Archive: One little bug – December 30, 2005

(This podcast is pulled “from the archives” and presented here as a service to more recent listeners — Douglas)

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On our worst days, we can sometimes stop caring about our work. We can get so beaten down and tired that the only thing we look forward to is the end of the day. The truly frightening part, though, is that it doesn’t take a horrible day to put your career, or even your entire company at risk. Instead, it is the small problems – the ignored update, the unfixed bug, the “I’ll get to that later” attitude – that brings failure. If you want to have a long career, at a number of profitable companies, you need to worry most about the “one little bug” that could bring everything crashing down.

Too often, I hear high-tech workers dismissing their own importance. They seem to think that since others don’t think they are important, then their work doesn’t matter. In fact, your work, even the smallest, seemingly least consequential part, relates directly to the success or failure of your career. The effects are far reaching.
Imagine statistics, a spreadsheet or program algorithm that everyone in your company relies upon. They might use these tools for short-range planning, making assumptions about the future or determining what happens, when and to whom. Now, imagine the damage that can be caused when one small error creeps into such a critical system. Garbage in. Garbage out…or more appropriately, Garbage in. Failure out. Are you still thinking your work doesn’t matter?

A recent story from Australia demonstrates the consequences of one small bug. Prisoners in one jail system were being released early due to a flaw in the software that tracked their incarceration. Even though the problem was eventually discovered, prison officials were unsure how many people had been effected. Other news stories show how companies have had to restate earnings, refund money or otherwise make amends when flaws were discovered in internal software programs. Some software firms have found themselves filing for bankruptcy when uncorrected bugs in their software led to the failure of the company.

Remaining vigilant about small problems can be difficult. Larger issues draw your focus away and management can sometimes be unresponsive to your warnings. Time for quality assurance can be eaten up with simple maintenance of the system. There are a hundred excuses why small problems cause such trouble, but all of them will be cold comfort when a major failure is discovered.

Being constantly vigilant about the small problems can be extremely difficult, but it is infinitely more important than anything else you do. If you want to shine in your career, you need to pay attention to the details. You need to be able to root out the missing semicolon, the flawed formula, the incorrect configuration file. It is here that your career will be made. Big flashy projects will gain you recognition, but solving the small problems will prove your worth again and again.

As you might imagine, practicing the constant vigilance that this requires is difficult, if not impossible if you are in the wrong job, or even worse, the wrong career. There are a host of reasons why you should always seek out the job that is right for you, but this is one of the most important. You can work as hard as possible, at a job that isn’t right for you, but it won’t make a bit of difference. It is like trying to climb a mountain with 100lbs of extra weight on your back. You might make it part of the way up the mountain, but the extra burden will always be holding you back. You cannot, and will not, excel in a job or career that is wrong for you. You won’t have the attention, time or energy to focus on the small problems if you are unhappy in your job.

Keep your eyes open, every day, for the one little bug that can bring infinite amounts of trouble to your career. Hunt them down and kill them off wherever and whenever possible. Don’t let supposedly “big issues” distract your attention. As the famous architect Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.” You can say the very same about your high-tech career.

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