Project Management optimize

Big trouble for little white IT consulting lies

Stretching the truth about your abilities to a prospective client can lead to big problems down the road. So why do some IT consultants do it from time to time? Chip Camden shares four reasons why lying to your client is never a good idea.

A prospective client describes the problem domain. It seems easy enough for your abilities, and your consulting fees aren't an obstacle. You're already counting the money you're going to make from this IT consulting project, when the client says: "Oh, and we use <technology X>. How well do you know <technology X>?"

The answer that wants to jump off your tongue is, "Oh man, <technology X> and I go way back. Why, I even invented a form of <technology X> before it became popular. No problem."

But the truth might be closer to "I read something about <technology X> once on a blog, um, somewhere -- and I thought something like well, that's nice, but what would you ever want to do with it?"

So, what answer actually comes out of your mouth? Something in between? I thought so. Me too sometimes... in the past... a long time ago.... Honest.

Little white lies = big trouble

There are good reasons why you don't want to stretch the truth. Beyond the fact that you don't want it on your conscience that you are lying to your client, there are four practical reasons why these little white lies can turn into big problems.

  • You're going to have to spend a lot of your own time getting up to speed on <technology X>. You won't be able to bill for that time because you already said you know the technology. If you had told the client you didn't know the technology, they may have offered to fund your research.
  • You'll be looking over your shoulder all the time to see if your colleagues notice that you really don't know as much as you said you did. This uses a lot of unproductive energy and strains work relationships.
  • You won't be as likely to ask questions when you need to because you'll think that's something you're supposed to know. Every project has unknowns and asking questions not only sorts those out, but it also raises issues that might not have otherwise come to light. There are no stupid questions -- only stupid IT consultants who don't ask questions because they're pretending to know more than they do.
  • As a newbie to <technology X>, your first product using it will very likely suck. Well, even if it doesn't suck, it won't be as good as the product you could produce with more experience. If your client thinks, "This is what our <technology X> expert created?!?" then you can kiss that follow-up business good-bye.

What's behind the pretense?

Are IT consultants sometimes tempted to lie because of the ego suppression required to admit our ignorance, or are we afraid that we won't get the contract? I think it may be a combination of the two. It's easy to think, "Oh man, if I don't know <technology X>, I must not be much of a consultant after all. There's no way they'll hire me."

A confident consultant who has some experience will think, "I'm good at other things, and I'm sure I could learn <technology X>, too. Maybe I can sell them on that, but if not, perhaps it's for the better. And maybe I ought to look into this <technology X> for future gigs."

And you could always propose <technology Y> instead. How well that suggestion flies depends on how deep the client is into the project and how religious they are about <technology X>.

Do you ever oversell your skills?

I came clean about my past transgressions, now how about you? Do you ever stretch your experience and fake it till you make it? Or do you always give your prospect a straight-up assessment of what they can expect from you?

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

59 comments
binarypc
binarypc

I don't do programming work and do some web development. Some web development is past the scope of our small company. When it comes to those types of projects, I'm up front with my customers, tell them I've never worked with the technology and will be bringing other experts in to implement it. I even tell them it takes me additional time to get back to them quote wise, so I can provide them with a better estimate as I try to get the best experience - price combination for the job. I've broken out what I sub out for them, and keep the rate breakdowns normal in them (meaning I don't jack them up so I'm billing more than I would for other services). Where I have had issues, is salesman "types" who are associated with customers I've had, going in and overselling services or needs that the customer doesn't really have. Cleaning up and re-breaking down customer needs is usually painful on both sides.

alaniane
alaniane

in my case: Telling the truth has never gotten me into serious trouble. It may have inconvenienced me, but at least I can look at my face in the mirror. If I have to lie to get a job or to keep a job then that job is just not worth it.

GESchuller
GESchuller

I often wonder what it is about ethical behavior people have a hard time understanding. As a consultant you are charging for your expertize, therefore to misrepresent your experience level is unethical at best and criminal at worst. I never misrepresent my qualifications because doing so can jeopardize the client's project if others are relying upon your expertise. Let the client determine how critical your lack of experience is. If it's not critical to your performance, they may be willing to train you and you'll have current experience to take to your next client. Be honest and let the chips fall where they may. Your reputation is all you have, and it's just not worth risking it for the possible short term gain.

wmarr
wmarr

I have a small home based computer shop. I do basic hardware and software repairs on old and the very new home pc's and sometimes laptops. I am flying solo doing this. And there are a few prospective clientele whom want more from me than what I have profeciency in. Yes, I do have a basic understanding of other issues or technology, but I certainly do tell them just what I mainly do, but do add that I would try to fix it but make no guarantees (so they won't be dissapointed and cannot assume that I am a know-it-all). I do go for help sometimes. I know of a few large repair shops/stores where I sometimes have purchased parts etc. I don't care what those "ego pompous geeks" think about me, because all I want to do is service the client in their best interest. And usually that same computer that has the problem was on those big repair shops bench to start with and they couldn't fix it, but I do, I am willing to go the extra mile to get it done write. But never say I am some sort of High level degree genius who has all the knowledge. That will only give me a bad rep in the end. Honesty is always the best policy. Usually those same clientele or more likely to tell others about me even if they have to take their problem somewhere else. I will even refer them to people I know whom do know how to fix the problem. And sometimes the reverse happens. They are given a problem computer to fix, send it to me, because they are busy on larger more complicated issues. I have the time, they don't. It is a two way street out there.

addinall
addinall

I'm just great, so it really doesn't come into my sphere ;-) How much do I hate headhunters! Arrgggghhh! "Nothing you have done prior to 2001 is of any interest to clients". Addinall.

ajleap
ajleap

Customers & consultants dance with each deal. Most discussions are truly honest. Frequently this answer appears. "Details, we will anwser that later". Arguably consultant has three motivations drive this reply. 1) Truly a detail and doable. 2) If answered, contracted services are unnecessary. 3) Expert has no clue to the answer. The customer feels reassured, and let's it go. It becomes part of the work later. Stopping the dance requires knowledge on both the customer and expert's side. The ignorant customer feeds the false expert. As a third party, also an expert, watching the dance and seduction creates challenges.

hamidgul
hamidgul

This is exactly true that sometime a very minute lie can hold your hands up and you are not able ask for help!

semi-adult
semi-adult

Lying, no matter what you call it, has consequences. Unfortunately, with too many players in the free-lance game, so does telling the truth. Three working days ago, a contract showed up on my radar, one where my particular expertise and experience are truly appropriate to the given task. I responded with the obligatory introduction, and within hours received an enthusiastic response. After a brief conversation, a further talk with another person, higher in the food chain, was planned. A couple of hours later the email arrived. It said, in part: .... Can you please add SAS skills to your resume .... and make it look more elaborate... I replied immediately (also in part): .... My resume only carries information of work I .... have done, professionally. Nothing on my resume .... is constructed to appeal to any particular .... position. I will be glad to explain any item in .... whatever detail is required, or to write out .... more information on particular work I have done, .... or to make some comparison of prior tasks that .... might apply to a current need. What I will .... decidedly not do is fabricate any entry. This may not be a proper Machiavellian behavior, but the very notion of presenting a lie, no matter how it's 'understood' or 'intended', is simply impossible to live with. Why is this a question? PS: So far, the silence from the recipient(s) is deafening.

SaadHusain
SaadHusain

If the consultant specifically asks me for a skill x, which I have not used, I will tell them that. However, I will also follow that up by saying that I know skill y, which is close to the skill x and here are the similarities and here are the differences, here is the plus and the minus in a business sense. My giving them this information, I level set the clien't expectation as well as build confidence in my experience and abilities. A good consultant is not just about skills but about trust and relationship.

Canuckster
Canuckster

We all oversell in the consulting field. But I don't mean that as a dastardly plot to under deliver either. Often what the client needs is someone to give them educated guesses or confident approaches to issue resolution or the answer isn't where they think the problem is and we know it. Ultimately, if you can solve the problem then you deserve the fee (unless you bankrupt the client).

sysdev
sysdev

I have been in IT consulting since 1976 and the clients and their dealings with hegher priced consultants changes with each client and many times within a particular client. I bill for the travel expenses and do not bill for the travel time. My standard rate is $100 per hour plus travel and living expenses. I work as both a sub-contractor and directly with the end client. About 30 to 50 percent of the time, the client and/or the consulting firm through which I sub-contract wants an all-inclusive rate. The amount which I have to add to my rate depends upon the location and the current costs for travel and living expenses for that location. I quess as to what that extra will cost and most of the time, I am not too far off. Sometimes I do not guess correctly and it costs me something. Wven when I go somewhere where I have spent much time (Hawaii for instance), I have been surprised. I feel that is the cost of business. Usually adding $2- to $25 per hour will cover the travel and living expenses, but sometimes not. I feel strongly that as long as I have done my investigations as to costs and quoted the rate plus estimated travel and living expenses, if I was wrong, I am responsible for the mistake. While I frequently do work for the client on a long flight, that can never be a totally focused piece of work and I do not bill the client for it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... is that technology is moving so fast these days that almost nobody is an expert in any one of them. If you can claim expertise in one or two fields, you're doing good. So it's OK to admit that you need to fill in some gaps. What do you think?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything." Actually, Michel de Montaigne said it earlier, and he presented it as a commonly known proverb. But who remembers that?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The key is in ascribing the correct value to your reputation, as well as realizing the trouble you'll create by dishonesty - both for your client and for yourself. Unfortunately, desperation for business sometimes lets consultants convince themselves that they can cover their ignorance, put on a brave face, and get the job done. It usually comes back to bite them, though.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Straight-up and honest. The "big shops" usually over-hype their services, and then hire high school students who figure it out as they go.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Good word. Just like the man who seems to imply that he'll love and protect the girl, but really only wants to screw her and get out of town. But I'd like to think that some of us really do care for our customers.

alex.kashko
alex.kashko

When interviewed for my current contract the interview went like How well do you know X? Never touched it! And Y Read about similar technologies. I want to lern it and Z Not for the last few years. It seems to be working out well - at least I got no direc to indirect negaive feedback yet. After a month it went from terrifying to doable and now it's getting routine. If it's a time critical contract it's reasonable for you to have to fit like a glove. If it has some flexibility and they are convinced you can learn you have a chance. Also good references from previous contracts help Landing in a contract where you are out of your depth and everyone considers you an expert is definitely ungood.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

So how do you fix a situation like that? Confess your ignorance, and take your lumps? Research it independently? Or is there a better way?

binaryme
binaryme

While have nothing to do with resumes or job applications... some time ago I was sub-contracted to do some basic support in a local bank (adding/moving patch leads). The comms rack was a *MESS*. After completing the required work, I took a couple of photos and sent them to the company that had asked me to do the job, with a suggestion that something should be done to "clean up" the mess. I received a short reply stating that the info would be passed on to the relevant manager(s). I have not heard from them since and have not been offered any more work.... (not that I care. I don't want to be associated with that level of "support"). Sometimes speaking the truth can hurt, but I wouldn't (couldn't) do it any other way.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I once had a client who needed to include my resume in their RFP to their client (it's complicated) and they asked me to rewrite my resume to appeal to the technological bias of the prospect. I didn't lie at all -- just changed the emphasis -- but I felt dirty afterwards.

simento
simento

How did you manage to establish the closeness, similarities and differences between skill X AND Y if you have not used skill x!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"there is no limit to the market for hope" When people contract a consultant, they're buying into the hope that s/he will help them to solve their problem. I agree with you that as long as you meet that need, you deserve your rate -- even if all you did was to help them find their own solution. And you're also correct to say that confidence plays a big part. Just having a "we can do it" attitude and a willingness to look for solutions goes a long way.

BobR
BobR

Call me chicken, but my biggest professional fear is failing to perform at something that the client expects me to be able to do. I will never misrepresent my actual experience. When asked if I have experience with something that I do not, I try to be very frank and say something like, "I have never done this, but I have worked on similar applications, and I believe that I can do this." (I will only say that if I really believe that I can do it. Sometimes I just say no.) I also like to discuss who in their organization I can use as a resource and how much of their time I might need. Sometimes I get the work, sometimes not. But all cards are on the table, and I look forward to going to work each day.

Timbo Zimbabwe
Timbo Zimbabwe

"technology is moving so fast these days that almost nobody is an expert in any one of them" Unfortunately, I've worked with the "I can do dat" types who, after bumbling through a project, make it quite clear that they can NOT "do dat." I would rather hear someone tell me that they can't do something then to say they can... only to make come in afterward to fix it.

simento
simento

...I am sure a lot of people have been guilty of this at some point in their career part. Not only are technologies moving at a more faster pace, some clients are not realistic in terms of their skills set demand.

mmiller
mmiller

I woudn't feel dirty for changing the emphasis of the resume to match the client at all! I have a very broad resume ranging from Appliance Controls to Wireless Data Services. Earlier this week I was asked to minimize the space the appliance controls took up, and make sure that the wireless portion was complete. Since the contract I was going after was for a wireless service this all seemed to make my resume more accessible to the client.

tuomo
tuomo

That is the trick the consulting companies use, I have had that many times. Dirty as you say and unfortunately companies do it sometimes without asking you. Then you are between a rock and a hard place, especially if you got to work for customer. My advice also, don't ever lie to customer / prospect. It will come back sooner or later even if you are lucky to get away a while. The long relationships are built on trust, in first time contact it may be tempting but, amazingly, that is one thing people never forget if you don't tell the truth. This also poisons the field, I was just talking to one company and they required 7+ years experience on XXX. I mentioned that the XXX is only three years old now and the answer was - seems that you don't know your field, the previous consultant had 7+ years and that's what we require. Have a nice day..

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But in reality, you almost always know enough about a technology to understand its niche and possible alternatives. For instance, I haven't done any back-end Java programming in almost 10 years, but I'm glad to offer RoR, PHP, or even ASP.NET as an alternative.

ke_xtian
ke_xtian

Six years ago the dot-com where I worked had just folded and the local economy was not good. With 2 kids in college, I really needed a job. I got a call responding to my resume on Monster. They interviewed me on the phone. When the interview was concluded, my wife, who had been listening to only my end of the interview, asked why I had said "I have little or no experience doing that" so many times. I explained it was because they asked me for my experience in so many different technologies that were not in my bag of tricks. They hired me anyway for a very lucrative 5-week contract that carried my family's finances for 6 months. I got done what they really needed done and they were very happy with me. The moral to the story is don't be afraid to speak the truth. Things have a way of working out.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That always works out best -- the trick is sticking to it, and listening to that little voice inside.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I have been the "do dat" person. It was a hard lesson, and I ended up not even billing the client, I messed it up so bad. But what I learned from it was invaluable.

wfreeman
wfreeman

being more realistic? Looking at the jobs posted on, say DICE and Sologig and others, I find requirements lists a yard long, of recent technologies, each of which takes not only at least a couple of years to acquire expertise in, but also tend to be mutually exclusive so that you have to gain expertise serially rather than in parallel. Some such lists I've seen define someone whose career would be over if they were to have the expertise required. How does anybody respond to such postings?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... think "if I can only land one opportunity, I can prove my worth and make my career". Then, to get that chance, they'll say whatever they think the prospect wants to hear. Usually, they overestimate their abilities, precisely because of their ignorance of the subject matter, and it goes down the drain from there. But then, as you said, they apply for a new position using their failed experience to best advantage!

hamidgul
hamidgul

In my experience that employer usually cheated because either he/she should verify the projects on Resume by contacting one by one before an interview, this is again an HR cost. And if employer has technical background then he/she can fail the candidate during interview but this again the wastage of time. I've seen the cases while consulting to an IT house that they have failed product/project. Even with 4 attempt and spending over 10 years, they were failed. But the engineers working over there got their jobs in other companies on the basis of their even failed experience. I experienced that atleast 70% of candidate resumes are mostly not valid or incompatible with their actual capabilities and work.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yep, in general: if you're uncomfortable about something, look at who has motive to hide it. Make it a matter of record, and see what falls out.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... where the person was actually HIRED before it became apparent that they scammed the interview.

addinall
addinall

Mate, if you haven't a clue about people before you bring them in for an interview, I would suggest you get a CIO assistant to teach you how to use the telephone, or that new magic, the internet. And what is the difference 'twixt a switch and a router? Having built both, I'll grade your response. Mark Addinall.

alex.kashko
alex.kashko

I think that if someone asked me to lie I would ask them ( in writing) to put the request in writing. On paper, signed. Then I would tell them I won't do it. But keep the paper to stop them telling lies about me. Something like "please confirm your request to add skill XXX which I do not posess, to my CV, in writing and signed. With a copy to the chief executive. If they are going to fire anyway you may as well go down shooting.

CIOandManager
CIOandManager

As an employer, it is extremely frustrating to receive a resume that specifies a degree of expertise - and when interviewed it becomes immediately apparent that he/she has not a clue about the subject. A recent experience where a candidate claiming to be ready to take his Cisco CCNA exam did not have a clue as to the difference between a switch and a router! This was not a high level discussion of the functionality of Cisco switches/routers where they can be used interchangeably in certain circumstances - this was in a basic network to network VPN discussion. Needless to say, the interview ended shortly thereafter - another waste of my time and his because of a totally fraudulent resume...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, I agree with you both. But there are also shade of gray in between. When I edited my resume for my client's prospect, even though I didn't put down any false information, the fact that I had quite a few years consulting and only mentioned the areas they were interested in probably gave them the impression that I had been working in those areas all that time. That's a false impression, even though I didn't state that explicitly.

semi-adult
semi-adult

I appreciate the notion of editing or extending a resume, so long as it expands legitimate information and is directed only to that end. My initial contact resume is relatively brief (a single page); it generally gets a good reaction. I want to interest my potential clients and get into a direct conversation with them. It's pretty unusual for there not to be questions or requests for more information. In my response I did exactly that... added pages of information for recent contracts that were for tasks similar to the requirement. I have NO issue with pointing out what I might bring to the table. The point of it all is that they asked me to LIE about something I had not done.

D0c
D0c

Yeah. But you know... the funniest thing is, I'm sure i could have done it. It's just the lying to get in was my main problem. If it were an informal project, then i would have been able to shine. Anyway, that's over. I'm still looking for job opportunities though, so if anyone know of any, do send me a link. Thanks

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But I think you're better off without that business. Think of how you'd have to cope on the job without the skills you claimed.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... that what they meant was five years experience with 2000 and its predecessor, NT. But the point is well taken. I think sometimes they pull requirements out of the air. And maybe sometimes they do it just to test you.

D0c
D0c

This is all too common. Consultants have indeed dug a hole for themselves and others. Lying is a common place tactic recruiting companies use to secure a contract, tell them what they want to hear and your good. I've just come out of such an experience, where a consulting company wanted me to lie on my resume so that i could secure big contracts. I refused, so they terminated my employment.

Jindicator
Jindicator

Back in the day, I had seen this as well when looking for a job. Some of these were pretty bad...for instance requiring 5+ years experience with Windows 2000 back in 2001 or 2002. Now it might be possible, with doing beta testing and such to have this amount of experience, but highly unlikely (or if you worked at MS developing Windows 2000 you might make the cut). Anyways, I figure that if the company cannot do their job with their expectations, then the company isn't worth my time either.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Just as you're sometimes tempted to run up a credit card to pay the bills. Desperation leads you to do all sorts of things that won't work out in the long term.

simento
simento

If you are desperate to secure a job with the bills pilling up and the threat of repossession order from the bank with mouths to feed..... I am sure temptation to oversell start crippling in subconsciously.

rackerman
rackerman

This is true for most IT positions beyond the basic Service desk - especially when it comes to ITIL. Being able to define the process roles, responsibilities and KPI's for a good Service Level Manager can be a struggle for most people let alone the HR recruiter.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yep, if you insert someone in the middle who doesn't know anything substantial about the position, you lose a lot in translation.

wfreeman
wfreeman

Sorry about that, and thanks for straightening me out, Chip. For some reason my brain substituted "more" for the "not".

rackerman
rackerman

Serious candidates learn quickly, you will not find the ideal postion through the job boards. That's one of the reasons why it's best to work through an industry specific recruitment firm. Someone who "owns" the client relationship, knows the true job requirements and works directly with the hiring manager.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

you're both in agreement. I think many times people looking for expertise know so little about it that they don't even know what to ask for. if you get the chance, clear it up for them.