Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

mistakes

A Punch to the Gut

I fucked up pretty badly a few weeks back. The particulars don’t matter. I wouldn’t be able to share them, even if they did. But it was a big one; the kind of mistake that hits you like a freight train. People were hurt and angry — and rightfully so. It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach — the air rushed out of my lungs, leaving me speechless. I’m usually pretty good at picking myself up, dusting myself off, and moving on after I screw up.

I fucked up pretty badly a few weeks back.

The particulars don’t matter. I wouldn’t be able to share them, even if they did. But it was a big one; the kind of mistake that hits you like a freight train. People were hurt and angry — and rightfully so. It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach — the air rushed out of my lungs, leaving me speechless. I’m usually pretty good at picking myself up, dusting myself off, and moving on after I screw up. Not this time.

I spent the next day moping around, feeling sorry for myself. I wanted to run away; to get as far as possible from the person I saw in the mirror. That jerk.

But, on the second day, I remembered: This wasn’t the first time I’d screwed up in my life, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. The fact that I’d made a mistake was important — I’d had a negative impact on other people. But how I responded to it would matter more, in the long run. I decided to focus on the people I’d affected, instead of my ego, and get to work fixing the situation. Time will tell if I’m successful or not.

On the internet, behind screens and keyboards, it’s easy to look at other people and imagine they’re perfect. All you see is their successes — the highlight reel. Fantastic vacation shots on Instagram. Tweets about crushing it on their latest project. And yes, newsletter articles about productivity. We all do it — selectively sharing things that present us in the best light possible.

But we’re all just regular people, trying our best to make today a little bit better than yesterday. And when you put yourself out into the world and try new things, you’re bound to screw up once in a while. Sometimes it will be minor. Other times, you’ll fuck up so bad you won’t even know who you are, for a bit.

In those moments, remember you aren’t alone.

Until next time,

-Brian


Be Kind

One Friday afternoon, early in my career, I was wrapping up some new features for the back-end of a client’s Rails app. Simple stuff. Confident in my work, I deployed the changes, closed my laptop, and drove out of town for a weekend of camping with friends. I had just arrived when my phone rang. It was my project lead, Kevin. “The client’s site is down. What happened?” Oh shit.

One Friday afternoon, early in my career, I was wrapping up some new features for the back-end of a client’s Rails app. Simple stuff. Confident in my work, I deployed the changes, closed my laptop, and drove out of town for a weekend of camping with friends. I had just arrived when my phone rang. It was my project lead, Kevin.

“The client’s site is down. What happened?”

Oh shit. Fuck. I had no idea. I was three hours away with no laptop.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll take care of it. Have a good weekend.”

Like that was going to happen. I’d let the team down. I’d ruined someone else’s weekend. I beat myself up for days. Come Monday; I walked into the office certain I was about to be fired. The project lead walked over.

“Hey, Brian. How was your trip?”

He was smiling. There wasn’t even a hint of frustration or annoyance. “It was okay,” I said, waiting for the bad news. “Sorry about Friday. I completely blew it.”

“It’s okay,” he replied. “We’ve all done it.” He paused for a moment. “But what did you learn?”

I talked about the need for proper QA. About thoroughly testing my changes. About taking the time to make sure the job gets done right. After a few minutes, he held up his hand.

“Great. It sounds like you get it. I know that you can do better.” 

And that was the end of it. Kevin never brought it up again. 

Kevin gave me the space to screw up, as long as I learned from it. He jumped in, with his years of experience, and helped me out when I needed it most. And still believed I was a competent developer, despite my mistake. He saw my potential.

Now that I’m the one leading projects and mentoring junior developers, I often think back to that day. And I remind myself to be kind and see the potential in people. Give them a break.

Just like Kevin did for me.

Until next time,

–Brian