We all make mistakes, and I have certainly contributed more than my fair share to the collective whole. Mistakes are how we learn best though, and we should embrace them. Sometimes we learn through the mistakes of others. Most of the time we learn from the mistakes that we have made ourselves. With this article I hope to help less experienced IT professionals learn from some of what I consider to be my biggest mistakes, and to avoid making these same mistakes themselves.
Mistake #1 – Know Everything Before Starting
When I was younger I believed that success was ensured by knowing everything that I possibly could about a piece of technology before I ever started a project. I would read for hours the night before about operating systems or applications, so that I could walk into work the next day and do my job flawlessly. This approach actually worked for a brief period of time. Then the projects grew larger, and the quantity of information that I needed to research grew as well. Eventually I realized that I was holding myself to an impossible standard. Unfortunately I did not have this realization until after I was missing deadlines and letting others down.
You cannot possibly know everything about the technology that you will be using for a complex project unless you created all of that technology yourself (and I doubt that you could know everything even in that scenario). Experience is the best teacher, so dive into new technologies with this approach instead:
- Read the manual first if you can.
- Always have the manual readily available regardless if you have read it or not.
- Stop and research for short periods of time during the project as you encounter obstacles.
- Ask for help when you cannot find the answer in a short period of time relative to the project timeline.
The momentum of actually doing is more powerful than acquired knowledge. People who know everything win on Jeopardy. People who do something give Jeopardy content in the first place.
Mistake #2 – Tell Others To “RTFM”
Whoa! Wait a minute! The section above just said “Read the manual first if you can.” What gives here?
You should read the manual, but this advice is about how you should treat others. Hopefully that clears up what might seem to be contradicting parts to this article.
I was told by some individuals that true techies developed their skills without any training, certifications, or mentoring. Since they had to earn their skills without any help from anyone else, then I had to to go “RTFM” and do the same. Once I had reached an acceptable level of technology knowledge on my own these same individuals would then tell me that I was holding myself back by explaining technologies to other less experienced employees. If I had any sense of respect for myself I would just tell others to “RTFM” and leave it to them to figure things out on their own.
I did exactly that for a period of time. Of all of my mistakes that I am sharing with you I consider this one to be the worst that I have made.
No one does it all on their own. That is pure bullshit. Those “lone wolf techies” who have survived on nothing more than their wits are lying to themselves and others. My observation has been that what actually happens is that these people are taught, forget whomever taught them, and then hoard their knowledge to rise no higher than middle management if even that.
Plus, these “RTFM” proponents do not practice what they preach. I realized that the day one of them asked me a question that I knew the manual had the answer to. People who use the response “RTFM” tend to hold others that they look down upon to that standard, but I have seen them call one of their buddies and say “Hey, can I bounce a quick question off of you?” more than a few times.
Never tell someone to “RTFM” (or any of its variants) as a response to a request for help. Use this approach instead:
- Answer the question as best you can expecting nothing in return.
- If a pattern forms and you suspect that someone is taking advantage of you politely confront them and explain that you cannot continue to help them.
- Share documentation with others, and always cite where they can find the answer to their questions with a page number or link.
“RTFM” is a response that says more about you as a person than it does about you as a technologist. People will avoid you when it comes to asking questions, but they will also avoid you when it comes time to handout promotions and new opportunities. Answering questions, providing referenced proof, and politely confronting people who take advantage of you and putting an end to such requests also says a lot about you as a person – those actions say that you are a leader worthy of promotions and new opportunities.
Mistake #3 – Trust Titles
You know what is painful? Having to tell a superior that he or she is wrong.
You know what is even more painful? The consequences of not telling a superior that he or she is wrong.
I used to doubt myself when the boss told me something that sounded incorrect. I have since learned that it is better to doubt the boss and to ask for more details to verify that I understand what is being said, and to clearly state my concerns if I still believe that the boss is wrong. If your gut tells you that something is wrong trust your gut over someone else’s title.
The boss, at any level mind you, is only human. This article is a sort of celebration of that, because your boss can probably share a lot of his or her mistakes with you as well. How else did they become the boss? By doing everything perfectly?
Nope. Your boss made mistakes. Furthermore, your boss is still making mistakes. Same thing is true for your boss’s boss, and your boss’s boss’s boss.
One of the biggest mistakes that you can make though is not to call out your boss when you see them making a mistake. Do so with respect, and be ready to have to follow through with taking actions that you disagree with (or be ready to resign if you feel that strongly about the matter), but do not fool yourself into thinking that just because someone is the boss that they will always be right.
Good bosses will not retaliate against you for pointing out their potential mistakes. Good bosses will reward you for pointing out these potential mistakes before they have to suffer the consequences of actual mistakes. Bad bosses on the other hand will retaliate against you, but it is better to have your objection on record for future reference for when that occurs. When you face a situation like this do the following:
- Share your doubt with your superior in private if possible (email works, but private meetings are best).
- Have another plan of action ready to share with your superior, or at least provide proof if possible that shows why his or her plan/decision is the wrong way to proceed.
- Make it clear that your objection is based on doing what is right for everyone involved, including your superior.
- Be ready to be proven wrong. You may not know as much as you think you do about the situation.
If you fear that you will lose your job by confronting a superior when he or she is wrong then you need to consider finding another opportunity. Again, everyone makes mistakes and your superiors are not an exception to this. Do not make the mistake of just blindly following orders though, because you are more valuable to your organization for your ability to think than for your ability to be controlled.
Embrace Your Mistakes
No matter where your career goes you are going to make mistakes. Embrace these mistakes and learn from them. Decipher them to reveal the lessons that these mistakes teach, and then share those lessons learned with the rest of the world. Some people might consider this to be a sign of weakness, but so what? That is their mistake to make, and one that you will avoid since you will realize what mistakes truly are.
Mistakes are an opportunity to learn through real experiences whether they be yours or another person’s. I hope that my experiences have given you a bit more knowledge, and I will happily learn from your mistakes as well if you are willing to share them with others. The irony is that the people who can learn from mistakes are also the people who will go on to have successes as well.