Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Failure - the secret of my success ...

As you may have noticed reading through this blog, I have a few interests outside of just testing.  I'm often trying my hand at something different, but no matter what, I try and apply a certain level of critical thinking to make it a learning and growing experience.

My mother told me something on the phone a few months ago, and it was a comment which I found really quite insightful, "you have no fear of trying things, and you're not really afraid to fail.  And that means you often can get quite good at things quite quickly, which can be difficult for people around you to take".  It's an interesting point - we publicise our success and of course are a bit quiet about the failures.

I recently went to lunch with a good friend from a previous company, where he worked on the helpdesk.  Dave is a very smart guy, and has worked as a lawyer, but thinking of going into programming.  He wanted to ask me about my experience, as I'd been fairly successful.  And it hit me like a brick, because I don't really think of myself as a successful person.  But that said, as time ticks on, we tend to leave our failures behind, and we don't really talk about them.

I got into development originally because I was a bit of a failure.  I'd trained as a teacher, and there were elements to the job I loved, and some I found emotionally crushing.  I actually spent six months unemployed during a recession in the 90s, and without the support of my in-laws, I'd have probably had to move away from the girl who'd end up becoming my wife (things like that stick with you, and why I've never had anything but love for my parents-in-law, or second-parents).

It was a tough time of uncertainty, lots of job interviews, and waiting desperately for something to come through.  I wanted to work in computers, and read as many books on programming as I could.  I have a lot of University degrees, but actually was self taught in the area I actually ended up in a career with!

I still had access to a University computer lab, so would practice UNIX and C programs there.  Life was a cycle of printing CVs and application letters, and rushing to the letterbox in a morning to see if there was any fruit from my interviews.  There were a lot of rejection letters, an awful lot.  Thankfully, eventually Thompson Marconi Sonar Limited took a chance on me, and the rest is history!  Well it certainly got a heap easier from that point on, but still an occasional rocky road.

The point is, every success story has it's difficult moments somewhere.  When Rocky finally gets to the steps, it's a moment of triumph that symbolises all the struggle he's taken to get match fit.  When we ourselves mirror that achievement, the disappointment of the first time we tried and got half way and gave up gets dissolved in the elation.  Some people, many people in fact, never return to get to the summit after their first failure.

Let's face it, we just don't like it when we fail!

Back in 2011, I took part in what was to be an instrumental training course at Kiwibank.  It was a one day workshop "for reward and motivation" - our speaker came in and promised us by the days end we would have achieved at least four feats which right now seem impossible.  And he was right!

One of the tasks was learning to juggle, and he really encouraged us to embrace the failure.  First off we took a single ball, threw it from one hand to the other, and let it hit the floor.  And then, we clapped.  We clapped because right now we were going to embrace the fact that we were going to fail, in fact we were deliberately going to fail at this point.  But we were going to keep on.  Piece by piece we tried it more and more with one ball, then two, then eventually being able to do three for a limited time.  Each time applauding the balls if they fell.  Learning started with failure, and we worked on it, just a bit at a time.

Most instructional to me was the minefield game.  There was an invisible route through a grid, and we had to take turns at it.  If we hit a bad square, we got a warning "beep" and had to back out down the safe path and let another team mate have a go.  At the end, we had an analysis, which was a bit of an eye opener.

The board looked a little like this, "Gronda!  Gronda!"

What we found was typically people would stand on a safe square and look for the next "safe" square.  And they were really hesitant.  People would often take a minute or two to decide.  If they hit an unsafe square there would be a "beep" noise, immediately that person would sigh, shrug their shoulders, and leave the board dejectedly.*

As was mentioned - there was no skill or insight needed for working out the next safe square.  There was no way you could know, so taking time to determine your next step didn't really help.  And feeling dejected because you'd gone onto an unsafe square, again, you couldn't know.  Finding an unsafe square wasn't due to lack of ability at all, and yet people still took it very personally.  In fact it could be said you'd helped, because you'd found an unsafe square for the rest of the team, making it easier for the person who followed you.

And this is how we are - we like the idea of being a natural, as if you're born with skills, being good at something is a lot more easy.  Starting off making a mess and not doing so well is really scary, because the journey is longer, and a good deal tougher.  But in truth it's the reverse, if you have some ability, it's harder to accept you STILL need to work on elements to advance!

This is why, I guess, I like to try new things.  To keep that learning part of my mind fairly elastic, lest it otherwise gets too proud and dislikes dealing with failure.  As long as it's elastic it means I get to keep trying things, and hopefully getting better at it!

My most recent challenge has been my directorial début - some friends and I have got together to make a short film called "Under The Carpet".  We're hoping to be good enough to do the 48 hour film challenge next year, and of course I want to bring a certain level of Agile mentality to our filming, most importantly "getting the project finished", over just being too obsessed with details we never make anything.

Directing was fun, educational and very very tiring.  For all involved it was their first time doing anything like it, and I'm pleased with the end result.  Though at the same time I look at some elements and go, "I wish I changed that line" or "wish we got the lighting better".  I'm avoiding the temptation to keep going back to this film and refilming and re-edit pieces.  Instead, we'll just try and learn our lessons, and make the next film that little bit slicker ...


* It's also because of the minefield game that I think it's better in testing to have a rough over a rigid plan, to flex and deal with obstacles and unsafe squares as they show themselves.  Which is of course pretty much an Agile manifesto point in a nutshell.


  1. Wow, I remember rejection letters in letterbox! That's old school.
    I'm ooking forward to watching your short film later tonight.

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