87

Here's the context:

  • I'm a freelance software architect/developer and have started working for a known company 3 weeks ago, for at least one year.
  • They recruited me because they completely failed on a project during 6 months (an hybrid mobile application) and their customers are very angry because the application is quite unusable.
  • Business and customers expect the IT team to fix every bug on the application and to improve drastically the performance.

In my contract, it is written that I would work there to lead and rebuild the entire application thanks to my programming skills and architecture knowledge (that unfortunately, none of their own people has).

Yesterday, the IT team included superiors told me: You will rebuild the entire application alone, because you are the one that can do that here. But we don't want to track your work in Jira like others, we don't want the business to be aware of your existence because they would not appreciate that we are rebuilding the whole app, even if it takes few months. They wouldn't want to even think that they failed to trust a previous external team during 6 months to build this shit version of the app.

We want you to work in ghost mode, knowing that nobody will be aware that you are doing the whole work.

I'm embarrassed. I don't want to repair the failures under the ground, rebuilding the whole product alone, without letting people knowing that they have effectively failed. It isn't part of my life principles.

Would you accept to make a huge work for a company without having anybody aware of your good work, even Jira to track your work like any other member of the team?

Would you accept to work in this context? Is it a good idea to expect my recruiter to change their mind, and start tracking my work like any other teammates?

I highlight that I'm not a simple employee but work on behalf of my own company (freelance).

closed as primarily opinion-based by nvoigt, mxyzplk, Lilienthal, Jim G., JakeGould Jul 31 '16 at 5:53

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 74
    Sounds like some bad managers are trying to cover their tracks, I'm not sure I would want to get caught in that crossfire if the "ghost" project was discovered, the whole situation stinks to me – Draken Jul 29 '16 at 7:11
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    With as dirty as it sounds, it'd have to come with some serious hazard pay. It could damage your reputation for years to come. If you're guaranteed enough money to retire, well, no problem. Otherwise, could be a very bad deal. – Brian Knoblauch Jul 29 '16 at 11:39
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    I commented before reading the chat. Much of that was clarifying information... are we sure it should have all been moved? – CWilson Jul 31 '16 at 1:15
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    I have been a professional consultant for 35 years, and I too have done this many times. This kind of confidentiality and discretion is part of what your client is paying for. The only way you could damage your reputation is by compromising your client's confidence. But, yes, do get everything in writing (email is fine). – RBarryYoung Jul 31 '16 at 13:20
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    @kmort I managed to convince them to make the project official, explaining that I clearly wouldn't want to work in such a context. As they really needed (need) me for my skills, they accepted to change the context. It took some time though. – Mik378 Nov 6 '16 at 21:59

12 Answers 12

173

Get everything in writing

The client wants you to do a job that is substantially different than what's in your employment contract.

They want you to do it under unusual and technically-challenging conditions.

These conditions are possibly unethical (for the managers) and carry significant potential risk for you (mostly reputational, possibly legal).

It definitely sounds like the kind of place where, if something goes wrong in the future, or somebody discovers this "ghost" project and raises a stink about it, or somebody is after a scapegoat, you'll be a prime target.


Get everything in writing. All the requirements, all the conditions, all the instructions.

Then get the opinion of a good lawyer on your potential exposure.

Then negotiate for serious hazard pay. If they're asking you to do the work of an entire team, they'd better be paying you for it.


Whether you're ethically prepared to do the work is an intensely personal decision that we can't help you with.

Whether it makes good business sense will depend on the above.

Think it all through, and then hey, if they're paying you enough to be worth it, and it's compatible with your ethics, go for it.

  • 25
    This answer should be given more weight than it has been so far. +1 from me. Also, this could wind up being a HUGE gap on his resume if his existence is denied to someone doing a background check or verification of employment history, in addition to the problems you mentioned. – Richard U Jul 29 '16 at 13:29
  • 17
    @RichardU I assume he would write on the resume something like "Worked for [redacted]", as long as he spells out that a condition of working there was not to talk about it, I don't think it would be a problem - not unless that was the only thing on there. – Benubird Jul 29 '16 at 13:54
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    @RichardU You're concerned about "verification of employment history"? That he'll write about having done an entire project for GonzoCorp on contract, and then someone will phone GonzoCorp to verify that, and that GonzoCorp will tell ParanoidCorp that he didn't do an entire project for them, to cover any evidence that anyone has anywhere of this? I suppose if Gonzo is THAT gonzo, and I don't think I want to work for either of those corps. – Dronz Jul 29 '16 at 14:07
  • 1
    @RichardU Fair enough - I've mostly only worked for small companies (<20 people), and I guess they do things differently - tbh, I don't think I've ever actually checked a reference, or heard of anyone doing it. Mostly when interviewing, I just ask them about their experience, as I'm more worried about whether they can do the job than where they might have worked previously. – Benubird Jul 29 '16 at 14:08
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    A free lancer's CV is going to be less chronologically focused, so I don't think anyone needs to know about employment gaps. – user8365 Jul 29 '16 at 18:28
81

You're a freelancer, if you want the money do the job. If it interferes with your ethics, but you still want the money, go to church more often or rationalise it another way. If it's totally at odds with your ethics, turn it down.

Personally I don't care about what happened prior to me getting the work. My only focus is on the job itself. If I'm breaking laws then that's another matter and I'd turn it down.

The only way a statement like 'you're the only one can do the job' would impact on me is to make me rethink my prices upwards. Making waves as a freelancer over other peoples work is bad for your revenue stream and not beneficial.

Some freelancers are head and shoulders above a businesses employees, that's why they're hired, but getting a swelled head over it is detrimental in the long run.

  • 17
    @Mik378 It's the only point of view if you want to make it as a freelancer. Your delivery should be the only thing that matters to you – Dan Jul 29 '16 at 13:03
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    @Mik378 I agree with this. Especially about the swelled head. They tell you to redevelop an entire application while having another team of developers fixing bugs on the one they plan to shit-can. These guys are liars. They have to be lying to either you, the business and/or the other developers. It's likely all of the above. Take anything they tell you with a major grain of salt. My guess is that the 'leaders' caused this mess, not the technical team. If you run into struggles or delays,you can expect their attitude towards you to resemble how they talk about the other developers. – JimmyJames Jul 29 '16 at 14:58
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    I completely disagree with this answer. If he wants the money, he better have an airtight contract that explains the ghost-writing arrangement (instead of the current contract he has now). Not using Jira. Not telling people what he's working on. That's a sure-fire recipe of not getting paid for breach of contract. – Stephan Branczyk Jul 29 '16 at 16:40
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    @StephanBranczyk any freelancer who is not keeping records, getting work signed off, and covering his back is open to abuse, regardless of what sort of contract they're on. You don't rely on clients to do that. I've had clients try all sorts of rubbish, I ripped them all new orifices and walked off with a pocketful of money more than if they'd just paid properly without playing games. They have even come back and given me more work once they got over themselves. – Kilisi Jul 30 '16 at 5:22
  • 1
    Depends on the payment structure. If they are regularly paying you for a job that is in writing, I don't see the harm. If I were in OP's position, I would immediately increase my rate. – Joe Jul 30 '16 at 6:26
41

I'm not going to comment on the ethical side of things, although this is certainly problematic, too.

I would say that JIRA and other issue tracking systems exist for a reason. If you don't set up your requirements and tasks and track how you will address and resolve these, but instead plan on building an entire application without any codified project management tools whatsoever (regardless of the reason for this!), you will run into all the same issues that other people run into that want to run a project in this manner for other reasons: mismatch between requirements and actual functionalities you build, poor to no resource planning, and later lots of blame, name-calling and "he said, she said" discussions going around.

Recommending that you don't do this is the easy way out for us here at Workplace.SE. However, I would certainly bring these issues up with your management, and tell them that you should at least be using some management tools for the good of the project. Whether the end customer needs to be told what exactly you are doing should be a separate discussion.

  • 19
    I might add to this answer, these are the same managers who led to the project's failure in the first place, so it'd be inadvisable to listen to them on advice as to how to do the project. Having no way of keeping track of bugs, learning from mistakes or utilising a team sounds to me like this project is doomed to failure. – c1646091 Jul 29 '16 at 13:40
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    +1 Yes, this. There are plenty of tools essentially free to use, hosted in some kind of cloud or on your own infrastructure (VM). Copy relevant excerpts or phone conversations to corresponding isue entries etc. The more OP's management want things to go unnoticed, the more should the OP document, even if he does all the documentation himself. – Pavel Aug 2 '16 at 20:47
31

I'd say if the boss really wants you to do this work divorced from the rest of the team (almost surely a bad idea), then insist in setting up your own JIRA-or-whatever instances for project tracking. That will let you have real management tools, and some hope of doing things well, while giving him the cover he appears to want.

You're also going to want to make sure that he's got a real clue about how you'll find out what's supposed to be going on. Obviously the existing app is a problem, but there's a good chance that happened because various parties weren't talking. If that's the case, cutting you off from everyone is NOT going to help.

Also, you'll need to figure out how QA is going to work. Again, if you're ghosting, how does QA get done?

  • 7
    This was my first thought, and I'm surprised it isn't getting more attention. This project has already failed with multiple people working on it. It's now being taken on by a single developer, without documentation, without task monitoring or bug tracking, without code review, without QA... and they expect this to work better? If they're telling you that you have expertise that they lack, then perhaps you should explain to them that your expertise tells you that you need all those things. – anaximander Jul 29 '16 at 14:19
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    There has to be some kind of requirement-tracking system in place, otherwise how can you prove that you met the milestones your contract is (presumably) tied to? It may wind up being a spreadsheet in the cloud somewhere, but there's got to be some way to track and document progress. – TMN Jul 29 '16 at 16:02
  • @anaximander ...presumably, without exploring the user needs behind the app, I should add to your list. – svavil Jul 29 '16 at 21:09
  • QA gets done on mergeback, and they have no idea they're doing it. – Joshua Jul 29 '16 at 22:14
  • I'd add that it's best for the freelancer to be able to prove authorship/copyright ownership of their code. A git repository can easily be faked, so that's not a proof; certified electronic mail with the repository attached may help, or any other common way to prove creative work authorship. This is most important if the freelancer reuses own code from past projects, or plans to reuse the new code, or borrows some code from the client; or if the client is a big/litigious company with plent of legal artillery to use against competitors. – Nemo Jul 30 '16 at 12:49
19

This is potentially extremely concerning. If the IT team don't want the rest of the company to know that you have been employed, then this suggests that HR are not aware of you. So:

  • who's guaranteeing your payroll?
  • are you covered on business liability insurance?
  • who signed your contract, and did they have any legal authority to do so?
  • are you really, technically, formally employed by them at all?

I would not even dream of entering into such an arrangement.

On the other hand, if your employment is all above board, and it's only the day-to-day specifics of what you'll be working on that your superiors do not want leaking outside of the IT team… well, that smells like rather poor management but I wouldn't be terribly concerned from a strictly practical point of view.

  • 2
    Sounds like he's openly employed and going to meetings but they think they can hide that he's quietly replacing the entire product for everyone, but yes, it is extremely concerning. – Dronz Jul 29 '16 at 14:09
6

That's the kind of thing that you get hired for as a freelancer, and it's the kind of thing that makes you get paid more per working day than an employee.

Obviously source code control and a tool like JIRA are useful or they wouldn't exist. So whatever you are doing, you are probably running "private" source code control and "private" JIRA (which the responsible manager should be able to access, and which would be handed to your successor should you get hit by a bus). This is also evidence that you are doing a good and productive job, should it be doubted.

If the company wants to have their own JIRA with fewer work items I'd leave that up to them. I know I would be no good whatsoever at faking a JIRA history.

But the principle: Should you do this? I would assume the choice is between you doing it or someone else doing it. In a year when you are finished, the development team will get the praise and higher management will be told that you didn't actually achieve much. That's what you are hired for, and that's why you are paid top money. That happens at higher levels as well, where a company in trouble may hire a new CEO for the sole purpose of making all the unpopular decisions that need to be made and implementing them, and then getting fired - which everyone knows and which is included in the pay.

  • 6
    This. I might even be inclined to say something like, "Ah, you want the ghost-mode protocol! Certainly I can do that, although of course there will be a 20% discretion surcharge" – Benubird Jul 29 '16 at 13:56
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    Just on a tangential point; freelancers working for their own company should be paid a good chunk more because they have to take care of all of the things that the HR/finance usually would. Things like pension, holidays, tax, insurance, equipment, benefits.. the list goes on. – Dom Jul 29 '16 at 15:27
  • Freelancers are also often used for the jobs nobody wants to do. For example development jobs that make no money but just cost (but need doing because not doing them is even more costly than doing them), so whoever does it will not get any praise from management. – gnasher729 Jul 29 '16 at 19:06
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    @Benubird: 20% my fat hairy eyeball! - 250% negotiable down to, maybe, 200%. Plus a sizable, maybe 15%, nonreturnable down payment. – A. I. Breveleri Jul 30 '16 at 0:33
5

You have to consider three things, just like you would with any other gig:

  1. Will I have the resources I need to do the job correctly?
  2. Will I be properly compensated for doing the job correctly?
  3. Will I receive references to get future jobs?

For the first, I'm not so sure that you do. You won't have junior developers to delegate minor tasks to. You won't have active testers in the business side, since they don't even know you're doing it. You don't have the latest specs and refinements and wish-lists, because again no one knows you're doing it. You don't have the tracking tools you need (although you could set up your own Bugzilla or something.) Now, each of these can be mitigated, especially if you can find a business user your management trusts to help you, but they do need to be mitigated somehow.

For the second, it sounds like you will. After all, they desperately need this new version. Your management definitely seems like the "throw money at the problem type" and you're the target they're throwing money at. That being said, do keep documentation of all the work you do, because being under the radar and not using the approved ticketing system will mean you need to dot all your T's and cross all your I's when it comes time to proving you did the work you agreed to.

For the third, this might be tricky. Maybe once you release they can admit that you exist and be like "Mik has been instrumental in cleaning up the bugs and releasing this shiny new... interface ... wink" and then you can get references. But they might just as easily shove you out the door and say "thanks for cleaning up after us, we're gonna get back to #^@%^ing things up again! Tata!"

Now, as for ethics, I can't help you there. If they want to run their business shady, they can. I'm contracted to do a job under certain constraints, I do the job under those constraints as long as I'm set up for present and future success. The ethical side you'll have to reach on your own.

2

I think this is really something you have to decide for yourself. Different people want different types of rewards (other than the money of course) for the work they do, and you seem to want recognition for your work.

This is fine, personally it wouldn't bother me in the slightest but everyone is different. So you need to decide for yourself if all you're getting for your work is worth you doing the work in your opinion. If not, then say no (or renegotiate) if it's OK then go ahead and do it.

Of course there are one or two practical questions:

As a freelancer, you will probably want to take credit for the work to help win future clients, and the question is, will this be possible if you can't even tell the current client's own staff that you're doing it?

There's also the matter that if your time is not being tracked is it possible there'll be a dispute over their payment to you? (e.g. if you're being paid by the hour they'll need a way of knowing how many hours you've worked) - Make sure this is worked out in advance.

On the ethics of the situation, I don't think there's a problem really. The company offered you a particular set of terms, and it's up to you whether you want the job or not. There's no real need to tell them they have failed... They're not your staff, it's not your company, it's up to their own managers to worry about that kind of thing.

  • 6
    You tell the next client "They worked six months and had a product that wasn't working at all. Then they hired me, and a year later their product was absolutely fine. But my work had nothing to do with that. Honestly. " – gnasher729 Jul 29 '16 at 12:24
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    More precisely, you get a reference from them that says "worked on a confidential project for us; we were extremely pleased with the diligence and skill and discretion displayed." Or as close to that as you can pry out of them. That's really most of what the next employer cares about. – keshlam Jul 29 '16 at 16:54
2

There's not inherently wrong with working discreetly. There are many areas where it is preferable for everyone involved that not every single detail of the work be made public to everyone.

From what you've written, it appears that they want to save face by secretly starting over on some sub-standard work they've done. IMHO, they should skip the secrecy, and go to the customer and say "we messed up, we're sorry, but we'll rebuild the whole thing and everything will be fine", but that's their business. Again, nothing inherently wrong with this particular assignment either.

However:

  1. The whole aim of your work is to take a project that the customer is not satisfied with, and fix the customer's complaints. Yet you are not allowed to talk to the customer. Fine, c'est la vie. But this will slow you down, therefore the project will take longer than usual, and perhaps the work will be harder (more $$$/hour). So you should discuss pricing again, because assumptions behind your original quote likely no longer hold.

  2. With all this secrecy, what proof will even exist of your employment? When you get paid at the end, your tax authority will need to know where your money came from, because large sums out of the blue are often connected to criminal activity. You also need enough legally admissible proof that yes, you are hired by them and yes, you do expect to be paid so much money for rebuilding this app. Their customer needn't see these documents, but they must be prepared between the two of you. Otherwise, they could just not pay you after the work is done, and you couldn't prove in court that you even worked there at all. Or they could pay you, and then the government audits your taxes, and you have endless headaches explaining to them that it was a "secret project".

  3. Secrecy costs money. Bluntly, not all developers have the tact to do such work without blowing their cover, therefore those that can (like you) should be paid more. It's supply and demand. So this is a valuable additional thing that they need to compensate you for, on top of what I mentioned in #1.

  4. Last but not least, the payoff of your work is not only the money, but also being able to show future clients your past work to show that you're a capable developer. If they intend to keep it completely secret, they are essentially taking that away from you, so they should give something else in return - like money. Meaning if this will be a secret not only during work, but even long after the app is rebuilt and the customer is happy, then that will cost extra too, on top of #1 and #3.

tl;dr: Ask yourself, is there an amount of money that would make you feel comfortable doing this? If yes, explain your position to them and say, "sorry guys, the initial agreement was for a normal project - if you want this super secret stuff we can do that too but you're paying extra". Either way, be prepared to walk away. Money is nice but this is a lot more risky than your usual job. Ghost writing costs more than normal writing, so if you agree to being paid the same, you're being underpaid.

1

If you want to establish yourself as an authority in your field, you need to look for the best ways to create value for your clients. This will most often include subjects outside your domain. There are obvious problems with this company, and It is probably more valuable to address the problems with their knowledge sharing and processes than to waste money on the fix or rebuild a shit application.

I would discuss this with your client. If they decide not to deal with the problem I will move on. And to gain more respectable customers, I would write a blog post or do a podcast with someone in the knowledge management field or an executive on how this lack of visibility will cause signal distortion in the effective management of the firm . You would actually lose the firm money in the long run. While taking the high will earn you credibility and trust-worth clients.

1

The other answers have considered the ethics and the resources/practical side already. My opinion focuses more on the opportunity which this may be.

The clients management is betting on the following things: - The customer does not realize that he has paid for developing the first version without a good outcome - You will provide the skills to give them a turnkey-ready-project - And now come the tricky point: They obviously want to be ready to remove you - or the other team. If it's you it's ok if you know it, but the other team should not be aware of their possible doom.

You could bet that the team does not manage to replace you after you give them the initial version for the upgrades, and then it may be that they have to come back to you. The other bet would be that as soon as they have your working version of the app, they chop the other team (which would be the only reason why they want to hide it from their team) and fetch you onboard more firmly.

I am not saying you should, but certainly could hope for such developments.

0

Sorry for the late answer. I am surprised about the surprisingly non-cooperative answer of the others.

First: what is asked from you, is not against any contract you subscribed, and it is not against the workplace ethics. It is a special working mode, tuned to protect the face of your employer in the eyes of his customer. But you shouldn't bother even with it, because you are paid by your employer and his relation with the customer is not your task.

On the ethics side: your employer gives you a job, and a lot of money. The customer doesn't. Actually, the reason of the customer to get his software done by your employer, that he won't do software micromanagement tasks.

The only one what you can lose here, is that the customer won't know your name. But the customer won't employ you later, his business model uses your employer (and similar companies) for tasks like this.

Your employer is in trouble, he sees in you the saver of his project, and he is capable and is willing to pay you its extra costs (if not now, then in the next project. Or in the next project of his friend having a similar problem). This is why can you work here as freelancer.

I can't see any rationality, for example, why should you ask everything in paper and similar. It should be needed only if there would be the possibility of some judicial problems here, but there isn't. What you want to do, it not against any law.

By showing your employer, that you are capable and willing to be a "Mr. Wolf", it would highly elevate your worth in his eyes, and you can probably count that it won't be your last "save everything, doesn't matter what is the cost" scenario.

Instead of thinking it would be a "trap", what I see very clearly, it is a possibility for you to be some more as a "we buy x manmonth freelance for y $", interchangeable raw flesh. You could be a "special task force" from that point.

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