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Why I don’t assume

July 3, 2009

When I was a programmer in my first job, I had a team leader who was also an analyst. His job was to “spec out” the client’s requirements through system studies and user Q&A. In other words he’ll take the customer order and I’ll do the cooking. There were 5 or 6 cooks in my team then.

I admired my team leader a lot, I guess because of his immense sense of confidence. He was smart, had an attitude and was the dominant type who never asked for permission or apologized for anything. Everyone seemed awed or fearful of him, even the senior ones. Clearly an alpha male.

So we were doing a project for a large company and after we completed a working skeleton, we called in the client as was the usual procedure. So the big guns came over. I remember an IT Director, a couple of managers, and a few end users.

That was the meeting that shattered my confidence in my team leader.

My team leader led everyone on a walkthrough of the specifications and pilot system. There was complete silence. After the show, the IT Director turned to my leader and asked, “You spent a month on this but its not what we wanted. Did you get a sign off from me before you proceeded with the work?”

“Uh… no,” my team leader said, caught by surprise. “But I got it from one of your managers. I thought he was with you?”

Shaking his head, the IT Director said in a quiet grim tone, “I don’t know what gave you the idea but that manager doesn’t speak for me or the company. Yes he’s in my department but he’s not in the project team. You can’t even get a basic thing right and we’ve just lost one month for nothing. I don’t know if we made a mistake giving this project to this company.”

My alpha male team leader was speechless, as was my CEO who was in the room. Knowing he was cut off at the knees, all my team leader could do was aplogize profusely (which was totally out of character for him) and promise to restart the project and make up for lost time. My CEO was not amused either as a lot of money had gone into the prototype. Lke everyone else, he had assumed my team leader was on top of things.

The mistake was in how everyone assumed. My team leader assumed the manager he spoke to had the authority. My CEO assumed my team leader knew what he was doing. The programmers assumed the specifications were properly signed off (afer all, does anyone ever doubt the big kahuna?) In some ways, the client assumed that pre-coding checks were unnecessary.

In the end the whole thing imploded and the client tore us a new one.

That lesson stayed with me to this day. When it comes to serious work, never assume, even if the person you work with gives you the warm fuzzy feeling. Especially if he gives you the warm fuzzy feeling.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2009 10:29 am

    Actually, I have learned (in a hard, painful way) that you should not get too comfortable with your boss (this term is used quite loosely here). Don’t think that you and your boss are buddies. Don’t ever feel that you’re giving each other the warm, fuzzy feeling.

    That’s good advice. A lot of people don’t do that though, especially if they got promoted and suddenly find themselves managing the same colleagues they used to hang out with. Scenarios like that often have a bad ending.

  2. July 3, 2009 10:44 am

    hey hey hey ..what happened Damien ?

    no more risk taker ah ? :p
    i think the more i type , the more likely i am gonna conclude with “some things can be assume , some of it not” but that opinion is toooo boring ..

    i think i live my life by assuming many things . anyway , who was it that blog about it is okay to make mistakes , because you learn from it , just the harder way . 🙂

    So how do you escape from a mistake like getting married to the girl from hell. 😀

    I’m not talking about risks like going out and driving on the street. That stuff you cannot escape from. Its more like “tasting the soup” before I serve it to the customer to avoid a riot.

  3. July 3, 2009 1:44 pm

    Base on the facts written in your post, I don’t agree with the IT Director, if his managers cannot make that decision then he should highlight. If every single details need to involve with the IT Director, then his managers are pretty…useless.

    Maybe this is all a miscommunication or there is a hidden agenda to all this which lower level ppl cannot see. If you know what I mean. Like playing chess. 😛

    The client was a bank and they had a project steering committee that was responsible for sign-offs. The manager wasn’t part of that committee even though he was involved in drafting the system architecture. I guess my team leader and PMO didn’t verify things which was unforgiveable really. Whether there was an agenda, I have no idea but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t one. 😀

  4. July 8, 2009 12:33 pm

    I always ‘assume’ there’s a LOI (letter of intent) where everything is listed in detail and signed by the big guns for a job to be done before things move.

    Yeah I’ve seen an environment like that. All it takes is one incident where someone gets busted (no LOI but making it look as if there was) and all hell breaks loose.

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