Nailing down what constitutes valuable consideration


Last time, I introduced a friend I called "Bob" for the purposes of this story. At a party earlier this year, I learned second-hand what Bob had been up to more recently.

The team Bob worked for immediately prior to his retirement gave him a call. "Hi, Bob. We're trying to ship version N+1 of Product X, and we really need your help. I know you're all retired and stuff, and you don't live in the area any more, but you're the only guy who can save us. Could you come out of retirement just for a few months?"

Bob said, "Okay. This is a favor to you guys since I like you so much."

When he sat down to sign the paperwork, he took the contract and crossed out the amount of money he would be paid and wrote in its place, "One dollar". Because he wasn't taking this job to get rich. He was doing it as a favor to his old team. He then signed it and returned the contract to the agency.

The contracting agency was flabbergasted. "You can't do this for just one dollar! That's completely unheard of!" The real reason the agency was so upset is probably that their fee was a percentage of whatever Bob made, and if Bob made only one dollar, they would effectively be doing all the paperwork and getting paid a stick of chewing gum.

Bob said, "Okay, then, if you want me to get paid 'for real', send me a contract with 'real money'."

The agency sent him the original contract (before he changed it to "one dollar"), and Bob sent it back, indignant. "I said 'real money'. This amount is an insult."

Comments (59)
  1. Nobody says:

    Should I be surprised that there was a "contracting agency" involved instead of just direct interaction between MS and Bob?

  2. J says:

    Nobody:  No, you shouldn’t be surprised.  What was MS supposed to do, pay him under the table?  Re-hire him as a full-time employee?  Lie and hire him as a part-time employee?

  3. Dave says:

    Should I be surprised that there was a "contracting agency" involved instead of just direct interaction between MS and Bob? <

    I believe that was the resolution to the perma-temp lawsuit from a few years back. It does seem silly looking at from outside a monolith like Microsoft.

  4. Reminds me of a story that was going round the net a few years back. It goes like this:

    A factory had a serious problem with a machine and they tried fixing it, tried all sorts of things that never worked. In desperation they turned to an engineer who was a genuis and had worked for them in the past. He comes in, taps the machine, presses a few buttons then places chalk mark on the dodgy part – "Replace that and it will be fine" he says. The company do and it is.

    Then he bills them $10,000 the company are startled! What’s going on? They demand a break down of the bill and the response comes back:

    Chalk $1

    Knowing where to put the chalk mark $9,999

  5. ngt says:

    "You can’t do this for just one dollar! That’s completely unheard of!"

    Didn’t Steve Jobs get $1 to return to Apple at one point in time? But perhaps he wasn’t contacted but this particular agency…

  6. DavidE says:

    I think Steve Jobs got a little bit of stock, plus he got to make all of the Next stock worth money. I had friends who had given up on their Next stock many years before who all of a sudden could afford to buy nicer homes and cars.

  7. PS says:

    I believe Larry Page and Sergei Brin used to get a salary of $1 from Google too, for a long time (or do they still do?) Of course that does not include stock options :)

  8. autist0r says:

    I think Bob is awesome.

  9. A few famous CEOs get an annual salary of $1 (Steve Jobs is one of them).  Of course, that doesn’t count the $millions in stock, private jets, golden parachutes, etc.

  10. C Gomez says:

    To me, it demonstrates just how useless contractng agencies are.  They match you up with companies you could have found yourself, if only the company put job listings out more widely.  You do the interview, you impress the company, you do all the work.  They get a percentage.

  11. Cooney says:

    Frequently, you can only contract to a company through an agency – a lot of places aren’t willing to contract directly.

  12. M. Grove says:

    Basically, the contracting agencies are a "shield" between MS and the contract employee. By not hiring the contractor directly, it makes it much more difficult for the contractor to sue MS.

    Can you say perma-temp lawsuit?

    Having contracted for MS myself, I find it pretty darn irritating when I find the contract myself, but then have to give the agency an X% cut of my pay for … well, for nothing, actually. Except that lawsuit shield.

    Wonderful.

  13. Spire says:

    It’s nice to think that many years from now, Raymond might be coaxed out of retirement for only $0.50.

  14. DriverDude says:

    It might have been more fun had Bob stuck to his guns and only accept $1. Just to see what the contracting agency would’ve done, or what deals Microsoft would do to satsify the agency. It seems this was a must-do deal for MS.

    There’s no fun in saying No if Bob demanded $1 million. What’s a multi-billion company going to do to get a guy who only wants $1 ?

  15. N. Velope says:

      The government forces high end executives who get stock options and salary to declare a minimum part of their compensation as salary, for the purpose of being taxed for social security, income tax, etc.  It was around $ 400,000 for fortune 50 or 100 companies.  Sometimes people work for the government for $1 a year and it really means that.

      There’s the great story of Richard Feynamn being ordered to sell all the brainstorming ideas he generated while working on the Manhattan project for $1 each to the government (like a nuclear powered airplane).  He said "Fine, where’s my $4".  Nobody had ever asked before and they didn’t have paperwork for it and the mean bureaucrat had to pay out of his own pocket.

  16. Nobody says:

    J: I like the vegetable I am, I was unaware that MS and an individual were not allowed to enter into a short term contract without a 3rd party being involved in the middle.  I humbly apologize to you for wasting your time having to read such a stupid question. :)

    Bunch of other: Thanks for the actual helpful answers to my stupid question.

  17. J says:

    Thanks, I accept your apology.

  18. Anonymous Coward says:

    Sweet!

    Of course, if he wanted to get rich while doing the job, felt that the original offer wasn’t high enough, knew how the system/agencies work, but didn’t want to look like a mercenary ass, this is a damn good way to go about it. ("I *wanted* to do it cheap, the agency wouldn’t let me!")

    What’s that? A cynic? Me?!? :)

  19. Igor says:

    There must be a part three to this story, like how much is "real money" for "Bob"?

  20. Yes, exactly how much does it take to insult a MS retiree?  You promised to nail it down.

    [More pedantically the title would be “The initial phases in the process of nailing down what constitutes valuable consideration” but that title would have put everybody to sleep. -Raymond]
  21. Tom says:

    Contracting firms also perform a valuable service: they can pay for you health insurance at a group rate, plus they handle your federal income taxes.  If I were to contract with a company directly as an independent contractor, 50% (possibly more) goes directly to taxes, and that’s before insurance.  With a contacting company, between %15 and %30 gets taken out, insurance included.  Contacting firms are different from placement agencies, though; the latter basically get a bounty for referring you.

  22. JarJar says:

    Contracting firms = pimp and you’re their ho. this is not a troll. they can care less about you just like real life pimp. they will whore you out all over the town so why should you be the ho when you can pimp yourself out?

  23. Dave says:

    My guess as to who “Bob” is either X or Y

    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  24. Anonymous 'Softie says:

    There are two former shell-team developers that I place in the same pantheon as Raymond Chen.  There are many more or less major deities on this illustrious team, but these three get my vote as the best of the best.

    But you won’t hear their names outside Microsoft very often: X and X. 

    X is my guess for this mysterious “Bob.”

    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  25. I’m with anonymous.  Especially since X never left MS (and thus couldn’t come back) and X’s back working at MS.

    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  26. Btw, personally I was thinking it was X, but he wasn’t a graphics wizard, just an everything else wizard.  But the “that’s insulting” is X’s style.

    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  27. Bear & Bunny says:

    X, of course. Other notable Win3.x & Win9x luminaries you have not heard of include X, X, X, and X. They paid the bills while X, X, and X et al built NT.

    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  28. Dave says:

    X… What the heck happened to that guy? I can’t find anything about him beyond the year 2000…

    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  29. Anony Moose says:

    Having contracted for MS myself, I find it pretty darn irritating when I find the contract myself, but then have to give the agency an X% cut of my pay for … well, for nothing, actually. Except that lawsuit shield.

    And that, boys and girls, is why contractors get the big bucks – it’s so that after the contracting agency takes their cut, you’re still getting paid enough bucks to cover you for the time between contracts.

    Well, more or less, in theory anyway.

    If you have contracts with two companies for the same amount, the one that lets you deal direct is going to give you higher take-home cash. Therefore either MS offers a higher rate to make up what goes to the agency, you’ld rather work for MS even at a lower actual pay rate, or you go work elsewhere. The legal crap sucks, but, well, that’s what contracting is.

    Contacting firms are different from placement agencies, though; the latter basically get a bounty for referring you.

    A "contacting firm" sounds suspiciously like just working for a company where developers are assigned to widely varying projects for different customers and tend to work on-site instead of in their own assigned cubical. Hey, it works for some people, but I am amused at the way different forces push towards "consulting" work and then promptly make regular salaried positions more attractive.

  30. anonymous says:

    Xan architect with the Xbox team, after having worked on the Xbox backwards compatibility team (alongside X and others).  So it wasn’t X.

    [Okay, that’s enough. If I wanted people to know who it was I wouldn’t have used a fake name, duh. I can’t believe I had to write that. One more person tries to guess who it is and I’ll delete all future stories about “Bob” from the queue. -Raymond]
    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  31. Lee says:

    "Contracting firms = pimp and you’re their ho. this is not a troll. they can care less about you just like real life pimp. they will whore you out all over the town so why should you be the ho when you can pimp yourself out?"

    What are you talking about? Recruitment agencies give me my bread and butter work.  I have my own Limited company in the UK and I never have to go out looking for work, recruitment agencies contact about positions every single day and I’m glad. They sort the contracts, make sure you can do the job, do all the negotiating for me all I do is turn up and get the work.

    Yes doing repeat work for previous employers directly is more lucrative but only slightly and so what if the agency take a percentage of my salary? As long as I’m happy with what I’m getting paid who cares what the client has to shell out.  

    Good agencies work for both the client and the contractor and I think most do a good professional job.  Dunno if they deserve the millions they make but hey thats free enterprise.

  32. once a contractor says:

    I reguarly used to get a position where a company would want to hire me, and then they’d refer me to their contracting agency whould would then try to charge me a massive ‘finders fee’.

    Three times it happened, twice with the same company.

    I could never afford to tell them where to put it.

  33. theregister says:

    An old new thing parody on theregister :)

    http://www.regdeveloper.co.uk/2006/12/04/yule_blogs/

  34. C Gomez says:

    I think the parody would be funny if it wasn’t blatantly insulting.  There’s a difference between respectful chiding and just being a jerk.

  35. Cooney says:

    > X is my guess for this mysterious “Bob.”

    Seconded. I remember finding some of his old code and talking about fixing some bug. The guy I was talking to said “He just paid $10M in taxes – I don’t think he’ll mind”.

    [You were warned. I just deleted the “Bob” stories from the queue, and a bunch of other stories are at risk as well. -Raymond]
    [Names removed under direction of Microsoft HR department. -Raymond]
  36. crybaby says:

    boo hoo

  37. Jerry Pisk says:

    I don’t see the harm in guessing, if you don’t reply to those they’re just that, guesses. The fact that you’re getting so worked up about those posts points to someone getting it right :) If you would leave those comments without comments we’d never know.

    [It’s not whether the guesses are correct. It’s that certain Microsoft employees are violating company policy by “outing” employees whose names aren’t already public. -Raymond]
  38. Zibbo says:

    Trying to threaten the internet to stop doing something (guessing a name) without taking away the tool (stop comments) seems a bit optimistic. Two cheers for trying though! :)

  39. Anon says:

    > You were warned. I just deleted the “Bob”

    > stories from the queue, and a bunch of other

    > stories are at risk as well.

    […]

    > It’s not whether the guesses are correct. It’s

    > that certain Microsoft employees are violating

    > company policy by “outing” employees whose

    > names aren’t already public.

    So, in summary:

    When somebody breaks a company policy, withhold entertaining stories from a large anonymous audience.

    Whatever you do, don’t report them to HR.

    That would be far too logical, and needlessly directed at the people actually causing the problem.

    [“Dear HR, I’d like to report Dave, Anonymous, and
    Bear & Bunny for violating company policy by publicisizing the names of Microsoft employees.” … “No, I don’t know their
    real names.” … “Please stop laughing.” -Raymond
    ]
  40. C Gomez says:

    Fun stories that were illustrative and informatative were deleted because people can’t respect Raymond’s and other people’s privacy.

    A loss for the rest of us…

  41. Anon says:

    > “Dear HR, I’d like to report Dave, Anonymous,

    > and Bear & Bunny for violating company policy

    > by publicisizing the names of Microsoft

    > employees.” … “No, I don’t know their real

    > names.” … “Please stop laughing.”

    It was you that described them as “certain MS employees”.

    Sounds like there is nothing certain about it.

    [I think you’re intentionally misinterpreting the meaning of the word ‘certain’. “Anonymous ‘Softie” clearly identifies him/herself as a Microsoft employee but doesn’t provide his/her name. And if they’re not Microsoft employees, then somebody violated an NDA by disclosing this information to them. But I learned my lesson. No more stories about funny things Microsoft employees have done. -Raymond]
  42. Cooney says:

    > And if they’re not Microsoft employees, then somebody violated an NDA by disclosing this information to them.

    Because nobody who isn’t a MS employee would know about another MS employee, and NDAs specifically prohibit talking about people you used to work with, even years later.

    [You might want to read your employment NDA again. “At all times during your employment and thereafter, you will not disclose…” -Raymond]
  43. Cooney says:

    Sorry, can’t afford a lawyer to tell me which parts are enforcable and which aren’t. Also can’t really see a court ever forbidding me from acknowledging that person x (who may or may not be bob) works/worked at MS, just like they can’t forbid me from going across the lake and getting a software job for 6 months.

    [If they don’t go after you then they might go after me instead for not deleting the comments. I would prefer not risking Microsoft taking legal action against me for what people say in the comments. Maybe I should just shut off comments. -Raymond]
    [I checked with the HR department and they told me I am responsible for taking the names down. So much for your theory. -Raymond]
  44. WikiServerGuy says:

    > Maybe I should just shut off comments

    Well, maybe what you could do is delete any naughty posts in an article if that happens then flip on moderation for it (if you’re software allows). [although I thought it was already moderated…]

    Good post/blog though. The comments are kind of bad though (although really silly to this non-MS person ;)). Just seems like it would take the fun away if you knew who the person was (not that I would, never heard of a lot of these people…).

    [I’m very wary of selective comment deletion since that raises charges of censorship. It’s easier to defend just turning off everything regardless of content. -Raymond]
  45. Amateur lawyer says:

    Actually Raymond, I think you might be being a bit paranoid.
     This is a site that Microsoft has chosen to make publically
    available, and you suspect that other Microsoft employees are posting
    comments that violate their NDAs with Microsoft.  Well, what has
    that got to do with you?  I don’t think Microsoft could hold you
    responsible for what other people write here.  Can you say that
    you’re contractually obliged to protect other Microsoft employees from
    themselves?  I doubt it – for starters as you’ve said you don’t
    know the identities of the people posting, so you can’t tell the
    difference between informed speculation and an NDA violation.
     Also in your disclaimer you state that you may leave incorrect
    statements unchallenged.  Are you really worried that Microsoft
    might shut down your blog as a result of the comments it attracts?
     I’m sure they considered that this sort of thing might happen
    before starting the site, and as you’re always quick to point out – you
    didn’t write the blog software and it’s not hosted on your server.

    I personally like reading your blog – both the technical and
    non-technical entries.  Before you delete any more entries, may I
    suggest that you ask your local Microsoft lawyer just how liable you
    are for the resulting comments?  I think it would be a shame if
    you start to censor yourself for fear of imaginary repercussions.

    [Microsoft can fire me at any time for no reason. That in itself creates an environment of paranoia. -Raymond]
  46. Nawak says:

    I’m very wary of selective comment deletion since that raises charges of censorship

    Well, since this is your blog you can censor it as you like. Maybe just replace the comment with a short reason so that the person isn’t surprised not to see his/her comment (ex: "Deleted: insulting post", "Deleted: privacy violation" etc)

    I agree it is not a panacea but I would really prefer if you do that rather than nuke good stories because of the "environment of paranoia". Let the paranoia be on the side of the comment posters.

    I really like your blog Raymond, and I certainly do not want you having problems for it, but a part of me also wants to know your inside (& anonymized) stories, so please do the best to keep posting them!

  47. Amateur lawyer says:

    [Microsoft can fire me at any time for no reason. That in itself creates an environment of paranoia. -Raymond]

    Now I know you’re being paranoid.  You’re a highly valued employee – they aren’t going to suddenly fire you without any warning because of something somebody else posted on the Internet.

    [I wish I could believe you but I know that people have been fired/nearly fired for things much weenier. I will not discuss the matter further. -Raymond]
  48. Cooney says:

    [I wish I could believe you but I know that people have been fired/nearly fired for things much weenier. I will not discuss the matter further. -Raymond]

    Put it another way: if MS did fire you, exactly how long do you think it’d take you to find a senior position elsewhere in Seattle? I think it’d be less than a week.

    [But I don’t want to get fired. -Raymond]
  49. Nawak says:

    Another thing:

    I am surprised that a contractual clause can last after the contract has ended, without compensation. For employment in the same field, they were proven unenforceable if there is no compensation for your unemployment time. Ok, that was in France, but as always I would expect the common sense behind what is fair and what is not fair to be rather universal…

    As for confidentiality, last time, they made me sign some paper *when I quit*. I don’t know what would have happened if I did not agree to sign it though… I didn’t want to try to be funny and not sign it because it was for some state department :)

  50. Norman Diamond says:

    Wednesday, December 06, 2006 9:42 AM by Nawak

    > […] as always I would expect the common

    > sense behind what is fair and what is not

    > fair to be rather universal…

    Even if common sense were common, common sense would have nothing to do with law, common sense would have nothing to do with corporate policies, etc.

    Actually I was wondering why blogrolls (on other MSDN blogs too) are allowed to show the names of colleagues whose blogs are being recommended.  My answer to Nawak answered me too ^_^

    [You said so yourself: Because they have blogs and therefore are already public. -Raymond]
  51. Gabe says:

    I’m actually quite surprised to find out that names of people who are or have worked at Microsoft could be considered confidential. I can see how their email address, direct phone number, salary, or even what projects they worked on would be something to remove from comments. However it is unfathomable to me that naming coworkers could break an employment contract at a public company.

    That’s disappointing, because was looking forward to more stories about Bob. For one thing, wanted to know how many orders of magnitude there are between "real" and "insult".

  52. Nawak says:

    > Even if common sense were common, common sense would have nothing to do with law, common sense would have nothing to do with corporate policies, etc.

    I agree for corporate policies but I would expect law to be *fair*… maybe I am full of illusion…

    Anyway, my question wasn’t about corporate policies (that have all rights to be stupid) but about the "eternal" bindings that seem to linger even after you are not in the corporation anymore.

  53. Norman Diamond says:

    Thursday, December 07, 2006 6:27 PM by Nawak

    > I agree for corporate policies but I would

    > expect law to be *fair*… maybe I am full of

    > illusion…

    Laws are instigated by people who can pay for them and then enacted by people who get paid for doing so.

    (Oops this is going to be called a political insult again.  Nonetheless it’s the way nearly every political party works in every country.  It’s the reason why people who have the biggest need for legal protection discover that they don’t have any.)

  54. Steve says:

    Since we enjoy the "Bob" stories, how about disallowing comments on just those stories in the future?

    (aside: haven’t there been numerous easter eggs in MS products that "out" quite a few MS software engineer names???)

  55. Norman Diamond says:

    Here’s more information for Mr./Ms. Nawak.

    Stuart A. Bronstein posted in misc.legal.moderated on December 09, 2006:

    *  If the law were common sense, nobody would

    *  need lawyers.

    (If I recall correctly, Mr. Bronstein is a lawyer.)

  56. Nawak says:

    Norman:

    Yes, of course law isn’t only common sense, there are lots of technicalities. I spoke about common sense only to say that I expect it to be universal: what is common sense for me as a French shouldn’t appear irrationnal to an African. That leaves out all the cultural learnings only to keep the ‘natural’ ones, for instance "Fruits fall from trees, not fly away".

    I said that the distinction between fair and unfair should be common sense (in many cases anyway, but of course when we talk about "work" the cultural differences are already there)

    I surely didn’t express myself clearly but the only connection I wanted to make with "laws" was with fairness, not with common sense.

    That is, if I think a situation is unfair, then given the situation my neighbor will also think

    it is unfair. It can get technical very quickly as we move away from everyday situations (and that’s a part of the "why" we need lawyers) and I was amazed that the situation in question was sufficiently "un-natural" to make the laws of two countries of relatively similar cultures quite different.

    My amazement, and mistake, may be due to the simplification I made of the situation, for me it was:

    I have a contract with you, you give me something, I give you something. The contract ends, we are not bound anymore. If I say something that upsets you, then the matter should be solved as if you never knew me before.

    You can always find edge cases, like state secrets, but for work, if a competitive advantages can be lost because of someone, then you have to buy his/her silence. This can be arranged "beforehand" but I think that a perpetual clause should never hold in court.

    (No, not 99 years either).

    Now, that said, of course I would *fear* Microsoft lawyers!! ;-) Like anyone should! The money involved can be quite dissuasive (and by the way, that’s *not* "fair")

    (BTW: Raymond *is* a Microsoft employee and *he* has to follow rules, don’t forget I was just contesting for ex-employees! ;) )

  57. Various degrees of trustworthiness.

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