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Original Question

I work as a backend software developer for a tech company. This company has a multi-million dollar project that is at least three years underway. The project is supposed to go live this year, and they still have yet to implement the core functionality of the project. There have been numerous setbacks and restructures even since I came aboard.

I was on a different project with a smaller team, but we were efficient, met our goals, so forth. The failing project team is almost 5 times the size of my old team, with no additional productivity to show for it.

Last year, our CEO took over this failing project personally, with the purpose of making sure it would be ready for go live. Earlier this year, the CEO asked me to design the core functionality for this project. This is a duty previously held by multiple people over the past three years. I accepted with the understanding that I would be designing this on the side, still maintain my original duties, and pass on my design to the other project's team for implementation. It took me a few weeks to learn the new framework they were using, but when I did, the design took all of a week.

Fast forward a few months, and the team is no closer to implementing my design. I have been asked to move from my successful team and act as developer on this failing project, both by the CEO and other management. My days now mostly consist of meetings circling back on decisions made months ago and dealing with project managers who don't understand the project they are managing. About once a week, I will be asked to present on my work, then five minutes in my presentation will be completely derailed over one insignificant detail that I address later in the presentation. I have now produced three separate proof of concepts which do exactly what we need; I just need the rest of this huge team to agree to implement it.

I don't know how to handle this situation. I am getting a lot of pressure from management and the CEO to see this through, to the point that if (when) this fails, I'm not sure I will still have a job. However, management and the CEO are a majority of the reason this project is failing to begin with, with such frequent unproductive meetings and constant disagreements on what should be simple matters.

I've tried talking with the CEO, and though they agree the project is treading water, I don't know how to ask them to step back because they are making it worse. I have talked with my old manager, and they know and support me, but this issue is out of their jurisdiction. I'm not close with the new managers, so I don't know how my feedback will be received unless it comes from the CEO.

I've considered reaching out to some of the more competent developers and asking to implement this below the radar and just present the finished product when it’s ready, but again, I'm not close to many of them and don't know how they will react.

Ultimately, I'm having lots of expectations placed on me, but every time I have a suggestion of try to make progress I get shut down. I'm a relatively new to the team, not even on management, so I don't have a lot of influence, but I'm competent enough to complete this project if I just had the resources.

How can I either

  • Make it clear to the CEO that this problem is out of my control and thus I should be put back on my other project (back out)
  • Assert authority over the situation and lead future progress (push forward)

Update

The past few months have been an ongoing fight to gain support from below and above. It's been stressful and the project has not made much progress, but I think the situation has reached a turning point.

I've been in close contact with the CEO throughout and gained their support in this. There was also an external development which made some of the deadlines more lax, as well as an internal change which has brought development to a screeching halt. With this, I've taken the advice here and made my case for change.

I now have a development team with explicit instructions to work only on what I deem a priority and the resources to see this project through. I see hard work ahead of us to make up for lost time, but this seems to be a change for the better. Thank you all for your wisdom and advice that helped me achieve this.

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    You're combining a lot of things in this question that should really be addressed separately. For example, there are past answers on how to manage interruptions in presentations, boiling down to "Great question, we'll circle back to that later. Now, as I was saying..."
    – keshlam
    Jul 25, 2023 at 20:05
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    What country/culture? Jul 25, 2023 at 20:36
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    @keshlam: "You're combining a lot of things in this question that should really be addressed separately" Ironically, that's pretty much the issue with OP's project as well. I think the workplace culture is bleeding into the question structure here.
    – Flater
    Jul 26, 2023 at 1:18
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    I hate to make things worse but at this point you need to ask yourself: How viable is this company with this specific CEO and a massive project failure looming. Going back to your old job may not help you much if the whole company is in trouble.
    – Hilmar
    Jul 26, 2023 at 11:16
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    Related: The Mythical Man-Month Jul 26, 2023 at 13:33

8 Answers 8

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I get this all the time, my career is built on solving problems after everyone else has failed and deadlines are looming. There is only one solution.

Get the authority and backing from the CEO to complete the project successfully. If you don't get it, decline to be involved or you will just get the responsibility/blame for things that are out of your control.

There is no middle ground.

Basically this means that as far as that project is concerned, I'm not there to discuss anything. I'm there to give instructions on what to do with the authority to make sure it gets done.

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    And this includes the CEO listening to you. That's really the key part. If the CEO decides to micromanage, then you respectfully step down and let him know that he's now in charge. You don't put two captains on one ship.
    – Nelson
    Jul 26, 2023 at 0:57
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    It is pretty hard to get that commitment from the CEO, but I agree with the "no middle ground". I have seen everything else fail. There really is no other option.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 26, 2023 at 7:26
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    @JoshPilkington multi-million imminent failure is worth the CEO's attention
    – Kilisi
    Jul 26, 2023 at 9:52
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    The OP's situation is another tired, classic example of being given the responsibility to do something without begin given the authority. You need both, and if you cannot get both, run. Run very fast. Jul 26, 2023 at 15:43
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    "I'm not there to discuss anything. I'm there to give instructions" - reminds me of a Mr. Wolf from a particular Tarantino Movie ;D
    – Fildor
    Jul 27, 2023 at 14:00
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This is a supplement to the answer by @Kilisi, that key problems here are ownership and clear lines of authority to make project decisions.

Since the CEO has pulled you personally onto the project to help save it, backing off to your previous small and effective team is going to be politically hard. The big messy project is also politically hard. It's likely that the only way out is through.

Fred Brooks has specific advice on this, in The Mythical Man-Month, which still seems relevant. He refers to the main technical decision maker and designer as "the director" and the main logistics, finance and people manager as "the producer".

The producer may be boss, the director his right-hand man.

The difficulty here is to establish the director's authority to make technical decisions without impacting his time as would putting him in the management chain-of-command. Obviously the producer must proclaim the director's technical authority, and he must back it in an extremely high proportion of the test cases that will arise. For this to be possible, the producer and the director must see alike on fundamental technical philosophy; they must talk out the main technical issues privately, before they really become timely; and the producer must have a high respect for the director's technical prowess.

Less obviously, the producer can do all sorts of subtle things with the symbols of status (office size, carpet, furnishing, carbon copies, etc.) to proclaim that the director, although outside the management line, is a source of decision power. This can be made to work very effectively. Unfortunately it is rarely tried. The job done least well by project managers is to utilize the technical genius who is not strong on management talent.

Applying this to your current situation, it sounds like no-one else in the firm gets the technical solution needed for this project (yet). That makes you the director. It also sounds like you don't (yet) have the management skills required to be both producer and director - for example running a contentious meeting in a productive way, building alliances, and so on. That's fine, true of many people, and why you're asking the question. Do note some management awareness and skills will be needed to succeed here. And it shouldn't matter so much, because the producer here is clearly the CEO. They are not just the executive, they have taken personal control of the project.

This project clearly needs both a clear technical solution, and a diplomat/bulldozer to make space for it to actually be built. That means your next action needs to be to build the relationship and mutual understanding with the CEO.

the producer must have a high respect for the director's technical prowess

This already seems to be the case, as the CEO keeps giving you key technical problems. However, those meetings you are in may be designed to validate the technical design and give the CEO confidence in it. Are they achieving this goal? Discuss this with the CEO one to one.

Because:

For this to be possible, the producer and the director must see alike on fundamental technical philosophy; they must talk out the main technical issues privately, before they really become timely

This doesn't seem to be happening enough. Does the CEO buy your design? What's needed for him to do so? Ask him, in private.

Also in that private meeting, raise that the talk:build ratio is wrong. Ask what the endpoint for the current intense technical discussions is. If there isn't one, decide one, between you and your new real boss, the CEO.

Lastly, these sorts of projects can be great career achievements, but they are exhausting and not for everyone. If you do commit to it, which is the only way it will get built, put a reminder in your calendar for 6-9 months in the future. Title: career review. Then ask yourself if you want to stay with the big projects, or ask to be able to work in a small team and focused deliveries again, to recharge.

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    I agree with this answer 1000%. The CEO clearly has some level of trust in the author's ability to bring the project over the finish line. The question will ultimately be, can the author determine what it will take, and will the CEO allow that to happen. Bill Gates famously provided a review of the first version of Office, he provided feedback on every single page. The review was hundreds of pages. Let's just say customers never actually saw that version of Office. It might have been Excel or Word I work with OS/360, which is what TMMM talks about, preceding version z/OS daily.I love TMMM
    – Donald
    Jul 27, 2023 at 21:50
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Polish your resume

You have been given responsibility without power: the role of the eunuch throughout history. It is likely that this has not been done maliciously i.e. they have not deliberately set you up to take the fall (although that is a possibility) but it appears the fall is coming and you are the person it will fall on. Unless your CEO is one of those rare individuals who takes responsibility for their own failures - but if they were, they wouldn’t have become a CEO.

To survive in your current position, you either need to ditch the responsibility or seize the power. If you can’t do either, jump before you’re pushed.

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    I don't disagree with this per se, but OP's situatioin is a rare opportunity to salvage an important project with visibility at the highest levels of management. I'm not saying OP shouldn't cut-and-run, but not until they've made every effort to succeed...including asking for more authority to get the business outcome. Jul 26, 2023 at 17:41
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    This is a very good and practical answer as it points out the solution if all the OP has tried fail and the CEO or managers throw him under the bus to save their own positions. Jul 26, 2023 at 19:09
  • @JaredSmith yes. And the kamikaze were given a rare opportunity to save Japan.
    – Dale M
    Jul 27, 2023 at 4:59
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    It's a fantastic opportunity, yes, but a backup plan is always a good idea. Never hurts to keep the resume up to date and spin up some conversations with former coworkers at other companies.
    – Caleb Jay
    Jul 27, 2023 at 7:18
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The answer @Kilisi gave is spot on.

When you go to the CEO, be prepared. One of the most important jobs a CEO is tasked with is to reduce risk and uncertainy from the business. You being aware of that and bringing a plan goes a long way towards demonstrating that you are:

  • Competent
  • Capable
  • Can Identify Required Resources
  • Can Manage the Resources

They know that you can code, that isn't issue. Walk into the office with a very short plan that shows how you intend to run the project. Leave out the buzzwords. Leave room in timeline for the reality of QA, etc. Work back from the Go-Live date. Make it clear that you understand that it doesn't change. Make it clear that you are the leader, and you have a plan. Tell them you'll report progress as often as is needed to keep them from being in the middle of the day-to-day. But agree to a cadence.

As a business owner, there are people who put things on my plate and people that that take things off my plate. The later I can trust because they demonstrate they have a plan and communicate progress without me begging. What you're describing is an overwhelmed CEO that is oversubscribed and hasn't found the right person to run the project.That is causing the horrible behavior.

You are likely to find the CEO will stop the scope-slip if they fully trust you with the project. It is much eaiser to scope-slip a floundering project than one that is on schedule. With a project on schedule, new features go on the roadmap.

These are viewpoints from somebody that has been on the otherside of this situation.

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I have talked with my old manager, and they know and support me, but this issue is out of their jurisdiction. I'm not close with the new managers, so I don't know how my feedback will be received unless it comes from the CEO.

You should give your feedback to the new managers first and find out how it is received. You'll need them onboard. If they do not get onboard, then you have the clarity to know to back away. Schedule a meeting with them to present what you can promise and when, and what you need from them to do so. Be factual, quantitative, and don't place blame. Instead of trying to explicitly push them out, frame it as, "what I can do for you if you allow." Enlist your old manager's advice or assistance if need be.

Ask for feedback from competent developers if you wish, but do not try to direct them behind the managers' backs; that could be taken as a personal affront and be counterproductive. Talking to the CEO first is suboptimal because the CEO is less likely to want to spend the time on a potentially long discussion. Getting the new manager to agree first will make the problem of convincing the CEO more tractable.

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Schedule a meeting with the CEO and explain in no uncertain terms that the project is failing and that you need a TIGER team to focus exclusively on the core functionality. Ask for the best developers to be put on it and you to lead it.

Ask that you report directly to the CEO. Maybe have one of the competent managers be a liaison between the TIGER team and the rest of the project.

If he's not willing to five you that, I'll be updating my resume.

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It seems to me that the problem is that others are not able to visualize what the software will look like or what functions it will have.

I think you should start the meeting by saying you want a recap.

  • What are the resources available to finish it?
  • How long do I have to finish it?
  • Its been x months and I am concerned that we have not yet finalised the requirements.
  • To speed it up, it would be more productive if we could agree on the basic requirements. Then I will present a basic cut for critique, before completing it.
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Your problem is having no balance between your rights and responsibility.

This is a kind of "micro promotion". You kind of have been made responsible for the project but without handing you enough control over it. When the project will fail, the management is likely to forget they have never told others to listen seriously what you say. While firing you is unlikely, you will end up with lots of stress, the negative reputation, likely conflict with the team and in the worst case even some s..y statement in the employer recommendation.

It is a very unfavorable situation that makes no sense for you. Talk with the management directly and ask either promote you seriously or, if they do not find this possible, remove you from the responsibility. Such a "micro manager" is not a good position and will not bring your carrier anywhere forward. Even if you would successfully pull out the project, you are likely to be demoted from this "micro status" in favor to that they would see as a "finally a real project supervisor".

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