119

Kinda shocked at the moment. I’m a dev who works on a team of about 20 developers.

Apparently I (along with another developer) was assigned to complete a specification about 8 months ago. I learned this morning when one of our sales reps came by and asked when the project would be ready to deploy as it is apparently due in two weeks.

The problem is, as far as I was aware, that project never left the planning stage. We had a meeting scheduled to kick of off with everyone, but that got cancelled by chaos and just never proceeded. I assumed that it was just off for whatever reason and continued working on the project I was previously assigned (which is not done, but they wanted some experienced people on the other one rather than just contract hires). That project is ahead of schedule and now I know why.

The other developer is in the same boat of working on his original project as well. Neither of us has written a line of code related to this project.

However, when I asked my boss about the client (to try and determine which project he thought I was on without letting him know), he confirmed that he thinks I am working on that 8 month contract.

For reference, we aren’t an Agile company as we deal with hardware integration. Specifications are set well in advance, changes have to be demanded from their end, etc. However, developers are given tremendous amounts of autonomy. I speak maybe 5 minutes a week to my boss as he is also a coder in addition to being manager of 30 people (business analysts and comms people as well). It wouldn’t be unusual for two developers to work nearly completely independently with a QA analyst.

I have no emails from past the date of that meeting beyond being given a preview of the specification. I have access to the full specification through our file share, but was never told to read it until now.

How can I approach this situation so things are clarified? Is there anything I should be aware of when proceeding with this?

  • 54
    No one, asked what you were doing, for 8 months?! No one asked about how a project, for a external client was going, for 8 months?! – djsmiley2kStaysInside Feb 27 at 16:49
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    Who was supposed to be the project manager for this? Was the expectation that you and this other developer were supposed to do this entirely on your own? – BSMP Feb 27 at 16:58
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    Did your boss never in the last eight months ask you what you were working on? Were there intermediate deadlines on this project? – DJClayworth Feb 27 at 17:22
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    It sounds like you work for a project based company, and so should be filling a timesheet with time spent on specific projects. Your boss should be assigning you a project code and either you or your boss should be creating work item codes under that project code to charge your time against, and then your boss should be reviewing the time spent on each project they're responsible for at least monthly and probably weekly. Someone should have noticed no more than 2 weeks after the supposed start date that something was up when no time was charged against the project. – MBraedley Feb 27 at 17:31
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    How could two software developers be supposed to complete a hardware-related project all alone? Shouldn't there be electrical engineers, testbed infrastructure guys, doc writers involved too? There should have been stages, and the fact that no-one ever started doing any stage should have surfaced long ago... This whole situation is so incredible I can hardly believe it's real... – Igor G Feb 27 at 19:25

12 Answers 12

259

You know what? I'll do the frame challenge answer and say, Don't Tuck Tail.

Oh, don't get me wrong. You're going to get blamed a bit, and possibly thrown under a bus. But trying to flee and find another job before the hammer falls without defending yourself is a terrible proposition.

Instead, stand tall, stand firm, and say:

"I was not given the go-ahead on this project - I wasn't under the impression I should be doing any work on it yet. And that should be obvious all around. You've never once asked for a status update from me. You've never once had client communication asking about requirements or sign-offs or clarifications. I've also been forthright with everyone that works with me what my current priorities and projects are. I'd never even been told where the project specs were even located until a few days ago. There is zero reason for you to assume I've been working on this project."

Sure, go ahead and look for another job. But if your approach is, "Don't defend yourself, and just try to flee as quickly as possible"? Then you're not going to flee fast enough, because if you don't defend yourself, you're going to quickly get 100% of the blame for this. (Plus, you're going to be in a very bad position and basically have to accept any offer that comes quickly.)

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    Agree. Not defending yourself and trying to "flee" and search for a new job will surely seem suspicious. – DarkCygnus Feb 26 at 18:47
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    I would leave out the "And that should be obvious all around." and "There is zero [...] this project." parts. Not that they're false statements, but I can't see them doing anything but work against you. They're not additional information, they're only trying to assign the blame... which will put the boss on the defensive, instead of them coming to the only logical conclusion themselves. – R. Schmitz Feb 27 at 8:22
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    @R.Schmitz As a first statement, I'd agree with you. But if people do start trying to blame the OP for this, it's definitely a reasonable reply. – Graham Feb 27 at 8:35
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    Just following up on this. If this is work for a customer, the company is going to get it in the neck because there will be a contract saying what to deliver by when. The OP could volunteer to publicly accept some blame with the customer if and only if they have written confirmation (e.g. email) that everyone in house knows this is false, and they're just taking one for the team. I've done this myself, albeit without it being such an epic failure of management as this. It worked out OK. – Graham Feb 27 at 8:42
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    @Graham Yes indeed. As first statement, I wouldn't go in there with the assumption that this is my fault and I have to defend myself. I'd just give a post-mortem about the broken process. Defending yourself can start at the point when you get attacked. – R. Schmitz Feb 27 at 8:44
62

First: Don't Panic! The damage has already been done, now it's about two things: Communicating the issue professionally and trying to show that you're not to blame.

Stalling is not a good idea, if you've done literally nothing for this project every half-decent manager should be able to find this out pretty quick. You can't really stall things like "show me you current work on the project now" without making it clear you've something to hide. So do not even try.

Some Questions come to mind.

Developers may be given much autonomy, but surely there is some form of communication about what they are supposed to be working on? A project-planing tool? Email? Whatever it is, search through it to find out if you missed some assignment for yourself or if communication just didn't happen. If you find out it's your fault, be honest about it - anyone who cares is likely to find out what went wrong, too, especially because he has to protect himself, too, so lying will likely backfire. If you can show that the project-start was never communicated to you, you should go to whoever is supposed to lead this project and have a talk with him. Do not try to blame anyone, but make clear that you never received any order to do something on this project and thus haven't done anything. If you're not to blame, everything from that point on should be someone else's problem. Unless 'mind-reading' was on the list of required skills for your current job.

How can a project just proceed for 8 months without any form of feedback from the devs? No milestones? No Code-Reviews? No QA-Process? No Proof-of-Concept/Alpha/Beta/Demo? No 'state of the project'-meetings with sales or the customer? No one who cares if all of them are missing? That sounds dysfunctional. If you could avoid working on a project everyone thought you were working on for 8 months and noboby notices anything, then you should try to push for a bit more rigid framework for future projects. Have a talk with your manager about this. Things like that are structural problems in an organization, firing you will not solve them and your managers should realise this.

For the immediate future, focus on how the damage could be mitigated. Come up with a plan to deliver something acceptable within a reasonable timeframe and to expand on it later. Realise that your boss is in no good position either, it's him who didn't noticed his subordinates weren't doing their assigned jobs for 8 months. If you can provide a plan to deliver with a reasonable delay, he might be in for it because it saves his face as well. Same thing for the sales person.

A little meta-like afterthought. Developer autonomy is a great thing to have, I personally enjoy it very much. There is one significant downside, however: It's easy to let the blame trickle down to the developers. To get this system working, there needs to be a framework for determining who is responsible for what, otherwise responsibilities tend to accumulate with the developers over time. That's basically the place you're in now and you should try to change that. If this is done best by pushing for some changes to your companies culture or by moving on I cannot say.

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    Right - with autonomy comes responsibility: responsibility for communicating status! – GreenAsJade Feb 27 at 5:25
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    @GreenAsJade That's fine, but someone has to make sure that status update happens. How detailed that status report needs to be, and how far up the tree that status goes, are both matters for discussion. But the absolute minimum that a manager can possibly do is to ensure status reports happen for all his team. If they don't do that, by definition they are not a manager. This is not a responsibility that can be delegated, except by appointing someone else to be the manager with responsibility for ensuring this happens. It cannot be delegated to each individual. – Graham Feb 27 at 12:04
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    "It's easy to let the blame trickle down to the developers" I've heard that it's good for your career to make your boss look good. If I had so little communication with my boss, I'd start sending periodic updates, maybe weekly. If nothing else, then just to get a record of my work in my boss' inbox. To be clear, the boss is to blame here. – user2023861 Feb 27 at 14:59
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    @AlexM I mean that no matter what the failings of the people above them, persons worthy of autonomy have the responsibility of reporting status, and the obvious need to do that, to avoid exactly this situation. If the OP has regular status reports that show what they were working on each week, and the status of those things, then they are in the clear. If they don't then they definitely have been part of the goof up, and have a lesson learned. (As a side note, it has been a repeat suprise for me in my career having new bosses surprised when I start status reporting...) – GreenAsJade Feb 28 at 22:02
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    @GreenAsJade Not just a "good manager"; any manager. If a manager doesn't know what their employees are doing, by definition they aren't managing their employees, and this isn't something which can be made a developer's responsibility. I don't disagree that employees should feed back status, but if they legitimately think they're doing the right thing (and it looks like there is progress tracking happening on the project they were actually working on) then they can't really feed back progress on something they didn't know they were supposed to be doing. – Graham Feb 29 at 14:27
39

To me it's quite obvious that your boss let you down, and let the salesperson down, bigtime. If you worked on the wrong thing for a couple of weeks, it would be on you. But it was much much longer than that.

It's hard to imagine two competent professionals working on the wrong project for many months without their organization's managers saying "wait, what?" So, this is your company's problem. Your company dropped the ball.

Ask your boss and the sales rep for help and advice sorting out this mess. I honestly don't think stalling will help the situation. Somebody will have to tell your customer your company did not finish the project at the appointed time.

Your part in sorting this out? Put together an honest estimate of how long it will take you and your co-worker to finish this project and give it to your manager and your sales rep.

Longer term, persuade your boss to buy a big whiteboard. Put it in a public place. And write all your team's projects and due dates on it.

I hope you don't take the blame for this; that would not be at all fair.

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    “Persuade your boss to buy a big whiteboard ... and put all of your team’s projects and due dates on it” Or the software equivalent, like Trello or Jira. – nick012000 Feb 27 at 4:35
  • The project seems so ill defined that "an honest estimate" would be impossible. – MaxW Feb 27 at 8:48
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    "If you worked on the wrong thing for a couple of weeks, it would be on you." Maybe not even that if you're never told – Mark Feb 27 at 12:03
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    @nick012000: "my boss... is also a coder in addition to being manager of 30 people" - I don't think the problems here will be solved with a whiteboard. Or Trello, or Jira. – Stephan Kolassa Feb 27 at 12:10
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    @nick012000, I agree that a software based task tracking system can help, but even working with a system like Jira (which I've done before), having a physical place to constantly see the workflow, the remaining work, and the completed work, it helps remind everyone what the status is of "everything". Sure, there's only so much that can be put on a physical status board, but the more important stuff should be easily visible at all times. This would help show a project that's not being worked on fairly obviously and not be easily forgotten. – computercarguy Feb 27 at 17:22
31

Autonomy is one thing. Project management is a totally different thing.

Eight (8) months without ANY project management activity is definitely guaranteed to lead to failure. Agile or no agile. This is not acceptable even in the dumbest start-up.

What to do:

  • You just stand for yourself and tell that you were not clearly (or not at all?) told:
    • to stop working on the previous project and
    • to start working on the new project.
  • Team with your colleague, who has the same understanding as you do.
  • tell that the total absence of project management, status reporting, etc. was the most clear confirmation that the project was not started, the green light was never turned on;
  • additionally tell that besides project management, there was no other project communication whatsoever: requirements clarification, test related activities, ... again confirming the project not being started;

when I asked my boss ... he confirmed that he thinks I am working on that 8 month contract.

His job is not to think (too much), but to plan and track activities. In the darkest nightmares, the tracking is done monthly. Usually it is done weekly. In Agile, it is done daily. These rules were put in place for very good reasons.


I speak maybe 5 minutes a week to my boss ...

What do the two of you speak, if he never became aware that you do not work on the project he was "thinking" you were working on?

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30

How can I approach this situation so things are clarified? Is there anything I should be aware of when proceeding with this?

As a manager, I've always required a weekly Status Report from everyone who worked for me. And I've always provided one for my boss, whether it was required or not.

It was a simple narrative format, requiring minimal time and effort, but it kept everyone informed and on the same page.

  • What I worked on this week
  • What I expect to work on next week
  • Anything that needs my manager's attention or might get in the way
  • Any schedule issues (vacations, travel, etc) that my manager needs to know

You might offer this as a way to prevent similar issues in the future. For now, you just need to ask your boss what they want you to do, given the current situation.

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    Yes. I've been on both sides. We've always had some type of time tracking application and when I was a lead I requested the same from my team. As you've stated - something simple with the projects worked on, maintenance time and 'other' time (training, pto, etc) on a weekly basis. – JazzmanJim Feb 26 at 20:15
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    Your answers are no-nonsense and also common sense. Not a given at all regardless of whether a person has been a manager or not - and at what level of responsibility. – javadba Feb 27 at 3:39
8

This seems to be fundamentally an issue of ownership.

Someone within your business needed to "own" the delivery of this software project.

If you have an owner - it's their fault, because they should have been actively checking the progress of it. For something to be left alone for 8 months is absurd.

If you don't have an owner (which wouldn't surprise me) - your business is always going to fail to deliver.

My hunch is that your boss is perceived to be the owner. But you've described him as a "coder" who also manages 30 people. If you manage 30 people, there is no time to be a coder. And you certainly won't have time to directly manage every project. So it seems like the business has an issue with role definitions as well.

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3

I speak maybe 5 minutes a week to my boss

I guess your asking for how to handle this rather than what's wrong but I can't really answer one without pointing out the other. The reason this went wrong is that in that 5 minute per week for 8 months your boss never asked you what you were working on. How this can possibly happen is a mystery to me but I suspect you'll have to try and use this to your advantage somehow.

The reality is that with great power comes great responsibility and the company was expecting you to re-arrange the meeting and start working on this project. Your boss presumably didn't ask you about it for 8 months because it's not his problem it's yours.

So practically how this will play out will be most likely you are getting fired. You might get off with a written warning if you are lucky. I would get your resume/CV up to date and either wait it out or try to leave before you are fired the choice is up to you. You can try to argue that the process is what failed here but I suspect that'll fall on deaf ears.

A mess-up of this size would sink most small companies due to litigation and the subsequent financial problems. If this is a big company that'll definitely happen and the higher-ups will get involve and want people fired.

I offer you good luck on this I hope you come out alright in the end. Remember plenty more companies out there so it's not all doom and gloom.

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    "you are getting fired [...] higher-ups will get involve and want people fired" - what's it with all this firing on this site? Are you from the US? The OP did the work they were hired for, namely developing software, and that they (and their colleague) did so on the "wrong" project, is management's fault. They were assigned or picked up work, they completed it, reported their progress and nobody bat an eye for 8 (!) months that this was on the wrong project. How is that OP's fault, and why would they have to be fired for it? Should every employee ask now and then "Is this still my project"? – CodeCaster Feb 27 at 14:22
  • Note that OP's original intent was to stall for time so they could quit and find a new job, so the possibility of getting fired may not be a concern to them anyway. – F1Krazy Feb 27 at 14:42
  • @F1Krazy or does OP expect to be fired and is acting accordingly. – Matthew Gaiser Feb 27 at 15:31
  • @CodeCaster You are assuming that there is a clear management / employee boundary in that management assign work to employees. It's clear that this job there is not as they only interact 1 per week for a few minutes. The boss is simply a line manager (probably only deals with HR stuff) and there is an expectation that you will project manage your own project(s). The boss has told OP this and also this is not uncommon in highly skilled jobs. If this is clear in the contract then OP hasn't been doing the job correctly for 8 months. – Dave3of5 Feb 28 at 11:45
  • @Dave it's not clear to me who cancelled the project kickoff meeting and why it would be expected of OP to reschedule it. That's my point, that's not the employee's task as far as I'm concerned, at least not if some managerial qualities are expected of the developers. – CodeCaster Feb 28 at 12:22
3

This answer will be in two parts, one to address your specific question ("What the heck do I do now?") and one to address the organizational failures that got us here (I don't want to let them go as they're all too common, and not enough people address them so they keep happening).

Organizational Failures

Your company has failed you, repeatedly. As a software developer (not a 'tech lead' or an 'architect' or 'manager'), you're not supposed to have managerial oversight (and more importantly, responsibility) over a project.

There were many failures here, none of them your responsibility, but for the good of the organization, need to be addressed:

  1. Your manager should not have 30 direct reports. The CEO shouldn't have 30 direct reports. Military organizations do a lot of research and study into the optimal reporting structures to both enable initiative at the lowest level while ensuring each manager has a focused grasp on what's going on and who is doing what and why. The Army in particular recommends 7-10 as a squad size (the lowest level discrete element), and even in that there are generally two fire teams of 3-5 people that work in concert. No supervisor in the Army manages more than 7-10 people; that's from the Secretary of the Army on down.

They may be responsible for the actions of their unit; but they do not directly supervise all the people in their unit -- they'd never be able to get anything done if they did.

This is organizational failure #1: Your organization is not sized for success, and its organizational chart does not reflect a balanced organization. This is your CEO's fault.

  1. Your manager should never code. Ever. Even if you took the 30 direct reports down to a manageable 7 +/- 3, your manager would have their hands full in a functioning organization just keeping up with that and with planning and managing up. One of the telltale signs of an inexperienced manager is that they think they should still code. They shouldn't. Their job is now to ensure the success of their people and the success of the organization and projects under their purview. That's it. It's not to push production code, it's to create and maintain the conditions where their projects and people are successful.

That's the second organizational failure.

  1. Your manager's manager failed to effectively oversee their work. Someone besides you knew about this project, someone with managerial oversight and responsibility. That person failed, and the person who supervises that person failed. If the project crosses departments, then you can add to the failure all those managers in the other department that didn't do their part to keep up with what's going on.

That's the third organizational failure.

What you should do

There's an old saying:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Which means you're not going to be the one to bring all of this to light, no matter what you do. Your boss's continued salary depends on his failure to see this as an issue; as does his bosses's boss. You make a nice fall-guy (I wish fall person had the rhetorical flourish of fall-guy).

It's time for you to go email diving. Into every email you sent or received on this project. You need to produce all of those emails along with a timeline of what you knew and when you knew it.

You will then send this to your boss, your boss's boss, and your boss 3 removed.

Indicate that you regret that this fell through the cracks; and you'd love to know how to best fix it.

You should also prepare to be fired (if you work in the US).

You did nothing wrong here; but you end up on the bad side of a bad organization. This was not your fault, and you shouldn't feel responsible for this failure.

The reason why I say you should send all the evidence and data to your boss and their boss and their boss is because you're sending a subtle message that this failure transcends layers; and that you know it transcends layers. They don't like black-eyes, and so it might induce them to give you a severance to keep you quiet about it.

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0

This boss prefers to lead the company directly, by hand. Others call it Founder's syndrome.

Probably the company will either improve, or bust. I had seen examples for both.

However, you are not enough important part of it, that your case will cause anything. So, you will need to count in the current frame.

The "founder" (Boss) obviously won't admit that he made a mistake. He can find either in you, or in others the root of the problem. In the first case, a firing is possible, but not sure - it depends also on, how the boss generally likes you.

For second option (if he blames others), these others need to face and not you. Possible, that they will try to put the responsibility to you.

What will happen, will be the direct decision of the Boss, even if it does not look like so.

You can do probably little to change the chances. The best what you can do, is that you clearly explain, you did, what was said to you.

Beside that, look for your next job.

If you will be fired, it is very important to have the best possible relations with the ex-company. Maybe the boss needs to fire you now, to preserve his integrity. In this case, you might get once your old job back, or he will serve as a good reference point for you in the future. Contrary what he did, the best what you can do if you remain in good contact. Even if he hates you today, some years later he might think it quite differently!

Do not overcomplicate the things - if you said the truth and all the truth, you are right and not they. Convert this to an advantage, without insulting them.

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0

There's an issue of ownership here, and both you and the company are at fault (more the company than you, though.)

It seems amazing that management didn't know what you were working on for 8 months.

But it is also amazing that you weren't reporting that you were working on effectively for that same period of time.

Do you have an email or paper trail showing that you are reporting regularly that you were working on X or Y? If not, well, you are partly at fault here.

Never work on something for more than a week or two without sending some sort of status report to your manager, always ending it with an "As I continue with this task, please let me know if there are any changes in direction."

For management, or the company, man, they do sound incompetent (or someone was setting you up to fail, I've seen this happened before.)

Don't turn tail. Don't quit. Bear the brunt and try to defend yourself. Ask them to provide a paper trail indicating that they communicated with you that you were supposed to be working on X and not on Y (which is what you were working on.)

And if you have a paper trail indicating to management on what you were working on, then use it!!!

You'll still be blamed, but don't go down without defending yourself (professionally obviously) or quitting (which would be an admission that it is your fault.)

There's no happy ending to this. So just try to remain professional until it is time to properly look for work somewhere else.

Good luck.

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-2

Yikes, you need to bring the facts to your boss's attention ASAP.

The more time your boss has to salvage the client relationship, the better.

Boss: I think there's a problem. I was not aware that I was supposed to be working on project XYZ for the past 8 months.

At this point you just need to prepare for and brave the sh!t storm that's headed your way.

You might be given the opportunity to defend yourself or you might not. There's really no sort of blame-game preparation for all this. The proverbial sh!t will land where it lands and hopefully all of your CYA (Cover Your Ass) defenses can adequately defend your professionalism.

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-2

You have a lot of good answers here. The upshot is: 1. Gather documentation on any/all communications about your work assignments. 2. As soon as possible talk (in person) to your boss and the salesperson about either that you missed the communication (your mistake, but a small one) or that you never received any communication (their mistake). 3. Do not blame others or communicate in an aggressive or angry manner. Keep your tone even and apologetic (even though this wasn't your fault).
4. Focus on the next step. What do you do now? What's the best alternative out of a bad situation that allows everyone to save face?

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