Ars Technica has an interesting post revealing some sordid tales from the world of iPhone development. The tales center on iPhone app developers who claim to have developed apps that they really didn't develop. And they're getting away with it because of an NDA culture that permeates much of the development world.
NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, of course, are those pesky little agreements that you've probably asked been asked to sign a million times if you work in the world of technology. In some markets, just about everyone asks that an NDA be signed for the smallest of things. Sometimes I half expect to be asked to sign an NDA if I ask where the bathroom is when working on-site with a client.
Of course, in many cases, NDAs hardly seem worth the paper they're written on. After all, many who demand NDAs (e.g. startups, individuals, etc.) often lack the financial resources to enforce them. That, in effect, makes these NDAs useless.
But NDAs are not just an overused annoyance. In the context of the iPhone developer world, Ars's article describes how NDA culture has created a monster. Because some of the top developers behind some of the most popular apps are developing those apps for clients under NDA, they're not permitted to share their best work with prospective clients. For less ethical developers, this creates an opportunity: claim to have developed apps that you didn't actually create. It also gives developers incentive to claim projects that they didn't work on so as to 'pad' their portfolios in an effort to make up for the projects they can't reveal.
One company Ars spoke with, TapBots LLC, learned that a company in India called Trucid was claiming to have developed an app it built after a prospective client of Trucid's emailed TapBots to confirm that it had outsourced development to Trucid. Trucid claimed that it felt compelled to lie because it couldn't reveal all of its projects due to NDA restrictions.
According to Ars, the problem appears to be common and the lengths to which the unethical will go is only growing. As an example, it discusses how Sugar Cube, a top development shop "made up largely of former senior Apple employees" provided screenshots of and information about some of its technology, under NDA, to another company it believed was a prospective client. That company, in turn, took the materials, incorporated it into its own presentation and built a strong relationship with a "major OEM" based on the technology it didn't build. Ars states:
Margolis [of Sugar Cube] estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of meetings with potential clients begin in more or less the same way. After seeing Sugar Cube’s portfolio, a potential client will make a comment similar to “Oh, I thought <insert company name> did that.” It happens so frequently that he is no longer surprised.
Needless to say, clients should be checking references, but I'd say the bigger problem appears to be NDA culture. While clients often have valid reasons to restrict what information their vendors can reveal about projects they work on, in my opinion there is often little reason to restrict a vendor's ability to at a minimum identify the specific project. Obviously, this is a bit idealistic. When a big client is willing to pay good money for your work, you don't have much leverage. But I do think in general that developers often think they have less leverage than they really do.
Case in point: a few years ago I did a little bit of consulting for a startup that won a deal to provide services to a Fortune 25 company. Although the startup was not able to publicize the relationship at the level it wanted, it was able to successfully negotiate the ability to publicly list the Fortune 25 company as a client.
In my opinion, developers should be more aggressive in pushing back on the most ridiculous feature of many NDAs: the inability to claim one's work as one's own. And on the client-side, if companies are wise and realize that their overly restrictive NDAs are only boosting the market for less-than-savory developers who are less-than-likely to deliver quality product, they'll recognize that less restrictive NDAs benefit them too.
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