Project Management optimize

What to do when you get in over your head

You don't have a clue about what you're doing on an IT consulting job. Here's advice on what to say when you come clean to the client.

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.

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...

79 comments
redwinederous
redwinederous

Honesty is always best. Under promise, over deliver works well too.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

in this day and age you never hear from said client again. It just seems to be the way it goes these days.

jkiernan
jkiernan

This article appears under "New at TechRepublic" in the Nov. 1, 2010, email newsletter. I don't mind looking at older posts in case I missed it before, but rehashed content does not belong under this category.

The Listed 'G MAN'
The Listed 'G MAN'

This is a great thread to use as an example to employers NOT to hire said outside consultant / short term contractor. Or so it would seem........

dawgit
dawgit

And it seems to be good timing. I fell much better about not going through with a project that had gotten blown up way over my head. (politics, even X-( ) It could have been a "Golden Opertunity", but started looking like (and feeling like it too) an Anchor that was going to be tied around my neck. I bowed out. Oh-well. -d

drhesq
drhesq

Anyone reading the article and putting up posts have a myriad of theories as to what is the better business practice. The only things that matter to me are; The fact that he had the guts to step out; He is a professional proven by his contribution to our knowledge base and, finally; Has the intestinal fortitude to stay independent through proven and moral business practices in light of the numerous of offers I am sure he has received. I have a ton of respect for the author and wish him only the best.

itguyinde
itguyinde

You gotta set the right expectation with a client. If you don't tell them you are unfamiliar with a technology they are going to assume that you are since you are a 'tech guy'. Many people don't realize it is as involved as the business is.

dean.owen
dean.owen

when it's young and tender - don't wait until it's old and tough. Good advice I recieved from a veteran project manager years ago. It applies to any 'gotcha' in a project.

cjones
cjones

When I get stuck on something, I don't always take the know it all approach. After all, I didn't design the software/hardware that I'm working with. If it's a Cisco configuration, open a support ticket. If it's a software package, call software support. Use the tools available to you. If it's an infrastructure design and you just can't get it to work, then call in another consultant and subcontract him until you can take the project back over. Just say you are bringing in someone to help you with an overly complicated part of the setup.

lgorbic
lgorbic

I have never gotten over my head in the past 20 years because I have a social network of experts who can offer advice and support if I have an unexpected need. You can also get over your head if your one indispensible worker quits mid-contract - the social network also works here.

ccook
ccook

I am a one-person IT department. So, as we bring in new technologies, it is safe to say I probably don't have experience with them. Fortunately, my boss is very supportive of me learning about the technologies in whatever way makes sense, and also bringing in experts as needed for some knowledge transfer. On the flip side, I brought in one expert with whom I had previously worked for a project. We had a good working relationship and I trusted him. He told me he didn't have direct experience with the technology but that he would cut his rate while getting ramped up. I was okay with this, my boss was not. So we ended up contracting a consultant who was an expert in the technology but kind of a jerk to work with. Which was the better solution? You can tell my opinion!

tradergeorge
tradergeorge

First of all, the obvious answer is to not accept contracts without knowing the scope and expertise involved. But as has been said, unexpected things happen that cause one to get in "over their head". I do not subscribe to the "tell the client and let the chips fall" theory. Even the author admits that this can have some confidence repercussions for future jobs. And in a community as competitive and incestuous as ours, it could lead to few or no future jobs as the word gets out. I believe that one should just grab the bootstraps and fulfill the contract, no matter what it takes. If that means hiring your own consultant(s) who have the expertise needed at your cost, then so be it. This is true, even if you have to take a loss on the job. A reputation for getting the job done in all cases is golden and will pay for any minor setbacks in the long run.

blieffring
blieffring

IT hyperbole time. If the job was to run a network cable and a switch, who handles what when you look inside the drywall and find a roof leak with toxic mold, termites, bad electrical, and asbestos? Do you just try to upgrade the contract to wireless? If you have to move a rock, are you responsible for what you find underneath? The worst unanticipated problems are discovered and are usually from an unfounded assumption of sound IT fundamentals and foundation. Ongoing problems are usually caused by someone else who disagrees with the solution and tries to modify it, or leaving a site with no one capable of basic maintenance.

Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

Yul didn't go into that mexican town to flush out the banditos all by himself. He hired subcontractors. When a client asks me to work "out of my depth". I tell them up front that I'll be subcontracting an expert. I stay in charge, my client continues to deal with a known quantity, and I look like the professional I claim to be. This isn't a matter of 'fessing up to inadequacy, it's a matter of knowing where to go to get what you need. No shame, no blame.

Jack-M
Jack-M

'What to do when you get in over your head' is an interesting, thought provoking question. As someone who has been in this situation my answer has always been "fake it until you make it". It's served me well for many years.

ganymede28211
ganymede28211

The company I work for is a do it now, we don't care if we know it, get it done, why isn't it right? kind of place. I hate it. But constantly we learn on client expense without the knowledge of the client. I feel it very unethical but it pays well and there aren't many replacements for my field of work here.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

and can be influenced when a thread resurfaces.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

TR's queries have a bad habit of unearthing zombies. Seen stuff from 2007 come up in new discussions before now, f'ing irritating....

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

From where I sit I get pulled in even deeper every time that I try to get out of one of these and then they Recommend me to others to do similar work. :( I just love the Specialized Low Volume Applications which no one knows enough about to setup properly. I even got Blackmailed by My Quack to setup their New Server Application [i]"which was a nightmare in itself"[/i] to work with a as yet unreleased Medical Program which they where going to use because it had a Better Patient DBase that sort of worked. :D You can pickup a lot of useless information when you do these things and because you solved a problem they want you back. :( Now if I could only find someone else as Stupid as I am I could finally retire. :^0 Col

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... the social composition of a project team is even more important than their individual abilities.

J_Kay22
J_Kay22

I think admitting that you don't know something, but then making the necessary pay cut to accomodate that was the right move. It's a shame your boss didn't understand that....

alaniane
alaniane

is the best. Sometimes it pays to let the client know that you are over your head. Honesty in the matter will improve your reputation with the client. Also, if the client sees you sub-contracting out the work when you are the one who is supposing to be doing the work, they may conclude that you are trying to sham them. However, if you let them know why you are bringing in the sub-contractor then they are more likely to contract with you again since they know that if the project covers areas out of your expertise, you will find someone who can handle those areas.

mike_patburgess
mike_patburgess

Great response. I do this all of the time. Sub-contract a subject matter expert.. In that way you are right, you can keep control of the project. You do however run the risk of having the sub take over but you can eliminate that by have the appropiate binding documents in place.

Chief Alchemist
Chief Alchemist

Hate to say it Jack, but you should not be in an "agency" position if your assumption is that your #1 job is to serve yourself. That's total crap. If you think serving yourself at the expense of the client is OK then your ethics are much different than my own. Speaking from experience, I've dealt with two contractors over the last two years, both of which had a "I'm doing you a favour" approach. And I honestly would not have minded had they been able to deliver results as timely as they delivered invoices. Btw, it's not a favour if you're sending me a bill. Needless to say, I'm still trying to find someone who can make it without having to fake it. Faking it doesn't pay my bills. In fact, it only prolongs the red ink. That's not Ok. Sorry Jack but I can not disagree with you more. Thanks for letting me vent :)

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

And if one continuously fakes it, his/her reputation goes to sh*t as well and the title of being called a professional goes with it.

AlphaW
AlphaW

Your company sounds just like a consulting firm I worked for right before year 2000. They charged the client high dollars while taking people with no or minimal knowledge to do the work. I got chewed out once for finishing up an assignment "too quickly". Just shows you what ethics they didn't have. Karma caught up with them and the company folded,

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Years ago that was the norm, because nobody knew much about anything. But I think it's still pretty common practice. I wouldn't have a problem with it, except that it isn't usually represented to the customer that way.

jck
jck

I have had times when a customer thought terms that were agreed to meant one thing, and I thought it was another. I didn't oversell myself, but it was not something I was adept with implementing. Honesty handled it. I did most of it, billed for that, and found them someone who could perform what else needed to be done.

centgrafd
centgrafd

I have been on both sides of this equation. I have had Contracts come in confident and arrogent with knowledge only to embrass themshelves, by being less knowledable than I about the matter. I have far more respect for an individual who will tell me upfront what is going on then only to loss time on a project because someone doesn't know what they are doing. Always be careful what say... they could be testing you. Which comes back to what I was saying, honesty is always best and at the earliest possible moment.

dba88
dba88

I got myself into more than I could handle earlier in my career. I found it embarassing and it really made me far more cautious about what I could realistically take on. I over-assess almost every client engagement now and rate on a personal scale what I can do and what I cannot. If I don't know the subject matter well, I will not take the project! Why put yourself in a position where you lose sleep, make yourself sick and dig a hole for yourself?? All of this can be avoided easily!

James Jelinek
James Jelinek

As a general rule, I will do my best to determine the scope of work and find out what the project/gig requires before taking it on. If it's something that I cannot handle (be it time, skill, or resource constraints) I will either pass on the job or better yet refer it to one of my colleagues that I trust to get the job done properly. Now that's not to say that I've never oversold myself. I've dived into many an empty pool, head first! How did I get around it? I called upon whatever extra resources I could for help and a lot of times pushed to learn as I progressed. It was stressful but taught me lessons that are valuable. Great post as always, Sterling!

Matthew S
Matthew S

Based on some of the responses, no wonder people think used car salesmen are more trustworthy than IT people. Chip is on the right path - if you manage your clients with a long-term perspective (i.e. imagine you want to have a successful engagement with the client in 10, 15, 20 years from now), commitment AND integrity must be engrained in every engagement. I think ?fessing up and staying committed to close the gaps through self-education and / or engagement of sub-contracted experts ? or even going so far as passing over the contract to a better positioned person / entity ? are all viable options. If you do not have contacts you trust to do this with (i.e. intro to your client), then welcome to drinking from your own poisoned well ? your are now enjoying the fruits of your own deceptive and untrustworthy practices.

Developr
Developr

I know exactly what you have experienced Chip. Been there, done that several times. Although some of my development work is done under reasonably well defined contract terms (and this is normally fairly well defined), my largest client has transitioned me into becoming their primary IT support resource. As you might imagine, I have learned an incredible amount since this process started a few years ago. As I navigated numerous challenges along the way, I became more knowledgeable and experienced which means I am more valuable today to both this client and any other client who needs my services. I agree that being honest with your client about your abilities is always the best approach. But there is also this fine line between losing a new opportunity and being pushed to develop skills in new areas. In my case, the client understood up front that I was making a commitment to support them and that there would be a need for me to often research and learn in order to solve problems. In agreement with my client, any research time I invest in learning somewhat common tech knowledge is billed at a very low rate. Doing that allows my client to invest in improving my ability to support them and also forces me to invest in learning more to become even more valuable as an IT resource. We both benefit in the end. And I still have volumes more to learn!

global
global

Good Morning I think a lot of people have entered into that realm one time or another. The only thing I see is these opportunity offerings ot there have such a large skillset attached, that not one person is going to be proficient in all of the skillset. I have seen ads out there like need someone with 8-10 different languages etc. Now one person might know 50-65% of the skillset but not all. Myself I would like to conduct some freelance web design development, small opportunities until I have completed my BSIT but the extensive skillset that the employer wants are to steep, knockd me right out of the opportunity. So I don't know, if you have any ideas to pass along to me please email me at....global@global-network.ws I am always willing to pick-up on more educational add-on to my current program to research new programming to help out into freelancing. I figure starting out with small opportunities leading to larger ones would be the way to go. Profile on myself is located at http://globalnetwork.greatestjournal.com Thanks Ken

techrepublic
techrepublic

No such thing, man! :-D But seriously, nobody can know everything. If I bump into something I'm not totally familiar with, I look it up, get a book, get some help from a colleague with more knowledge in that area. Then I learn the thing. And I don't bill the client for the time to do it. That extra time is part of my own professional development. And I don't blow the schedule, either. I deliver as promised and they never know the difference. Let's see, I'm in a bind and the only way out is to learn something new about computers/software? That's the FUN part!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I have bit off more than I could chew on a few occasions though as an employee. What did I do, filed my teeth and chewed harder. What else is there? I said I could do it, so I did it, no other palatable options.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

of the project and the consultant's/contractor's area of expertise. The honorable thing to do is to remind the client that they are deviating from the original scope of work and if they require this change, a new contract must be negotiated or the existing contract amended at a cost. Also, it must be made loud and clear to the client that what they want outside of the scope of work requires expertise beyond your knowledge. The problem with many clients is that they are naive and think that since we deal with computers, we are somehow experts in every aspect of IT under the sun, such as routers, switches, telecom, and programming. Every so often, the client needs to get a reality check and reminded why they hired you in the first place and what you can and cannot do.

ashij
ashij

as the title says, It IS, as if the lights go off and i have to use a candle and "imagine" things rather than seeing them as they should be.. Do foolish things and follow blind instincts :P which are helpful only 1 in hundreds or thousand times..

dawgit
dawgit

I wouldn't go around saying that about me at all. I've been in over my head so many times that I recognize the smell now. That's not luck, that's something else... -d

apotheon
apotheon

It has been added to the rotation for my random email signature block script.

Jordan.Martz
Jordan.Martz

YOU. When I began my career, I felt the necessity to go after the most difficult software development projects and opportunities within my reach. Learning in those pressure cookers teaches you something. Who you are. If one really wants to be a great IT practitioner, you're going to have to learn how to SURVIVE(when you don't know what you're doing), ADAPT (when all the pieces are laying themselves out), and APPLY (when you just met you deadline, and the client has no idea how hard you worked). I promise you that those contracts will pay for themselves both monetarily and at most of all when you're leaving the office at midnight instead of 6am.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

In this biz, reputation is EVERYTHING. I would rather undersell my abilities than oversell them. I've had to clean up too many messes...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Many times you can seem to get away with faking it, but the quality of the work suffers. Even if you aren't found out, the customer can often tell that they're not getting a top notch product from you, and your reputation will be hurt. That said, when you're first starting out you may have to scramble to learn quite a few things. But the sooner you can suit the work to your abilities, the better.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"dived into an empty pool, head first!" ... then tried to spit fast enough to fill it before hitting bottom.

apotheon
apotheon

A lack of integrity and personal responsibility is epidemic. It's not just in IT, and I don't even think it's particular to our time -- though the greater facility of communication and dissemination of information and ideas in modern times may be part of the reason that the societal influences that encourage self-centered rejection of personal responsibility are able to affect so many. The reasons people do things like deal dishonestly with their clients, employers, employees, and consultants are likely closely related to the reasons people do things like go on shooting sprees, have an extra baby or two to improve their ability to leech off welfare, and cheat on their spouses. A hint to the sort of motivating factors in society that lead to this bad behavior rests in a recent study that shows that people who do not believe in free will are more likely to cheat (in games, on tests, on their spouses, et cetera). Postmodernistic perspectives eliminate much of the sense of responsibility from oneself, as do the nanny state, many modern practices of psychology and psychiatry, and anything else that tends to infantilize the individual -- or, worse, deprecate the concept of individuality itself. I believe individualists are more likely to take responsibility for themselves, contribute to a better world in a personal and meaningful manner, and deal honestly with others, than someone sold on the ideologies of collectivism, paternal authoritarianism, and social parasitism. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who really examines the underlying psychological principles of the matter could honestly come to a significantly differing conclusion -- which makes sense, since someone coming to a significantly differing conclusion would very likely be subject to the very societal motivating factors that lead to greater dishonesty in dealings with others that I described above. Hm. I'm probably way off-topic by now. This is just a subject that has been on my mind quite a bit lately.

pandppc
pandppc

The more I know... The more I know that I DON'T know... It is literally impossible to keep up with all of the rapidly changing technology. If I do not know the answer, I reply "I don't know right now, but I will find out". And then I use whatever resource necessary to do just that. The best tech rep knows where to go, who to call, how to ask and not be afraid to admit that they don't know everything. Most experts on a particular subject matter are happy to be asked and willingly pass on their knowledge.

kdaugharty5
kdaugharty5

I will google, ask friends of my that are more knowledgeable in that area than me, bring a friend a long, and while keeping the customer happy, I am expanding my knowledge, and still making my living. Don't know it, oh well, it fun learning more of what you love to do

debbie.clemons
debbie.clemons

I stay there! Every new software project is out of my depth in the beginning. I do a lot of research up front during my scope development and a lot of it is after hours. Such is the life of a PM. I think I am finally getting use to the up front jitters with the understand "this too shall pass".

ScottLander
ScottLander

What, you don't know everything there is to know about routers, mainframes and graphic design? It's all related to computers!

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Yea then I just might be able to afford the Shrink that I so desperately need. :D But till then I'll just keep smoking. Col

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... then any work looks a lot more desirable to me. But if you'd really like to say "NO", then the best way I've found (if they won't take no for an answer) is to say "OK, $1000/hr". If they say yes to that, then suddenly the work seems a lot more fun.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Maybe I'll eventually be able to retire like I planned all those years ago when I setup this place. Instead of working 24/7 all the time a Long Holiday would be interesting, That is if I could work what to do with my time. :( Col

dawgit
dawgit

That's supposed to be a "Complement". It's all those years of expirence and wisdom paying off. :^0 -d

dawgit
dawgit

There is always a trade off, either way you go. And both have associated "costs" as Sterling "Chip" Camden pointed out above. Of course, I don't always get to choose either. Something about paying bills and eating get in the way. Maybe I did get ?Lucky? on that one, I don't know. They won't be paying me either, that's not real lucky. I haven't always had the chance to choose, thanks to the military. One must do what needs to be done, and more than once I was in over my head. Sometimes literally. (Damn; I hate snakes) I can sympathise with you Col. When I had my own business many years ago, I faced the same mentality. ?But I want you to do it.? Or, even better of course, ?I don't care what it costs, just get it done?. Sounds good until amnesia sets in on the way to the bank. Oh-well Life's a gamble. (just don't bet the farm.!.) -d

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

You get people that will accept no as an answer. No matter how much I tell them that I [b]Know Nothing[/b] about anything they just do not accept No as a answer. When this happens it's way more expensive to me to keep saying no than to actually do the job whatever it is. After all how much time do you need to waste saying No before you start loosing other work? Col

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I have to disagree with you here but then again maybe it's just the type of Customers that I get lumbered with. When they phone me that have tried everyone else and I'm Point of Contact as [b]Last Resort[/b] and by this time they are [b]DESPERATE.[/b] Doesn't matter that I say [b]NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!![/b] they just push and keep pushing till I weaken and come to the conclusion that it's easier to do the work than wasting so much time on the Phone Saying No. I've have had so many jobs like this that when they first start to describe the job I say No I don't know anything about this at all. But to them all that means is that they need to push harder to get it done. :( But to be honest I've found it much easier to start from the beginning rather than finally weakening and walking in after the thing has been messed up completely. I always know when a new guy rings and says something like "Hi I'm ############### Some other client [Insert Name here] has recommended you to me to do a job." At that point I'm picking up another phone and attempting to get the numbers of every phone number within 100 miles on me changed. But I suppose these jobs are never Boring. Just not common either. It would make life so much easier if they wanted to deploy something that was used more. :D

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You were wise to turn down that "opportunity". I did so myself just recently, and I've been very glad I did. "No" is always an option. It's only a matter of what it costs you.

joshfutch
joshfutch

Some just have the ability to "make believe" and this skill takes years to learn. But I will recommend to be as honest as possible when dealing with technical issues and as cunning as a fox when it comes to commercial. How about that for a start? No point lying to a technical team during presentation because they have the "been there done that" factor in em'. Just my 9 cents

apotheon
apotheon

I was just going to disagree, based on the fact that I'd estimate about 50% of IT professionals are as you describe, and the other 50% are quite the opposite. That's my guess, based on the fact that basically all the IT professionals I deal with are as you describe, but a couple of times I've brushed up against some who hint at a completely separate world in IT -- one that very rarely comes in contact with the one of which we are a part. Then . . . I realized that 50% is probably a lot better than most professions.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I think generally speaking, IT professionals are more honest than those in many other professions, precisely because they feel a sense of responsibility for their work, precisely because they want the freedom to do their work in the manner they see most fitting. Is it any coincidence that many IT professionals have Libertarian leanings?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Often consultants want to portray an image of "knowing their stuff", but in this age of advancing technology, it's not a crime not to know something.

kdaugharty5
kdaugharty5

Yeah, that is probably the better way to do, so that you don't get that far over your head, I am not new to our business at all, but still young and wet behind the ears, in them type of situation, Thanks for the insight.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... that's not a bad problem so long as the expectations of the client have been managed such that they don't expect you to already be an expert on the topic.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

...but everyone misses something sometime. But I agree with you in your earlier response that you don't always have to take the blame for that.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Then it changed. :( When I was contracting that only happened if I agreed and someone stumped up more money.

simon.whitear
simon.whitear

... I believe Stain Devil make a product that removes blood, sweat AND tears from just about anything. It's a good start point for a discussion, I'm still amazed at the gratitude shown by clients just through judicious use of honesty. In this industry we need to move beyond the stigma that is attached to admitting ignorance, all it does is add inefficiency to an already complicated process.