Failure as a Catalyst for Growth

Several years ago I was contacted by a recruiter from Google. I was really excited and incredibly humbled that I had even been noticed by a company with their reputation. So, I pulled out my Cormen book (Introduction to Algorithms) and started franticly working through random problems using an IDE. My preparation was not only incomplete, but it was also ill-conceived. My naivety and lack of adequate preparation got me about as far as you might expect: nowhere.

Until recently, I only told a few people about this experience. I was embarrassed. I had failed. The funny thing was that I felt like I was at the top of my game at my current job. I had solved some memory management problems that were plaguing our product. I had been the champion for introducing automated testing to our team’s products. My yearly reviews indicated that I was doing exceptionally well. So, where was the disconnect?

The company I was working for afforded me many interesting projects. I even got to work on some machine learning code. Unfortunately, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about how I would explain that work to a non-coworker. Instead, I ended up responding frequently to questions about my resume with: “I don’t remember the details.”

Next was a coding problem. It wasn’t a very hard coding problem. However, there were a few things that I hadn’t rehearsed that made things difficult.

1) I had been practicing in an IDE with code completion and didn’t realize how much I had been relying on it. I had to write my code in a basic text editor, so I didn’t have all my fancy productivity tools like autocompletion.

2) I had not practiced talking about what I was doing as I was doing it. It turns out that this is something that isn’t hard to master with a little practice.

3) I didn’t work nearly enough problems when I was preparing.

As soon as I hung up the phone with the interviewer, I pulled up my IDE and spit out a working solution in 5 minutes. I was so angry with myself.

Of course, this isn’t the end of my story. It turns out that nothing in my career, to this day, has motivated me more than this single experience. I started buying and reading lots of software development and computer science books. I had missed out on so much! I wish I had found Clean Code, The Pragmatic Programmer, and Code Complete when I was in college. But, there is no point in dwelling on the past. I needed to have these gaps exposed in order to fill them.

In an interview years later, I was told by an interviewer, “You should be careful about putting big words like ‘Metaheuristic Optimization’ on your resume because someone might ask you about that.” I was able to confidently respond with, “I came prepared to talk about that in as much detail as you’d like.” I was disappointed when the interviewer’s response was, “No, no need for that.” However, I did get a job offer after that interview.

All this to say, don’t be discouraged by your failures. Seize them as an opportunity to improve. If you aren’t failing frequently, you probably aren’t growing, so make sure to challenge yourself on a regular basis.