Finding Opportunities in the Mistakes We Make

Roughly six years into my software development career, I had worked on interesting projects, met amazing people, and had the opportunity to travel to exotic cities. Yet I was frustrated. I was burning the candle at both ends to get things done. I didn’t look back to see if I could improve on how things were being done; I had no time. Deep down I knew it wasn’t feasible. I was working hard, not smart; I felt like I wasn’t working toward anything; I was falling behind with technology. I was burning out.

Article Continues Below

I started searching for an opportunity to facilitate my technical growth. Two years later I was based at an enterprise client who adopted agile software development methodologies, and everything changed for me. This new world exposed me to a diverse working environment and new perspectives, and encouraged me to ask even more questions than before. This is when I discovered the power of the words “reflect, inspect, and adapt.”

It wasn’t a walk in the park with unicorns and rainbows, but the experience has aided me in officially branding my career as one exciting journey of professional and self-discovery. Now ten years into my career, I realize that for most of that time I have been in survival mode. After looking back, I’d like to share how I found opportunities in the mistakes I made.

Define clear career and personal goals#section2

Computers weren’t a household name when I was growing up in South Africa, but I was lucky to have access to my dad’s Pentium 386. I was amazed at this technology. When we got internet access, I was immediately hooked on the online world. I taught myself HTML and later built my own machine with the money I made from designing a website for the local newspaper.

When I chose my higher education path I had one goal—I wanted to make websites. I didn’t want a degree; I wanted experience. I studied at a college for two years, then excitedly entered the workforce to follow my passion.

As I entered the workforce, I wasn’t prepared for the politics: managers expecting things to be done almost immediately; clients who don’t engage and are unsure of what they want; clients who express urgency, yet wait for the last minute to provide you with everything you need; an increased workload due to colleagues who stay well inside their comfort zone. These are just some examples of the politics that initiated my frustrations.

I wondered if this is where I’d still be in five or ten years and if I would be able to sustain it. I didn’t know the answer to the former, but to the latter it was definitely no.

Coupled with turning thirty, the new perspectives I developed in the agile environment made me really evaluate my future. I realized that I didn’t have goals; I was only chasing my passion. Granted, it is fun and I gained a lot of experience in many different areas in IT, but I don’t have anything tangible to show for it now.

After much reflection, I discovered these goals for myself:

  1. Increase productivity. I minimize distractions like email, social media, and uninvited guests to improve my productivity. To make sure I am working on the right tasks, I need to have a clear understanding about what I am working on and why.
  2. Develop software that has a positive impact on people. It is important to understand business thinking and impact on users. I need to ask appropriate questions, and I need to guide and negotiate with product stakeholders.
  3. Share my knowledge. I can create an online identity (publish articles, blog), possibly speak at events, and contribute to open-source software. I can find projects on GitHub of libraries and tools that I regularly use and create a pull request.
  4. Better my craftsmanship. I can learn through code reviews and peer conversations, listen to podcasts, read up on best practices, read more craft-related reference books, and reflect on my implementation.
  5. Learn to live mindfully. To have a positive impact on people, I can make small adjustments and engage those around me to help me grow. Meditation, reflection, and motivational books are tools I could use to guide me.
  6. Showcase my career. Create a tangible timeline of projects I have worked on including screenshots, descriptions, technologies, and learnings.

These goals feel more defined to me than just making cool websites. I wish I had set some goals a little sooner but luckily — as cliché as it sounds — it’s never too late. Goals give you direction and purpose. Like me, you may have worked many late nights on personal projects that never materialized. It helps to have focus and something definite to achieve. I find what’s best of all is that I don’t feel constrained by having these goals. They represent what’s important to me now but if my values change, I can inspect and adapt my goals.

Put people before technology#section3

For too long, I worked alone on my own codebases and wondered if I was doing things the right way. I had little to no exposure to working in teams and dealing with industry buzzwords like agile, TDD/BDD, Gang of Four, SOLID, code reviews, continuous integration/delivery, DevOps, and <insert your favorite technical jargon here>. I was in a bubble falling further behind in the fast-paced technical world. I was focused on working with technology and never realized how important it is to collaborate.

If you work in a company with a silo-based culture or one- or two-people teams, try not to accept things for what they are:

  • Get involved with your coworkers by communicating and collaborating on projects.
  • Try introducing knowledge-sharing sessions and code reviews.
  • Reflect on what worked and what didn’t and also unpack why, so that you can learn from it.
  • Approach management with suggestions on how you and your colleagues can produce more solid and effective software.
  • Attend conferences or smaller community meetups. Not only can you learn a lot through the content but you have the chance to network and learn from an array of people with different skills.

Prioritize your tasks#section4

I often worked about twelve to sixteen hours a day on projects with short deadlines. I spent my official work hours helping colleagues with problems, immediately responding to email, attending to people with queries or friendly drop-ins, supporting projects that were in production, or fighting fires resulting from errors that usually came from miscommunication. This left me with very little time to be productive. When I finally got to work on my project, my perfectionism only increased my stress levels. Regardless, I never missed a deadline.

I thought everything was important. If I didn’t do what I was doing the world would end, right? No! The reality is that when everything is important, nothing is important.

This working behavior sets unrealistic expectations for the business, your colleagues, and yourself. It hides underlying issues that need to be addressed and resolved. If you are working at an unsustainable pace, you can’t deliver your best work plus you end up missing out on actually living your life.

The power of retrospectives#section5

The most important ceremony (or activity) I was introduced to in the agile environment was the retrospective, which is “the process of retrospecting at the heart of Scrum (Inspect and Adapt), eXtreme Programming (fix it when it breaks) and Lean Software Development (Kaizen or Continuous Improvement)”.1

Through retrospection you are granted the opportunity to reflect on how you — and the team — did something, so that you can improve the process. Let’s run through this technique to identify some pain points using the situation I had found myself in:

  • Working unsustainable hours because there was too much to do. I helped everyone else before I worked on my own tasks, I worked on things that didn’t add much value, and I thought that all the features needed to be ready for launch. I was blind to asking for help when I needed it.
  • Dealing with too many distractions. I allowed the distractions by immediately switching context to help others because it was important to them.
  • Key-person dependency. I was the only person working on one of the projects.
  • Miscommunication resulting in errors. Communication was done via email and the stakeholders were off-site. There wasn’t quick feedback to indicate if the project was going in the right direction.

Once the pain points are identified, adjustments need to be made in order to see improvement. Large adjustments could take too long to implement or adjust to, which leads to disruptions. Smaller adjustments are better. These adjustments may or may not work in the long haul, so we can look at them as experiments.

  • To work more sustainably I need to know what I need to work on — and why — so that I can add value without wearing myself out. Perhaps I could find out what needs to be available for launch and create a prioritized list of things to do. This list could help me focus and get into the “zone.”
  • To manage client expectations, we can try open communication. This can also help me prioritize my tasks.
  • To overcome some of the distractions I could reap the benefits of being selfish by saying no (within reason). This could help me stay in the zone for longer. If anything must be expedited I can start offering trade-offs: if I do X now, can Y wait?
  • To alleviate the pressures of being the sole person able to do certain things, I could have more conversations with my manager and train a colleague so that they are aware of what is going on and someone can take over in the event that I get sick or am on vacation.
  • To reduce errors from miscommunication, perhaps we could create visibility for stakeholders. Introduce a physical workflow board and have constant feedback loops by requesting frequent reviews to demonstrate what we have done.

Experiments run for a period of time and need to be measured. This is a grey area. Measurements aren’t always accurate, but it always boils down to the pain. If the pain is the same or has increased, then the experiment needs to be adjusted or a new experiment introduced. If it has been alleviated, even slightly, then there is improvement.

Learning through experimentation#section6

Many of the experiments mentioned above already form part of the agile Scrum framework, so let me introduce you to real-world experiments we did in our team.

Based on the way our development stories were deployed, we experienced pain with testing stories in the appropriate order. We were using Jenkins for automated deployments and each one got a number incremented from the previous one, but the testers weren’t testing the stories in any particular order. If a story was ready to be deployed, they wouldn’t know if there was another, untested story that they were unwittingly promoting to production along with it, or if the story they tried to deploy was being held back by other stories still awaiting testing.

Without waiting for a retrospective we had a conversation to highlight the pain. We chose to write the build number on a note stuck on the story card on our wall and add a comment to our digital storyboard. This created quick visibility on the chronological order of the possible deployments of our stories.

A change control process was later introduced that required details of a production deployment and a rollback plan for that change. We couldn’t quickly access the last few production build numbers, so we started writing them on stickies and put those onto a new section on our physical board. Now we didn’t have to search through email or log in to Jenkins to find these numbers. One day, we were asked when we last deployed and had to go back to email for the answer, so we started adding the date to the deployment number stickies.

These were simple experiments but they added a lot of value by saving time. We acted on alleviating pain as it happened.

Don’t be afraid to experiment if you are not in an Agile world. If you simply run to business with problems and offer no solutions then business will frown at you. The goal here is simple: identify your pain points and find simple solutions (or improvements) to try to alleviate the pain. Experiment, inspect, and adapt often.

Believe in yourself#section7

Survival mode never did me any good. I didn’t get an award for working long hours to make deadlines. Letting my mistakes and frustrations build up over the years made me stop believing in myself.

I was stuck in a rut; technology was changing around me fast and I was burnt out and falling behind. I’d scroll through Stack Overflow and instantly feel stupid. I’d spend time looking at all the amazing websites winning awards on Awwwards and feel inadequate. I didn’t have a life as it was consumed by my obsession for work. I didn’t know what I wanted anymore, or what I wanted to aspire to.

Introspection helped me. By inspecting my behavior, I was able to make minor adjustments that I would then inspect again to see if they worked. This simple activity can show you what you are capable of and lead you to learning more about yourself and those around you. I am applying what I have learned in software in a personal capacity. I have my life back, and I feel empowered and freed.

My final thoughts#section8

I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes in my career. What I have shared with you is probably only a fraction of them. I don’t regret my mistakes at all; that is how I got my experience. The only regret I have is that I wish I had begun reflecting on them sooner.

When a mistake is made, an opportunity is born: learn from that mistake to do something differently next time. Take time to step out of the subjective into the objective, so that you can reflect and consider what you could do to change it. (And don’t be too hard on yourself!)

My journey has taught me to implement small experiments that can be measured and to run them for short periods of time. If something works, keep it. If not, adjust it or throw it away. By making small changes, there are fewer disruptions. If you too are in survival mode — stop and breathe now! Reflect, inspect, and adapt.


About the Author

Clarice Bouwer

Clarice Bouwer makes software for people. Living outside her comfort zone keeps her challenged and continuously learning. She enjoys solving problems and bridging communication between business and technology.

17 Reader Comments

  1. Thank you for such a wonderfully written article, I find myself in the same place you found yourself. I hope that I can be as successful with introspection and setting goals for myself that will help grow my career in the right direction.

    I particularly liked your approach of small easily completed tests. I think some people, myself especially like to set huge goals and become discouraged when not seeing a giant task accomplished or improved.

  2. This was a much-needed read right now. I just switched jobs and went from a decent-sized team environment that was heavy on scrumming, but did no version control, to a place that does exactly the opposite (and I -am- the team). I’ve felt underwater ever since, and am realizing that despite being only a few years out of school, I am already way behind in the technological world.

    Your article made me realize a huge issue here, work attitudes and routines aside, is that my only goal has ever been to learn. Unfortunately, that’s clearly not enough, because we can’t learn everything (even if we want to). So, time to rethink the road ahead.

    A great article with some great points. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wow, thanks for the feedback so far. I’m really greatful to be able to share my experiences with the community.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story. I relate to almost all of it.

    Like you, I got to a point where it was clear that I needed to do something to stop burning out and I started to take action. One of the things I did at the time was leaving my job, but now I couldn’t be happier with that decision.

    There is still a lot of room for improvement, but setting some small goals (sometimes it takes big changes) and working towards achieving them really makes a difference in every aspect of life.

  5. I think this will be helpful to me. I identified with it a lot. Now I just need to reflect, inspect, and adapt. Thanks!

  6. I am humbled by the feedback from the community so far. Thanks!

    I was drifting in my career. What I needed was direction. My goals helped me find it.

    My vision for life is to live each day in a sustainable way while making small improvements both personally and professionally – continuous learning.

    The best technique for sustainable living that I have been introduced to is the practice of mindfulness.

    This practice keeps me focused on the present moment and has improved my memory, focus, productivity, and overall happiness.

    I’m keen to know if you have tried it and how you have benefited from it.

  7. The best technique for sustainable living that I have been introduced to is the practice of mindfulness.

    I like this Five Steps to Mindfulness article.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thank you, Clarice, for sharing the gold of your wisdom.

    Passion(the kick of creating something) is a beautiful thing but that drive, with your blinders on, sometime’s just good enough to make you chase the only light you see(or can see). It’s important to understand the other dimensions in your craftsmanship, your job(or your life) to be a better you towards things life pushes or puts in your space.

  9. If there is future opportunity in our past mistakes, then my future looks bright.

    Seriously, the use of reflection on past success/failure and short term goals with specific objectives works pretty well for me.

    Thanks for opening up and writing this.

  10. Hi Clarice,
    I totally understand you because I’ve been through the same experience. I love what I do, but politics is tiring.
    A lot of great professionals end up leaving the company because of that and unfortunately, going to another company won’t solve the issue. The reality is that politics is everywhere.
    The only way to decrease the influence of politics in your career is to build your own business. You won’t be 100% free because you will still be dealing with clients, but at least you won’t depend on your boss to get the proper recognition.
    It’s not an easy decision to make, but I can tell from my own experience that it’s worth it.

    Andre Jones

  11. Hey Andre, I agree with you.

    Its so hard to get recognized by our boss but start your own business isn’t easy.

    I already spoken with a guy who thought that way and lived in a poor situation.

    Not all bad things are really bad. We always can learn with this bad experience and try to look in a different way.

    This is my experience. There is always a different way to look.

    Rafael Querido

Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA