It's been an expensive couple of weeks for me. I love/hate "life lessons". They hurt, but make me stronger if I learn from my mistakes.

I've been wrapping up two different small projects and on both of these particular projects, I completely underestimated the amount of effort it would take me. I made several mistakes and it never hurts to share them. Hey, maybe I will actually learn from them this time.

Mistake #1: Overestimating my ability

In this case, I've overestimated my ability to use skills I haven't used in a few years as if I just used them "yesterday". My chronic problem is setting unrealistic expectations of myself. This is one of them: I trick myself into believing that somehow I will magically pick up from where I left off the last time I used a skillset as I would now when I haven't touched a particular skillset in years.

This is where I tell myself, FFS, Jen, you're not in your 30s anymore!

I used to bounce effortlessly between multiple varying tasks and tools when I was younger and it continues to shock the shit out of me that I can no longer do that. The bigger issue I find I have now is I am no longer using a wide enough variety of skills for most of my consulting engagements, I'm doing too much of the same thing over and over. When a different project gets sprinkled in there once every 3 or 4 years, I love it, but I have to remember skills that I haven't been honing.

So, I quote the work based on what I think it will take, then talk myself out of a higher estimate because it always feels like "Surely, it won't take me that long?" (and don't call me Shirley... comment below if you know the reference! haha😀).

Mistake #2: Recognizing trouble too late

In both of these cases, I was getting close to the max budget on the jobs, thinking "I'm nearly there". Then I'm over budget, and I say to myself "I'm nearly there, I can eat this time and blame myself for it taking too long.". Then I see the budget is no longer even in the rearview mirror (because I'm so far over budget), and I'm like that car rental agent in "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" when she tells Steve Martin "You're f*cked!".

person wearing black leather shoes in front of a sign on the ground that says "You Are Here".
Photo by Fallon Michael / Unsplash

Yep, that may as well be me in the picture with the black boots. "I am here", here being many unbillable hours later and I have not even completed one of the things yet. FFS.

Always stop and re-evaluate the situation. Why is this taking so long? Is it experience or skills or is the work more difficult than originally expected? One is a "me" issue, one is a "need to have a conversation with the client" issue.

I've never been great at this, it's a lesson I thought I had learned before, but (obviously) not learned. I always think I'm nearly done, that I'm that close to the finish line, and I push through because I'm stubborn. Most times I am close, and most times it works out. This was not "most times". I chose to eat the time, I should have stopped and had a proper conversation with the clients about some of it. Ouch.

Mistake #3: Trust my instincts

The biggest lesson learned here is to trust my instincts when I initially review the work and come up with an estimated effort. Too many times I review the estimate after, and convince myself it won't take that long, surely it won't take me that long, I'm smart, I'm skilled, I'm .... full of shit for thinking that my initial instinct was wrong. Or, I think "The client won't pay that!" and lower it to what I think will seem palatable. STOP DOING THAT. Yes, I'm yelling at myself there. It's all good. 😄

Don't lower your quote because you think the client won't see the value in the work. It takes what it takes. If the client thinks the estimate is too high, move on. They just don't see the value in that particular piece of work and that's OK.

There are times when the quote I start with seems ridiculously high for what it is. And yet, it's not, in the end, had I just gone with my gut most times.

Things I don't want to forget, next time

Don't forget...

  • ... to include the time spent on meetings and discussions and clarifying the scope or clarifying pieces of the project you don't understand.
  • ... to include the time needed to test or "quality check" the thing you're working on. In my specific case, it's some reports and Excel templates. Break down the work required to build the actual thing - data modelling, design/layout, automation, visualizations, whatever is part of that thing. And then there is the time when you should be doing some quality checks before you hand over the work to the client. Make sure the numbers tie back to the source, spot check before the client gets it and finds something doesn't add up.
  • ... to include time to document the work, if required. Most times you should include time to document the work for yourself if nothing else, for when the inevitable questions come back a year or two later. You'll thank yourself and it will be a better experience for the client too.
  • ... to include the time to hand off or train whoever will be using the tool, report or template, where that is applicable. Don't underestimate the amount of support staff/users will need with something new.
  • ... to include some general time for basic project management - scheduling the work, setting up meetings, building a project plan if the project is large enough to need one, all of those are part of the thing you're quoting.

All of those things need to be included and they all add up. Skip some of them and you're working for free. Lower the estimates for those things, and you may still end up working for free.

So, it's been a week of mostly working for free, and now that I recognize it, I will move on and quote better for the next thing. Lesson (I think) learned.