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I am in the rather uncomfortable situation of missing one deadline after another. And it's completely avoidable but a management decision to do so. Now, this shouldn't bother me as it is not my decision, but the client trusts me, I am the only one working on their projects and I don't know what management is telling them why I/we miss the deadlines. And I fear for my reputation and future career. I am known for being very professional, working fast and precise and not missing deadlines and this is our biggest client.

All deadlines are based on my estimates and agreed upon by all parties involved. It's not that I can't meet them. And since the client communication is out of my hands I cannot inform them that they aren't met.

What i did so far: I asked about it and was told we have more important things to do. So I worked on those more important things first but there always was plenty of time which was chosen not to use for client projects. I have even secretly worked on some deadlines on friday afternoons on a hail mary attempt to meet at least some, which seems highly unprofessional to me.

What can I do to make sure my reputation/career does not suffer from this course of actions?

31

When you’re missing deadlines, communication is key. Explain to your client that an urgent issue has arisen, which you need to address first before being able to continue work on his project. Mention the estimated duration and a new deadline for his project.

If or when your manager orders you to stop these communications, or alter them in a way you can't agree with, you’ll have to draw a line here between the company’s interests and your interests.

Mention to your manager that your own professional reputation is important to you as well, and that while you’re prepared to find a balance between what and how to communicate to a client and covering for the company, you value truth and are not prepared to “not be correct and professional” towards the client.

Do not lie or do stuff in secret. Deceive neither the client, nor your manager. Don't forget, your manager is your most important personal client.

Either be up front to your manager that, while you're willing to work 4 days on the new important deadline, you really insist on allocating Friday afternoon towards the other client/project so you can at least show some progress or make a partial delivery. If your manager disagrees, it's better to find out before than after you spent the time.

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    Thank you. The problem is that the clients work would take most if not all of my week. I find it hard to compromise without being unprofessional. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 9:06
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    You are paid by your company, at the end of the day they decide what you will work on. As this is outside your control, there is nothing unprofessional about doing the work you where told to do. The other client must of course know that the deadline will not be met, and why. If you are not allowed to say what us going on, simply refer them to your manager so you do not have to lie. – Paul Hiemstra Oct 12 '15 at 9:13
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    @iamaguesttoday: That would exceptional misconduct and grounds to leave and find a better job right away. Management should absolutely not be ordering you to work on other things, then blaming it on you. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 12 '15 at 11:03
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    @iamaguesttoday: as to "can't plan" make sure both you and your bosses are aware of the difference between a "days work required" estimate and a "days to delivery" estimate. If you know darn well that your bosses direct 50% of your time onto things other than this client, and you think the task will take a week of your time, and you agree a deadline of "one week from now", then that would in fact be planning badly. Either you or your bosses should demand, at the time the deadline is agreed, that it more realistically reflect the proportion of time available to spend on it. – Steve Jessop Oct 12 '15 at 16:39
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    ... in short, if you're the "contingency guy" on one project, or if you otherwise have responsibility for short-term emergency tasks, then you shouldn't commit 100% of your time in advance to another project because that's a promise you might not be able to keep. – Steve Jessop Oct 12 '15 at 16:42
15

How to make an estimate - ideal? or reality?

All deadlines are based on my estimates. It's not that I can't meet them. And since the client communication is out of my hands I cannot inform them that they aren't met

When making an estimate, don't estimate based on when it should be able to be finished (if you can work on it 100%), estimate based on when it will likely be finished.

It sounds like you are consistently having delays outside your control, for this project. If this is consistently happening - make them part of your estimates!

If your task will take you a full week, but you normally only get 1 day to work on it, then your estimate isn't a full week - it should be at least five weeks. Perhaps more if it's a low priority.

In other words: don't make ideal estimates, make realistic estimates.

A deadline which is achievable if someone is dedicated 100% but not if they are only 50% is not realistic if that person will only be dedicated 50%.

Also, a related topic, don't estimate based on 40 hours of work. Estimate based on less, perhaps 6 hours a day as you only will have that much actual work time. NEVER assume 100% capacity when creating estimates.

Whose decision is it, anyways?

It sounds like you are the individual contributor and there are a lot of other things affecting this.

There are all sorts of... games that happen with this sort of thing. A few possibilities:

  • Your client isn't paying your company.
  • Your company and the client are negotiating some contract.
  • Your company has higher priority clients (for reasons you might not know)
  • Your company may be dropping that client
  • Your management may be involved in political games

etc. There are many potential reasons this might be happening. None of them are reasons you want to be actively fighting.

How to approach this?

What can I do to make sure my reputation/career does not suffer from this course of actions?

Well, first, like I said - make your deadlines include the time you won't be able to work. If you don't know how much time you can dedicate to that project - ask! Ask your management how many hours a week you should dedicate to this project over the next X weeks/months. Then create estimates.

Second, when your client asks you about this, make sure you direct questions like this to your management. It sounds like you are doing so already.

Third, talk with your management about how they communicate deadlines. The time you look bad is if your client is blaming YOU for the delay. If your management says, something like, "iamaguesttoday was pulled away due to other priorities, we need to reevaluate this timeline, sorry!" that's fine.

Can you manage your own priorities?

Last, I want to talk about this. Normally as an individual contributor it's the job of your management to approve your work priorities. With good communication you can influence this significantly in some roles, but ultimately your management sets/approves priorities.

If you disagree with them, feel free to tell them, but if they still disagree - work on the priorities they have.

Your potential fallout from getting the reputation of being an employee who ignores priorities from management is likely far worse than missing a few deadlines.

  • Thank you for your feedback and insight in estimating an planning. So far I have not considered the deadlines themselves as the problem, as they were agreed upon all parties involved. I know I can easily make them if I'd work on them. I just don't get as much time to work on things as planned. But yes, the reasons could be even further beyond my control than I thought. I just don't want it to fall back into my lap. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 13:56
  • @iamaguesttoday that's my point though - if you estimate "it will take me one week" but ignore that it will, in reality, almost assuredly take you more than one week due to other priorities, that will be problematic. You can't change your management wanting to delay projects - but you can figure out when they actually will be done, and estimate appropriately. If I'm your manager, and you constantly estimate 1 week when we both know it is not feasible, that's not going to reflect well on you. But if you ask, "how much time can I dedicate to this project this week?" it will be a lot better. – enderland Oct 12 '15 at 13:58
  • I cannot estimated "other priorities" if they haven't been communicated to me. I was actually the one to say that the deadlines were tight, pushed then back in my estimates as a buffer in case something comes up. Planning of my time beyond that that is not communicated to me is really out of my control. But like I said, I am actually not that busy, those deadlines could be met even with all the new priorities. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 14:03
  • "The time you look bad is if your client is blaming YOU" is essentially what my problem boils down to I think. I fear that no communication or misinformation will both make me look bad. Regardless if I "did everything by the book". – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 14:03
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    @iamaguesttoday maybe your management just assumed you'd make estimates based on how frequently you were being pulled away to other work. It sounds like you are consistently having this problem yet not accounting for it in your estimates - I'm not really sure what what to tell you. And you don't want to ask your management about what you should plan your estimates around to make them better. So... I'm not really sure what to tell you. – enderland Oct 12 '15 at 14:59
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As it is the company's decision on what tasks to be undertaken and also assigning due dates and deadlines for the tasks, I would advise you to act according to the decisions taken by the management.

They are the ones who face the clients, so you should not be worried about being answerable to the clients. The customers might be okay with the pushing of deadlines, and you are unnecessarily worrying about that.

The company might be having it's own priorities, and that might be the reason behind assigning you to other projects.

I fear for my reputation and future career

No, you are not being unprofessional. You are currently acting according to the deadlines and priorities set by the company, and that is in no way unprofessional.

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    I understand that the companies priorities can be very different to mine. The issue really is that we only have our biggest client because of my reputation and letting them down seems to me like jeopardizing my (future) reputation. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 9:08
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    @iamaguesttoday: Your job is to act in the best interests of the company, as dictated by your manager. Nothing more. The company pays you, not the client. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 12 '15 at 11:03
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    holding the biggest client is the best interest of the company in my opinion <-- doesn't have to be. – Dawny33 Oct 12 '15 at 12:10
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    Does it occur to you that they may be holding back on these projects due to a dispute with the client? Or perhaps they aren't getting paid for them? Or that there are negotiations going on? There may be alot more going on that you don't know about and you are sabotaging your company's position by working on stuff in secret and that could be a firing offense. – HLGEM Oct 12 '15 at 12:46
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    @HLGEM, the management really should make sure that their prime doing the work for the client is clued in as much as is reasonable on what is going on. By not doing that they're foolishly creating mistrust without any valid reason. – teego1967 Oct 12 '15 at 13:57
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I have been the boss in this situation. It is never pleasant. Through bad luck, employee mess-ups, my own mess-ups, client misunderstandings or whatever, it is not possible to meet all the deadlines this month. I then make a management decision what to do about it. I don't like it but I do it. And I tell my people what to do.

And then one of them comes to me with exactly this stuff: what about my reputation, what about my career, that client is going to think less of me. Yes, I know, it's a bad situation. I hate it too. But are you seriously asking me to lose $50,000 on project A so that you will be less worried about your personal career impact over on project B? Not going to happen. I'm not unaware of the dissatisfaction. I have chosen the path that minimizes total dissatisfaction throughout the whole company. Coming and letting me know that the total I have managed to achieve is nonzero has some value. Demanding I take a different path in order to keep you content, and never mind what happens to everything else, is not ok. Secretly doing the opposite of my plan so that you stay content, and again never mind what happens to the rest of the company, is also not ok.

Which will be worse for your career and reputation

  • one customer, who you never talk to directly, and may not even know your name, may be upset that their deadlines slipped. Or may not if the upper managers explained it all properly
  • you worked for a place that went out of business because upper management couldn't get developers in line to ensure deadlines were met and emergency plans were followed. Whenever anything went bad there nothing got finished and it was chaos. You want that on your resume?

Support your manager's decisions. Ask if you don't understand them. Have some trust that the people whose job it is to talk to clients actually know how to talk to clients. And if your truly believe that the people who set priorities are awful at setting priorities, the people who talk to clients are awful at talking to clients, and so on - why do you still work there, and what are you doing about that?

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    Thanks for the insight from the other side of the table. Especially what you said about trust holds a lot for me to mull over. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 14:53
  • About "Which will be worse": The customer knows me well, and is only paying us because I am in the project. Yes, if it was a faceless exchange of goods it would be very different. But my reputation got us the project, which is the reason I fear it be damaged. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 15:02
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    Sometimes the customers last a lot longer them your current employer, and are also the most likely companies to give you your next job.... – Ian Oct 12 '15 at 15:42
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    Every time I see this, Management screwed up really bad to create it, not the employees, yet it becomes known that Management blames the employees to the customers for the problems. – Joshua Oct 12 '15 at 23:19
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    @Joshua: Or the client screwed up, and reduced the funding outlook after approving the plan. And management is trying to limit the amount of work done in excess of what the client is willing to pay for. – Ben Voigt Oct 13 '15 at 14:40
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When you first give the estimates, quote them as man-hours rather than completion date. If they reassign some hours, it gets later, but you can still meet your estimate.

When you're already fully committed and they want you to do more, the proper response is "sure, I can do that, but I'm going to have to take the time from something else." If you know the priorities, you can tell them what will slip. If you don't know, ask management to help you prioritize. If they say it's all equal priority, ask them whether that means it's all going to be equally late or if they're leaving the decision to you.

This allows you to succeed even when management is failing.

  • This! I never ever give any dates to management. It I am asked how long something takes, it's x days or y hours. If they ask me if it is done by date z after that, I tell them if I have more than x days time to work on it before that date, it is. – Josef Oct 13 '15 at 8:14
  • Not really. I was told to prioritize on non-deadline-projects and not work on, or worry about, client projects. Ergo, even with my warnings, being told to miss deadlines, which is the title of this question. – iamaguesttoday Oct 13 '15 at 10:27
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    Well, if you told them the project needs x hours and you worked less than x hours on it, then you are not doing anything wrong. If you told them "it will be done on monday", you have to communicate that it won't be done, because you are not working on it. There is really nothing more you can and should do. – Josef Oct 13 '15 at 11:53
  • non-deadline-projects can be a misleading term. Just because something does not have a deadline, does not mean it is not urgent. In fact, I'd say it's the opposite. Deadlines are useful for tasks which are important enough that you need to ensure they get done, but not urgent. In my world, if a manager asks me to work on a task that has no deadline, the expectation is that it needs to be done yesterday and thus a deadline is redundant. For better or worse, most of my work is without deadlines. And that's because my work is related to the uptime of our web app. – Brandon Oct 13 '15 at 13:00
  • In fact, at my company, I beg management all the time to have other developers spend less time on client projects and more time on urgent issue resolution. – Brandon Oct 13 '15 at 13:02
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since the client communication is out of my hands I cannot inform them that they aren't met

As you said, you did everything you could. So, just relax and let the people in higher management perform their plans. That includes stopping to secretly work on this project. Let the people doing the communication with the client inform them that there are higher priority tasks, or whatever they want to say.

As for your carrier and reputation - I see nothing wrong. If you are performing your tasks, your reputation will not be damaged.

  • I hope you are right and my fears are unfounded. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 14:04
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    The company's reputation may or may not suffer, depending on how management and sales deal with the customer -- but that doesn't reflect on you. Manglement sets the priorities. – keshlam Oct 13 '15 at 14:54
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Get involved in the deadline establishment process. In some structures, this isn't easy and in your position, you don't have a lot of control over your responsibilities outside the project. If you have 20 hrs of work for this client, find out from your manager how much of it you will get to spend before the next deadline. If it turns out you only get 15, ask if you can move the deadline/tell the client it won't be met. Nobody likes hearing bad news, but hearing it later rather than sooner is even worse. This shows the client you are on top of things and if they ask why, you'll have to tell them you are working on something else. Your company needs to understand that you prefer not to lie to clients.

After this engagement, you should send a letter/email to the client thanking them for asking you to be on the project and apologize for the missed deadlines. You're not taking the blame, you're showing empathy. Indicate you hope to be in a position to focus on their project a lot more.

In many situations, deadlines are arbitrary. The only reason they are there is because most people feel if you don't set a deadline, things won't get done. There are some exceptions where having things sooner is a financial advantage. Your client is putting up with it for some reason. Either the deadlines aren't critical or they're looking for another solution provider. Until you can work something out with your company, you're not going to have any control and better get your letter of apology together.

  • All deadlines are based on my estimates. It's not that I can't meet them. And since the client communication is out of my hands I cannot inform them that they aren't met. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 12:57
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    Then change your estimates once you discover you're not going to be given enough time. The reality is you can't meet them. It doesn't matter if you can finish something in 5 seconds if you don't take the 5 seconds to do it before it is due. – user8365 Oct 12 '15 at 14:51
  • I cannot change the estimates, I can only inform when I see a deadline that we will not meet if we continue the same course, which I did. I am just at a loss what I can do beyond that. – iamaguesttoday Oct 12 '15 at 15:00
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    If they have decided a deadline can slip, it can slip. You've done your part in giving them an understanding of the trade-offs of that decision. Let go and adapt, and work on ways to phrase this (such as manhours) which make juggling priorities easier. – keshlam Oct 13 '15 at 14:58

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