11 December 2012

Public therapy

I just experienced my first real professional failure in almost two years of consulting for my current employer. I'm not saying I've always been perfect before, but it's the first time a customer basically told me to give up and go home.

As tempted as I am to blame the damn tool (which I had never seen before in my life, and unsurprisingly refused to do my bidding), the hard truth is that:

  • I failed to properly and fully "sniff out" customer requirements in advance. This should have been a huge red flag, but I thought I was good enough to just deal with it. Lesson 1: there is a reason hubris is a cardinal sin.
  • On finding myself in trouble, I kept hacking at the problem for days when I should have just taken a step back straight away. I kept googling for a magic bullet, when I should have admitted that I did not know how the product was supposed to work, should have gone back to studying from first principles, and should have built a local proof-of-concept before attempting a real-world deployment. Despite being completely honest with the customer at all times, I ended up over-promising and under-delivering, which is the exact opposite of what I always try to do. Lesson 2: if you find your axe is blunt, hitting faster and from all directions will not compensate; just stop and sharpen up, there is no shame in it.
  • Because of this "just a little hack" attitude, deep down I was not fully committed and concentrated on the problem. I kept assuming that solving a second main task would "make up" for failure on the first one. Unfortunately, this second task depended in part on other people, who also failed to deliver on time. Lesson 3: deus ex-machina is a literary device, not an action plan and certainly not a plan B. Also Lesson 4: be brutally honest with yourself at all times.

Obviously, I'm not happy today. Regardless of the actual task at hand, I failed at thinking strategically and being self-aware, and at my age this should not happen; I'm pretty sure I've learnt all these lessons when I was 22, and still managed to forget them. I hope this little recap will help me focus... my next engagement looks like a slam-dunk and I owe to myself to make it so.

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