extra for it. You can borrow my Pilot and code away.”

Tyler went on to write an amazing integrated application and later made big bucks as a PDA software developer.

Is Moonlighting Worth It?

Is moonlighting worth the risks? It depends. I learned that the short-term gain of moonlighting isn’t always worth it in the long run.

If there are advancement opportunities in your company, then spending more time on R&D, like Tyler did, could result in more pay over time. And it’s important not to be naïve about the risks involved and to understand the consequences, especially working on company time or equipment.

If you do decide to moonlight, then don’t let your work quality suffer and don’t let your productivity slip – and don’t crash into a semi. You’ll reduce your risk of being busted and can buy a truly shiny new iPad 3.

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