Wow, the last Cottage Life piece was in 2019, suggesting there was no such thing in 2020. And, what with Covid, there was less. While this story happened in situ, it’s really about something else: How much residential construction and software are like each other, and share the same really-important rule: Underpromise and overdeliver. [Includes compulsory nature shots.]
Enlargement · What happened was, we decided our cabin (yes, that’s not the title of this blog series, but it’s what we say these days) needed to be bigger. It had only two small bedrooms. So when our kids were little, they could have their friends over and all crash in the room with two upper/lower bunkbeds. But we couldn’t have grown-up friends or relations over.
So, after discussions with a couple of contractors, we decided on adding an upper story with two more bedrooms and a bathroom, and thus double our carrying capacity. Work started last fall and completion was forecast for May, which meant we’d be able to enjoy it this summer.
Pain · As anyone who’s ever managed this sort of thing would expect, the schedule has gone seriously awry and the work is far from finished as I write this in late July. We’re actually here to assist with painting and sorting and decision-making. We have a working kitchen, a working bathroom, but it’s still basically a construction site.
As you can imagine, I have been testy with the contractors, who have alternated episodes of ghosting us with friendly promises of dates and work items that then don’t happen. Now, let’s be fair: They have had trouble with Covid and have been seriously jerked around by plumbing, insulating, and drywall subcontractors. (But you know, a key contractor skill is supposed to be managing the subs.)
At the end of the day, while the delays were annoying, shit does happen and we shouldn’t have been too surprised. The communication failure, however, was maddening. And, to my mind, overwhelmingly reminiscent of the kind of friction that occurs between customers and developers on many of the software projects I’ve been near. Anyhow, here’s a lightly-edited version of a note I sent to everyone we knew at the contractor.
Under and Over ·
Folks, I spent 40 years in industry doing construction projects. Software construction, but a lot of things in common with your work: Ambitious deliverables, demanding customers, deadlines not all of which were met, things which are supposed to fit together but don’t, hard-to-control dependencies on other people who didn’t work for me.
Let me pass on a free lesson I learned that I think is appropriate in both domains: Underpromise and overdeliver.
We understand you’re under-resourced for the current workload — the whole world is suffering from this problem at the moment. It’s irritating but understandable and forgivable.
What’s irritating and completely unnecessary is when we are told "These people will show up and do these things tomorrow" and then (a) they don’t show up and (b) and nobody tells us “plans have changed, they’re not going to show up”. Don’t make the commitment unless you’re sure you can do it and if you make the promise and have to break it, proactively get in front of the situation.
When I ask “could we have X done by date Y” and the answer is “we hope to do that”, I now assume it means “Nope”. So just say "probably not" and hey, if you get lucky, I’m going to be delighted, as opposed to being pissed when it doesn’t happen and there’s no messaging about that fact.
The happiness that the customer gets from glowing promises is NEVER as big as the anger when whatever it is doesn’t happen.
We’re not asking you to work harder or magically have more employees. Just to talk straight with us. This is the one thing we’ve asked for all along.
It’s hard · I don’t know why, but I think there’s an essential human characteristic here; something that makes people hate being a bad-news bearer so much they’ll construct pleasing pieces of science fiction to avoid it. Even though the consequences are inevitably worse.
Yes, your customer will get cheesed off and grumpy when you tell them the truth. But less so than the alternative. Trust me on this.