Note: This IT Consultant article originally published on September 19, 2007.
It hasn't happened to me for a long time, but back when I first started consulting independently I would sometimes find myself in a situation where I really didn't have a clue about what I was doing. Maybe it was the need for income or an overinflated opinion of my own abilities that led me to take on a project in unfamiliar territory — but whatever the reason I would suddenly wake up to the "uh oh" of the situation. I'd feel like a hole was growing beneath my feet, imagining how my client would react if they knew that they had hired a consultant — a supposed "expert" — who knew little or nothing more about what to do than they did. Naturally, the next thought to come to mind was "what now?"
Should you cram for it? Google it like mad? Ask all your colleagues about it? Buy a book? Work extra hours on it on your own dime to get familiar with it?
In my experience, the first thing you should do is come clean to your client. If you try to hide your ignorance, it's likely to show through anyway — and you'll have to spend way too much time weaving lies. So, how do you tell them?
Hello, Client. Look, after getting a little way into this project, I found that it requires knowledge of some things that lie beyond my experience. That's likely to add to the time required to complete the project, as I'll have to research those areas first. I'm sorry I didn't spot that when we first contracted for the work. I'd be happy to continue if you're willing to fund and wait for the research, but I'd certainly understand if you need to give the work to someone else more familiar with the problem domain.
You might even give them a break on your rate for contributing to your education.
Owning up to the problem usually elicits a "thank you" from your client, regardless of what happens next. If they consider you for subsequent projects, they're likely to ask you "Are you sure you understand this fully?" But at least they'll know that they can believe your response.
Naturally, the best thing is to avoid getting into this situation in the first place. Know your abilities, as well as your deficiencies. If a client wants to engage you for something about which you know little, tell them so. Offer to research it, or to refer them to someone who is more familiar with the subject. Don't be afraid to lose the work because you don't know the ropes. In that case, you probably don't want the job anyway, and you surely don't want to try to pass yourself off as an expert.
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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.