Posted by Kirt Zimmer on Tuesday, October 27, 2015 - 08:00 | Follow me
Work life doesn’t always have an undo button, much to the chagrin of many people working in tech roles. What are the potential mistakes that keep you awake at night?
Back before user-friendly bulk email programs like Constant Contact or Mailchimp, Mark (not his real name) was writing his own program for this purpose. He kept sending messages to himself in the new program, but it wasn’t working. The hour got late, and Mark grew more and more frustrated.
“What the f#%$ is the f#%$ing deal with this f#%$ing program?” he typed into the test message, deploying it once again. (The words he used were actual curse words, but this is a family-friendly blog, folks.) Then came a bittersweet moment for Mark. The program worked! Yay! Wait. Oh, no. The program worked! Within moments, several thousand customers received a message full of Mark’s invective.
Have you ever made an IT mistake like this? We figured some of our colleagues might have experienced similar “oh no” moments, so we asked for their stories. Here are a few examples:
Early on in my career my band had a show the night before a code freeze, which is when all development has to be done. I went to play the show but I also had a bunch of things to fix in the codebase, so I went back to the office after the show and worked until early in the morning. Dead tired at that point, I went home and slept for a few hours and then came back in to the office.
When I got back to the office later that day, the project manager asked, Were you drunk when you made all of those fixes last night?
Maybe... why do you ask?
She laughed and said, Everything is more broken now than it was before you fixed it.
I witnessed a defense contractor have a U.S. Navy captain fly a helicopter to another ship to have his partner pass along a male-to-male BNC connector – all so he wouldn’t be embarrassed that his multi-million dollar defense system wouldn't work without a two dollar part we had aboard the ship. Needless to say, his ego and his wallet were highly bruised when his company was fired and told to never come back.
I didn't put my project into Git before allowing collaborators. Untested code went everywhere. I had to diff a lot and learn about versioning. It was like ripping open a feather pillow and trying to retrieve the feathers!
Perhaps you’re nodding your head with memories of past work mistakes. Sometimes one wrong character among 10,000 lines of code can be enough to cause major problems. When you do make a tech mistake that affects others, here are a few best practices that might help you weather the storm:
Admit your mistake
If we’ve learned anything from politicians, it’s that the cover-up is often far worse than the original transgression. The latter is just a mistake – which everyone makes occasionally – whereas the former indicates a real character flaw. Own up to your error with your supervisor. A face-to-face meeting, if you work in the same office, is a more effective way to communicate serious mistakes than email or a phone call. (FaceTime or Skype are fine, if you don’t work in the same place. Just follow these best practices for video meetings.)
While your boss likely won’t be thrilled by the news, you’ll earn points for bravery and honesty. Together you can decide how to fix the problem – including whether to be equally honest with any customers who may have been affected.
All politics are local
If others were involved in the mistake, don’t jump at the opportunity to throw them under the bus with you. While you should answer questions honestly, there’s no need to make others suffer unnecessarily. Keep the conversation focused on process and not people.
It’s possible that the disaster is something you’ve predicted and previously suggested steps to avoid. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if only your boss had spent a little extra money on a widget per your recommendation. Now is not the time to say “I told you so.” Simply suggest the widget once again. Long after the details of this incident are forgotten, people will remember how it made them feel.
What's the hardest IT skill to find? Soft skills.
Convey appropriate emotions
When an employee makes a mistake, management usually likes to know that the individual takes it seriously. It’s OK to show that you are upset; it means you care about your performance and how it affects others. Just make sure that you don’t go too far and come across as hysterical. The appropriate professional tone should be bothered but determined to find a solution.
Troubleshoot your process
One of the unsettling aspects of the news you share with your supervisor may be concern that your mistake could happen again. Head off that anxiety with a plan for how you’ll avoid a repeat of the error. Is there a step you can add to your process that would serve as insurance? Try to come out of the meeting with an agreement on an action plan.
Good luck out there, people. This isn’t cheerful news, but it should go without saying that some mistakes could mean termination from your job or loss of your client. Our friend Mark found that out the hard way.
If that happens, try to learn from the experience – and be ready to share what you’ve learned with future employers or clients. They will appreciate that you grew professionally from the experience, and they might have a wild tale of their own to share.
If you do end up looking for a new IT job, this is a good place to start.