Moonlighting is the New Job Interview

Manuel Medina · March 22, 2013

“Before we hire anyone we give them a small project to chew on first. We see how they handle the project, how they communicate, how they work, etc.“ - Getting Real, 37 Signals

It is no secret that most good developers and designers are already gainfully employed – by others or themselves. To most it seems that the only way to score a great developer is to wait for her/him to quit his job, poach him, or import him. We respectfully submit another way of attracting talent. Moonlighting.

Wolf howling at the moon

The canonical form of moonlighting manifests itself as a hiring developer lead meeting fellow developer at a conference, drink up, or meetup. After getting a good feeling about each other, the hiring developer lead shares with the developer the particular problem the lead’s company is working on.

After some banter, the developer is intrigued. The lead asks him if he would be interested in helping out – perhaps during the candidate’s off hours.

The candidate gives the proposal a cursory thought and reckons this problem is up his alley and can make some time in the evenings and lazy weekends to take a stab. The lead offers the developer an hourly market rate for his troubles. Before morning, the lead gave the developer credentials to the repo, assigned him some user stories, and added him to the team’s chat thread. Let the contributions begin!

This exchange is not at all new. What is new is the realization of its effectiveness.


First, the step of conversationally presenting the technical problem (which eventually leads to moonlighting) to a developer is very engaging. Why? Because technical puzzles trigger curiosity in anyone familiar with the subject matter.

As argued by George Lowenstein in “Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,”* curiosity is a form of cognitively induced deprivation that arises from small gaps in knowledge or understanding. In short, we all love puzzles. So when one is presented with a problem for which the solution feels intuitive yet not immediate, one cannot stop thinking about it.

Attracting a developer in this way is significantly more effective than any marketing program a highly paid retained recruiter can put together.


Second, the chances of the developer lead finding the right fit for his team are significantly higher. According to study by Hunter and Hunter Meta-Analysis** there is a 4x higher correlation of success on the job with tryouts (ie, moonlighting) versus interviewing.

I will let that land for a minute. Yes, 4x!

The disparity is so huge that makes you question why anyone would interview anymore. Rants such as the one the one from David Heinemeier Hanson’s about hiring based on “parlor tricks” now seem sensible.

Paid Interviews

Third, developer gets to live the freelancer’s dream of getting paid for solving the problems he wants to work. Perhaps he is living the dream only in part, but fully getting paid for interviewing. The lured developer gets to try the hiring company in a non-threatening, win-win environment, while contributing to the code base.

If the developer does not jive with the team and company, he got paid for trying it and he walks away with the sensation of having delivered meaningful work. If he does, hiring company got a hire!

The Hiccup

Yet despite moonlighting being the obvious, almost paretto-optimal-close-to-Nash-equilibrium thing to do to bring in developers, very few hiring developer leads do it. It is because most companies see moonlighting as treason; lack a commitment to the cause. Companies demand developers’ heart and soul be devoted to their problems. In return, they will shower you with riches and fame. Until they don’t.

Luckily, the lack of talent and the practical inconveniences of missed milestones are forcing hiring managers to revisit these age old ethos. We are observing now more frequently when we sit down with clients and pitch them on this concept, fewer are throwing us out of their offices than before. Those who don’t, see moonlighting as a new recruiting hack.

And like all things tech, the faster your ride up the learning curve the more the practice becomes a competitive advantage.

*The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin 75, American Psychological Association.

**Validity and Utility of Alternative Predictors of Job Performance. Pychological Bulletin 96, American Psychological Association.

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