Thanks for the help -- now you're fired

From hero to goat in 24 hours

I was a project manager at a small software development house that was trying to promote a lucrative technology-insertion contract with a major electronics company. We had established a good relationship with two of the electronics company’s engineers, whom I’ll call “Molly” and “Sam,” and their manager, “Bernie.” Bernie’s group was scheduled to demonstrate a prototype of a new product at a national trade show that was only one week out. The hardware was in good shape, but the software was all over the floor. Panic was in the air.

My company figured if our technology could bail them out, good things would follow. Our marketing VP delivered the marching orders: The trade show demo must -- must -- be successful. My job was to see that it was. No excuses would be accepted. No prisoners would be taken.

I huddled with Molly and Sam. They explained that the programmers who were struggling unsuccessfully to debug the software belonged to a separate development group managed by “Benedict.” I realized that Benedict might react defensively -- or even hostilely -- to anything I suggested, but because it was Molly and Sam’s project, I assumed they’d be able to handle any potential confrontation with Benedict.

We got our hands on a copy of the code and then interviewed key members of Benedict’s group, who were in way over their heads. Fortunately, my company’s technology incorporated a rapid prototyping methodology that could probably help us finish the demo software in time.

Bernie liked our plan and assigned a senior software engineer to implement it. We didn’t see much of Benedict. Maybe he was sulking in his office.

In any event, everything worked out perfectly. The demo was a smashing success. Bernie was pleased, Molly and Sam were relieved, and I basked in the approval of my management. But my elation was short-lived. The next day brought a shocking message from the electronics firm: My company was out on its ear. There would be no follow-on contract, and I was personally banned from the premises.

I was floored. I had done exactly what I had been told to do. I had made Bernie, Molly, and Sam look good, and I had saved their company from a major catastrophe. How could I have gone from hero to goat in 24 hours?

By now you can probably guess. While Bernie’s people were directing our efforts, the money they used to pay us came from a budget controlled by ... Benedict. And Benedict was furious at being marginalized. Although his fury was directed primarily at Bernie, Molly, and Sam, he had no way of exacting revenge against them. I, on the other hand, was an easy target.

We never received one word of explanation -- certainly not from Benedict. Bernie’s people relayed the message that Benedict didn’t want us coming around any more. My management tried to smooth things over and get us back in the door, but their efforts crashed and burned.

Some years later, I put together a talk titled “Dos and Don’ts of Project Management,” which I deliver occasionally at places I work. There’s one item that always appears on my Do list: Be sure you know who your customer is!