My Secret Life as a Spaghetti Coder
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Your boss gave you three weeks to work on a project, along with his expectations about what should be done during that time. You started the job a week before this assignment, and now is your chance to prove you're not incompetent.

You're a busy programmer, and you know it will only take a couple of days to finish anyway, so you put it on the back-burner for a couple of weeks.

Today is the day before you're supposed to present your work. You've spent the last three days dealing with technical problems related to the project. There's no time to ask anyone for help and expect a reply.

Tonight is going to be hell night.

And you still won't get it done.

What can you do to recover? Embrace failure. Here's how I recently constructed (an anonymized) email along those lines:
  1. Take responsibility. Don't put the blame on things that are out of your control. It's a poor excuse, it sounds lame, and it affords you no respect. Instead, take responsibility, even if it's not totally your fault. If you can't think of an honest way to blame yourself, I'd go so far as to make something up.
    I've been having some technical troubles getting the support application to work with the project.

    To compound that problem, instead of starting immediately and spreading my work across several days, I combined all my work this week into the last three days, so when I ran into the technical problems, I had very little time to react.

    After trying to make the support application run on various platforms, I finally asked a teammate about it, where I learned that I needed to use a specific computer, where I did not have access.

    As such, I don't think I can meet your expectations about how much of the project should be done by tomorrow.
  2. State how you expect to avoid the mistake in the future. Admitting your mistake is not good enough. You need to explain what you learned from the experience, and how that lesson will keep you from making a similar mistake in the future.
    I just wanted to say that I take responsibility for this mistake and in the future, I will start sooner, which will give me an opportunity to receive the feedback I need when problems arise. I've learned that I cannot act as a one man team and I by starting sooner I can utilize my teammates' expertise.
  3. Explain your plan to rectify the situation. If you don't have a plan for fixing your mistake, you'll leave the affected people wondering when they can expect progress, or if they can trust you to make progress at all. Be specific with what you intend to do and when you will have it done, and any help you'll need.
    I already sent an email request to technical support requesting access to the specific computer, and await a response.

    In the mean time, here's how I expect to fix my mistake:

    a) I need to run the support program on data I already have. It will analyze the data and return it in a format I can use in the next process. I can have this completed as soon as I have access to the machine, plus the time it takes to run.

    b) I need to learn how to assemble another source of data from its parts. I have an article in-hand that explains the process and I am told we have another support program that will be available next week. I do have the option to write my own "quick and dirty" assembler, and I will look into that, but I do not yet know the scope.

    c) I need to use another one of our tools on the two sets of data to get be able to analyze them. Assuming I am mostly over the technical problems, I wouldn't expect this to cause any more significant delay.

    d) Finally, I'm unsure of how to finish the last part of the project (which is not expected for this release). If possible, I'd like to get feedback on how to proceed at the next meeting with our group.
After that, close the email with a reiteration that it was your fault, you learned from it, you won't let it happen again, and that it will be resolved soon.

Since I rarely make mistakes, I'm certainly no expert at how to handle them. Therefore, I pose the question to you all, the experts: How would you handle big mistakes? What strategies have worked (or failed) for you in the past?

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Leave a comment

There are so few things I feel expert on, but I have certainly made enough mistakes that it should be one of them.

Overall, I agree with your strategy completely. I will just add that brevity is important. I don't want to compound my earlier mistake by taking too much of someone's time to read the email (even if it is contrite).

Enough explanation to show understanding of failure and a plan to address it in the future without excess self-flagellation that just wastes time.

Posted by Steve Bryant on Jan 26, 2013 at 10:51 PM UTC - 5 hrs

@Steve Bryant: You make a good point. I think what I posted lacks the brevity requirement, so I'll have to keep that in mind next time. At its best, it takes too much time to read. At its worst, it can still sound like making poor excuses.

Posted by Sammy Larbi on Jan 27, 2013 at 08:47 AM UTC - 5 hrs

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