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How much thanks does an intern deserve?

March 28, 2011

If an intern comes up with an idea that nets an employer big money, is he or she entitled to a significant reward?

That’s a question I asked myself this weekend when a coworker pointed me to a Quora discussion about major intern success stories at net startups. In it, I found a link to the story of programmer Noah Weiss, a summer intern at Fog Creek Software (a company I recognized because they developed’s work scheduling interface, FogBugz).

While interning at Fog Creek, Noah suggested to CEO Joel Sposky that the site should run job listings along the edges of the company blog, which was one of the more read and respected tech blogs on the Internet. Though Sposky was originally hesitant to add clutter to the site, he changed his mind when Weiss told him just how much revenue the listings could bring: over $300 per ad.

In a short period of time, Weiss’ four-week internship project generated almost $1 million for Fog Creek with practically zero maintenance costs — clearly a big deal, and one that could be attributed to the idea and development efforts of one intern. But Sposky says he felt hesitant about offering Weiss a big performance bonus because of the grumbling it could cause among his full-time employees, many of whom had contributed to other very successful projects in ways that were harder to measure. In the end, Sposky’s offer of 10,000 shares of Fog Creek stock in exchange for a full-time employment commitment after graduation wasn’t enough to lure Weiss away from a better offer made by Google.

Google logo

Fog Creek intern Noah Weiss left the company to join Google despite Joel Sposky's stock reward for netting the company nearly $1 million in revenue.

Did Sposky shortchange Weiss, or did he do the right thing for the company? Remember: 10,000 shares of a burgeoning tech company can be worth a heck of a lot more than an intern-level salary.

Personally, I can’t blame either party. Weiss deserved more, and Sposky could have used a bright young talent like him, but I’ve seen enough workplace politics to know that an intern cashing out on a relatively simple project — however genius it may have been — would ruffle a few feathers, probably to the point where good employees might have left Fog Creek. And when you do something big like Weiss did, bigger fish always take notice. His compensation was coming from somewhere — and good for him; he earned it.

What do you think about Sposky’s decision? Post your opinion below.

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