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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Too Honest, Too Straightforward

Vast majority of people working on software products contact their customers directly or indirectly. Yes, software developers included. Each time we do it we play a role of salespeople. Of course customers don’t see us making product presentations or negotiating prices. What do they see then?

In my case answer is pretty easy since my attitude was commented several times in the past by my colleagues. I’m too honest and too straightforward. It’s definitely a mixed blessing if that’s a blessing at all.

Talking about business is expected to be like old-school negotiations. Two parties sitting on two ends of the table trying to squeeze others as much as possible using all tricks they know. I hate it. I dream about this kind of discussion:

– We can do it in 4 months. Here’s proposed schedule.
– Are you sure phase 2 has to take so long?
– Yes, since we have to develop integration module for external system. It could be probably a bit shorter if we had experts of that system available but we’ve worked with these guys before and there are always problems with them. If they won’t be an issue this time we should be able to deliver 2 weeks earlier but I wouldn’t bet.
– OK. Another issue is the price. We won’t pay more than $100000. That’s our approved budget.
– Let me think… We’d need to cut some functionality out of scope to make it a win-win. How about messaging module and these complex reports?
– Um… we can let reports go but messaging module must stay. Deal?
– Deal.

Yes, I know, I am dreaming. Anyway I often try to bring this kind of approach to the table. Too often. You shouldn’t be surprised if you’re a customer and I ask you: “We plan to develop this product for you, does it makes any sense for you or is that just a brain dead idea?” I may also state: “This function would make both your and our lives easier, although I don’t believe they’d allow me to do it for free. Would you find some budget for the feature? I promise the price will be good.

On the side note, if you ever worked as a salesperson with me I know, you already hate me. I guess I must live with that.

This approach may weaken negotiating position of my party. Sometimes it is considered as pretty harsh by customers since you occasionally don’t wrap up the truth with nice marketing blah-blah (“No, we won’t build and deploy complex telecommunication solution in a month”). That isn’t playing by the rules and from time to time people find it hard to deal with it at the beginning.

However the thing I found out is that when a relation with the customer is already built they start to appreciate this attitude. Having an honest source of information on the other side is quite a valuable thing. Even when the guy is sometimes too honest and too straightforward.

It doesn’t mean I’m totally happy with it. It definitely would be better if there were no scary ‘too’ word in the label they stick to my back.

What kind of person are you? What do your customer see when they talk with you?

in: communication, personal development

4 comments… add one

  • Dan March 30, 2009, 4:03 pm

    This is a great post.

    Like you, I hate the widely-held belief that negotiation has to be adversarial.

    I like to think of it as "this is where you are, this is where I am, this is where we want to be…. what can we do to get us both there?"

    As I've gotten older, I've come to believe that being direct & honest is easiest on me, and the most respectable way I can treat the guy on the other side of the table. I'm not going to BS him or try to manipulate him, I'm just going to be honest. Sometimes unfortunately that is intimidating, or frustrating, to the other party. But what else can you do?

    Really good post. The majority of my daily challenges aren't technical, they're related to things like this….

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 31, 2009, 6:08 am

    Actually there isn’t much you can do. I usually end playing by the rules which are set by the customer. If they don’t respond well with (too) straightforward approach I come back to standard adversarial (what an appropriate word) approach.

    That’s by the way one of reasons why I really prefer to work with few clients for a long time than with many of them but for a short period. When you develop your relationship you use much less politics and you can allow yourself to be (too) honest much more often. With benefits for both sides.

  • yatsevsky April 1, 2009, 1:46 pm

    Really good and straightforward post about the project management reality.

    I’m dealing both sales and PM. First of all, you’d need to exclude politics as early as possible and be honest. Next, it’s not always the right way to be straightforward, b/c sometimes it’s better to think over 2-3 win/win options during negotiations, one of them always works. I’m also using several other common rules to finish with win/win.

    Keep in mind that de-scoping may look loose/win position for some of the customers, so you’d need to change the way you’re selling things to people. It’s really a good thing asking customer prioritize desired features before fitting them into budget (as it could be situation when you’re de-scoping the important one!).

    Emotions are playing a great role here as well. You can write a whole bunch of crisp emails, but a 10-mins talk on skype can turn things inside out – people are becoming more open, less frustrated and, finally, content with your attention to their problems.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 2, 2009, 6:25 am


    Given example of imagined discussion of course assumes you know customer’s priorities and you both can find a way of de-scoping which is a win-win.

    I agree de-scoping is neither the only nor always-the-best solution. In ideal world both parties look for saving the most important part of deal for the price of giving up low-priority elements. Unfortunately we don’t live in ideal world.

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