“11 Clients” Republished in Software Development Magazine

The fine folks at Software Development Magazine have republished my article, The 11 Clients You Need to Fire Right Now in a slightly edited form (full disclosure:  SDMagazine paid me for the right to run the article in their magazine).

This is only my second time being in print, and my first time in an industry publication.  As you can imagine, I’m excited.  It was especially thrilling to be published in SD, being a longtime reader!

I’m hoping this is just the start of a recurring write-for-pay line of business.  Sometimes writing words is more fun than writing code.  😉

The Thrill and Agony of Working From Home

I’ve been running my consulting practice from my home office for about 2.5 years now.  Primarily, I interact with my remote team members via email and IM. After spending the previous 10 years in actual office space, it’s been quite a change. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about myself and my work style in my few years of working from home. Perhaps these things will apply to you too.

These points should apply to both entrepreneurs or freelancers working from home and people who telecommute to work.  Just pick out the items that apply to you and ignore the rest.

If your family is unwilling or unable to respect your work time, you are in deep dip.

For about the first 4 months of my working from home, my wife would pop in to my office for a visit once an hour. She’d pop in to tell me about some interesting fact she just heard on Oprah. She’d pop in to tell me about some cute thing our son did. She’d pop in to tell me who she just talked to on the phone or to tell me about something cool she just read. She didn’t understand why I got so upset about the interruptions. I broke out a copy of Peopleware and explained what it takes to go into a productive zone.  I explained how much time and ground I lost every time I was interrupted.  That didn’t really have the effect I wanted.

Then I showed her my billable reports for the days when I was interrupted and the days when I was left alone.  She understood that.

Now she’s a champ about respecting my office time when I’m working from home. She does a better job of playing defense against my 5-year old son coming to visit me too. In return, I make it a point to take a break in the middle of the day every day to hang out with them for a little while. But those first few months…I was working WAY too hard for my billables.

If you are unable to respect your own work time, you are in deep dip.

Family aside, when working from home everything is a potential distraction. The fridge is ten paces away. So is the cookie jar. And the beer. And the TV. And the PlayStation. And so on. There’s always something that you could be doing instead of working. And some days, that’s a tough obstacle to leap. When you have a regular office, you’re surrounded by work stuff, so at a certain point you just give up and do some work. When working from home, it’s orders of magnitude easier to say “forget this” and go for a swim in the backyard.

Laser-like focus is a must. As for how to get laser-like focus, well…all I can say is you better be doing work you really care about, or at least be doing work that has a payoff you feel passionate about.

Dressing the part is a big help.

I have absolutely noticed a difference in both my demeanor and my productivity when I dress like I’m going to work in a real office. When I roll out of bed and pull on the nearest sweats and T-shirt, it’s not quite the same. Sure, it’s nice to be able to work in sweats and a T-shirt in the privacy of my own home.  But without fail, if I get dressed like I have a real office to go to, I am more professional and more productive.

It might sound silly, the idea of getting dressed “for real” just to work in your third bedroom, but it really does help. There’s an old saying:

“Dress for a dance, and you dance. Dress for playing football, and a game breaks out.”

I believe in that saying completely. In my case, it’s more like “Dress for work, and you’ll work. Dress for lazing about, and you’ll end up lazing about.” Besides, the process of showering, shaving, and dressing is a nice ritual for helping me get into my game-state.  I don’t have a problem with comfortable or even casual dress – I’ve billed plenty of hours wearing jeans and a T-shirt (clean and ironed, of course).  I do have a problem with people being slobs when working from home, which is what “casual dress” usually devolves into.  Dress sharp, feel sharp.

I’m not advocating wearing a suit & tie just to work in your spare bedroom.  This post is being brought to you by Levis and a plaid shirt.  My company isn’t not a formal operation by any means.

Getting OUT of the home office with regularity is a must.

It is easy to shut yourself away and go overboard on the billables. It is also easy to slip into a state of deep depression and apathy while doing so. Some of my highest-grossing weeks while working from home have also been the most agonizing.

I make it a point to go to lunch with colleagues a couple times per week.  I visit clients a couple times per week (even when I technically could deal with them via Skype or some such).  I take a break to play with my son daily. I’m a relatively social guy, and I found that being away from the interplay of an office environment was difficult for me.  Getting out regularly was a non-negotiable “must have” for my work schedule. Even the most introverted of the introverted will stagnate and grind to an intellectual and emotional halt, being shut up in a home office all day every day.  As distracting as it sounds, even a few hours working from your local coffee shop can go a long way toward combatting feelings of isolation.

Even if you’re not a people person, regular changes of venue and human contact will keep your engine at a higher idle than pulling a Kaczynski will. And for the love of all that’s holy, open the damn window and breathe some fresh air!

Getting IN to the regular office with regularity is a must, too (if you have a regular office).

This one is for you remote workers who have an office you could go visit – not only can you begin to feel detached when working from home, but your co-workers can begin to feel detached from you.  This is not good and can result in people forgetting to tell you about meetings, it can leave you out of promotions due to lack of visibility, and in the worst case scenario it can create resentment amongst your co-workers who work in the office full time.  So pop into the office once a week, even if it’s only for an hour.  The social aspects of the workplace are very important to your career and your mental health.

At my last job, I was one of the people who ended up working at the satellite office because it was closer to where I lived than the corporate HQ was.  What a mistake that was!  It didn’t take very long for poor communications to render everyone in the satellite office out of the loop.  The additional overhead of fighting to make sure people remembered to include the satellite folks in things that pertained to them added an un-needed burden to our daily workloads.  Now, this was 2 professional offices having such difficulty.  Can you imagine how the issue can be compounded when working from home?

Don’t skimp on tools!

Just because you are working from home does not mean that you can get by with an old laptop on a folding card table, sitting in a chair you stole from the dining room.  Crawl off the dime and make sure you have dedicated space – or, at the very least, comfortable, quiet space that you can have reasonable control of during work hours.  Make sure you have a development-class machine (if you are a developer), and a printer – hey, sometimes you really can’t avoid printing some things out.  Get any non-work-related stuff out of the room if you can; it will only serve to distract.  When I first began my consulting career, I was working from a $99 computer hutch from Target, stuffed in the corner of the dining area of our 700-square foot apartment.  If that’s all you have to work with, that’s one thing.  But you need to be looking to set up a real workspace as soon as possible.

Please don’t take this as an excuse to go splurge on an Aeron chair and the highest-end machine you can find.  Your gear must be appropriate, not splashy – splashy will drive you into the poorhouse.

Set expectations for yourself.

Have regular work hours.  Take regular lunch breaks.  Set performance benchmarks for yourself, and stick to them.  If you need to, publicly commit to some goals in order to motivate yourself.  And when you’ve hit your goals for the day or the week, stop and re-evaluate.  Can you knock off for the day?  Are you ahead or behind?  Working from home means working from home, not “hanging out in front of the home computer,” so treat it like you would treat office-based work, and adhere to good performance standards.

Be thankful for working from home.

You don’t “have” to work from home, you get to work from home – never forget that.

The 12th Abusive Client – The Thief

I was speaking to a colleague this morning, and he had a story to tell that made me think I need to add a 12th client to the 11 Clients You Need To Fire Right NowThe Thief.

Let’s do a little case study, shall we?

The Scenario:  You are building a web site for a small business (let’s call it XYZ Inc).  The agreement is that you will build, then host, this new site for XYZ Inc.  Everything appears to be going well; the contract is signed by the owner of XYZ Inc. (who is also the project’s sponsor), your initial design comp was approved, you’re getting all the content you need from the client, each page is approved and praised as you release it to the test server for the client to look at.  “Wow!” you think to yourself, elated.  “This is going great!”

Then you send XYZ Inc. their bill.  The agreement is that the site goes live when the bill is paid.

You suddenly find yourself unable to contact the client by phone, fax or eMail.

Some number of days later you are contacted by a web hosting company, who asks for the database scripts for the site you developed for XYZ Inc.  Confused, you ask why.  It turns out that the owner of XYZ Inc. copied the pages you developed for him off of your test site, then uploaded those pages to a bargain-basement host.  Lacking the database scripts needed for a few key features, he had the host contact you to get them.

Let me say that again – the owner of XYZ, Inc. stole your work off of your test site and had it hosted elsewhere.  Checking  XYZ Inc’s domain, lo and behold, there is the site you built for them (minus the few pages that rely on the database scripts)!

Now imagine that you get a phone call a few days later from your client, the owner of XYZ, Inc.  He wants those database scripts, and he clearly thinks you are in the wrong for not providing them when the host asked for them.  “Why should I have to pay you before getting my site?  Those scripts are mine, I hired you to do this work, now turn it over!  I’ll pay you when I have the money.”

Frankly, this blows my mind, but it really happened to someone I know (in fact, it’s still happening, as the issue is in the legal arena right now and has not yet been resolved).  I’m not a lawyer, but this sure sounds like theft of services to me.  If a client pulled this with me, I’d have my attorney on the phone with the host to get the site taken down, and with XYZ Inc’s general counsel to get that bill paid.

Has a client ever outright stolen from you?  If so, what did you do?  What would you do?

In Defense of Differentiation

Cory Foy has posted on JoS that his company is moving to a system of forced ranking, where each employee is classified as an A, B or C performer.  (Aside:  This practice is known as Differentiation and was famously used by Jack Welch during his tenure as the CEO of GE.  Differentiation was most recently discussed in Welch’s book Winning.  Note that I am not an Amazon affiliate and make no money if you click that link, but I will say that I liked the book and encourage you to check it out.).  Cory is curious if such a system has ever worked out well.  The comments that follow Cory’s post skew against forced ranking, more commonly known as Differentiation.  This is no surprise, as most employees are unaware of one very important fact:

Your company is already ranking people, whether you know it or not.

Let’s be real here – is there a manager alive who can’t tell you who his star performers are?  Is there a manager alive who can’t tell you who his problem employees are?  Of course not.  Once you have those two data points, deriving the third (average performers) is a snap.  Is there anybody who really, truly believes that management treats every employee the same way?

Speaking for myself, if management is already differentiating employees into groups based on performance, I’d much prefer to have it be a codified, publicly-revealed policy than have it be a behind-closed-doors affair.  When it’s all out on the table, the employee at least has a chance to know where he stands and to find out how he can improve (or at least maintain) his performance.

In order to make differentiation work, you can’t just rank employees and let that be that.  You need to a) make sure every employee knows where he stands, b) set crystal-clear, measurable and attainable performance benchmarks and c) provide sufficient resources and coaching to give every employee a chance to hit his marks.  If you simply rank your people and then later punish them based on their ranking, you have just engaged in “gotcha!” management, and I have no respect for that.  But if you come up with good metrics, rank your people, and provide the feedback and guidance needed to let an individual work his way out of the Cs and into the Bs, or let a falling A correct himself to remain an A, you’ve done everyone a good turn.

Think about it.  If you differentiate with clear metrics and sufficient resources, when it is time to fire someone there are no surprises.  The employee is not living with an inflated estimation of his performance.  The manager has actual data to back up his decision.  The employee, presumably receiving feedback the whole time, will be aware that his performance has either been sinking or not making the cut, and will have had an opportunity to psychologically prepare himself, maybe even polish up his resume before the axe falls.  It is, in short, a much more humane experience than most firings.  An anonymous reply to Cory’s post reads:

Well, that sounds awful.  So basically it removes all incentives to help your coworkers?  So instead of helping someone when they have a question, you just blow them off because helping them out might bump you down a ranking?

In any well-thought-out system, helping your fellow co-worker should increase your ranking, not hurt it.  We’re not talking about Lord of the Flies here.

Case in point:  almost 3 years ago, I was laid off from a job.  It was a good job – I had interesting work to do, I was being paid well, I liked my co-workers.  It wasn’t perfect – no job ever is – but it was good.  At every feedback encounter, I was told that I was a high performer.  So far, so good.  So imagine my surprise when, in the second of three layoff rounds, I received a pinkslip along with several co-workers whom I had heard spoken of as not-so-good performers.  I was shocked.  A thought came to mind:  maybe I wasn’t really a top performer.  Maybe I’d been having smoke blown up my backside.  Either way, I had no way to know that I was even a candidate for layoff.  And of course, no company will tell you why they axed you after the fact, so to this day I have to wonder.  I’ve heard scuttlebutt that it was purely about salary, as the company was allegedly bleeding cash, but I’ll really never know, because that company did not practice a policy of open communication with employees regarding where the employee stood.  If there was anything I could have adjusted performance-wise to avoid being sacked, I never knew it.  If there was nothing I could have done to avoid being sacked, I never knew that either.  Does this sound like a humane way to handle such matters?  What makes this even more astounding is that the company built enterprise tools to help Fortune 500s manage the performance of their employees.  Oddly enough, these tools were not used in-house – we didn’t eat our own dog food.  If our own products had been used in-house, a number of people might have been a lot less surprised to be laid off.

To this day, when clients complain about employees not doing what they should be doing, I encourage them to make their performance expectations completely clear, because the sad fact is that employees often get in trouble for things that they did not know they were responsible for.  This is patently unfair.  I have even helped clients to create customized tools that help management and employee alike set goals reasonable goals together and come up with plans to achieve them.  It only seems right.

Given a choice between “gotcha!” management or properly practiced open differentiation, I’ll take a numeric ranking and a performance plan 100 times out of 100.

Wouldn’t you?

Andy Budd’s 10 Bad Project Warning Signs

Andy Budd really gets it.

Andy recently wrote a brief article entitled 10 Bad Project Warning Signs, and it is spot-on.  Reading the article, I felt as though Andy had opened his mouth and my words came out – I identified with his article that strongly.  I feel that Andy’s piece makes an excellent prequel to my own article about the 11 Clients You Need to Fire Right Now.  Follow Andy’s advice and you’ll avoid these kind of clients altogether.

Alright, enough gushing – let me quote the 10 top-level points of Andy’s article.  You can read it yourself to get the finer details.

1. The project needs to be done in an incredibly short space of time, due to a fixed deadline.

2. The potential client says that they have no idea about budget.

3. The potential client says they have a budget but won’t tell you what it is.

4. The client says they want the site to be as cheap as possible, or they have an extremely low budget.

5. The client expects much more from the project than their budget will allow.

6. You are expected to come up with design ideas for the pitch.

7. The potential client won’t tell you how many agencies they have contacted about this project.

8. You will be pitching against a large number of other agencies.

9. There is no central point of contact.

10. The potential client hasn’t provided you with a request for proposal and doesn’t have the time to fill in your design questionnaire fully.

I agree that these are HUGE problems.  Andy goes into more detail on exactly why these are problems in his article.  I don’t want to quote the whole thing here and spoil it, because you really should read it.  It’s obvious to me that Andy is a fellow grizzled veteran of the game, and he’s seen the myriad ways that clients – intentionally or not – sometimes make themselves virtually impossible to help.

I remember a recent client who was a combination of “tight deadline” and “no budget.” They wanted to do an extremely significant web project and have it launch within 2 weeks of our initial meeting.  Their total budget was tiny.  Both the deadline was the budget were a complete mis-match with the scope of the project.  Although I warned them that the project was high-risk and would require certain compromises in order to meet their budget and time constraints, and although they agreed that the compromises were OK so long as we could go back later and tune things up, in the end nobody came out happy.

Despite having agreed to the initial compromises, the client expressed disillusionment and bailed out of the “tune things up” phase of the project.  I was unhappy that they had bailed out on me on account of things that they had agreed to.  It was a great big mess, and one that could have been avoided if I had said “no” to the project.  The aftermath is bad for both of us: they’ll probably badmouth me despite my best efforts, and I’ll never trust that client or any business associated with them ever again.  Because I agreed to a project that was obviously ridiculous, we both lost.

Given the client’s grossly mis-matched budget, schedule, and expectations, that project had little chance of making it, and I suspected as much from the get-go.  Why did I accept it anyway?  Because the client agreed to significant compromises that brought the scope within what could be done for the time and money.  I had no idea that they’d suddenly go back on that, but frankly, after 12 years in the business, I should have been better able to identify this as a bad risk and move on.

Don’t make similar mistakes!  Give Andy’s item a good read, and have the courage to say “no” when a risky proposition comes your way.