On Failure

Well, there's another way not to make a lightbulb.The first rule of blogging is that you should write about topics you know a lot about. And I know a lot about failure. This post will be the first in a series on the topic, through which I’ll share a few of my own failures and how I’ve done my best to use them to my benefit.

In almost every context, the word fail is a negative:

  • Last night’s database backup failed.
  • Our data warehouse project was a failure.
  • We failed to close a deal with this prospect.
  • The boss failed to live up to his promise.

Failure means that something wasn’t done, or was done incorrectly. Failure is a missed deadline. It is a lack of planning, or misplaced trust. Failure is a lost parcel, a lost customer, or a lost cause. It is a business ending, a marriage dissolving, a career plan torn to shreds.  And it’s also an inevitable part of life.

I don’t consider myself an expert on failure, but I’ve experienced enough failures – both large and small – that I can speak with some measure of authority on the topic.  I’ve lived through multiple divorces of parents and grandparents. I’ve lived in poverty on the wrong side of the tracks. I nearly got fired – on multiple occasions – from my first job because of my immaturity and a bad attitude. I dropped out of college in the middle of a semester (and failed to withdraw, of course) and received grades commensurate with dropping out in the middle of a semester. I invested years in preparing for a career I’d dreamed about since junior high school only to discover that I didn’t want to do that anymore. I started a business which failed in under 2 years. I’ve missed out on dozens and dozens of business and career opportunities due to my own procrastination. And those are just the high-level failures I can think of off the top of my head that I’m willing to share – there are many more that I’ve forgotten, and some others are frankly too embarrassing to blog about.

But the beautiful thing is that I’m still here. I’m alive, I’m employed, I’m healthy, and I’m sane (stop laughing – I really am). But even more importantly, I’ve learned that failure is a part of life, and more specifically, it’s a part of my history. For every failure I experienced, for every hardship I brought on myself, I learned something. And because I still fail, I’m still learning.

I don’t know if there’s value to anyone else in my sharing this information. So in that way, this post may be a failure. Except that it won’t.  Even if neither of the people who subscribe to my blog get any value from this, I will have learned something from writing all this down. And at a minimum, I’ll have something that I can refer to on those days after I’ve had a particularly large failure and need a reminder that I haven’t failed in vain. 

I realize that some of this may resemble bumper-sticker logic. I promise not to go all-out Tony Robbins on you, but here are a few of the points I’ll cover in this series.

  • Failure is necessary for growth. Not unlike the muscle-building process, to build we must first destroy. Failure is a little bit of destruction, but managed properly, will lead to personal and career growth.
  • Failure of integrity. This is the worst and most destructive kind of failure. How do you get past this?
  • Failure through inaction. Failing to seize an opportunity is a huge source of regret for many (this guy included).
  • Respond properly. You’ve got to know how to respond to failure (yours and that of others) to be able to properly manage it.
  • If you’ve not failed in a big way, you’re not taking enough chances. This is where I’ll tell you all about my business failure and what I learned from it.
  • Failure doesn’t have to be fatal. Failure is not the end of the line. It’s an obstacle in the road.
  • Failure demands both forgiveness and accountability. Learning to forgive failures (especially your own) is critical, but there must be accountability as well.

I’m not necessarily proud of my failures, but I try to remind myself every day to use those failures as a way to do it better next time.

Six practical tips for social media success in 2015

Social media is the new résumé.  In many ways, it’s even better than a résumé – a person’s social media stream can reveal attitudes, biases, and deficiencies that wouldn’t dare appear on a résumé.  Your online thoughts – blogs, Instagram pictures, tweets on Twitter, posts on Facebook, among others – help to make up the digital you, which friends and strangers alike will use to assess who you are and what you can contribute.  The things you share on social media become part of who you are.

Even more importantly, there’s a permanence to social media content that requires us to pay special attention to anything posted on the Internet.  There’s no Undo on the Send button; once you publish something to the Internet, it can be there forever.  Remember that potential clients and employers will most likely review your social media activities before making a hiring decision; in fact, a recent survey of human resources personnel revealed that over 90% of respondents looked to social media when checking out a candidate.  Even if you’re not looking for a job, consider that what you post today may still be around for years afterward.  Sure, you can edit or delete content or restrict its privacy settings, but have you read the terms of service for the medium on which you’re sharing that information?  In some cases, content you share online may be used in ways you don’t expect, according to the provider’s terms of service.  The bottom line is that privacy settings and deletion won’t necessarily keep your content private, so think twice before posting angry rants or NSFW after-hours photos.

With that, here are a few basic rules I try to follow when posting to social media.

Don’t write anything in the heat of the moment, especially if you’re hurt or angry.  Intense emotion often leaves logic behind, and those types of posts tend to be the ones you regret.  If you routinely find yourself posting to social media and later editing or deleting those posts, you might have a problem with this.  Things posted on social media can have a long life span, even when the original media is deleted.  The few minutes of satisfaction you get from sharing that angry tweet, Facebook post, or blog post might cost you years of embarrassment.  Take an hour and walk around the block before you post in an emotional state.

Find your pace.  Everyone has their own speed at which they share on social media.  Some will write a new blog post almost daily, while others do so just once or twice a month.  There are folks who post to Twitter a dozen times each day.  These are all acceptable, but the most important thing to remember is to be consistent.  Don’t publish a dozen blog posts in January and then stop blogging for the year.  Your audience, however larger or small, will follow you in part because of your volume and velocity.  Find a pace that you’re comfortable with, and most importantly, that is sustainable for the year.  The right scheduling tool can help with this, especially when the amount of time you have to devote to social media can vary from week to week.  (As a sidebar, I use HootSuite, though it’s just one of many such tools available, many of which are free.)

Check ur grammar.  I’ll admit it – I’m dogmatic when it comes to proper grammar and spelling, and I evaluate the quality of social media entries based in part on those criteria.  If your posts are littered with misspellings and grammatical errors, you could end up being passed over for a job or a gig.  It’s a fact that some folks are simply more attentive to this than others, so if you struggle with spelling and grammar, find a trusted adviser to proofread your posts (especially longer and more permanent compositions, such as web articles and blog posts).

Rid yourself of negative influence.  The things you read will affect how you write, and negativity breeds negativity.  You know the type – the blogger who complains about everything, the person on Facebook who’s all about drama, or the Twitter follower who’s always posting in anger.  I exercised a social media purge recently, either hiding or completely removing some folks who were constantly angry and negative.  Following people who post a constant stream of bile will almost certainly affect your mood and attitude, and is an unnecessary distraction.  Don’t disengage from someone over one online rant, but if they demonstrate a pattern of this behavior, cut ‘em off.

Have conversations.  Your social media presence can be advertisement, an online résumé, and a series of conversations.  Don’t neglect the last one!  You don’t want to be known as someone who simply broadcasts without listening.  The more you establish yourself as an expert on a topic, the more folks will want to chat with you, whether it’s to ask for advice, share an idea, or simply to get to know you.  While you don’t have to engage with everyone who reaches out to you (see the prior bullet), it’s usually best to err on the side of openness.

Last and most importantly, be you.  Don’t look to mimic someone else’s blog posts, tweets, or Facebook activity.  Your followers will read what you write because it’s yours, not because it resembles that of someone else in the community.  In fact, being different is a good way to gain even more followers; if you’re writing about things few other people are writing about, or if you’re approaching it on a level or from a perspective others aren’t, you’re likely to be different enough from the crowd that people will seek out your content.

Everyone uses social media differently, and each of us will have our own set of internal guidelines on what to post.   Just remember that your social media stream becomes an extension of, and a window into, your personality.  Take care in what you share, pace yourself, and be accessible.

On Perspective

Perspective can make or break a career.  Maintaining a proper perspective is very often the differentiating factor between a good technologist and an incredible one.

6281420488_68b88bfc00_zIn my 15-ish years in IT, I’ve said a lot of dumb things.  Many of them I’ve forgotten, but I can’t shake the memory of one particular phrase I uttered more than a few times back in my early days of my career.  Even today, it still embarrasses me that I ever had the mindset to say these words about other people:

“… those stupid end users …”

Yep. I said that.  Why would I say those words?  Sure, there was some emotion and frustration involved, but even more than that, my perspective was all wrong.  Being new to the IT field, my expectation was that it was our job as technical professionals to dictate standards and practices, and that the end users we supported would modify their business processes and their workflow to match those standards.  I looked at most business problems as the fault of the users for not following our standards, or not using their software tools properly.  Looking back on 15 years of experience, it seems silly that I would have ever held that position.  But in my (at the time) limited field of vision, this was my expectation.

Fast-forward a few years.  With a little experience under my belt, my perspective had changed.  Through a few hard lessons, I had evolved to the point that I fully understood that my principal function as a technical professional was to serve the business, not the other way around.  My attitude significantly improved, and I became a more proficient technical professional.  But my perspective still had one significant shortcoming: I simply solved the business problems that were brought to my attention.  Sure, I had my technical resources in order – my backups were always done and tested, my code used common best practices and was checked into source control, and I did my best to get out in front of performance issues before they ballooned into bigger problems.  But I still considered business problems to be outside my purview until my assistance was specifically requested.  My perspective was limited in that I was still trying to be a technical professional, rather than focusing on being a business professional solving technical problems.

I still remember when it finally clicked for me.  I’d been working in the industry for about four years, and after multiple rounds of meetings to solve a particular business problem, it hit me: my perspective is all wrong.  I’ve been looking at this from the perspective of “Tell me your problem and I’ll fix it,” when the dialog should have been “Let me understand what you do and what you need so we can address our problems.”  That’s right – it’s not that those end users have business problems.  It’s that we have business problems and we need to solve them.  There’s nothing more comforting for a nontechnical person to hear, and rarely a statement more empowering for a technical person to make, than a sincere expression of “I feel your pain. Let’s solve this together.”  This is true whether you’re tasked with front-line technical support, you’re working deep in a server room, or you’re a senior consultant in the field.

I believe a person can be a moderately successful technologist by focusing strictly on understanding and solving technical problems.  Where one becomes a rockstar problem solver is the point at which he or she has the experience and maturity to see things through a perspective other than his or her own, while understanding and feeling the pain points of others.