IT Employment

Seven reasons to turn down business


When I first started consulting independently, I was a software prostitute: any opening, name your position, I'd do any job that came my way if the price was right. Now that I'm older and prettier and have several steady clients I can afford to say "no thanks" to some tricks engagements. What are some criteria for refusal?

  1. Too busy. Starting with the obvious, if you don't have time for more work, you shouldn't take it. Unless you can sub it out successfully.
  2. Ethics. You don't want to find yourself working to promote something you don't believe in. But this one gets pretty tricky. It's obvious that you don't take a job from an internationally-located Web ring that publishes explicit pictures of children, but what about a company that has a manufacturing facility in China that employs underage labor? If you say no to that, then how about a software company that provides solutions for that company? What about a vendor to that vendor? The higher up you go in the software food chain, the greater the likelihood that you'll unwittingly benefit some organization that you'd like to hamper instead. Do you shrug it off and say, "I only make the gun, they pull the trigger"? Also, how many different ethical principles must you consult? Does your potential client bank their business on intellectual property laws that you find objectionable? Would they sacrifice user privacy in order to gain more information about their users? Do they subject their developers to the tortures of Visual Basic? (Ultra-smooth segue to...)
  3. Technological satisfaction. Is this really the kind of work that you want to be doing? I'm not just referring to being on the winning side of the ubiquitous language wars. I can be pretty creative even if I have to use a statically-typed language. What's more important is whether the project itself is pushing some envelope and creating something new. When it comes to development, you become what you do -- and you don't want to become the go-to guy for cranking out cookie-cutter applications that immortalize 30-year-old programming standards.
  4. Insufficient skills. I like being challenged, but I also need to be able to bring more to the table than the fact that I'm a quick learner. To balance this bullet against the previous one, ideally the project should have a pretty high overlap with my niche skills, but should extend beyond them just enough to keep things interesting. I'd love to work on developing the next great programming framework, but I'd be out of my depth trying to make a computer pass the Turing Test. I might be flattering myself just a bit here.
  5. Conflict of interest. This is really a special case of an ethical problem, but deserves separate attention. Except for special cases where you can provide your services without being privy to trade secrets, you don't want to go to work for a direct competitor of one of your existing clients unless you're ready to cut the ties with that first client. You should also be cautious about taking work from a company that employs your significant other, a close friend, or a member of your family. Not saying that you can't do it, but be aware that if either engagement goes south, the other can suffer as a proxy punching bag.
  6. Interpersonal issues. Some people are just too hard to work with. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks on this one.
  7. Low pay. Some projects don't have the budget. I find that this one is becoming less of an objection to me as I grow older, though. Sometimes your heart is in it -- like a charity or an open-source project. Sometimes it's fun to help out the small startup and see where it goes. And sometimes those small startups make it big, so taking a share of the business in lieu of pay might even turn out to be a good financial decision in the long run. What you don't want to do is take less than you deserve from a company that's maintaining status quo.

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...

19 comments
ferencMantfeld
ferencMantfeld

About 18 months ago, I felt truly liberated. I was in the enviable position to tell a customer that we will not sell our software to him, as it was our right to refuse any customer. The guy wanted our software to consolidate financials for 3 high-class brothels he was running and there is an industry I just don't want our name associated with. So much to his bewilderment, I refused to let him use our software. I felt free!!! I never had the same power of decision when I was working for anyone else.

dgh2007
dgh2007

You forgot the obvious (read: simple) 8th (or should that be 1st) reason: If it does not feel right, DON'T!

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

Thanks for the article. It touches so many little hot buttons it's hard to know where to start and impossible to answer thoroughly, so here are some of my ways of dealing with a couple of them. 7. After the taxes and my helpers are paid, what do you have that I can use? From time to time I've ended up with limo service, use of a plane, office space... as long as one keeps the paperwork straight one can have some fun. 4. I'm real up front with my clients about what I can and can't do. If I don't have a particular skill set and the client wants me to "do the best you can", my price goes way up and I tell the client why. If I'm going to have to pay someone to fix up a mess I made I have to be able to afford it. 6. I had a wonderful programmer who spoke English well but when faced with a client who was proving more and more unreasonable would pretend his only English was "Is it payday yet?" and "Where's the bathroom?". Damn, that worked well.

stephen.gibbs
stephen.gibbs

Thanks for this timely article. I am in the process of drafting a proposal and asking myself exactly these questions. In my case "Do I have the time?" is the question I must satisfy. Many other issues like "do I want the challenge right now?" also applies. Thanks once again. Now I really do believe in fairies and serendibity.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

When you have those jerks that are just trying to play you to either get free work or to get another company to drop their price. I friggin' HATE that. Be honest about the whole thing.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

To me, ethics plays a big part of what I do and why I do it. I've tried to stay with these guidelines for thirty years. In some cases, I've refused work for some individuals who repeatedly do the same things over and over. It got to the point where I felt I wasn't having any effect on the user or his ways of doing things and I was wasting my time and his money.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're absolutely right. Even if you can't state why it isn't right, you've always got to listen to your gut. It's rarely wrong.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... someone in this forum said that when they don't know the work well they charge more. I assume you mean for the whole job, and not per hour? 7. Hmm... I'll have to remember that. 6. :D Too bad my English skills are published all over the Internet.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Serendipity I'll allow, but I'm not sure I like being characterized as a fairy. ;)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yeah, ethical reasons have become more important to me as I grow older. Now it's more about whether or not I can respect myself, and less about the money.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

Nope, I mean per hour. $125 if I know what I'm doing. $165 if I'm not sure, $240 if I haven't a clue. I started doing this in order to convince my clients that I mean it when I say I don't know something. Most clients are pretty understanding but once in awhile I get a client who just gets an attack of stupid. I learned the system from my mechanic who has a sign in his shop: $40 if I do the work, $65 if you watch, $110 if you help. Thanks again for the article, it brought back so many "fond" memories and more than a few laughs.

marko.krajnc
marko.krajnc

I've learned that many people who don't know IT work very well, feel that all software should be free of charge (effect of open-source, freeware, copying over P2P, ...). I try to make my first estimation as soon as possible and then see the response from a potential customer. If price is good for them, I continue. If they want a new Mercedes for $100 I appologize myself... "for the labourer is worthy of his reward." :-)

thought
thought

No matter when you grasp ethics in life remember this; only you can take away from your personal/business integrity. Lost ?business? is a far easier pill to swallow than abandoned integrity.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

My reasoning is: if I screw something up past fixing I'm going to have to hire someone who knows more than I do to fix it. They aren't going to work for free and I do have to make my expenses hence the higher rate. I do pro bono for a bunch of seniors and handicapped people too, so my actual rate per hour ends up a lot less :) There are other side benefits too. One client (a bioethicist) asked me to get involved in one of his projects. Since it was outside my area of competence.... well, it paid well.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've been known to give breaks on my hourly if I'm in learning mode -- I'll have to think over your approach.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's why I always frame my rate as charging for my time and expertise, not for the end product.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The money may be gone in a month, but you have to look yourself in the mirror every day for the rest of your life.