By Andrew Neitlich

Are you a flake?

By Andrew Neitlich

It never ceases to amaze me how many flakes work in the IT world. Yes, flakes.

Just this week, I’m ready to hire an IT firm to get started on a project. We agree to kick off the process on Wednesday. Do they show? Do they communicate? No. They eventually send a note saying they will be ready to start Monday. Flakes!

Are you a flake? If any of the following apply to you, others may perceive you to be a flake:

– You show up late for meetings

– You are late with deliverables

– You make excuses, like you had a technology or Internet glitch, to explain lateness

– There are constant mismatches between what you and your client think you are delivering

– You have inflated your resume to get a job (meaning you may not be qualified for that job, but aren’t willing to be open and honest about your qualifications — something that is extremely common in tech, and especially Silicon Valley where I used to check references for IT folks)

– Your clients complain about how long it takes you to get things done, even if your quality is eventually good

– Fundamental flaws are discovered in your applications, things like security breaches, that your clients should assume are taken care of (sort of like airline passengers who assume the plane will land safely)

– You tend to blame more than 25% of your clients for “not getting it.” (It might be you who doesn’t get it).

– During the sales process, you don’t provide professional documents on time, as agreed. If you don’t put on a professional show during that process, what will the client assume about your real work?

– You rarely hit your deliverables on time, budget, or expected quality, and so clients begin to smirk when you tell them you will create a project plan; in other words, you have no credibility with them.

That’s a partial list. How many apply to you? I hope none.

  • WOW! Ok, so this is me. How do I change it? The tech world that I live in isn’t very forgiving in terms of things always go right. Too many things on my plate to focus? How does everyone else do it?

  • Jonathan Wold

    Yeesh! So far I haven’t been accused of any of those and I’m gonna do my best to make sure I’m not! ;).

    Nowww.. we could talk about some of my clients.. *grins*..

    Great blog! Keep it up!

    -Jonathan Wold

  • Some of these items seem like they could also directly result from flakey client actions and scope creep. For example, with “Your clients complain about how long it takes you to get things done, even if your quality is eventually good”…I had a client recently who asked me to resurrect a site that had been botched by their original designer. The original designer took 3 months and now, two weeks past their $500,000 deadline to register conference participants, they were panicking at me to totally redo the site in a week, and every day adding totally new functional requirements into the mix. I think it’s important to not be flakey, but also have the understanding that sometimes flakiness is thrust upon you!

  • A-OK

    There are no excuses for being late or a no-show. A month ago I had a meeting at 10am and I overslept and called the clients to apologize. They were fine over the phone but they never called me again, and who can blame them.

    As for the deadlines, I’ve never actually MET a deadline, but that’s been the clients’ fault in 100% of the cases and they never complained.

  • OfficeOfTheLaw

    You tend to blame more than 25% of your clients for “not getting it.” (It might be you who ‘doesn’t get it).

    I think this is the big one. I constantly did this in repsonse to absurd requests from clients (the place I work with took the attitude the client is always right). I think one has to realize it is not the clients job to really dictate the requirements, but rather, give you the overall aspects they want, and YOU form the requirements from that.

    If your clients aren’t tech savy, they shouldn’t have to “get it”… that’s not their job, but yours. ;)

  • sonomatek

    The thing to remember here is that as the owner of your own business, you are the person who controls everything. Okay, there might be exceptions to this (e.g. overturned big rig on the Interstate, or power failure causing your UPS to blow up), but pretty much everything is in your control.

    When things occur, which aren’t in your plan, how you respond means the difference between flake and professional.

    For example, let’s say you have a client who changes her mind every 5 minutes, or thinks she knows enough about HTML to change your work on the live site without telling you. This causes you, the next time you’re asked to update the site, upload all the old content.

    Your initial response might be “What the fruit fly is going on here??,” but as a professional, you’ve got to deal with it and behave in a way that won’t make YOU the flake.

    Bottom line: you might be a good designer, developer, programmer, but if you’re a lousy professional those other thangs don’t mean a thang.

    Take care!

  • [QUOTE]As for the deadlines, I’ve never actually MET a deadline, but that’s been the clients’ fault in 100% of the cases and they never complained.[/QUOTE]

    If you’ve never made a deadline you *definitely* need to look at your estimating process. Any deadline you agree to should be able to be met 90% of the time at least. If not, you shouldn’t be agreeing to them.

    If clients are changing the requirements, the very same discussion needs to also contain a discussion of adjusting any existing deadlines that are impacted.

    Deadlines are pretty much ALL about expectations. Either you manage those expectations yourself or be willing to live with someone else’s expectations. And, if you’ve never met a deadline, that’s clearly not working for you.

    Consider this. If someone calls you and you put them on hold for 20 minutes while looking for an answer, you’ve just irritated them greatly. However, if you respond to an email in 20 minutes, you’ve made them happy. The expectation(deadline) is different. Don’t promise “phone-level” response if you can only provide “email-level” service. If you agree to a Friday deadline and deliver on Wednesday, you’re a hero. If you agree to Tuesday and deliver on Wednesday, you’re a flake.

    What you should probably do on your very next project is double every single estimate for time you make. If you think you can get it done by this Friday, under no circumstances agree to a deadline before NEXT Friday.

    Simultaneously, you need to evaluate whether you are actually doing everything you can to make sure that the deadline is not just something you watch “whoosh by”. Treat them as 100% binding. When you treat them seriously, you don’t spend the evening before the deadline chatting with friends, posting on Sitepoint, watching TV, etc.

    Incidentally, if you hear people complaining about the “professionalism” of web developers, they’re not complaining that the HTML isn’t XHTML 1.1 compliant. They’re complaining about these deadline and flakey problems.

    I not only take deadlines seriously for me and my clients, but if you are working for me, missing a deadline is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. If you’re an employee, and you miss a deadline without adjusting the expectations as soon as you discover problems, we will be having a not so pleasant conversation. And, if it becomes a habit, you’ll no longer be working for me. If you’re a contracted worker, your contract will have penalties for missing deadlines without properly communicating anticipated delays.

  • lmh

    IT techs are the bane of every web developer’s existence but not for these reasons. We’ve never had trouble with flaky behavior. We’ve had trouble with them thinking that because they can use a wysiwig to make a web page they know as much about web development as we do, and they convince their presidents – our clients – of this. Then it’s tit for tat for months! No you’re wrong, we don’t need to do that. No, that won’t work – we know what we’re doing here. No we don’t need that kind of “layering” for security purposes because you took a dumb course – no users will stay at a site like that! It just goes on and on….

    IT techs should stick with IT issues like in-house networks – that’s what they were trained for – and leave the technical details of web server operation to us.

    Final note: because they know more about computers than the president and the president doesn’t know the difference, they tend to abuse this position and defend their “expertise” status by butting into ANYTHING that has anything to do with any kind of CPU.

    There I’ve vented. Now I can say, some of my best friends are IT techs.
    Thanks for letting me purge.

  • sonomatek

    IT techs are the bane of every web developer’s existence but not for these reasons.

    I had to chuckle when I saw this.

    You’re absolutely right, of course. I would like to add by commenting that it is not only IT techs, but pretty much anyone who feels that his/her job is under siege because the Website, “which was always done by Bill in accounting because he knows these things” is his/her baby.

    Allow me to relate this example.

    I was invited by the director of an organization to take a look at the org’s Website and comment on ways it should be done. In this case, the site was developed by Mary in accounting.

    Anyway, because the director of the organization was a friend, and because it was a community organization, I agreed to help gratis.

    Man, Mary could not have been more passive/aggressive against me if she’d tried! She acted as though she wanted and appreciated my input, but she went along on her merry way, doing the exact same thing, creating the exact same errors, and accessibility issues (which, for a community organization is not a good thing) she had always created.

    The thing is that it isn’t just IT techs. They seem like the worst offenders because those are the ones we deal with more often than not.

  • qtstorm

    The original designer took 3 months and now, two weeks past their $500,000 deadline

    First off, How is it that all I do is “Hear” about all these $500,000 projects, and to make it worse, hear about it being offered to flaky designers who don’t have a clue.

    I’m saddled with $5000 projects and clients who make me want to pull my hair out – one by one. I end up having to practically beg my clients from beginning to end to keep up with their end of the deal.

    Obviously, I’m doing something wrong, and so I’m planning on changing my strategy this year, new types of clients and all. I typically return calls on time ( just cause I hate when other people don’t. it’s a pet peeve of mine to ask me to leave a message – And then you don’t call back), estimate everything just right, on my end, but I can’t seem to catch a break.

  • Hi Andrew.

    There is nothing worse than flakey psuedojournalist bloggers and commenters who lacking the most basic research skills and knowledge, just resort to personal, one sided and pointless rants. What a waste of space!

    There, that wasn’t very nice was it? Hardly going to make our relationship any better is it? Let’s rewrite it with a more constructive spin…

    “Pull your socks up” won’t cut it with this fundamental cultural difference. The different priorities are shaped by the divergant way problems are solved in the different communities. For example, how much time would you allocate to upgrading your home PC to the next version of Windows? You would probably give it an evening and at least half the time you would be right. Unfortunately 10% of the time you would lose your e-mail or some other vital component and it would take days. Well, the systems guys have the same problem every hour of every day. Time estimation is not important in that industry. The job is done when it’s done, but it’s a matter of personal prestige to have conquered the difficulty efficiently and to have learned to prevent it in the future. There is no question of motivation here, simply a different perception of what is important. Time predictions are at the mercy of acts of God so why bother with them. Meetings rarely aid this process.

    Software is even worse.

    A software project is a research problem. If it’s not then the task would have been automated and you could just buy a package that a system guy/girl would administer. Writing software is a design process. If you were hiring an architect to design your house, you wouldn’t say I want all of the drawings in one go completed on a certain date. The process would be iterative, with reviews monthly or even weekly. Likely on seeing the first design you wouldn’t just want a rework, but additional features. How does a deadline driven contract cope with this?

    Neither does a fixed design help. The only successful examples come from NASA and the military. You throw around lot’s of specifications with lot’s of reviews and have an army of programmers and take a few years over it. The cost of this? About $500 per line of code. You want a plan, we’ll give you a plan.

    There are two solutions. The first and most obvious is the meeting of minds. Let the technical people see the planning meetings of the business. Once the tools of the trade of business development are visible (personal contact), it becomes another factor in the developer process. My personal timekeeping is poor, so I come up with solutions thet do not depend on it. Technical people are good at that kind of resolution. This works most effectively when technical people come into contact with marketing. They actually both talk the same language of research data and optimisations. they get on well together. If you are a fan of outsourcing, esecially over a long distance, this won’t work. I am not a fan.

    The other solution is the iterative process. Not just milestones within a larger contract, but a genuinely iterative contract where nothing is agreed except the short goal. This is actually becoming popular with large organisations, promoted largely by Thoughtworks. A single iteration isn’t very predictable, but after you have done a few the timings will settle down. Only then do you start making progress predictions, perhaps adding more resources or cutting scope. Relieved of penalty clauses, the techies can be more honest about genuine progress. With accurate data, the business can plan and can even change direction at short notice.

    Believe it or not this is a hot topic of research right now and comes under the category of “Sense Making”. It’s not just an acedemic topic. Companies such as IBM and Glaxo are heavy investors. There is even a project to combine business culture and iterative software development called the agile-cynefin project (see Yahoo groups for the mail list).

    Ranting will not cross a cultural divide, It will just make it worse.

    yours, Marcus

  • Brendon K.

    You all seem to be separating IT Techs and Web Developers/Designers into two separate categories, when in fact, Web Developers/Designers are in fact within the IT Tech genre… I just finished my coursework for a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology – however…the degree’s title was “Web Development”. Things are changing. We may not know all the “networking” or “A+” stuff (though I would think we should) but what we do know is largely becoming more technically oriented. It’s different skills, but technological skills none-the-less.

    Granted, I know what you all mean by IT Techs, but be careful with the vocabulary you use. :)

  • Dude

    Very good article.

  • sonomatek


    Blogs are for voicing opinions, and opinions are, by nature, one-sided.

    That’s my opinion.


  • You’re so right, I can’t stand people who are talk and little action. I have little time for people who miss deadlines and don’t do as they’re hired to do :)

  • confession # 1: I am a flake… not when I am presenting, but when I am delivering.

    statement # 1: You helped me identify a few of the many things that needs to be done to be a professional…thanks for that! Although professionalism is an attitude, little pointers like the ones listed in your blog helps keep a check especially while in transit :).

    argument # 1: I started web development as a freelancer almost a year ago. The more I meet people, the more conviction I have that Websites fall under Marketing and not IT. A web developer should look at himself as someone is Marketing/Advertising rather than in IT. It helps in transitting from the stereotpe of an IT-man (nerdy, lacking social-skills) to that of a Advertising-man (street-smart, problem solver) :) . Now as stereotpes go, one in advertising is supposed to know how to talk, how to present and how to meet deadlines. as stated, it helps.

    Yes, IT is part of website development of course, but it is an overall marketing effort, not an IT effort. No?

    And especially where I come from (Pakistan), people are technologies are still catching up to give a fully-accessable Internet to the consumer/user.

    And again, sites like sitepoint.com and blogs like yours help in finding that professionalism that the ‘west’ is rightly known about. Thanks for sharing! God be with us all.

  • I think this all comes back to pain inflicted on the client. In terms of the project you wanted to start Andrew, if you’ve expended a lot of time and energy in getting it to the point of being able to start on a particular day, of course you are going to peeved if the IT “professional” doesn’t give you the same courtesy and respect you gave them.

    It’s amazing how fickle the IT world can be sometimes (I’m not saying that you’re fickle Andrew). You can spend your whole life trying to please every single client, and all it takes is one slip up with the wrong client and you’re instantly branded as a “flake”. What’s worse is then that client is likely to go and tell 10 other people about their experience with you, and you’ve just done yourself out of 10 other potential clients as well.

    Thankfully I manage my deadlines well enough that I’ve never had a client upset with me. I just hate it when its the other way around to what you’ve just stated Andrew. You go and put in all the effort to get the project up and running in the agreed timeframe and then the client doesn’t give you the same courtesy when you need something from them. That’s probably my bad for not demonstrating the urgency of the project to them, but then same could be said to you. Did you demonstrate how important and urgent this project was to yourself?

  • hdsol

    I think that to be successful in web design you need to possess a wide variety of skills. Sales and marketing are very important as a website is an online representation of what ever business you are doing work for. But on the other hand most websites need to also provide a service to the clients. This is where a strong it background makes this possible. Often time these two areas are at extreme ends of the spectrum. Being stronger in one area then the other does not make one a flake as long as we can understand our weaknesses and not let that get in the way of good design. The most important thing is that the customer (the one paying the bill) feels that they got value for thier money. If they feel that they got taken by a “flakey designer”, the word of mouth damages can be catastrophic. My best source of new business is the referals that i get from my satisfied customer. I recently had a job go bad becouse the flakey client did not meet thier end of the contract. How long do you chase a client for information before you let it go? I was very clear that the deadlines put in the contract are contigent on both sides doing the required tasks. All of these tasks are spelled out in the begining at contract signing. If you don’t do this you can be at risk for being labled a flake when the customer gets amnesia and forgets that it was their problem that caused the delay. Good solid documentation is the only way to protect your intrests and preserve your reputation. I use an online project management solution that lays out the scope of the project and the tasks that need to be done with deadlines. By using a gennet chart that explains the project, I can explain to the client how their small tasks can hang up the project. It is a simple effective tool that prevents a lot of headaches down the road.

    Just my Two cents

  • My company has brought in more new work from clients in the past 6 months from “flakey” companies than we did all last year.

    Keep being Flakey folks, at this rate we are going to have a RECORD year! When we set dealines or prices we KILL oursleves to make them and if we dont there had better be ONE DAMN GOOD REASON.

    I attribute all of these flakes to the massive influx of “non or only barely qualified” people during the .com boom… I can only hope we are now beginning to “weed them out”.

  • wayne lennon


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