Power Trip

Tech Companies Are Getting Free Work Out of Job Applicants

“Design challenges” are a privilege no one should have to afford

dan turner
Published in
6 min readOct 19, 2018


Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

TThe tech industry is built on free work. For every CEO like Mark Zuckerberg, who has said he clocks a relatively modest 50 or 60 hours at the office every week, there are hordes of workers putting in endless unpaid overtime. That’s called “crunch,” and it’s often viewed as a routine part of doing business. And while that problem is well-documented, less frequently discussed is the free labor many people have to complete to land a job in the first place.

Writers, editors, and other artists may be familiar with the arrangement. They call it “spec work” and blast the practice in public tweets. Developers sometimes call it “homework,” and journalists may be used to “edit tests” when they apply for work.

If your job title includes terms like “UX,” “UI,” “product,” or “design,” what you get is called a design challenge (or exercise). For example, LinkedIn has asked applicants to design a new version of the network for high schoolers. Expected deliverables can range from a written critique to a polished, interactive product, and assignments can take anywhere from two to 13 hours to complete.

Theoretically, these challenges can be paid or unpaid. As a professional with a masters degree and more than seven years in the design field, I’ve had precisely one that was paid. My peers consider me lucky.

Being able to say no is itself a privilege.

Of course, the concept of the design challenge was created and is offered with good intentions — usually by smart, caring, and professional people. But unpaid design challenges can exclude those most in need of work.

You can push back. Because like many processes in tech, what worked in one case doesn’t necessarily work for the systems around it. It doesn’t scale.

BBeing able to say no is itself a privilege. But even if you have mad money, think of the campsite rule: You should always leave a place better than you found it. How does your decision about whether to complete an unpaid design challenge affect the candidates coming after you? Maybe…



dan turner
Writer for

UX: If you know what you're doing, you are not the user. Journalism: If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.