Project Management

Preparing for the day you don't come back

Here's what to consider before the unfortunate case of your demise to insure that clients aren't just left wondering what to do next.

With all the concerns that we consultants juggle every day, it's sometimes hard to plan for events that seem far in the future. With an upcoming major surgery, though, I'm forced to consider the possibility that something could go wrong and I might not survive. What would happen to my consulting business in that event?

If you're considering the same question, the answers will depend a lot on how you've structured your business. For example, if you've incorporated and have people working for you to whom you've delegated most of the responsibility for getting things done, then your business may be able to keep on chugging after taking maybe one day off to attend your funeral. At the other extreme, though, are sole proprietorships like mine in which nobody else does any of the work. Those businesses would necessarily come to a screeching halt. For whatever size hole you would leave in your organization, it behooves you to plan for passing the baton on to others.

I'm not going to explore the problems of legal ownership in this article. You should discuss that with a lawyer, and it will depend on the way you've organized your company, along with the provisions of your will. I'm going to focus instead on how to insure that your clients aren't just left wondering what to do next.

First and foremost, you should always be documenting your work. You should regularly check in source code to a version control repository to which your client already has access. You should train your clients and explain everything you do for them. In short, make yourself expendable. That's just good business, even if you aren't going to kick the bucket. Nobody wants you to hold them hostage to your secret knowledge. In the unfortunate case of your demise, though, they should be able to hand that knowledge off to someone else and keep moving ahead with an inconvenient pause, rather than a disaster.

It's unlikely, though, that you will have been able to foresee everything that you needed to communicate to your clients. They may have questions, or need access to documents that you've updated since you last sent them. You may also have completed work that you have not yet billed, or issued invoices that you have not yet collected.

I recommend that you designate one person to be your "technical executor," if you will. Your spouse or other legal survivors might not be the best choice for this position, depending upon their knowledge of your business. They may need help. Choose someone with enough technical ability that they'll be able to follow your directions. However, they must also be someone you can trust to do what you ask them to do, and to work well with your survivors. They must also have sufficient access to any systems or files that you will want them to be able to manipulate. I've chosen my oldest son, because he's a rock-star developer in his own right, he knows both Unix and Windows, and I know he will respect my wishes.

Leave them a document in a location you agree upon before the event (unless you're more confident than I am about your future haunting skills). Include in that document all necessary passwords, and describe in detail where to find everything. Most importantly, list the name and contact information for at least one person at each of your clients' offices. You will want them to call or email those people to inform them of your passing and offer to help them make the transition to living without you.

You will also want to include specific recommendations for how to help each of your clients. If you know someone that you could recommend to replace you, pass that on.

If certain individuals could be helpful in sorting out specific aspects of what you leave behind, agree with them ahead of time to pass their contact information on to your "technical executor." In my case, I think Chad Perrin could help anyone understand a lot of my activity in copyfree software projects, and he has agreed to let my son contact him.

Make sure you include instructions for issuing final invoices if needed. Your absence will be hard enough on your family without letting receivables fall through the cracks.

Can you think of anything else I'm forgetting? Yeah, this was a pretty morbid topic. Don't worry, I'm sure my surgery will go just swimmingly and all this preparation will have been unnecessary. But if I don't prepare, Murphy might step in and make everyone wish I had.

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...

33 comments
alex.reid
alex.reid

A great article! And so good to hear your contingency plan was not needed this time!!! While you wrote about your business/consultancy and your clients (and that's very important), don't forget to include preparations for passing on your personal stuff, too. I have joint accounts, etc with my wife, but I do all the banking, nowadays almost always on-line. Which means I have to remember all those complicated account names, passwords, challenge phrases, PINs, etc, etc. But my wife doesn't know them And not a good idea to just write them all down in your filing cabinet, filed under "bank accounts"! So I have recorded them somewhere in coded form, and told my wife how to find them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The surgery went well, and I'm expected to make a full recovery with no need for any follow-on surgery if all continues to go well. I'm home, happy again in front of my computers, and trying to catch up on the week I missed. I am overwhelmed (in a good way) by all of the kind wishes I've received, both here and via email, from TechRepublic readers. You folks are top-notch. Thanks to every one of you.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...that your more experienced or educated customers will bring up this issue before you get a chance to, so it's best to be prepared. (One even carries "key man" insurance on me) On the other hand, this issue usually never occurs to my smaller "entrepreneurial" clients, and I consider it my responsibility to make them aware of it. I consider it a part of the service and expertise that they are paying me to supply them. Your suggestions are quite sound. Most of my clients will get a data bomb when I go of source code, supporting documents, etc. Good luck on your procedure, Chip. See ya on the other side.

biancaluna
biancaluna

Sheesh, Chip, you are starting to scare me a bit, I hope that you will get through whatever you are facing. It is less dramatic than what you are facing, but I am leaving a client this week where I need to handover to another person so some of my responses are with that in mind. Plus the fact that I have been in your position, quite suddenly, I had an emergency almost a decade ago that I nearly did not survive and that knocked me out of business for a few months. May I suggest that every independent consultant has income protection and life insurance, covering temporary and permanent disability. At least that way you do not have the additional worry of having to eat your house. Also have a will, and decide in your will what happens with your assets, including your business. Now we come to documentation. I have always brought a level of discipline to my clients to document such that someone can follow the bouncy ball and pick up where I left off, even if that colloquial bus would hit me. Following standards, particularly around project methodology, status reporting, versioning and config document of source code and architecture artefacts is also a key component. Have a trusted wingperson, even if I work solo, and that happens a lot, there is someone in the client or in the team that knows where things are at. I have a standard handover template that tells people Who Knows Things, where are things, where are things at, what to watch out for and I update this in key stages of an engagement. I always create a project plan with deliverables and a matrix what needs to be signed of by whom and when and where files are. Using TFS to track defects, issues and changes and store documentation, source code and release notes is also a tool I use to ensure that someone can take over the job without much disruption. I disagree with Pgit, if you do things right from day one, with agreed documentation standards, using standard templates (if you gotta bring your own framework please do, but there are industry standards that allow you to not invent the wheel) it does not take that long. And it is our duty of care, documentation is NOT optional, it is part of our trade and also part of the reason consultants get a bad rep if it is absent. Our industry is built on trust. Chip, I wish you good luck, sometimes in life you gotta surrender and let go of the "noise" to be able to focus on what is truly important. My advice - build in doco as part of your routine, if the colloquial hits the fan, at least you know that your reputation is intact as your clients can trust in your discipline and professional integrity, even if part of your body and life is falling apart. Temporarily.

ian
ian

Fortunately, coming from a DRP/BCP background when I was in the corporate world, I have kept up with a lot of this. Documentation is the key. I have a database full of how-to's that anyone can follow. I know a lot of people dont like documentation but I find it works best in the long term. Documenting builds or changes as you make them keeps you on track, especially if you are called away suddenly, you know exactly where you are, as does your successor. Writing how-to's is similar to brainstorming, except you're doing it alone. I am always finding easier ways to do something, or add something I may have missed. This is especially good if you are learning a new topic. As a sole proprietor it is important to continually review your situation. I recently decided to close down my hosting service and move everyone to a larger hosting company because I don't want them to be left in the lurch. I was making very little from hosting my clients anyway and it seemed the best option all round.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

I'm afraid of having mine done (neck-vertebrae replacement w/ free tracheotomy included) and have put it off for 2 years so far. My neurological condition continues to degrade, but I can't imagine myself functioning speechless(!)...yet. Good luck, my friend. I think it's a sign of true 'business integrity' to consider one's clients as a part of one's posterity. The prevailing view is more likely, "Screw 'em; it won't be MY problem any more! I'll take my passwords and proprietary code WITH ME! Ah, yes; they'll miss ME when I'm gone...." We're all going to get 'benched' eventually, but the game's bigger than any of us and WILL go on. There's no good reason to handicap your own team when your playing-time's up. I expect that employees--as opposed to us 'sole proprietors'--may feel some 'job security' derives from being *indispensible* in their world of office politics and peer competition ("They CAN'T downsize/fire/outsource ME; I've arranged for the company--or my part of it--to crash and burn without me there. I have made myself indispensible in some way, and there will be wailing in the lodges here at XYZ.net if/when I'M gone!"). Sand in the gears of an unloved ex-employer is a far different thing from sabatoging one's OWN posterity. For one-man-bands, the only ones who stand to suffer inconvenience or tangible loss when you check out are your own clients and loved ones; morbidity notwithstanding, I recommend 'getting the affairs of your business in order' right now, while the Sun is shining and you feel good. One day, your clan AND your customers will rejoice at your commitment to the craft to which you applied yourself here.

maj37
maj37

I recently, as in the last month, experienced this from the other side though not as a consultant. A colleague that I worked with extensively as his backup on all of our UNIX servers killed himself and left me with all of his work. He was fortunately the type of person that did document extensively and was very good about keeping me in the loop and things he did that were done a new way or were done in some way that was not normal for our operations. Still is has been hard trying to pick up some of the pieces especially since I wasn't exactly un-busy before I picked up all of his work.

pgit
pgit

Good article, this is important and I've really given it zero thought. One thing I see in your article is trying to explain things in detail to clients, to get them to 'understand' what I've been doing. Good luck with that. I get so much resistance at that point I've given up trying. Now I only explain whatever I have been asked. I hear excuses like "that's why I'm paying you," they don't want to have to know anything outside their own work. I believe they are making a huge mistake, tantamount to not knowing how the backhoe works because they only want to dig holes. I can see how good documentation would alleviate much if not all worry about a future without me, but I also see where preparing good enough documentation would be a near full time job in itself. Maybe there's a niche for someone, a "technical will" writer. :)

Lionfan1991
Lionfan1991

About a year ago, the family that ran our kids daycare was killed in a private plane crash. The husband owned his own IT business and was a one-man-show. Some friends from his church had a little insight into the business, but not much. After his death, no one had admin passwords, knew what was going in, etc. A year later there are still virtual servers that no one can get access to. When they go down, they just power off/on and hope everything comes back up. This includes the SQL Server that runs the check-in/out screens at the daycare. Fortunately one of the workers had been given a non-admin SQL account two weeks prior to the crash, so I've been able to help them a bit with SQL-related issues. It's a real messy situation altogether...

lastchip
lastchip

This subject is an area that I've failed miserably in and it's good to see it out in the open. I really must resolve to do better. Good luck to all those who may appear on this thread with similar problems to face. A few final words. Always remember, your no good dead to anyone. Most of us enjoy (sometimes love) the work we do, but you must have a life outside of work too. There's millions throughout the world already in their graves through overwork and almost certainly, stress. Being a workaholic is foolish in the extreme. So try and find a decent balance between the two.

GSG
GSG

I'm also having a procedure at the end of the week, and when I come back, will have one usable hand and will need assistance. So while I keep my systems documented, complete with the top 10 things that will go wrong, the symptoms, and the fixes, I had not updated my documentation on a system that I'd recently upgraded, complete with new servers, etc... Then, since this one is planned, I go over the daily responsibilities with those involved, and stress how important it is to take the 20 minutes to do the daily tasks to prevent 8 hours of hell later. I also make sure to include the vendor support number, our customer number, and if we're on a pay-per-call, I note that so that person knows to get a PO number. I also document the IP address, server name, and most importantly, where to find the administrative password! Next, I let the deparments that I support directly that I'll be out of the office and unreachable, and that they should route all issues through our internal tech support. We have a good team, and they'll be able to take care of 90% of any issues. I wouldn't wish the other 10% on them. I then send a reminder to my co-workers about who is responsible for what system in my absence. Unfortunately, there are times when there is no advance notice, so if you're responsible for something, documentation is critical. There's nothing I hate more than to have a system dumped into my lap for an unknown period of time, and the primary didn't even document the support phone number.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

When I had my Gall Bladder removed several years ago I was told that after the surgery the Medical People where worried about an Adverse Medical Outcome because I in their opinion was not recovering from the Amnesic at all well. Apparently when asked any questions I was supposedly replying [b]I have a Pain in my D Drive[/b] and they where getting really worried 3 hours after the opp had finished. [b]SWMBO[/b] eventually came in after demanding to know what was wrong and said He's fine it's just those Bloody Computers again. While I'm not brave enough to call her a Liar I still do not believe her either. ;) In the case of my business I was lucky enough to have staff doing the work even if they where stealing my Classic Mercedes to drive around while I was in Hospital and generally showing off in my Wifes Cars. It's the only way I've worked out how I can do what I like buy a old Merc and give it to the wife so she can not raise a single word of complaint about the amount of money I spend on it for her. :^0 Col

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

First of all, Hope it goes well and you are up and about quickly. After my knee replacement last October, I wasn't allowed to drive for 6 weeks. If you have a similar restriction, what have you put in place to keep the business running? The customer comes first, but you mustn't kill yourself trying to do too much during your recovery period. Best Wishes.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Be prepared for the day that the Cops show up at your Door wanting to arrest you for STEALING Surgical Equipment by sticking it inside yourself while in Surgery. If they do that and then have to withdraw the charges it's still considerably better than having you sue the Surgeon & Hospital for leaving something inside you during the Opp. It's the Meatworks way of getting around being sued by having everyone who undergoes Surgery Charged and then withdraw the charges when they discover nothing was inside them. It just means that they are better thieves than others and have it removed by another. :D OH and a Plain X Ray taken immediately you escape the Meatworks is always a good idea. That way you know if it's safe to walk near a MRI or other Medical Imagining Machine. It's also helpful to start the Legal Procedure for leaving stuff inside you before the Cops arrive to arrest you. ;) Col

pgit
pgit

Thanks for the update, it's good to hear all went well.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Strangely, even my biggest clients have never asked for this sort of contingency planning.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

My surgery is expected to go very well, but anytime they cut you open you run a risk of not getting all the way back together. That's what prompted these thoughts. I agree with you on docs -- they're part of the work product.

pgit
pgit

You opened my eyes with this statement: "Writing how-to's is similar to brainstorming, except you're doing it alone. I am always finding easier ways to do something, or add something I may have missed. This is especially good if you are learning a new topic." I admit to some kind of block preventing me from documenting things for the situation discussed here in this thread. That perspective gives me something to focus on, on the other side of the blockage. Writing how-tos looks like fun!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Perhaps you can explain to me though how writing how-to's is similar to brainstorming -- unless it's something you've never tried before?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even though I wouldn't be around to appreciate it, I want my former clients to bless my memory after I'm gone, instead of cursing my thoughtlessness. Good luck to you, hippiekarl, whenever you decide to have your procedure, and thanks for the kind words!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

With all of the preparation, that I'll forget one very important thing that renders all the rest of my preparation useless.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Like all of us, clients also have too much to do. Maybe if you can point out the risks of not having some redundancy of knowledge...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Have they formulated a plan for migrating to something over which they can have more control?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's always too easy to feel like we aren't working hard enough, but you're right -- there's a point where it becomes self-defeating.

ed
ed

After my bypasses, my electrolytes went a little strange, so my functioning went with it. About 4:30 AM, they called my sleeping wife to tell me I was responding inappropriately. I can still picture in my mind their saying that and her thinking of my sense of humor and replying, "Yes? So?" I think they had to quote blood test results and normal numbers to get her attention. After she and my daughter got there, they gave me some blood and my kidneys started up (that was the problem) and dealt with the excess water and now I'm back to subnormal.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Maybe "D Drive" was just a euphemism. I used to talk in my sleep, and supposedly I've said some pretty strange things. Whenever I go under anaesthesia, I wonder about what sorts of confessions I'll make as I'm waking up.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

My procedure will be using a minimally invasive technique that will hopefully keep me down for only about a week.

ian
ian

they just write a a sequence of events that accomplish a goal and they are oft-times writing about a subject with which they are already familiar. There is no need to brainstorm; they just write about how they do it or how they were taught to do it without trying a different approach. When I write how-to's, it is for one of two reasons. To learn or better understand a subject or to explain a process to a client. Either way, I want to be sure I know it inside out. I test each step then look for another way to complete that step. I like to try at least two other ways. Just because a step works, doesn't mean it is the only way or the best way to do it. There may be a faster/easier/simpler alternative. I like alternatives. I also document ways that do not work and why they don't work in that situation. It saves a lot of time later when trying to improve a procedure by not having to retry something I previously tried. So, to me, writing how-to's is like brainstorming.

biancaluna
biancaluna

Here is the thing - there is only so much we can control, let it go. Do what you can then let it go, it is easy to forget in this world of expectations, pressures and management that what we do, is not who we are. A lot of what we do and worry about is self imposed, to try and be perfect, meet someones expectation, not disappoint. You cannot hand over everything, in maj's example, isn't it sad that we do not stand still at what was left behind - a gap left by a human being - and merely see that we were left with all the work? My consulting friend, life is short, none of this is real and this too shall pass. Do what you can, then surrender to what is and let go of the outcome. Zen for consultant hath spoken.

GSG
GSG

At least it's outpatient so there's no stay, and I just want to get this done. It's amazing how much we really depend on opposable thumbs.

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