Story time: Lessons Learned from Contract Work

June 11, 2016 at 3:21 pm (Computer Science, Rant, Thinking) (, , , , )


A while ago, before I started my Masters degree, I tried to find contract work for the summer. I figured I’d need some extra cash when I would move to the east coast to do my Master degree later that year. One of the companies I approached needed a new website; their current one had information crammed in every inch of the view space and it only served up static data. I met with them to figure out exactly what they were after and then set out to build a prototype for them. It was very clear that they knew very little about technology or even what a new web site could do for them.

I took a week to build this prototype for them. It was an ASP.NET web portal with a database back-end, and the whole site was localized as they had a lot of international clients; which I saw as their most important requirement. For the front-end, I scraped most of their base website as their needs were mostly to provide clients with a private access portal, where they could manage their accounts and services. I contacted the company again and set up a meeting to show them what I had made. It had some rough edges (mostly because re-vamping their business-specific pages was a monstrous task that required subject expertise), but it met their needs and was maintainable. More-over, the prototype actually worked; users could sign in, register for services, and communicate using an internal messaging system.

During that second meeting, I received criticism and sarcasm over my prototype. His comments were along the lines of “why would I pay you for a website I already have”. Despite my explanations, he seemed unable to grasp the idea that his $10/month static website hosting was not capable of any of the things his company needed to provide. Because the interface consisted of the same content that he already had, he didn’t understand the amount of new functionality that he would have had with this new piece of software. I was pretty baffled that he couldn’t understand what I had created for him just to GET the contract; not even as a final product.

After several more days of back and forth and modifications to the front-end, I had made a very professional-looking product prototype. I spent effort to make sure it was organized and easy to follow (as far as a mock-up could go), and it still functioned very well for what his needs would be. As it turns out, he loved what it did (finally), but he decided to change his offer: his new offer was on the scale of $10 an hour (citing a bad economy). In addition to creating the whole thing, he also wanted permanent support for it, and he announced that since he was already paying for [static] hosting, he wasn’t going to pay a cent more for it.

At that point I decided I was done with trying to chase this contract. I very politely declined his new offer, and excused myself from his office. I had wasted about two weeks working on this prototype as well as the cost of parking for all of the meetings. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from the whole situation. Firstly, not everybody is capable of understanding vision; some people are just moving objects, not able to see where they’re going. These people need to be dealt with very carefully with “kid gloves” to avoid them from getting in the way of themselves.

Secondly, assertive communication is of paramount importance. If I had forced the questions that I knew needed to be asked, I could have perhaps avoided the whole situation. I wasn’t prepared for others trying to take advantage of me, and I definitely did not ensure we were on the same page. Always be assertive, especially in business.

Lastly, never underestimate the power of idle time. I ended up taking the rest of the summer off to relax and mentally prepare for the stress involved in moving across the country and starting a new endeavor. I finally understand how critical it is to step away from life and take time to clear one’s head.

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