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What to Do When You’re Going to Miss a Deadline

We’ve (mostly) all been there: Scrambling to meet an unrealistic deadline. For software engineers, who often fall subject to deadlines set by product, program, or engineering managers, this can be a particularly frustrating (and common) issue —our data found that unrealistic deadlines are the biggest pet peeve for nearly 40% of software engineers.

But the reality is that missing deadlines can negatively affect others’ perceptions of your work and capabilities, even if the initial timeframe and expectations were unrealistic (and regardless of the quality of work you ultimately produce). This can be an issue throughout the entire working life cycle, from deadlines for take home tests when interviewing for a role to project deadlines on the job. Here are some strategies to preserve your reputation when you know you’re going to miss a deadline.

Do you really need to miss the deadline?

It can be difficult for highly motivated workers to deliver less-than-perfect work, but there may sometimes be a case for handing over something ahead of the deadline. To be sure, you won’t want to deliver poor quality work, but consider whether there is room for reduced scope or re-prioritization.

In addition, don’t be afraid to ask for help. To be sure, everyone will have their own priorities—but hitting deadlines is generally in the best interest of the team, and asking for help can also be a way of hinting that you might lag behind schedule. This is even more relevant if you’re struggling due to a gap in your knowledge or skills—and getting help now can help to make you faster in the future if you’re able to gain new skills from the experience.

Communication is key

If you’re definitely going to miss a deadline, the first thing you should do is communicate with the relevant stakeholders. While it can be tempting to put this off in hopes that you’ll be able to deliver the project last minute, it’s much better to communicate that you won’t likely meet the deadline (and perhaps surprise people if you finish earlier than expected) than to spring the bad news on your team with no advance notice.

In the interview process, candidates often turn in take home assignments late because they’re interviewing with many companies—which can hurt your chances of landing the job. Instead, communicate to your point of contact that you’d like to request some additional time ahead of the deadline, rather than apologizing after the fact.

Outline the options

In the case of large projects, there will often be options or alternatives which you can propose to the relevant stakeholders – be proactive with suggestions! While the project as scoped may simply require more time, perhaps there are smaller pieces which can be delivered, or additional resources you can suggest tapping in order to speed things up.

To make up for your delay, you might also offer a bonus to the team, interviewer, or whoever is waiting on your work. While this won’t negate the fact that you’ve missed the deadline, it can send the signal that you acknowledge your mistake and are willing to go the extra mile to make up for it.

Propose a new timeline and future plan

Importantly, be sure to offer a new timeline—and if it’s a larger project, consider including new milestones so that the relevant stakeholders can monitor your progress. While you should be open to others’ suggestions regarding how to move forward, taking responsibility is a key piece of maintaining your credibility after a missed deadline.

In addition, if it’s a project for someone you have an ongoing relationship with (such as a client or your team at work), it’s also worth proposing your own action plan to prevent a similar situation in the future. While you can regain credibility through future actions (i.e. not missing more deadlines down the road), showing the team that you’re already planning in advance can help your case now.