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Preface: I am new to engineering after thirteen years in academia, and I've noticed the standards for professional and polite are very different between the two situations, so I'm not sure academic standards apply here.

I signed a contract to work on a project which has now gone on more than twice as long as it was contracted to last. A variety of things could be the culprit, so the specific reasons don't matter here except for to say that in my well-documented opinion, the project is not able to be finished. The general issues include serious communication problems that I am unable to resolve; constant revision of goals and requirements; requirements that are not able to be completed as written; the refusal to comply with and/or use the tools, standards, and/or methods in the underlying architecture chosen for the project, causing me to need to constantly customize, override, and/or rewrite fundamental classes and/or methods; mass deletion of my work without explanation and occasionally without notification of any kind; my own inexperience; and what I am going to sum up as a conflict of personalities.

I assume I have to stay because I signed a contract, but I do not believe the contract will ever be finished, nor have my requests for prioritized lists of tasks and/or feedback on how to get the project finished been answered.

The rest of my pay for the contract is being held until the project manager is satisfied with my work, which appears highly unlikely to occur, and the tone and commentary in the feedback I've been given on my work and/or requests for clarification is demoralizing. I'm not sure the tone and comments are entirely intentional, but the effect is unpleasant enough without intent.

Under those conditions, what can I do to politely, professionally handle the situation?

My preferred goal here would be to leave, but I don't believe that's an option, so I would be interested in advice on how to behave as professionally as possible given the situation and, if at all possible, finish the project so that I am not abandoning it. I have and am extensively documenting interactions, changes, revisions to the goals, and/or all communication.

My request for a prioritized list finally got added today, after I wrote the question.

The contract is in the US.

A concise summary of this learning experience, as per reading the comments:

1. Next time, I'll do a whole lot more detailed negotiation up front.

2. Scope changes will require renegotiation.

3. I'm insisting on explicit clauses for conditions under which I can terminate work.

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    Do you still have the contract, what does the contract say? Look to see what the exact terms were for your employment and payment and if any of them are different to now, make that known to the company. You need to read your contract to know what you signed up for! – Draken Jul 28 '16 at 7:29
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    What does it say about if the window is not met? What are the extension requirements? – Draken Jul 28 '16 at 7:32
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    Being forced to work on a project with no pay entitled to that work? Sounds like a very bad and dodgy contract to me, does the contract have clauses in to say how you can break off from the work? – Draken Jul 28 '16 at 7:41
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    As for the question, it all sounds like a typical failed project with scope creep, lack of clarity on features/specs, mismanagement and no change management. The typical advice is to take that as an expensive but necessary lesson in contracting work and to take steps to avoid this in the future. Since you believe the project is doomed beyond recovery you need to find a way to extract yourself and that probably becomes a legal question if you did sign a contract. At this point you're unlikely to get a good reference or future work from them anyway and you need to find a new gig. – Lilienthal Jul 28 '16 at 10:37
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    You said this project cannot be finished. If that is the case, then you have the choice between leaving now and having failed, leaving in ten years time and having failed, or never leaving and dying of old age in the contract. Your choice. I recommend first getting a lawyer who examines your contract and tells you the cost of leaving, and then getting out like a shot. BTW. I really hope for you that you have set up some limited liability company, That' what LLC's are for, you let them go down the drain when things go really badly and start another one. – gnasher729 Jul 28 '16 at 13:50
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Try to have a frank discussion about the situation.

Basically, you want a meeting where you can say "Let's be honest; this hasn't been working. Can we agree to make some changes so that we can achieve success?"

Use this meeting to explain clearly and dispassionately how things have been different from your expectations, and why you are finding it impossible to deliver what they want in this situation.

But also be ready to listen about how your work has not been meeting their expectations. And if you can admit up front that some of the fault is yours (your question seems to imply this when you mention "my inexperience"), this will go a long way.

Hopefully you can mutually agree on some concrete change to achieve success.

A key part of this would be a document describing clearly what the remaining work you have to deliver is, and any requirements about "tools, standards, and/or methods" and so on, that might be in dispute.

This should be a mutually agreed document, not something they simply give to you and say here it is.

Of course this is something that should have been in the contract; the fact that it is not reduces your leverage. However, you still need to agree with them what you have to do going forward, and this should be written down. The company does have some incentive to come to an agreement with you: like you, they probably realize that the project currently is not on a path to success, and this is not good for them either. A compromise on achieving something is better than them getting nothing out of a failed project.

Also try to agree on a regular way to monitor how things are going at a high level.

Be willing to eat a large scope change, as long as there is real change in how the project works going forward.

At this point, the path to success is probably going to be a lot more time than your original contract pays you for. But at this point in your career, you should probably just stick it out and complete the project for the original price (if reasonably possible). Unless you have other work opportunities immediately available, turning this into a success is probably the most valuable way you could use your time right now.

Of course you shouldn't put up with scope changes from the original contract, but the contract wasn't clear about this (a lesson you have learned) so you should just do your best to fulfill that contract.

Only do this if there is real change to the project, though. If it continues to be dysfunctional, you will be just throwing more effort and time into a failed enterprise.

If you can't agree on a better way forward, aim for mutual agreement to end the contract.

Perhaps they aren't interested in changing things, or they just blame you for everything. Or perhaps they agree to do things differently, but the same old pattern emerges again. If so I would try for "this isn't working out; let's both just walk away from this". You would stop the work, keep the money you have been paid so far, and not seek the rest of your payment.

It's not clear what exactly the contract stipulates about the work ending before the project is completed, but that is irrelevant if both parties mutually agree on a solution. And no one would really benefit from taking this to court, so it's likely that such an agreement could be arrived at.

It's possible that they will not be interested, and instead threaten legal action. If so, contact a lawyer. But there's a good chance it will be in everyone's interest to resolve things amicably.

  • That's a good answer and one I'll be trying. I'm not terribly optimistic at this point, because I've made several overtures and/or requests for clarification that were received poorly, but if I try to get everything out in the open, maybe I can get past that initial response. And if nothing else, it is important to at least make the effort to resolve things in a professional fashion. – wormwood Jul 28 '16 at 12:15
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    Just want to comment again--this is just an excellent answer. I can't tell you how much I appreciate the advice in it. – wormwood Jul 30 '16 at 20:20
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You, my friend, are on a Death March project. It's sounding like you took on some fixed-price work without including tangible project milestones along the way, and now your money is tied up based on intangible success measures. The best you can do is to try to work toward the next "checkpoint" (finished unit-of-work) and get your butt out of there with a check. Then, jump over to the Freelancing StackExchange and learn how others are dealing with this. There's a huge body of knowledge available on do's and do-not's for dealing with contract work. Best of luck.

  • Thank you for referring me to the Freelancing forum. I can see I'll be reading a ton of it in the near future. – wormwood Aug 2 '16 at 23:28
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Based on a few "clues" in your comment, I sense that your client may have a very different perspective of your work. That they are not satisfied, and that they are withholding payment because they feel that the contract is being breached (by you).

Even if, in fact, there is no breach, they can say that there is one, especially if the project, having gone so-far over "time," has also gone over "budget," and employees (by law) must be paid first.

You, possibly accompanied by your attorney, need to immediately discuss the present state of the contract, and of the project in general.

The harsh realities of IT projects, especially as experienced by a true contractor, send many "former academics" scurrying right back to the cloistered halls that they had left.

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