On my first considerably large project, I had the luxury of working for the prime contractor. I could focus my efforts on my client’s needs and leave the politicking to the managers. My second such project (well over 80,000 nodes) exposed me to a radically different side of the consulting world. It also taught me several valuable lessons in the ethics of subcontracting.

The client wanted to install a new network infrastructure and simultaneously refresh 20,000 desktops. After sending the project out to bid, the client decided that one company couldn’t handle the entire job. The client assigned one of the companies prime contractor status and told it to hire the rest of the bidders as subcontractors for various functions. My company landed the server and network design, along with a handful of desktop refresh locations. Other companies received development work, network deployment, backbone telecom work, and similar activities.

Just before I left for the client site, my manager asked me to step into his office. Behind closed doors, he instructed me to keep my eyes out for any opportunity to “get in on the action” on other parts of the project. Though he never said it outright, he left me with the impression that if I could figure out a way to make the other companies look bad, he certainly wouldn’t mind.

On my first day on the client site, I felt like I was swimming with sharks. The various subcontractor teams eyed each other for weaknesses while meeting and greeting with the client. Within a week, we polarized into three camps of competing organizations. Every week, I got an e-mail from my manager asking me about new opportunities with the client. From talking to coworkers with the other subcontractors, I know that they received nearly identical mail from their bosses.

Within a month, the various camps fell apart as we started bickering among ourselves. We started to spend our time looking for flaws in the other companies’ work. Every error was brought to the client in the worst possible light. Private e-mail became public knowledge. Our various managers demanded that they be allowed to screen all messages sent to anyone outside the company for “inappropriate content.” Millions of dollars were on the line, and everyone wanted the whole pot.

As relationships soured, work came to a complete halt. No one was willing to release designs or work plans to the client for fear that they would come under fire from competitors. Eventually, the client manager called the various contractor project managers, technical seniors, and sales folks into a room. He told us we had two choices: Get it together or the entire project went out for rebid, with our companies excluded from the process. Faced with losing all the revenue, our various managers agreed to back down. However, repairing the torn social fabric of the team took much longer.

Why things fell apart
Looking back on the project, I tried to understand not just what went wrong, but what I might have done differently to prevent it from happening. Just understanding the mistake would only lead me to frustration when I encountered the same problem in the future.

On a very basic level, all of our managers were simply doing their jobs. They were responsible for the profit and loss of their divisions in their respective companies. When they saw a project worth tens of millions of dollars, they had a predictable and acceptable reaction. In fact, if they hadn’t applied pressure to the on-site teams to go after more of the project, they wouldn’t have fulfilled their responsibilities. In my company’s case, I know we also had several engineers on the bench who had skill sets that matched parts of the project that other subcontractors controlled. Getting them off the bench and billing would have drastically improved my manager’s overhead situation.

So if our managers’ behavior was not only normal but also predicated on their own goals, who made the mistake? I realized that my own behavior, as well as that of my colleagues in other companies, was what led to the breakdown in our project. In our drive to do our jobs, we lost focus on why we were there.

Rhetoric aside, most technical people, even seniors, don’t have the social and organizational skills to balance sales activity with technical work. We’re tremendous sales assets because of the knowledge and ability we bring to the clients. We sell by demonstrating that we have considerable competence in a variety of areas and by constantly outstripping technical and logistical goals.

By giving in to the pressure to sell, I failed to maintain professional standards. I wanted to please my manager by bringing in a large chunk of new business. Instead, I should have stayed the course, working for the betterment of my company and my client.

Based on this experience, I created what I call the client rule. I repeat it to myself at least once a day when I’m working as a subcontractor: The client has hired us to do a job. All of us, working together, can accomplish things that, working apart, we never could. It is up to me to create the cohesion that will allow that to happen. The client doesn’t care how many of us there are. He only cares that the job gets done on time, under budget, and with as many useful features as possible.

Fast forward
A year or so later, I went to work again as a subcontractor on another large job (about 20,000 nodes). My company was one of four subcontractors hired after a bidding process by the prime contractor at the client’s insistence. I received the standard lecture about finding more business from this client before getting on a plane for the first client meeting.

Before going to the client site, I stopped off at the prime’s regional administrative center. After a quick conversation with the prime’s project manager, I loaded up on its luggage tags, some polo shirts, and a temporary company ID card. (This is a small “political” trick some of you may already know about. By bearing items with the prime contractor’s logo, you let everyone know you’ve worked together successfully in the past and have a good working relationship.)

When I met up with my company’s client rep, I talked him into putting the luggage tag on his laptop case. During the first meeting with the client, I concentrated on saying we and us every time I was asked about the project team.

The first meeting set the tone that I maintained throughout the engagement. Over the course of several months, the other subcontractors joined me. As we pressed forward and excelled, all of our companies received additional contracts. At the end of the project, the client thanked us for an extremely professional and pleasant experience.

In the first case, I allowed my desire to please my managers to interfere with getting the job done for my client. In the second, I accepted my own responsibility for setting the tone of my work environment and created a more successful engagement for everyone.