OK, the title is a bit unfair (Become.com may not be evil after all) but you've got to love the blogosphere, and how quickly things can (potentially) get out of control.
SiliconBeat published this story: The Larry and Sergey test in the afternoon, talking about Become.com (new shopping engine started by the founders of MySimon) and their hiring practice of asking programming job seekers to develop and hand over some code improving the PageRank algorithm in lieu of customary programming tests. Clever, and appropriate, for a search engine company. The piece goes further saying: "About 100 of the applicants took the challenge, which required about 40 hours of coding. Yang says that many of the concepts that came out of that process ended up in the Become.com algorithm".
Reading this, I go "Whaaattt ?" and leave a comment about the potential "borderline" effects of that policy (having led an organization of 150+ developers in the past, the defense of the coder is "close to my heart") . Then Om and Tony jump in, a bit more "forceful", respectively: Will write search code for food? and 4000 hours of development for $75 (we enjoy these catchy titles, don't we :-). With Om's level of readership (no offense to Tony, Matt & Michael - I just know how much traffic Om delivers when he sends some link love), you can feel a PR disaster in the making for Become.com.
Fortunately for Become.com, Michael Yang, its CEO, spotted the post within a couple of hours and left two comments:
I would like to make two clarifications on this posting.
One, it is true that we ask candidates to take a programming test as a screening mechanism. One of the questions requires the candidate to demonstrate an understanding of hypertext link analysis algorithms such as PageRank.
Two, we do not use any of the submitted code for our internal development purposes.
and (since Tony kept on poking):
We have never used any code or ideas from the programming test. The programming test is focused on candidate's programming proficiency rather than new ideas or inventions.
Matt Michael Bazeley and Om subsequently updated their stories, making due reference to Michael Yang's comments , though it is still not clear why Matt Michael quoted Yang saying that "that many of the concepts that came out of that process ended up ..." but that does not really matter. (See Michael Bazeley's comment below, and yes I mistakenly referred to Matt Marshall as the one having written this SiliconBeat piece, he wrote the original post about Become.com).
Good catch Michael Yang (worth a post on your own blog maybe ?). PR disaster avoided. The post has not been slashdotted. You will still be able to find developers for your open positions. And get busy on finding a VP of Corporate Communications and a PR Manager. You're doing their job right now :-).
interesting (wink to Paul Kedrosky) clear in this story is that PR professionals have to stay on top of all these rumors, quotes (and misquotes) in realtime in order to fix these kinds of situations as they pop up, and before too much negative spinning has gone around - even if facts are rectified afterwards. Like when Scoble hinted that the SmartTags guy, who had just moved from Microsoft to Google, was working on Autolink. Double evil!
Steve Rubel, Renee Blodgett and the fellow PR bloggers (or blog PR specialists) are going to keep busy for a while with all this. And Thank God for Feedster, Pubsub and Technorati.