Be wary, be skeptical. It may sound negative, but how many of us in IT have encountered a situation that wasn't what it first seemed?
For instance, a basic part of managing a project is keeping feature creep on lockdown. But like too many good lessons, I had to learn it the hard way with a client who tried to take advantage of the situation.
Early on in my computer software career, I worked for a very energetic entrepreneur we'll call "Bill." Overall, it was a positive time in my career: I had a blast and certainly was never bored.
One of Bill's businesses offered expert help in word processing and spreadsheets. We taught classes, automated budget projections on a spreadsheet, helped companies build a catalog from their inventory records, or rented out the computer and printer so they could do it themselves. Floppy disks were sold in the lobby, along with paper available by the page or by the ream.
One day, a business owner we'll call "George" came by. His company distributed fresh products to convenience stores, and he had come to us looking for a way to solve a problem that he said was keeping him up nights: paperwork.
Every morning he loaded trucks with product, and every evening these trucks brought back product. Some of this product was out of date and due to be sold to an outlet store. Some of it had found no room on the shelves and would have to be delivered to the convenience store another day.
George inventoried each truck after it came back from a run. After two hours using a calculator to work through a thick stack of papers, he knew what he wanted to load onto the trucks the next morning.
But the process was laborious. He'd tried using his new PC and a spreadsheet program to automate the process, but he hadn't made much progress. Could we create a customized spreadsheet where he could enter inventory information for each truck, then calculate all the requirements for the next morning's load?
At the office, George and Bill talked about the scope of work and costs, and Bill quoted an hourly charge and an estimate of how many hours it would take. He then walked George to my office down the hall and introduced him to me. We talked for a few minutes about what he wanted done, and I collected copies of the forms he was using.
We thought it was going to be a simple job. And looking back, this was the first of the novice mistakes that Bill and I made. We also didn't identify milestones, write a description of the completed work, or set a firm delivery date.
It wasn't hard to make an entry form using cell protection. A macro copied information from the cells into appropriate cells on the master sheet. When all the trucks' contents were counted and all the data entered, a couple of keystrokes started a macro running, and tada! Out came a sheet with a list of products and quantities that were to be delivered to the outlet store, along with a list of products and quantities that should be loaded for each truck.
The fine art of manipulation
At that point, I thought we were done. But George saw it differently and came back, wanting the formulas tweaked and rules added. He complained about what had been done and wanted more.
We added some sophistication to the formulas. Was a product specially priced for a limited time? Was a product soon to be removed from the line? The calculations took these factors into account.
But he wanted more -- and more.
The day came when he demanded that the master sheet be sorted in a way that was not possible. I was fed up. I had already done little things for free, not reporting the time. Now he wanted a lot more, perhaps the impossible, and wanted it treated as a simple task.
I pondered where he had gotten the notion that we could do everything he could possibly imagine using only a spreadsheet. Perhaps it was all magical to him, as Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
When I told him I could not do that and saw the look on his face, I felt incredibly guilty. I told him I would have a conversation with my boss before saying a final no. He accepted that and left the office.
Bill was not so disposed to patience with the situation but heard me out. After a few questions, he told me not to get back with George, as he would be taking this on himself -- and working for closure.
That gave me the chills. I felt I had failed everyone.
The silver lining
About a week later, Bill came back with good news. George was satisfied, and we had been paid. I wouldn't be hearing from George again. The front desk had been told to route any future calls from George straight to the boss.
Bill told me not to worry about what had happened. George had lost touch with reality and was very good at subtly pressuring, and he wanted more than anyone could do or that he was willing to pay for. He'd seen an opportunity to take advantage and jumped on it.
But I took the lesson to heart for future projects: When you start a race, make sure you know where the finish line is, or you might be running in circles until you drop.