Rapture In Venice, LLC

:: Mobile Apps for iPhone, iPad, AppleTV and Watch

The Horrors of Sub-Contracting

I’ve been a full-time mobile consultant now for three years and, even in that short period of time, I’ve seen the kind of work I do change a lot. When I started, I did a lot of projects for budding entrepreneurs and fixed-bid work. I loved it! But over time, partly due to the allure of a high (and steadily rising) hourly rate and the cold reality of an App Store not making many millionaires anymore, I’ve found myself doing a lot more corporate work.

Contract work with big businesses comes in a couple of forms: hourly work and sub-contracting. Hourly work is usually working on a company’s app product line or creating a new app for them. Sub-contracting is the kind of work you get through bigger mobile shops who need to augment a project team with a mobile specialist like I am.

One such gig has made my 2014 a nightmare and I wanted to share that experience with you.

The Opportunity

Back in October 2013, I was approached by a former co-worker of mine about re-writing a pair of mobile apps (iOS and Android) for a company he was working with. This is on behalf of a local Denver firm I won’t name. The apps were small and simple and I had some time available so I told him I’d do it. I bid on the project, but 2 months later the project still wasn’t ready to go and I had to back out because my schedule had filled up by then.

A month later and things were just then ready to go and…hating to pass up paying work…I decided to go ahead and do it. There were some warning signs, namely the length of time it took to start the project, but I really wanted to re-write these apps.

I should have said no.

Turbulance on Takeoff

It’s now January 6th, almost 3 months since I was approached about the project, and here we were at the kickoff meeting. So nice to get this going! Now, my contract reflected the expected timeline; this app would be done by the end of March. Unfortunately, this is also when I learned that neither design nor services had been started yet. What was going on during those previous 3 months??

I had cleared 2 full weeks in my schedule to get things going, but I was going to have very little to do. I toyed with app architecture and tried to make what I could of the early wireframes. A couple services popped up, but it was not even a week in before I was already stalled. I’d started with the Android app, and wanted to complete it before moving on to iOS, but to heck with it…I decided to start the iOS app while I waited.

Soon thereafter, I abandoned working on the apps full-time and would come back to them when the services and designs gave me more to do. I’d pop in for a day or two, a night here, a couple hours there. I’d be working on the apps twice a week, then once a week, then not at all for weeks, then a few times a week, then not at all again.

I’m ashamed to say, I am still to this day working on this app. It’s September 18th, over 8 months since it began.

The Fundamental Problem

I’m an experienced consultant. I’d done part-time consulting for YEARS before I went full-time. I know how to handle a client, so what went wrong? Why is this project taking so long? More alarmingly, the iOS app has long been abandoned! I’m still trying to finish just the Android app! (I stripped out the iOS version of the app from my contract and it won’t be done by me. All the hours spent on the iOS version were wasted.)

What went wrong? What. Went. Wrong?

The problem is my client isn’t a client. They’re a firm, and they’re the ones working directly with the client. I have no managerial responsibility on this project, I am simply the “mobile guy.” And for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom, this firm has allowed their client to drag a simple project out for 8 months:

  • The client spends weeks before they’ll make a decision on…anything.
  • The client approves wireframes and then, later, wants wholesale changes.
  • The client wanted a totally new app design, but slowly reverted every design decision back to the “way it is now.”
  • The client doesn’t answer questions until they’re asked 12 times.
  • The client is clearly insane.

      None of these things are new to me. I’ve worked with dozens of clients, and I’ve had to fire a few of them for being, quite frankly, shitty clients. Once, I fired a client because they had just fired their designer for the second time and they wanted a whole new app design (for a second time). I told them to keep their 2nd payment and I’m done. Another time, I ran away from a client because I had 10 different roles and had been given no authority for any of them.

      Bad clients happen. So what’s the problem in this case? The problem is…it’s not my client. I’m at the mercy of a firm that has mishandled the client in every way imaginable. They’ve allowed the project to stretch to absurd lengths. They’ve allowed them to constantly change requirements with no change to the contract. Quite frankly, the PM can’t manage this project.

      Why am I still working on it? Because I’m loyal to a fault. Also an idiot.


      Loyalty has its limits, and I’ve just now informed my friend that I will cease all development next week, whether the app is published or not. I didn’t want it to come to this, but despite the app being all but done I still think things would drag into 2015. What a bummer New Year’s woulda been. I think I’ve been way, way, way more than fair in all this. I don’t think more than one or two of my contractor buddies would still be working on this thing. And what’s frustrating is it’s not a project that’s a tech failure, or that it’s too buggy, or that it’s just taking too long. No, it’s simply that the client has no idea what they want, they have no urgency to get this app done, and I’m powerless to effect them as a sub-contractor.

      Let this tale be a warning about the horrors of sub-contracting.

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      John Blanco

      John Blanco is a freelance iOS developer in Denver, CO. He's been developing mobile apps for 12 years, starting during the medieval days of Java ME, making him the ultimate hipster mobile engineer. Follow him on Twitter!

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