Throwing money at a project won't get it finished

When your company sets project goals that are unrealistic, does hiring contract workers make those reachable? Or will it make matters worse?

Here’s an aphorism I know you’ve all heard: “Poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an automatic emergency on mine.” Based on a conversation I had recently with a software developer, I’d like to propose the IT version: “Hiring a boatload of consultants doesn’t mean a project will get finished on time.” Here’s the scoop.

When upper management hasn’t a clue
I have a friend who’s the lead developer for a medium-size software company. He’s “da man,” the person to whom the other developers come for help. When we met for lunch last week, he started our discussion with this question: “If you had to write 300 extra columns next week, could you do it?”

“Um, well, probably not. I’m fast, but I’m not that fast.”

“But couldn’t you do it if you hired 100 contract writers?”

“Well, um, maybe.” (Frankly, I wasn’t sure where he was going with this line of questioning.)

“How much of your time would it take to bring those contract writers up to speed?”

“It would take a lot of my time,” I replied. “I’d have to explain my editorial preferences, make sure they knew how to use our tools and templates, and I’d have to make sure none of the contract people were writing on the same topics.”

“Bingo,” he said. It turns out that the high-level managers at his company had made the “executive decision” to accelerate the production schedule on current products and add several new products to the mix. When the development team said, “No way, we’re already working 60 to 80 hours a week as it is,” management’s response was, “Well, can’t you get it all finished if we hire some consultants to help you?

It’s been a while since I worked on a development team—it was a FoxPro for Windows 2.6 project—but I knew exactly what my friend meant. Assuming you can find enough qualified contract workers, someone must explain to them what’s been done so far, what needs to be done, and the conventions by which everyone on the development team needs to abide.

If the lead developer has to spend a week bringing the contractors up to speed, guess what? The project falls behind because the project leader is busy doing training!

Ditch-digging is one of the few tasks that can be completed faster simply by throwing more bodies at it. You get 100 people digging, your ditch will be finished sooner. Unfortunately, too many nontechnical managers operate under the naïve misconception that if you throw more money and people at an IT project, you can accomplish anything in any time frame.

So what’s the alternative?
I wish I had a perfect solution to this dilemma. If I were in my friend’s shoes, I’d be brutally honest with management and lay out a realistic plan for accomplishing the goals set for the development team.

Share your tales of unrealistic expectations
If you’ve been in a position where you were expected to save the day by bringing a gaggle of contract workers up to speed, we want to hear from you. Please share your story below or drop us a note.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.

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