I have been working as an independent contracted employee for a start-up for 1.5 years, part-time (10-15 hours per week), and am the sole developer. I am also a full-time university student working another job 20 hours per week. In total, I'm a full-time student working ~30-35 hours per week.

My original responsibility for the contract employment was to build a web application. Before I started working, there was one developer working on a suite of Android/iOS apps (full-time) for approximately 5 years. Said developer stepped down right around the time I was hired, so progress on those applications stopped abruptly for a year.

In the last couple of months, I have been asked to take on some of the responsibility for (only) the Android apps. This includes bug fixes, content updates, etc. In taking on those responsibilities (because I wanted to help out, not because I was forced to or be fired), I asked for a pay raise because that work was outside my contract, and I had also fixed a major bug that was plaguing our ratings. I got the raise.

Now, my boss has put my original web application project on the back-burner (completely stopped development). For the next two months I am charged with implementing an entirely new flavour (a new module of the base app, essentially) of the Android app. This involves a lot of time learning how the previous flavours were built, fixing the inevitable bugs, etc.


Implementing this new app flavour is outside the scope of my original contract. Even though it's something I'd like to see come to fruition, it's really just too much for a junior developer (working alone) to do at 10-15 hours per week. I have to learn a lot of the massive code base and try to get something entirely new to integrate without a hitch, while having minimal advice from the developer who wrote the app. Moreover, I'm already stretched really thin with my other job and school.

I'm completely fine with doing minor bug fixes for the apps, but trying to integrate something completely new in what boils down to two 40-hour work weeks is stressing me out. I've worked on the problem for about 10 hours and gotten essentially nowhere.

What can I do?

I really want to tell my boss that taking on this task is just too much for me to handle right now. I want to stick with what I can reasonably make progress on without feeling stagnant and failing to deliver something worth releasing in the next two months.

However, I don't want to make him feel like I've wasted his time by saying "yes, I think I can do this" and two weeks later saying "no, I definitely cannot do this". I feel like I'm letting him down if I don't try to tackle this project. On top of that, I asked for a raise and he gave me it, because I said "I am being given more responsibility with this Android app, so I think I deserve a raise."

How can I diplomatically tell him that the responsibility is just too much for me to handle without causing him strife and feeling like he gave me a raise for nothing?

  • Why do you have the other job? Is there a situation where you could ditch the other job to spend more time on this one (a situation that potentially involves another raise)? Nov 19, 2015 at 23:54
  • 3
    There's nothing wrong with telling your boss 'I've bitten off more than I can chew here' - two weeks really isn't that long when you're only doing 10-15 hours a week on it! It can easily take a few days to scope out the task and realise it's beyond you
    – Jon Story
    Nov 20, 2015 at 0:14
  • @JustinCave Definitely can't ditch my other job. I have a more or less leadership position there also with software development responsibilities that can't be put on hold. Nov 20, 2015 at 0:33
  • You may consider changing your user name to not reflect your real identity ... just in case.
    – AndreiROM
    Nov 20, 2015 at 1:54
  • What is a 1099 contract? We aren't all from USA...
    – llrs
    Nov 20, 2015 at 7:34

8 Answers 8


Asking for a raise, then saying you can't do the job isn't going to make yourself popular.

10 hours is nothing when trying to familiarise yourself with a big existing application. At 10-15 hours per week, it could take you many weeks just to come to understand how it all works.

You don't say how long you are expected to work on this, but the whole project is pretty much bound to run into many months with only you working on it. There's nothing you can do about that, and your manager needs to be aware of it.

  • 2
    I asked for the raise for fixing minor issues in the app, and having worked with the company for 1.5 years; I was tasked with this project after the raise. And to put it into perspective, I'm making $16/hour now. I don't think that makes a huge difference, but there's some additional context. As for the duration, I stated in my question that I'm supposed to work on it for the next two months; so about 80 hours total. And you are right about learning the code base, which is why I'm freaking out so much. I'd have essentially nothing to show after two months of work, and that's unacceptable. Nov 19, 2015 at 23:49
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    @ChrisCirefice You need to talk to your manager about reducing the scope of what you're expected to deliver.
    – Brandin
    Nov 20, 2015 at 9:51

However, I don't want to make him feel like I've wasted his time by saying "yes, I think I can do this" and two weeks later saying "no, I definitely cannot do this".

Can you separate out what you would be capable of versus what you think is beyond your capabilities? Then I would approach your boss and state that you've now spent some time investigating this whole thing. You are fully confident that you can continue to do X, Y and Z. Express that you have concerns as a part time employee making the kind of progress he would want on A, B and C. That you are willing to keep working on it, suggest politely that if he brought on additional support it might happen faster/better.

It sounds like you could keep working on this, that that isn't your problem. But that you are worried at some point you will be slower to make progress than your boss expects, and maybe not as good as an expert would be. You don't know that your boss expected you to be an expert though! You'd been working on something prior you were much more comfortable with and now he's asking you to do something new. Set up a meeting to go over expectations and explain what parts you know you can do, and the parts you are worried will be slow and take a lot longer than if someone more qualified did them. Maybe your boss is still fine with that. It's possible he prefers someone he trusts. It's also possible that even with the raise you are still a lot cheaper than an expert on this system and he's okay with that, and okay with it taking a lot longer. That's the issue here, not that you aren't capable, okay? You sound intelligent and like you are capable of learning. Your boss is giving you credit there, make sure you don't take too much of that away from yourself.


This is where managing expectations and setting boundaries at work comes into play. As a new developer your job is more than just coding projects. You need to have clear communication with your peers and boss. That includes giving a work estimate on projects and renegotiating that work estimate as the project continues. It is fine to work on the new project but only work the hours you agreed and nothing more. Do not get stressed, if you leave the project they will find someone else to pick it up. Just because you start a project does not mean you have to or will ever finish it. You have no obligations for that only to get paid to work the hours you promised.


I think a fair out is to agree to prior salary for existing hours. Tell them their choice to continue but it will be at the new rate.


Two jobs and Uni study, if I were you I would look at putting more time into this job and charge the extra hours, because it sounds like you need them. Code bases can be daunting, but shouldn't be that difficult that it would take you two months just to get your head around it without actually doing anything else. That is unacceptable, and if you really feel that that is what would happen you need to inform your boss that you need assistance.

If this job with a raise was making more than my other job, I would quit the other ask for more hours and follow the money and soldier on through the work.

The most diplomatic way I can think of to tell the boss, is not say I can't do it, but say that I need either more time or assistance to get it done in a reasonable timeframe.

  • I think it's easy to say "just ask for more hours". University takes up 40 hours per week. My other job is 20 per week. You want me to work an additional 20 on top of that to "soldier through it"? I think you missed something very important. Nov 20, 2015 at 0:31
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    nope, I'm thinking you should consider ditching the other job and just doing one. If you make more money that way of course. I worked my way through Uni taking whatever paid me the most which actually in my case meant cleaning offices at night in my last year.
    – Kilisi
    Nov 20, 2015 at 0:35

Tell them honestly how far you think you'll get in the available time, allowing for time to educate yourself.

They will either tell you to do what you can -- in which case you do exactly and only that and accept that you may not complete it -- or they'll tell you to do some specific part of it, or they'll assign it to someone else, or they'll reconsider what they're asking for.

You can't make a baby in a month, even with nine women working together, and adding more people Won't help. But if you consider other approaches to the actual goal you might be able to adopt one, or at least adopt nine dogs, in that time. Or you can produce the oulines of a plan for adopting a kid. And one of those may be good enough for the real purposes of the exercise. Find out.

And if your estimate was wrong... that's how we learn to estimate. I've blown initial estimates by an order of magnitude a few times, due to not realizing just how many things had to change to make the "simple" idea work in real life. It happens. You do your honest best, try to keep manglement [sic] informed of progress, and if they aren't satisfied you go back to the top of this answer and repeat.


Tell your boss that the task is harder than anticipated and you can't accomplish the task in the given amount of time with the given amount of weekly hours. See if you can get enough additional working hours to quit your old job (assuming this job pays more), and focus on this one (assuming you like this job to the other one). It's better to do one job well than two jobs mediocrely. This will give you more of your most valuable resource (time) to you and your employer. Working too much can cause you to burn out after a while. As a student you need time to focus on your studies as a technical degree (I assume) will pay off greater in the long run than two part-time jobs. This comes from personal experience, but again its just another option.

  1. Don't make this a bigger deal than it is
  2. Propose solutions along with the problems if you can

Don't make this into a bigger deal than it is - just tell them "Having looked more at this, and remember I can only commit to 10-15 hours a week here, the full rewrite you are talking about will take many months and a lot of that will me be learning how to do it. In two months I'll barely be understanding the code base." No need to be shy about that.

This puts the decision in their court. Maybe they're fine with "take as long as it takes" (and given that they went a year with zero progress, they probably are), maybe they will come up with a different plan.

But let's be honest, $16/hour for Android development is somewhere around 1/10 of the going price. Suggest things that they could do to help the project and you! "Well if you paid for this Android class..." "If we could get X hours of contracting from previous dev X, or failing that any experienced Android dev, it would jump-start me..." Let them say no to spending money, you can feel free to propose it as a solution. It always defaults back to "Happy to work on it, but we're probably looking at 6 months" or whatever from you.

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