IT Employment

Consultant's dilemma: Sink with the crew or jump ship?

It's easy to ignore the signs of a doomed project when you're a newly independent--and hungry--consultant. Find out what ignoring those signs cost one consultant and offer advice about what he should have done.

Some projects are doomed from the beginning, but newly independent consultants will often ignore warning signs and continue to try to tackle even the toughest of ventures. Ned Boris is a consultant working for an independent software developer and vendor in Texas. He has eight years of experience in the IT field and 13 in business management. However, his wealth of business savvy didn’t save him from the nightmare project that was his first as an independent consultant.

Read on to find out the warning signals he should have heeded on his maiden contract. Then, offer your advice about what he should have done, and at what stage of the project.

The background
Boris and his friend Julie (names changed to protect privacy) had once worked together at the same company. Boris, a newly independent consultant, was contacted by Julie—also an independent consultant—about working on a software development project for the company for which they’d previously worked. She and her partner were subcontracting on a project and thought Boris would work well as another subcontractor.

The main consultant, who hired both Boris and Julie, would later come to be called “The Weasel.”

The project was a complex CRM-like pricing application that had to integrate with a variety of existing systems. Boris’ role was twofold: First, he was to analyze the needs of the business units that would be using the application and synthesize them into an acceptable company-wide solution. Second, he was to provide expertise in n-tier architecture, design, and development to Julie and her partner, who were planning to repackage and sell the software to other clients.

Boris said his first sign of trouble should have been a lingering project that Julie’s consultancy had delivered to the client company previously. They had finished the development phase, but were having trouble getting paid for the software due to bugs, missing features, and poor performance.

“In hindsight, this was my first clue of the problems to come,” Boris said. “But at the time, all parties involved were behaving as if these problems were in the process of being fixed in a normal, professional manner.”

(Seemingly) smooth sailing
The project went smoothly during the initial phases. A prototype system was created and Boris said he and Julie had “buy-in” on all the features and functions. During the sales negotiations, all parties agreed to a fixed price for the prescribed feature set, and they created a change-management process to contain scope creep under the fixed bid.

A detailed work plan for the contract was divided into three phases. Phases one and two were devoted to fixing the bugs and adding the missing features to complete the first piece of software that Julie’s firm had begun. After that project was complete, payment was to be released for its outstanding invoices. Phase three of the work plan was to create the CRM-like application.

The trouble
Despite the in-depth plans, the project’s fate was exposed through a series of revelations. Boris learned, “partly by accident,” that there was a second development team working in remote development labs on parts of the project, and that their costs were to be covered by the same contract. He said they were described as “low-cost developers” and were using a software development tool that, as it turned out, wouldn't support n-tier architecture designs without huge amounts of additional work.

“These were people who had literally never turned on a computer three months before, and their involvement in this project—with so little training—was going to be a showpiece for using this proprietary CASE tool,” Boris said. “Unfortunately, that was a poorly thought out plan and didn't work at all. It just squandered time and money.”

Next, The Weasel revealed a "backup plan" to have another group of VB developers do the coding. However, the first sample of code they sent in was “literally laughed at by all the technical leads,” Boris said. Then the backup coders suddenly disappeared and the group was officially in crisis mode.

According to Boris, The Weasel then decided that the contractually agreed functionality of the software could be cut for a “fall preview release." Boris said it was obvious that The Weasel had no intention of ever delivering those functions.

This was followed by the loss of key staff members, significant cost overruns due to the remote development teams, and a last-minute change in the design to move the core business logic tier to the proprietary CASE tool, which would require it to run on the physical client rather than an application server.

Development falls apart
To offset the increased cost, The Weasel fired his management team and asked Boris to submit a "vacation" request for the two-week period when the final development was to take place. Then he demanded a cut in Boris’ billing rate and accused him of mismanaging the project.

“Let me make clear that my role was application architect, and I had turned down an offer to take on the CEO role because I didn't feel comfortable working with The Weasel.”

Boris said he’d also had to make it clear to The Weasel on several occasions that he wasn't in a position to manage the client’s staff, only to mentor them in the technology. After having his warnings about lying to the customer and squandering time, money, and man-hours ignored, Boris had had enough. He gave the two weeks notice required in his contract.

“That stretched to four weeks out of concern for the success of the project, plus a couple of additional day-long meetings to educate the few remaining developers on n-tier architecture and this specific application's design,” Boris said.

When The Weasel refused to pay for any of the additional work Boris had done, he stopped the phone and e-mail support he’d been providing the development team to help out his former coworkers. He returned all his development copies of data and programs to the client so he couldn't answer questions even if he wanted to.

“Nasty letters were exchanged between lawyers, but no money was forthcoming,” Boris said. “My lawyer's estimate was that it would cost me 10 times the amount I was owed to get a judgment against The Weasel, and even then I'd probably never collect anything.”

Aftermath
In the end, the client got the original software project completed. Through the rumor mill, Boris learned that The Weasel cleared half a million dollars on the combination of the two projects before the client company let him go.

According to Boris, Julie is out of the software consulting business, and all the people who worked for The Weasel on the project were left with valueless contracts and unpaid invoices.

“Everyone that accepted shares in his company in lieu of pay got completely screwed,” he said. “My friend was offered $300 for what was supposed to be a $250K+ stake,” he said.

Hindsight: What should Boris have done?
Boris said he believes he should have cut his losses when he found out about the secondary development team in the early stages of the relationship. It was apparent at that point that The Weasel didn’t intend to provide the product described to the client company in the sales pitch.

Early on in the project, The Weasel had fired everyone involved in developing the design and selling it to the client company, but neither he nor the people he cut had ever communicated that information to anyone else.

“I assume he offered more shares or stock options in exchange for their silence,” Boris said. “When asked where all his senior staff had disappeared to, his answers were that they were ‘on vacation,’ ‘working on new business development projects,’ or ‘working at another location.’”

Boris said the client company's management seemed content to let the project fail, and that it may have been their intention to never accept the new software, but only to have the initial package finally completed to their satisfaction.

What do you think?
Boris wrote to TechRepublic with the questions, “Should I have stayed to the bitter end, unpaid? Should I have left…when all the lies started to surface? Should I have exposed The Weasel to the client's management team when I found out what his intentions were?” What do you believe would have been the right—or the better—course of action? Was the time and effort Boris wasted avoidable? Post your thoughts below for Boris to read.

 
0 comments

Editor's Picks