These offers come several times a year.
It’s another offer to work for free. For a for-profit company. This means that a company that has a goal to make money would like to take my time, expertise, and labor, sell it, and give me nothing in return. In essence, they are asking for something for nothing. The something is usually my expertise in UX or strategy.
I’m 20 years into this wild career and have learned a few things. I teach about these topics at UC-Berkeley, which pays me, and my full-time job, which also pays me. My expertise is like a bank account, I’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars and 6 years of education into two degrees and 20 years of my life into developing it so I can fulfill my my vocational purpose, yes, but also to make money.
I used to say “yes” to these opportunities and volunteered my time, labor, and expertise because I believed I got something in return. I believed that I got an expanded network and prestige from this third-party validation. When I look back at what I really got out of speaking at conferences or donating my time to for-profit causes, the return was hit or miss. The for-profit companies certainly received something. I have made valuable connections, including meeting my current CEO at a conference, which led to my current job.
A few years ago, a friend, who worked for a for-profit company, asked me to donate my time to an initiative she was developing at work. I was writing back my normal response of when a friend needs help “yes, of course!” and I paused. An aha moment. Wait a second, I thought, she works for a multi-million dollar for-profit company. She has initiative and can get a budget. Why would I donate my time to this cause? I didn’t ask “why is she doing this?” The answer is not important. Broadly, the answer is the culture we currently live in, so I can’t change that. But I can change my actions. I wrote back something like, “Thank you for thinking of me, but I only donate my time to non-profits or mentor students at my alma matter or who’ve taken my UC Berkeley class.” I was grateful for that opportunity to say no.
I don’t give away my work, talent, expertise, network, etc. to for-profit companies for free. Those who ask can find budgets to pay me. They do not have to shift the labor over to me.
I also think back to when I asked friends, colleagues, and strangers to give me their time for free. Several of them have spoken at and participated in my UC Berkeley class, for which I was paid. As a part of my 2020 fellowship, I had to reach out to UX leaders to share their expertise “for the good of the community” as an excuse. Very few, rightfully, responded.
Aren’t All Opportunities Good?
According to the Oxford dictionary, opportunity means a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something. There is nothing good or bad about about opportunity. Opportunity comes together at a point of time, it implies a lucky chance to act and in doing so, reap the benefits of the circumstances. The “do something” requires an actor, which implies a someone. And since every action has a reaction, once something is done, something else occurs. The language “to take advantage of” around “opportunity” implies a positive result, but we must ask ourselves “for whom?” The definition does not include a description of who benefits from the opportunity, but someone does and it’s worth knowing exactly who and how.
Opportunity’s set of circumstances implies luck, chance, and hope for the better or the desired outcome. Rarely do we take the time to clearly identify the actual outcome and what we need in the deal. Usually, we accept the opportunity with gratitude and then give away our time and energy in hopes that what we want out of it will come true. It’s a risk and a gamble. We play the opportunity lottery with our most precious resources.
I’ve seen two types of opportunities in my career: the “asked for” opportunity and the “put upon” opportunity. If we have career goals or at least a guiding compass of what we like to do so, we ask for and look for opportunities or accept opportunities that benefit our goals. We give our actions, time, and attention in exchange for something that benefits us. I love innovation, so I seek out opportunities where I can innovate and learn more about innovation. I gain new skills. Sometimes I get paid and sometimes I don’t, but I can clearly articulate how doing this something helps me. The opportunities I ask for move me towards my goals.
When a manager (or loose connection on LinkedIn) comes with an “opportunity,” it’s usually a “put upon” opportunity. They need to find a team member they know will take on extra work without a fuss. They need to find speakers to provide content for their conference. They position it as a great opportunity, but they make no specific promises on to you on how you’ll benefit. There’s usually no pay for the work and extra responsibilities.
When I worked at a CPG company, there was a huge global IT effort that affected every department. My manager came to me and gave me “good news” that the department would like me to be a “super user,” which was the point of contact on this IT project. I had left IT to go to business school and work at a CPG company. This “opportunity” was completely outside my career goals and desired skills. And yet, here we were. I asked myself, what do I need to accept this opportunity? The stars of the department were launching new products or working in innovation. The request was outside of my job responsibilities. I decided that I needed money in exchange for doing this work.
I made my request to my boss. He scoffed at my request and said that I should be grateful for this opportunity as if asking for money to do work means I’m ungrateful. I said I was grateful and needed to get paid for the work. He arranged a $3000 bonus for me to be a “super user” for one year. He found the money. That was the first time I had asked to be paid for the work for an opportunity “put upon” me.
Since then, I have asked for what I needed in these types of opportunities. I’ve never been fired for asking and usually, the request goes away if the requestor is unwilling to pay. I’ve been paid and I’ve gotten promoted or I wasn’t paid or promoted and left the company because I didn’t get what I needed. I have never regretted saying no or asking for what I needed. Doing work without pay is volunteering. I don’t work for free, I don’t volunteer at work. If I’m going to volunteer, I’m going to do so with puppies and babies. And cats, most definitely cats.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity are the most dangerous words I can utter to myself because they may preface a very expensive rationalization. The rationalization includes imagining a path forward, wishing for a chance to grow and learn, and luck to do something different if we take it. The opportunity usually comes with no guarantees or extra money for these ideas, only extra work. I’ve seen so many friends and colleagues rationalize their acceptance or feel they can’t say no. They’ve given away their time, expertise, and attention to for-profit companies in task forces, extra roles, and new work for nothing in return except their own gratitude for the opportunity.
For every opportunity request, clearly articulate what you will out of the opportunity and what you need from the opportunity. If you cannot clearly articulate what you will receive, then that’s what you’ll get for your time — nothing.
- Money — how much and when do you get paid?
- Skills — specifically which ones? How will they help you?
- Promotion — specifically which one and when will you get it?
- New contacts — specifically who will be there and how will these contacts help you?
- Career advancement — specifically how so? What are outcomes that others have achieved by giving away their expertise to this for-profit company?
I recently received a LinkedIn message from someone who featured an article I wrote in a weekly newsletter. In this message was a request for promoting this mention and his newsletter. The request seemed small, but still involved an exchange. He had used my content for his newsletter without consent and then requested my time and platform to promote it. I wrote back “Thanks!” and did not promote his newsletter because I receive no benefit in doing so.
False Benefits, i.e. These Do Not Exist
These benefits usually are so fuzzy and nebulous that they will not benefit you unless luck and starry alignment is on your side. All these should be in quotes.
- Exposure — This benefit means nothing. I will repeat. This benefit means nothing. In 2015, I spoke at the for-profit conference SXSW Interactive for free. The sponsor McDonalds (for profit company) was asking bands to perform in their tent for free, promising exposure. I remembered this when I was at the McDonalds tent and saw maybe 100 people there, faces in the free McFood, decidedly not listening to the band, which I hope was actually paid. You can ask specifically what types of exposure — will you get a guaranteed number of contacts or sales leads? How does the requestor guarantee and support that with marketing? Will the requestor make money from your work? If so, you need to get paid. SXSW15 didn’t even let me collect email addresses from the attendees of my workshop. An expensive lesson for me.
- Non-Date Specific “Promotion” — An opportunity will only lead to promotion if it’s in your development plan, you are working with who would be your new boss on the opportunity, or you have seen two or more people in your department do the same opportunity and receive a promotion. Identify the stars of the department and identify what they do to “get ahead” and if that’s something you can and are willing to do. Would they take this opportunity?
- “Visibility” to Leadership — Your current role, the one you are paid for, should have visibility to leadership. If it doesn’t, look for your own opportunities for visibility to leadership related to your current role and ask for them instead.
- “Looks good” — This benefit means nothing. Reflect on your own career, what has “looked good” on your resume so much so that it got you what you needed? No recruiter has ever mentioned speaking engagements I’ve done as the reason why they reached out. No boss has said, “you spoke at X, we’d like to fund your projects or give you a promotion.”
Another very important aspect to consider is what you’re giving up to take on this opportunity for a for-profit company.
- How much time will I not spend on things that are important to me i.e. working on what I was hired for, what matters to me, and will help my overall career, be it at this company or not if I accept this new opportunity?
- What am I giving up to in order to take this opportunity? Who am I not meeting? What am I not reading?
Giving back is important. I’m not Scrooge from Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol. But now I’m choosey and only say yes to where I think I can be most of service the UX community. I mentor students at my alma-matter and from my UC-Berkeley class. I speak at classes at public universities. I write articles to share my expertise (unfortunately Medium has a paywall and does make money off my content, but I rationalize this because this platform is so popular for people learning UX). I donate my content publications because of a broader reach. I share my advice over email with strangers who want to get into UX and need some advice.
I don’t work for free for for-profit companies. Thanks, but no thanks for the opportunity.