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The CEO of a startup that I work with has, unfortunately, grand ideas about software that we can build. It is in a field that I am interested in, so it excites me, but at the same time I am realistic - there are a dozen other companies that specialize in this software, and they have vastly more resources than we do (I would be the only software developer, and I work about 30 hours per month with this company). Let me be clear here: the software we're talking about has been in development by multi-national corporations for decades, incorporating bleeding-edge research and millions of users' data. We don't have employees, decades, nor experience enough to understand academic research in order to build and improve the system.

How can I gently tell my boss/partner “dude, I really wish we could make this, but it’s literally impossible given our resources”?

PS - I am on very good/informal terms with the CEO, so letting him down easy in a conversational way would be most logical here. However, I'm looking for a more diplomatic way to break this news to the CEO, especially considering how a manager/project lead would want to learn about the inevitable failure and potential damage to the company should such a project be persued.

EDIT: this is clearly not a duplicate of the one proposed. Simply reading the question and answers shows that...

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    @gnat This has nothing to do with deadlines. This project hasn't even started yet, and it shouldn't start because it's unrealistic. – Chris Cirefice May 12 '18 at 21:09
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    @gnat Are you sure? I just read the answer and there is nothing about "letting a manager down easy for an unrealistic project". Perhaps there is a Q/A that has advice for what I'm looking for, but it's definitely not in that post... – Chris Cirefice May 12 '18 at 21:13
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    No idea why this was marked as a dup when literally none of the answers there has anything to do with this question... @JoeStrazzere I could very well say those exact words, but I'm looking for a more diplomatic way to break this news, especially from a managerial point of view (how managers would want to hear something like this). I can be informal, but I don't want to just say "yeaaaah.... sorry dude that isn't gonna work". I don't know how to present in a "it would be horrible for the business" sense. You know what I mean? – Chris Cirefice May 12 '18 at 21:37
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    30 hours a month. In a year you do the work that I do in 8 or 9 weeks. You can't do development work in that time. – gnasher729 May 13 '18 at 7:34
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    Several giant established players, decades of research, millions invested, perception of complexity and high bar to enter... Sounds like exactly the sort of market that needs disruption by a novel startup – dwizum May 14 '18 at 17:24
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Don't tell him you can't - tell him you can.

Then give him a realistic project plan, showing how long and how many people are needed - plus costs.

Let him decide.

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    Well although I appreciate that kind of optimism, at some point reality kicks in and some dreams are just not realistic whatever the number of people or quantity of effort you put on it. Also, doing such an analyse also takes time which would then be a total waste if you already know this isn't going to match... – Laurent S. May 14 '18 at 9:39
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    I would add that furthermore, it may not be in OP skills to even being able to estimate how many people and time would be needed. – Walfrat May 14 '18 at 12:27
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    I agree with commenters. If I had the required expertise (I don’t), it would take days to even come close to an accurate estimate. While this might be really practical advice for some people, it’s unfortunately not for me. I don’t have the knowledge or time to estimate the costs for such a project. – Chris Cirefice May 14 '18 at 13:41
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    I would have a higher-level conversation with your boss about why you think this is a bad idea before implementing this answer. Simple reasons such as "This would take tens of developers working full-time with a deep knowledge of this domain." If he then wants to drill deeper ("Why would it take tens of developers?"), then you will have to go deeper, too, and show him what a "realistic" plan would actually look like--e.g., this answer. It all depends on whether your boss is swayed by the higher-level reasoning. – The Spartan May 14 '18 at 17:23
  • @LaurentS.: The point isn't to assume feasibility or to guarantee that you can come up with a full plan of action; but rather to come back with concrete and quantifiable feedback that either (a) lets the CEO make an informed decision on the actual required cost/effort or (b) realize this is well beyond their resources. Without that concrete feedback, the conversation is liable to be interpreted as opinion rather than valid justification. – Flater Oct 26 at 0:10
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How can I gently tell my boss/partner “dude, I really wish we could make this, but it’s literally impossible given our resources”?

You could do this on a one-on-one meeting or talk, but even though you are on good terms (and could even try that phrase you used) I suggest you phrase it more assertively, something like this:

Hello Joe, I've been giving some thought lately to the project we discussed. I really like the idea, and am exited about all this. However, I fear that with the current resources we have it will take much more time to complete. Would you mind if we go over this again to dismiss those worries?

It is likely that your CEO may debate after telling him this, so it would be best if you bring him your estimated schedule for the project to back up your claims.

This will also serve you as an exercise to actually lay down in paper and grasp the real extent of the project you have in hands, giving you a more solid assessment of the feasibility of the project. Who knows, perhaps it will seem more doable after you do that.

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    "dismiss those worries" immediately puts your own argument on the backfoot and is liable to give oxygen to already uninformed wishful managerial decisions (which OP's CEO may or may not be making). I'm not saying you should be unswayable in your own opinion (that's too far the other way), but there's a difference between being realistic and undercutting your own (justified) position from the get-go. Comparatively, "address those concerns" does not imply that the concerns are dismissable while still maintaining that they should be addressed nonetheless. – Flater Oct 26 at 0:22
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My recommendation is follow your gut.

Clearly you want to keep your future friendship and working relationship with the CEO, however you do work for him so I would strive to be as professional as possible and produce a great but short report.

Map the project in terms of man hours and put it into three growth phases over three years of development. In each phase increase the team size appropriately and thus the man hours including any related costs like workspace / equipment / servers / backups / security / electricity / etc as required. By close of phase three your project will be costly. It will require significant investment in terms of time, management and cash-flow on the CEO's part.

Then invite him out for lunch or dinner and casually and succinctly present your findings. Put the ball squarely in his court. This is what it will take to bring to market.

You may be surprised by your finished report. I would be open in your thinking to the idea of it being a great success. Either way, after you present the report it will end things well or spur on the CEO to actually getting it done.

Lastly don't forget, doing this thorough but short report is exiting, this could be a wonderful stepping stone and opportunity for your future growth. Best of Luck. T

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Either your CEO is unaware of the existing products and how much effort it would take to duplicate them, or else he knows about them but thinks your company can come up with something cheaper and better. If you choose to have this conversation, DO NOT start with "your idea won't work because..."

Instead, briefly describe the existing entrants and then try to get an idea whether your CEO has a slick idea for competing, or if he just wasn't aware that these products already existed. Come to that meeting having already done your homework about the features and competitive advantages of the existing products, and when they came onto the market.

If your CEO wants to make a product because he thinks it's missing from the marketplace, you may give him the information he needs to decide how to enter the market (perhaps by using an existing product from another company and adding value to it). If he has an approach in mind that you don't know about, then at worst, you've shown interest and savvy.

Ages ago, my employer wanted me to write some project-management software and when I saw their specs, I realized they really just needed to buy Microsoft Project and learn how to use it. Stupidly, I told them that and went back to what I had been doing. If I had offered my services as a trainer or project liaison, I would have made a much better impression, and probably more money. It was a stupid move, a missed opportunity. Lesson: figure out what the people with the money want to do, and why, then help them accomplish their goal. DO NOT tell them their goals are wrong.

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Im gonna go with the obviously hated bottom rated answer first... then get into some details. Short version: You should not tell your CEO that particular opinion in the way you are describing it.

Now for the details. Your opinion isnt wrong, because of the '... given our resources'. Another way to phrase what you are trying to say is that YOU dont know how to accomplish the task. The resource in question is you. Telling your CEO that you dont know how to do it is likely the answer you are looking for here. Thats a very legit, and useful, way to move forward.

Here is what I keyed in on: You listed all the reasons that its impossible. They may be true, but they are also by definitions excuses. As Nelson Mandela said 'Everything is impossible... until someone does it.'

The situation you are describing is an opportunity. Instead of trying to do it the same way as the "multi-national corporations for decades, incorporating bleeding-edge research and millions of users' data. " tried to do it, look for a different path up the same mountain. What your CEO, and your company needs, is fresh perspective, a new way of approaching the problem. You, and your company, will be much better off putting your effort in that direction, rather than pushing back against your leader.

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  • That's...not quite how it works. Google exists because they have thousands of developers, most of whom are top minds from top schools, all working in the same direction. They have postdoc-level researchers looking into methods and procedures. They have millions, if not billions, of dollars in server farms that they own, and associated real estate and so on. If your boss says to you "build me Google, by yourself, you have 6 months and zero budget", the correct answer is "go jump in a lake". – Ertai87 Oct 26 at 21:37
  • Actually, that is precisely how it does work. For a little context, I am a CEO and CTO that has twice built and managed the largest corporate computing enterprises, for two different DOW 10 corporations. What would have happened if Webb had told Kennedy to 'go jump in a lake' when he gave him the task of getting to the moon in 9 years? Everyone knew it was impossible... You wont get this I know. You will keep arguing for your limitations until they own you. However, 1 out of 100 readers might get the real point about attitude. – user3445213 Oct 28 at 0:21
  • Kennedy also gave Webb infinite leeway and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and access to the greatest scientists. OP doesn't have those resources; in fact he doesn't have /any/ resources. If I told you you were not allowed to hire anyone and you had no budget and you had to do everything yourself, would you have been as successful? Cause that's what OP is saying. – Ertai87 Oct 28 at 14:48
  • Again, you are missing the point about attitude here. I have in fact been successful under exactly those circumstances. It is also possible to not be successful under those, or other circumstances. That is not the point. It is not his role to push back against his leader. Giving an opinion during scoping/planning is one thing, what the OP is describing is textbook 'having a bad attitude'. As Hannibal said 'Find a way, or make one' – user3445213 Oct 28 at 16:28
  • FWIW, I have also fired literally dozens of engineers for exactly this behavior. Maybe even just one young engineer reading this will catch a clue and realize how self-defeating it is to argue that something is "impossible". "I dont know how", or "I need help" are totally valid. 'It is impossible"(because I say it is) is not. – user3445213 Oct 28 at 16:37
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If it was me, I would ask him about what competitive advantages he hopes to achieve. This does two things, first it might clarify in his mind the he cannot beat the big guys. Secondly, it clarifies what he expects you to do. If he does clarify that, or tells you just go ahead and do the framework of the system, the I would do so to the best of my ability.

He is the CEO and you are the developer. You probably get paid the same if the project succeeds or fails. Do what you are asked to do to the best of your ability.

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Don't you dare have this conversation, ever!

It's your CEO's money, blood, sweat and tears invested into this business. You don't have much to lose other than a steady paycheck if things go bad.

Unless he asked you point blank for an opinion about the viability of his entire business plan, I would never offer your opinions, because your opinions here are going to show him your lack of faith in the business. If you convince yourself you can't do it, you'll succeed every time, and I personally wouldn't want someone working for me that didn't believe in the success of the core of the business.

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    You don’t have much to lose other than a steady paycheck if things go bad”... yeah, and I kind of need that paycheck. I don’t have a lack of faith in the business, just the idea of this project. A single dev (maybe two) working 30 hours per month can’t compete with the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. – Chris Cirefice May 14 '18 at 18:50
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    This is an extreme answer. I think the OP is looking more for ways to communicate that the project the CEO is aiming for (although technically possible) is not in their current resources and workload. – Isaiah3015 May 14 '18 at 23:22
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    This isn't a binary "either you're a nay sayer or a yes man" situation. I agree that being a nay sayer isn't going to curry favor and is not advisable, but that doesn't mean you should become a yes man as if it's the only other option. If the CEO specifically is not interested in any discussion on the topic, that'd be different; but given OP's question the possibility of informed communication between them and the CEO has not yet been exhausted, and is a vastly superior alternative to just becoming a yes man for a doomed project. – Flater Oct 26 at 0:29

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