No, I Don't Work for Free


This week, I received a request from an employee of a large technology company to come give my impostor syndrome talk at their office. Additionally, they wanted to record the talk, so that it could be shown to new hires in the future.

I have received very positive feedback about the talk, and I can see it being a useful motivational resource. It makes sense that a company might want to use such a resource to support and motivate their employees, especially new hires. A recording of the talk from PyCon is readily available for people to view if anyone wants to share it.

Motivational speakers tend to charge in the range of $1,000-10,000 plus travel expenses depending on their level of experience and the expectations for their talk (e.g. recording, time, size of audience).

My talk has received a lot of praise and positive feedback ranging from content to my speaking skills to the slide design. That is not an accident. I spent around 100 hours preparing this talk. That time includes: interviewing people, research, outlining, slide design, developing artwork for the slides, practicing alone many times, polishing the content, practicing in front of small groups to playtest the talk several times, more polishing, and more practice.

Guess how this company wanted to compensate me for my time. Free lunch and a tour of their office. Additionally, they were unaware that I did not live in the Bay Area and would need help with travel. Where I live is easy to find on my site, my speaker profile from PyCon, and elsewhere. In fact, I even mention Pittsburgh in the talk itself.

I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and responded with information about my speaking fees and requirements for travel costs. Their response clarified that they generally do not pay for speakers (with the exception of multi-day training courses from professional trainers), and they thought I was local. They then followed up with a weird comment about Hackbright encouraging students to charge for speaking. I am in no way associated with Hackbright (beyond knowing a few folks who mentor or were students) and never mentioned them in my emails. They also mention that they've never charged for speaking engagements. The response read as dismissive and manipulative - chiding me for expecting to be paid for my work.

I am sharing this little story because I think it is important that people realize how often this happens. I've heard stories from friends along the same lines. Asking someone to come do professional work for your for-profit company for free is incredibly problematic. I would argue in many cases it is downright exploitative. I doubt they'd have asked me to come code for them for a few hours for free. They'd recognize how unacceptable that is. Why is it that other work is seen as valuable enough to ask for, but not valuable enough to pay for?

Before someone accuses me of being greedy. No, I don't need the money. I happily speak for free (and occasionally a little help for travel) for events that are not for-profit endeavours. I was thrilled to give the talk at PyCon this year and have submitted it to a few other conferences with no expectation of a speaking fee. However, a for-profit company is a very different thing, particularly when it is a large one that could easily afford to compensate me for my work. Even if I don't need the money, it would be helpful. It could help offset the thousands I spend on attending other events. More importantly, other people who speak professionally do need the money. If I work for free, that sets a precedent that potentially harms others. Why hire them when they can manipulate others into working for free?

If you work for a for-profit organization that has speakers, please compensate them for their work. If you are small and cannot afford to do so or can only afford a small fee, at least acknowledge that their time is valuable and you wish you could do more. Additionally, try to research if they will need assistance with travel costs. You'd likely do this if you were recruiting a programmer for hire - do the same here.

I updated my speaking info page to clarify my expectations for people who decide to contact me in the future.

(Edit: 2014-04-28) I previously linked to as a humourous site while noting that I hadn't read the whole thing for content. It was brought to my attention that it included some problematic content (e.g. gendered terms used as negatives, negative comments about sex workers). I do not support this. Proceed at your own risk.