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Laughing at Failure


At last night's qbox network meetup, in a talk titled Try not to Laugh: Fail Compilation of a Tester, Anssi Lehtelä recounted tales of accidents, wrong behaviour, and unwanted outcomes.

To be honest, I didn't try too hard not to laugh. But who can keep keep a straight face when hearing about profane login credentials, automatically generated by concatenating a few characters from customer first names and last names? Not me.

But why am I laughing? In part, for sure, it's because it violates an expectation about vendor-customer relationships. Imagine being welcomed into a shop by someone saying "ah, hello Mr Shit." 

OK, yes, I'm also chuckling a little because rude words out of context can just be funny. But mostly I'm laughing the laughter of recognition. How could they have missed that possibility? Could I have missed that possibility? Have I ever missed a possibility? Hmm ... yes. Ooops!

Anssi's stories covered test data escaping into production and the postal system, lack of understanding of customer use cases, bad technical practices, giving in to pressure, honest mistakes, carelessness, and egotistical overconfidence. Some were relatively trivial and easily fixed, some had local impact on projects, some had financial impacts on the business, and some made him feel sick to his stomach.

For each failure he noted learnings that he'd taken, sometimes immediately and sometimes only after sufficient time had passed. These included:

  • when you can, use innocuous and self-verifying test data
  • think carefully before compromising your ethics to work around bad process
  • when things go wrong stay calm and ask for help
  • own your mistakes and do the right thing once you've made them
  • blameless culture doesn't mean that people don't feel guilty

Although it wasn't the main topic, there was an interesting side conversation on the relationship between seniority and failure. Some thoughts were that seniority comes from dealing better with failure, that seniority means being more open to failing, or that senior staff tend to have strategies to mitigate the risk of failure.

The discussion also touched on whether or not failure leads to better learning than success. I don't necessarily think that it does. Breadth of experience (positive, neutral, and negative) and self-reflection seem to be the important factors to me, along with a sense of humour. This talk covered all of them.
Image: https://flic.kr/p/5wsmrS

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