5 Real Perks to Look for in a Software Company

It’s not all about the free snacks, foosball tables, and funky ball pits. Really.

Dr Stuart Woolley
Mar 23 · 11 min read
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

We live in an age where software companies are desperate to attract, and hopefully retain, genuine talent to their development teams. An age where software development has become a key factor in pretty much every high tech startup business and where new, tangible¹, ideas can generate astronomical valuations for those lucky, lucky few² with tiny collars and long technical sounding words.

Prepare your cynical brain for a yet another assault on the software industry and its nefarious hiring practices. This time, let’s think about those things that don’t involve technology, software development methodologies, or testing. Testing? Who am I kidding?

Crustless Sandwiches and Coloured Balls

Unfortunately, in the past (or mine at least), when I’ve attended interviews at either startup companies or well known internet giants that dabble in ads and search engines, the emphasis has been on the trendy artisanal bread side of the role (roll? bread comparisons are go!) rather than the actual filling of the sandwich. Or roll. Whatever.

The original focus had been either on brand name (see above) or the niche that the startup things they identified and hope to, in the future, occupy. This is then shortly followed by what I call the ‘perk sell’, namely,

  • Our snack bar carries the latest high protein low carbohydrate brands!
  • Use of the coloured ball pits is encouraged!
  • Table tennis after Scrum is mandatory!
  • Twice a week you get a free massage while you code!
  • Take the slide from the first floor to the ground floor and save time!
    (It’s like flying but more pleasurable and less clapping!)

I know, I know, I’m a little cynical but, at least I think, with good reason.

Perks are just that, they don’t pay the bills, and they’re designed to either keep you at your desk or at the very least keep you in their office.

It may be alluring when you’re a software neophyte, finding your way out of your nest³, to find free office dry cleaning and free fine dining meals twice a day at your fingertips, but, even in prison you get your clothes washed and your food is free. Begin the thinking process, and look down into the dark rabbit hole.

Now, I’m not completely down on this but a newly qualified engineer can all too easily fall into the trap of being too heavily invested in this process and go on to consider every role in terms of its perks rather than its actual bottom line remuneration and things (not perks) that actually make a difference.

Think carefully little ones, there are other factors that are important for your long term health and happiness. Chef cooked meals should be taken in moderation and the gym isn’t just for listening to your iPod⁴ and showing off the latest in company leisure attire.

As for you old ones, like me, the charismatic glow around the free crustless sandwiches, almond milk lattes, and single colour M&M’s jars barely gets above background radiation these days. We need a comfortable working environment, nice chairs, and good coffee. Maybe even some Rich Tea biscuits

Now, finally, this is where, my software friends, we begin our journey into judging what really makes a company a good employer.

1 — Get Paid What You’re Worth

It’s nice to get a massage at your desk and get your laundry pressed and delivered back to your office drawers but once you’ve left the air conditional megacity of employment you’ll have to go back to your own dwelling and you’ll need to pay for that somehow.

In fact, you’ll also need to pay for a lot of things during your adult life and the means to do so comes primarily⁵ from your day job. You’ll also need to pay for a lot of things when you’re not working too. (Yes, a pension, but I don’t want to go too deeply into that right here so consider that part of the remuneration I’m shortly going to bang on about.)

In addition, a company can often offer wonderful, at first pleasing, perks at the expense of a proper working wage. Consider the situation where you move positions from one where all of your food was provided for to one where it’s not — you have to start buying (and most likely cooking) food. That’s an expensive business if you’re past the noodles phase.

You must also consider carefully how your waking hours are spent. Your time is limited and it’s good to at least enjoy what you do during your work life. Perhaps you’re one of the fortunate blessed ones who entered computing for the same reason as myself, i.e. you quite liked it.

But, just liking your job doesn’t pay the bills⁶.

You would have also chosen a particular pathway — embedded systems perhaps, C because it’s the greatest computer language ever written, Javascript because you’re a masochist and hate types, or even perhaps you have that magic gene that loves extremely long lines of code that offer little meaning and always run extremely slowly and love Java. Don’t start me.

You’ve chosen a pathway so you need to make sure you’re getting at least market rates for your skills, more if it’s a special niche that all but the most incoherent individuals can manage. Yeah, that’s me too.

A good basic appropriate rate of pay should be your first consideration.

2 — Beware of Share Options and Golden Handcuffs

Often recruiters will refer to what’s known in the industry as a ‘total compensation package’ which is what’s know to the experienced individuals as a ‘way to pay you less actual money and make you stay until your share options can vest’.

Many times I’ve negotiated a better basic salary over share options —firstly you don’t know if they’re actually going to be worth anything (particularly with a start up), and secondly you might have to stay for years until they eventually vest.

If you’re considering stock always think about how long it will be before you can either take possession or can sell your holding. Companies can sometimes deliberately set long vest periods, particularly on employees whose skills are highly valued as a sneaky way of tying them into the roles. I’m not saying they’re all bad, but some allegedly are. Allegedly.

Take a good basic rate of pay from point (1) but also negotiate any stock options and vesting times very carefully.

A good employer will be transparent and up front about this and be willing to happily negotiate terms if they really value your skills and want you ‘on board’.

In my own experience, with one particular household name who’re better at selling than delivering parcels, everyone on my team negotiated a slightly different stock / vesting / pay scheme that, of course, we weren’t supposed to talk about. We did and we did and we were surprised at the differences.

3 — Can I Get You A Hot Beverage?

Some perks shouldn’t be perks at all, they should be a basic human right and I’ve touched on this subject before in a previous article when discussing red flags in software engineering interviews.

Practically all companies supply fresh water, most supply tea and coffee, a majority even do filter coffee and flavoured teas (if that’s your thing), but few supply drinkable coffee with an actual flavour.

Flavoursome, Hot, and Free: Choose any two.”
- Me

Coffee, and good coffee at that, is a basic human right and should not require a degree in either UI Design and Practical Applications nor Electrical Engineering in order to operate an office supplied Rube Goldberg coffee machine either.

Just give me something that’s easy to make pleasurable to drink⁷.

When considering a software role bear in mind that you’ll often be at the office early, late, for an extended period, or constantly during a pressing release cycle⁸. If that’s the case you’ll most likely need to be suitably caffeinated on a regular basis so it needs to be hot, have a flavour, and be drinkable.

Of course, if you’re a decaffeinated kind of person then do disregard this but you’ll have to choose carefully based on the following conditions instead:

  • Do they have flavoured tea?
  • Did you see someone else drink it?
  • Is it in date?
    (If the script looks old fashioned and says “Radium: For Health!” avoid!)
  • Is the kettle clean?
“WFH FTW with free socks and pajamas” — Credit Author

Oops, how about if you’re a remote worker, as I am myself, for most of the time at least? How can you make sure you’re getting your premium [non]caffeinated beverage of the highest order?

Well, the secret here is to throw in the cost of your caffeinated requirements into your basic wage requirement so that you can afford a genuinely nice coffee machine and the requisite beans. And grinder, naturally.

The world’s changing and remote work really is the future.

Companies that step up with home benefits, such as a coffee allowance, will reap the best employees!

4 — Stationery is for Life not just for Christmas

So many times I’ve entered an office and pushed open the stationery cupboard doors in great expectation, apprehensively glancing from side to side so that no-one else could steal my chosen delights away from me, only to be faced with a dire selection of what I’d loosely term ‘crap’ and a feeling of abject disappointment. Namely,

  • Blue feint wide lined notebooks
  • Jaded yellow pads of what looks like nicotine coloured pages
  • Blue generic plastic biros
  • Some of those double sided sticky rectangles in lieu of proper Sellotape
  • A solitary A4 hole punch
  • What looks like a guillotine for paper
    (I’m amazed they still make these, to be honest)
  • I need not go on, you’ve seen it too. I know. I feel it.

It’s the little things that make your life easier and more pleasurable. You have your basic, sufficient and appropriate, wage, your fragrant delicious coffee in your Rick and Morty mug, and you should therefore absolutely be furnished with, at the very least, a fine gel pen and some proper hard backed pad containing small square graph paper. Truly, the stationery of Kings!

You may be a pencil sort, but a thick barrelled pencil with a definite sweeping track is better than a 2c bargain basement 4H. You know it makes sense.

You definitely don’t need wide lined paper, no-one need wide lined paper. Either you want blank if you’re a creative, flowchart sketching, UI visionary with autolayout tendencies, or you want graphed if you’re a pixel perfect, precise, low-level, ruthless seat-of-your-pants coder who has a pretty difficult time writing in a straight line. That’s me, by the way. Again.

Stationery counts as much as proper beverages, ask about it upfront, make sure they either have it or get it in writing that they will. No pun intended.

Again, remote workers represent! Factor in the cost of your Moleskine to your appropriate working wage.

5 — Commuting

One thing that can change a fun loving day job into a tortuous Circle of Hell is a commute. Some people love them, some people hate them (I hate them, naturally), but chances are you might have to do one, at least once in a while.

If your target company is in the middle of nowhere, they’ll need a car park or a dedicated bus service to the nearest outpost of civilisation.

I knew a New York hedge fund company that bussed people out from the city on free air conditioned WiFi buses to their site, that’s what I’d consider a minimum. This was well before Google did it, too.

A long car or bus commute can quickly add up the hours so you should be considering the time you’re cosseted away moving around the place.

If you’re running out of podcasts or getting tired of the view whizzing past, the commute is too long. As a rule of thumb I add up the hours, 5 days a week, that may be spent commuting and if it comes up to near 8 hours then that’s an extra unpaid working day. No thank you.

Do also bear in mind bus commutes involve hanging around in the weather and, of course, YCMV (Your Climate May Vary).

If your target company is in a city, you most likely won’t want to drive unless you’re a Javascript kind of person who enjoys long periods of frustration with little periods of progress every now and again. What you’d be looking for here is some kind of travel incentive, perhaps a free or at least discounted company bus/rail pass. If you’re biking it, look for company showers and changing rooms — and a safe and secure place to lock your bike. Many companies also offer a discounted way of buying a bike for a work commute, check it out.

Of course, remote workers don’t get the dubious benefit of travel incentives but do have the utter luxury of a minimal commute walking past the luxury coffee machine and having a bathroom all to themselves.

End Note

So there we have it, a few of the more important points that I like to consider other than those involving technology when considering or actually interviewing at a company.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, aside from my tainted view of the software industry it has to be that you have to ask an interviewer about their company stationery policy. The reaction is priceless.
Definitely recommended.

[1]: Tangible being something both real as in the real world and useful as not in cryptocurrency, NFTs, or yet another trendy company name that’s missing its vowels.
Well, at least the naming thing might be coming to an end at least.

[2]: Sarcasm intended.

[3]: Basement. I know it, you know it, we all know it. If you’re serious about software you’ve most likely worked, or learned, in a sealed room with no Windows that’s probably a basement.
Also, “no Windows”, see what I did there? Definitely on a roll.

[4]: A small music player from the early 2000s, latterly superseded by handheld personal computers than have apps for phones and music. Look in your pocket or on your desk, the iPod is now inside what you call your phone.

[5]: Primarily is right, why do you think I’m here?

[6]: Yes, I know. The old age of loving what you do and it’s not work and I’m always fully 100% behind the point of not working just for the money but working for the love — but the fact is, bottom line, you do need at least enough money to survive.
We could talk a lot about this, well I could, but you should choose your career on what you want to do first and foremost and when you have that you should try your damn hardest to get paid what your worth.
It’s a minefield, I know, but that’s the long and short of it.

[7]: This, of course, rules out any kind of ‘instant’ coffee.

[8]: Some would say ‘Sprint’ but I do really detest agile as much as I detest instant coffee⁷ and that’s saying something. Well, not strictly all of agile, just the majority of it for installing an unnecessary layer of complexity, and management, in a place that could well do without it. I’ll write about this someday, maybe, but it might hinder my employment prospects…

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Dr Stuart Woolley

Written by

Worries about the future. Way too involved with software. Likes coffee, maths, and . Would prefer to be in academia. SpaceX, Twitter, and Overwatch fan.

Geek Culture

A new tech publication by Start it up (https://medium.com/swlh).

Dr Stuart Woolley

Written by

Worries about the future. Way too involved with software. Likes coffee, maths, and . Would prefer to be in academia. SpaceX, Twitter, and Overwatch fan.

Geek Culture

A new tech publication by Start it up (https://medium.com/swlh).

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