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I recently (~3 months ago) joined a start-up company that is launching a new product. The industry we're targeting is very high performance, in fact performance is absolutely critical to the success of product. Our product isn't yet finished but we have a demo.

My boss and the sales team are making visits to prospective clients and making very exaggerated claims about both the performance capabilities of our product and how "finished" it is, stating that it's already in production at numerous facilities.

I understand business is very competitive and sales teams may have to embellish things a little in the early days, perhaps compensating for the delays through the sales pipeline - you can't wait for a product to be finished before you start trying to sell it!

However I am nervous about these claims for several reasons:

  • They're unrealistic. We're miles off the figures they're presenting and it may not even be possible to achieve them.
  • The sales team genuinely believe these figures, they are unaware how far off we are. I would expect the sales team to be given an executive summary of the facts and where we'll be in a few months time. They then have the freedom to choose what/how to present to clients based on the situation.
  • Typically the customers are very tech-savvy and will attempt to reproduce performance figures in-house. Any sales made based on these figures are likely unlikely to complete if customers measure something that's significantly worse.
  • We're much further away from a shippable product than the boss seems to believe.
  • Reputation. It's a small industry where reputation is important. As the lead developer I will be associated with this product. Rightly or wrongly it will affect my chances of future employment if we mislead potential clients and they discover this.

As soon as we make sufficient progress with a client I will probably become involved to discuss the technical aspects of a particular deployment.

My questions are:

  1. In a direct contact with a prospective customer to what extent must I confirm the exaggerated claims or should I risk destroying sale by being completely truthful? What about if I'm asked a direct question e.g. "how many X/per second have you achieved in testing?"

  2. How could I pre-empt the situation in question 1? I've already made some subtle indications that I'm uncomfortable. If my boss dismisses my concerns are there any other avenues? Am I meddling in the "business" side of things that are outside the remit of a technical team lead?

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    Not an answer, but may give some relevant relief: dilbert.com/strips/comic/2004-02-04 – The Wandering Dev Manager Jan 19 '14 at 19:22
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    Who is accountable for delivering software based on Sales team's claims ? Are you (or your team) ? If yes, raise it with your boss that you wont vouch for these claims, as it is unethical if you are confronted directly by the end customer. If he agrees great if he does not volunteer to be not put in a situation where you are confronted by an end customer. – the_reluctant_tester Jan 20 '14 at 4:33
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I think you should start by having a discussion with your manager where you lay out your concerns - the question you've asked gives a good summary of the points you need to make. Also lay out what you want your manager to do about it, as suggestions (that don't have to all be compatible with each other, it's a "pick the ones you like" list).

But for your manager you should back those points up with actual measurements. If you're lucky your manager will act on what you say and slow/reduce the claims being made. I think more likely you'll get reassured that things are better than you think they are, and so on, but what you want out of that meeting is firstly to make your manager aware that you have concerns, and secondly to get some assurance that you won't be put in the situation you fear.

If you can have a hallway conversation with upper management/owners where you say "the sales sheets say X but our tests have only managed Y" that's also good.

Do the talk first because you don't really want to jump straight to emailing the whole company. Think about it the other way round - the first you hear of it is the owners saying "we are broke, you're all fired". You'd be unhappy, much more so than if they'd talked to you first and ideally at the "money is tight" stage.

Also, be aware of how management see you. I'm often pessimistic and (in management view) over-cautious, so I'm very used to saying "this code seems to work most of the time" and having management say "yay, it's finished, testing didn't find any faults". If that's how you work, chances are management will treat any warning from you as a worst case scenario. Which is fine, but part of that is that they need to accept that you're not the right person to talk to customers unless you're willing to gloss over problems with them.

From a business point of view, everyone expects salespeople to exaggerate, the question is what do your customers expect you to actually provide? I would ask your manager this, explicitly as "our sales docs claim X,Y,Z. That seems exaggerated. What do you expect our product to actually do?"

Only after having conversations about this should you go to an email. And I'd limit it to your manager and their manager(s). Document your concerns, lay out the figures. "sales claim X, testing we have got to Y" for whatever concrete claims you can. And once again lay out what you would like to see happen.

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Welcome to the ever present dilemma of sales vs engineering vs business.

First things first, if you believe that the product is far from the quoted figures, it becomes your responsibility to shoot out a written communication to the internal stake holders regarding the same. If you believe that your boss doesn't know the real numbers, make him aware of it. If you think that the timelines wont be met, make him aware. Remember, by making the stake holders aware of your actual position, you save the business from future embarrassments.

Here is what I would suggest:

  • Send out a collective email to the parties involved (internal parties) regarding the possibilities of the "claims" about performance falling through. Back them up with substantial data.
  • If you are asked to be involved in direct client talks, you better have a word with your superiors well before and inform them that the promises made by them are far off the mark. If your potential customer does ask a direct question, the answer depends on what kind of arrangements you have with your superiors. Jeopardizing the business/sales in front of a customer is a risk which could cause lasting damage on your career.
  • Customers aren't looking for a perfect solution. All they look for is a partner who can support them in their business. Hence, having a trustworthy partner is important. This becomes doubly important if your customer is a tech savvy customer. Know your limitations. Admit them before your internal stake holders, then, if you get a go ahead, list out the same to your customers.

Whatever you do, BACK EVERYTHING UP WITH EVIDENCE. And don't get into subtle indications. Tell the truth upfront. Also, know that capturing everything in a email thread is the best you can do. In future you can use this written communication as a reference to the places where the business fell through (I hope it doesn't).

There was a situation in my own company where a product screenshots were show to a potential customer without the product even being there. (Magic of powerpoint and paintbrush ). Eventually the customers lost trust after a few months (when the engineering team was hard pressed to develop the product just based on requirement and screenshots presented). The lead on the product was reluctant to stand up against the manager and he eventually quit the company due to frustration.

The moral:
Internal stakeholders need to be aware. If your boss still continues to hard press on lies, you can take a call to move out of the company on moral grounds.

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    This is a tremendous way to blow your future with the company out of the water by being a worrywort. If you are not the technical manager responsible for delivering the promises the sales team is making, and the technical manager understands the gap between the promises and the product reality, then sending out e-mails telling people the sky is falling will undercut your boss' authority, and make people see you as less of a team player. I strongly advise against speaking up like this. If you are confident people are acting immorally and want to take a stand, consider doing it with your feet. – jmac Jan 20 '14 at 0:53
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    @jmac - "if the technical manager understands the gap between the promises and reality" is a pretty significant "if"! Whilst I'll agree with you that it would undercut your boss' authority to go broadcasting panic to other stakeholders, I don't think the answer is "say nothing". I think the answer is to have a serious one-on-one conversation a.s.a.p. with the manager directly above the OP in the chain of command. Make damn sure that they acknowledges their awareness of the gap between salespeoples' promises and reality. – Carson63000 Jan 20 '14 at 3:21
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    @Carson, the asker is a new hire who has been there for 3 months. Are you sure that the asker is in a position to understand the capabilities of the product better than that of the person in charge of developing it? Having a 'serious one-on-one' seems to be putting the cart before the horse. If a one-on-one is had, it should be to ask the manager to explain what the basis for these claims is to try to understand it before being 'damn sure that [the manager] acknowledges their awareness of the gap'. – jmac Jan 20 '14 at 3:59
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    @jmac - well, I'm not sure of anything in this situation! But the OP seems extremely sure of his beliefs regarding the performance gap. Also consider that although he has only been there 3 months, he is the lead developer. Not some junior. If you've been brought in to fill a lead role, and you believe there's a serious problem, then you need to ensure that your manager knows about this problem as you see it. But ultimately we may only be disagreeing about what tone of voice he should use. :-) – Carson63000 Jan 20 '14 at 6:23
  • @jmac Calling out is a strong word. Informing about the realities is different. Communication of realities is of utmost importance. I have seen first hand the crisis caused by false promises and the effect it had on the engineers/leads involved. None of them spoke up and all of them left later when the management began to force them to reach the targeted performance figures. Why? Because whatever was communicated was just not possible! – Ricketyship Jan 20 '14 at 6:53
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In a direct contact with a prospective customer to what extent must I confirm the exaggerated claims or should I risk destroying sale by being completely truthful? What about if I'm asked a direct question e.g. "how many X/per second have you achieved in testing?"

In contact with a prospective customer, you represent the company. You must speak the company line. Often the sales and technical teams get together to discuss and coordinate strategy on how to just such a situation. The last thing a company wants is employees contradicting each other in front of prospects.

If you are concerned about saying something that you think will not be well received, you must bring this up with your manager, explain your feelings and what you think your response would be, and ask for coaching. Often there are ways of couching your answer in terms that don't blow the sale, but aren't lies. "We're on track.", "We are very optimistic.", "I'll have to get back to you on that", etc.

After that, if you still aren't comfortable answering the way you are coached, you must tell your boss that you shouldn't be put in that situation. Don't be in direct contact with a prospective client. Let others who know how to deal with the situation handle it.

Depending on your role within your company, this could be a big failing on your part. For example, if you are the VP of Engineering, you will likely be expected to talk to prospects. On the other hand if you are a junior programmer, your involvement may not be important at all.

How could I pre-empt the situation in question 1? I've already made some subtle indications that I'm uncomfortable. If my boss dismisses my concerns are there any other avenues? Am I meddling in the "business" side of things that are outside the remit of a technical team lead?

Drop the subtlety. Be direct with your boss and tell him/her that you are afraid you'll blow the sale, and why. Ask what you should do about the situation. Then do what you are told to the best of your abilities.

If your boss dismisses your concerns and still requires you to talk with clients, do the best you can, based on his directions.

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Unsung has said the most important thing about communicating to your colleagues that you think their expectations are unreasonable. However be aware that there is am big difference between being "nervous about these claims" and a lie. Maybe the boss knows the field better than you do. It's not a lie to say "we expect a performance of such and such" - or at least you can't know its a lie without being able to look inside his head. Startups often predict being able to do something in the future that they haven't achieved yet, and investors know that it's an expectation, not a certainty.

It's an entirely different matter if you are being asked to lie about something known, like a current performance, as opposed to future performance.

When it comes to communicating with customers, what you say is really dependent on your own morality. There is no magic wand that makes the problem go away. You have three choices:

  1. Agree with the company line. Repeat what your boss and the sales team are saying (and things might work out - the results might eventually be what they are claiming).
  2. State what you actually believe to be the case. Frankly this will probably end your career with this company, especially if you haven't communicated your beliefs with the rest of the company. If you have done so, they will probably stop customers from talking to you.
  3. Decline to answer. Useful phrases here are: "You'll have to talk to the sales engineer about that"; "I don't have all the figures"; "That's not really my area of expertise".
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    When applying for a job at a start-up without a working product, it is your responsibility to ask about the business model, the product, and figure out whether or not you think the business will succeed. If you failed to do that and then start doubting the business three months later, then either you didn't do a good job during the hiring process, or the company was actively deceptive and no amount of informing them about further deception will be a good career move. – jmac Jan 20 '14 at 1:56
  • If they are not telling the truth to the customers, why would they tell you the truth at an interview? – DJClayworth Jan 20 '14 at 4:21
  • that was option two in the above: "or the company was actively deceptive and no amount of informing them about further deception will be a good career move" -- if they are happy to lie to people, what good will calling them on it be exactly? – jmac Jan 20 '14 at 4:23
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Your boss is making these promises, and he is the one responsible for delivering them. You should trust that he's making those promises for a reason (one that he may not be able to tell you). If you trust your boss, then it is your responsibility to help him deliver on those promises to the extent you can. If you don't trust your boss, calling him out on it will just hurt your career in the company, and it may be better to just talk with your feet.

With Great Power...

Any promises your boss makes are his responsibility -- not yours. Maybe he knows some secret formula that your company has up their sleeve to achieve those promises. Perhaps the economic realities of start-up financing are forcing him to make these promises even if he can't meet them. Perhaps they have some inside info on the companies they are speaking with telling them to make those sorts of promises to get the order, and worry about the details later.

Regardless of the reason, the claims that are made and the responsibility for their implementation are squarely on his shoulders -- not yours.

You Gotta Have Faith

Joining a start-up without a completed product is taking a leap of faith. You have no guarantees that they can complete the product. You have no guarantees that if they complete the product that it will sell. But you joined anyway.

Turning around and saying, "You know guys, actually, I don't think that you can succeed after being here for three months" reflects very poorly on your judgment (you selected the position but weren't willing to follow-through), and it doesn't help the company achieve its goals.

You were hired to do a job. That is your responsibility. If your boss is saying that the product can make the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, then you tell the customer your product will be able to make the Kessel run in 12 parsecs. If you are asked a question you can't answer like, "How many tribbles are you making per second?" and you don't know the company position, say "I haven't had a chance to look at the latest figures, do you mind if I get back to you with those?" and get your boss to respond himself or have him tell you what the appropriate number is.

Nobody Likes a Worrywart

Regardless of whether the company can accomplish the promised results or not, the reality is:

  1. The expectation is that they can achieve those results (from the customers/investors)
  2. They need to achieve those results to be successful

Is it your place to make your doubt public? If the concerns are legitimate, then it is your manager's responsibility to pass them up the chain. If the management decides to keep them hidden, they are doing it for some specific reason that you aren't privy to. Publicly expressing your doubt will not benefit the management of your company and will not get any closer to its success.

If you have serious misgivings about your company's ability to create a successful product, the best thing you can do is start looking for another position. If you cannot commit to following through with the job you took, then it may be best to accept that you made a poor judgment call in working for a start-up, and finding something more appropriate.

Airing your concerns in public will do nothing but hurt you. If you feel that strongly, you need to speak with your feet and leave

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    I believe that if one is in a lead position and knows for sure that whatever is being promised wont work out, it has to be communicated to the immediate superior. Just allowing the business to suffer later because one might be termed a worrywart is a wrong approach. And there are no magic formulas when it comes to software performance. – Ricketyship Jan 20 '14 at 6:50

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