Failure Is A Big Deal

The following is the script I wrote myself for a speech given to a group of 5th-8th grade girls at the culmination of their time at Camp Infinity coding camp, put on my the Michigan Council for Women in Technology. I can say the actual talk was only about 70% on script, but these are the points I raised. After the presentation I led an activity databending and creating art through hexcode manipulation, using trial and error.

I’ve been in tech and coding since I was about your age. I used to spend time trying to change the color of my web chat text messages and staring through the clear plastic case on my Dad’s computer attempting to identify all the parts. By the time I got into a coding class, I was sold. Coding made sense to me. I was good at it. Some of you may be in the same boat with your love of coding. You came to this bootcamp after all. Others might just be enjoying the opportunity to add a new skill and see what the big deal is all about. You may have other passions, for art, music, sports, science, writing, you name it. And that’s OK too. I loved lots of things growing up, and I could have chosen to do any of them. I chose programming.

But let’s talk about you. You just spent the last couple days learning about coding. Trying new things, growing your skills. Today is your last day and then you’ll be going home. I hope you’ve enjoyed the experience enough to want to continue to code more in the future. But what are you going to do without the assistance of the awesome instructors you’ve had here? I’ll tell you what: you’re going to fail.

Want to know why I think you’re going to fail? It’s because I know you are going to challenge yourself. You are going to dream big dreams about what projects you want to do. What problems you want to solve. You are going to run into something that you didn’t see already. And you are going to try and figure it out for yourself. Sometimes that is going to work. You will be able to find or remember a solution. Other times you will ask a friend and work through it together. But if you haven’t noticed already, sometimes you’ll try everything you can think of and you won’t be able to figure it out. Yet.

There’s the important part. Yet. You don’t know how to solve the problem yet. And the secret to solving it is being able to take the attempts you made, the mistakes you made, and learn from them, so you can come up with new ideas until it works.

Often in the world of coding, you will end up debugging in a way that looks a lot like trial by error. You will run your code a lot of times, making small changes until it finally works. You can experiment that way and see how each small change gets you closer or farther away from your goal. By the time you have made many small changes, it may look nothing like what you started with, and that can feel like you were doing everything wrong in the first place. And you kind of were. But by recognizing what you did differently, you’ve learned and you’ll know what to do the next time you see a similar problem.

All this “failing” sounds pretty scary, and it is, that’s the exciting part of it. Keeping you outside your comfort zone is the best way to grow. My manager (point) really hammered that point home. I remember him giving me a task to investigate once that really scared me. I needed to be the one responsible for making a decision that would hurt our customers if I made the wrong choice.

If I claimed that the project we’d been working on for months was good to go and it wasn’t lots of people would lose money. However if I investigated and discovered we’d been wrong all along while working on that project we would have just wasted a bunch of time. I walked away from that meeting shaking with the fear I would fail and ruin our customer’s data. But I knew that between me, my team, and my boss we would make sure that if I was wrong we had a plan to recover.

It turned out that we’d been working on a project that was doomed from the start, but the process of working on it, and of identifying it as being broken taught me a lot of good skills, both programming skills and perseverance skills.

That’s what I hope you walk away from this talk remembering, that you need to be able to fail. Sometimes fail safely like I did on that project, or when I accidentally set all the cities in Germany to “Bad Hofgastein” and sometimes catastrophically, like I did on another project that ended up breaking a new process for our customers until my team was able to fix the bug. Instead of running from failure or hiding it. Choose to claim the failure as a challenge to grow from. Write it down as “things I learned today”. Be brave and do hard things!

4 Replies to “Failure Is A Big Deal”

  1. I love this speech so much. While my only experience of coding was in a year 8 maths class that promptly ended in tears of frustration, I can understand how inspiring this would be, and it relates to many other areas of our lives as well. If we succeeded in everything we tried, life would be boring. I’m experiencing that with my business at the moment; not everything I try works, but if something doesn’t, I can go back and retrace my steps and find out WHY it isn’t working, and change things little by little until things are successful. I bet this speech meant a lot to the people at the coding camp, because it certainly left an impact on me!

    1. Thanks, Rebekah, I’m glad to hear you liked the speech! My boss was in the audience and said he heard an audible gasp from some of the girls when I messed up in my demo, stopped, and admitted I’d failed, before continuing on to figure out what had gone wrong, so I like to believe that they “got it” even if it was just for a few minutes. Mindset is so important in life and especially in jobs.

  2. Failure is a big deal because if you’ve never failed that means you’ve never tried anything outside of your comfort zone because everyone fails sooner or later in life. What you do to rebound from that failure is what leads to success. So never be afraid of failing it only helps you become better in the end.

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