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Scott Miller Appsguild - Software craftsmanship, project management, and the biz of software
How do you handle mistakes? It's one of the most common interview questions. This question is used to gauge how mature you are, whether you are willing to admit your mistakes, and whether you will take responsibility for those mistakes.

I think even more important than how an individual reacts to mistakes is how a team or organization reacts to mistakes. Will team members point fingers and CYA, selling each other out? Will the organization or manager be more concerned with assigning blame? I wish that I could ask this question to the interviewer during an interview, but I'm not sure how well it would go over. The most important aspect about a mistake, either personal or as a team, is what processes do we have in place to handle mistakes? Are there contingency plans for different issues/mistakes? Example: about a year ago I accidentally deleted some important data from a database table that was used for lookup codes. Luckily it was a static table. In this situation the contingency/incident plan is pretty important. How fast can we recognize the error, triage the impact, find out what is causing it, and recover? In this case it was retrieving off-site backups and doing a restore. Having that plan minimizes the impact of the original mistake. Not having a plan makes it more crazy.

Likewise, having up front processes will likely catch the mistake at an earlier stage. Everyone knows the law that the cost of catching an error is less the earlier in the project that it is caught. Good business rules minimize assumptions and logic errors, coding standards and code reviews catch errors in the prevention stages rather than in the internal or external failure stages.

How your team reacts to errors is important too. If you have an incident and you notice that your team member is going out of his or her way to deny it or pass blame, take note and keep score because he will likely screw you over in the future. If you are a project manager, also take note because that person may not admit an issue or try to hide it.

I have noticed that organization make-up and culture play a huge role in how managers and team members handle mistakes. I worked at a previous job where the vast majority of staff were hourly call center workers. Since management was so used to the type of issues pertinent to lower paid hourly workers, some of this attitude and reaction spilled over into the way they handled salaried software developers. For example, management was less tolerant of mistakes, and they had a strange obsession with hours worked and a micromanagement of time.

So how do you and your employer handle mistakes?

Posted on Friday, May 25, 2007 7:34 PM | Back to top


Comments on this post: How do you handle mistakes?

# re: How do you handle mistakes?
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it better to know your mistake before any comment
Left by jhenny on Oct 10, 2007 4:26 AM

# re: How do you handle mistakes?
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There doesn't seem to be any 100% framework for dealing with mistakes, there isn't even one for really defining what a mistake actually is. I believe that there can't be a prescribed solution as a formula response such as "I am sorry I did x because I realise now it causes y", can backfire if it isn't said with heart and meaning. I mean, saying you're sorry and meaning you're sorry and saying it with feeling are two entirely different things. You have to express genuine remorse because the only point is to show that you truly care for the feelings of the person concerned. This means the two most common failures in making an apology are either apologising in a flip way that is meaningless or apologising simply to cover yourself in the hope it will limit backlash, in other words, apologising to make yourself feel better but not really caring about the person concerned.
Left by myself on Jun 07, 2008 11:50 AM

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