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14 nightmare clients -- and how to defang them

Steven A. Lowe | Jan. 21, 2015
The key to survival in a client-based profession like software development is recognizing the signals of a project heading south despite your best efforts. Here, difficult clients can be a clear impediment to your success.

The best way to avoid a Dragon is to talk to those who worked with a client before you. Recognize the behavior patterns above, note the scorched earth and bones strewn about the entrance to its lair, give the job a pass, and live to code another day.

Nightmare client No. 6: The Unicorn

You may not think it, but the Unicorn is a nightmare. It manifests as a perfect opportunity ... that never happens. You get a tantalizing glimpse, and theoretically the Unicorn can be ridden, but mostly it appears and disappears, and you end up exerting an exorbitant amount of effort trying to track it down and tame it. If you get close, getting impaled on its horn is an option, but not a good one.

If an opportunity seems too good to be true, if it appears and disappears at random, if it can be glimpsed only at a distance, if you must complete quest after quest to prove that you are virtuous enough to deserve the project — it's a Unicorn.

Move along, nothing to see here!

Nightmare client No. 7: The Werewolf

Most clients aren't monsters. They come across as friendly, and they collaborate well. But every once in a while, a client suddenly turns into a ravenous beast that tears you asunder. This is the Werewolf.

Worse, when the Werewolf changes back, it doesn't remember anything and doesn't believe you — assuming you survived the assault. In the software world, it's not only the full moon that triggers this change. Questioning some sacred cow technology or pointing out an obvious less-than-ideal business practice can result in a sudden, gutting transformation.

You can survive a Werewolf client if you know what sets the Werewolf off. Prior consultants may tip you off: "Don't try to talk with him during month-end closing." "He's fine to work with unless you question his devotion to spreadsheets."

Nightmare client No. 8: The Sphinx

The Sphinx confronts developers and consultants with riddles and devours those who do not answer to its liking (not unlike the interviewers at certain pretentious tech companies). The riddles may not be obvious; they may, in fact, appear to be ordinary business problems, like employee morale, poor production, quality problems, and excessive turnover. The "wrong" answer will get you shredded — and as is often the case with the Sphinx in the software world, there may not even be a right answer!

The Sphinx is difficult to spot in advance, but if you hear (or overhear) comments like "third consultant this year" or "pop the Pez dispenser, here's another one," then you may be heading for mysterious disaster. If you think you may be engaging with a Sphinx, get paid in advance.


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