When a client takes a swing at you

MUHAMMAD ALI ROCKS GEORGE FOREMAN ON THE JAW

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1. A changing of the guard

Back in the dot-com era, circa 1999 I worked for a startup in some transition. Upon meeting the team, I met the new CTO Harvey, who joined just a month before. Also on the team was the IT director Bill, who had been with the firm for five years.

After spending time in initial meetings & discovery, I put together an outline and my plan to migrate them to Oracle. The project kicked off shortly thereafter.

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2. Team lead sucker punches you

I spent the first week onsite so I could work closely with the team, specifically at Bill’s request. We worked almost side-by-side for a few days, and as I worked through some of the challenges of their application, and how it might interact with Oracle. At that time I was still working on some test boxes, as the new Oracle server was not yet setup.

First thing Monday while working remote I email Bill and CC Harvey to ask how things are going setting up the new server to house Oracle. A fairly harmless email, after what seemed like a successful previous week.

The response from Bill the director of IT was sharp and quick. He emailed back:

“The server is already setup, and I’ve installed Oracle on it. I have much of the data moved over. I’m not sure what you’ve been working on or how you will be able to help us on this project. Please advise.”

This came as a big surprise, as we had been working so closely together. We had also exchanged various emails to get details & configuration steps as well. It also seemed strange that he’d go ahead and complete the work that he had asked me to work on.

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3. Proceed with caution

I quickly reached out to him, discussed status over IM and next steps. I also suggested that I come into the office again, to help with communication.

The following day I returned to the office, and met with him privately. I gently asked about his concerns, and if he had reviewed my task list and consulting agreement. It seemed that some of the terms & details had been overlooked. What’s more he and the CTO weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.

I then explained in a nice way, and to express that I had no plans to step on any toes, but that

“I’m glad to work with you Bill, in any way you see best, and on whatever tasks you decide I can help with.”

This seemed to put him at ease, and we moved forward.

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4. Green Shoots

As the engagement progressed it came to light that Harvey had hired me against Bill’s wishes. So Bill’s move seemed more motivated by feeling threatened than anything else.

Over the years I’ve learned time and again not to jump to conclusions. Especially at the start of a consulting assignment, there are likely a complex mix of personalities, and human dynamics that come into play. Sometimes when someone lashes out, it isn’t even directed at you per se, but because of a difficult transition period.

Patience, understanding and renewed efforts to communicate often win the day.

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