Monday, January 28, 2008

Failure is not a bad thing

Recently I attended the Code Freeze 08 conference. The theme of the conference is innovation. There were three speakers who talked to the culture of innovation. The first speaker, Mark Striebeck, represented Google and described Google's culture. From the description, we could clearly see that Google values innovation.
Compared to the companies that I've worked for the differences are huge. Aside from the company provided food and concierge service, Google also encourages their people to try things that may very well fail. Google values the knowledge learned from failing. I can think of one time that I had a boss who didn't mind that a project we participated in failed to achieve its goal. Every single organization I have worked for since would treat that failure as a demerit. The phrase that I gleaned that sums up the philosophy of constructive failure is "Fail Quickly".
Hey Google, you're my kind of company.
I have to admit that most of my own personal breakthroughs have been through experimentation and failure. I always found that I didn't learn much in my classes by following the prescribed experiments--deviating from them often yielded far more interesting results. Unfortunately for my academic records, it wasn't until my senior year in high school that I learned how I was really being evaluated on science labs--Pro Tip: treat a science lab like a fundamentalist religion, read one chapter ahead of the lab material and find the principle that the lab is trying to illustrate. Instead of simply following the instructions and making observations, figure out how the instructions are trying to illustrate the principal and make sure that your steps help facilitate that. A little bit of direction helps a lot.
Oops didn't learn that tip until most of my secondary education was complete. Instead, I used to play with the materials and try to observe the results of messing around with the lab materials. You know, really learn something. Say for example when we had a lab on the principles of serial and parallel wiring in electricity. Sure you get the basics out of the way, but what if you were to combine batteries with your friends and put about a dozen D cell batteries in a series, what would that do to the light bulbs in the circuit? What if we replace the bulb portion with steel wool. Whoa, we didn't it to ember up like that. Now that's an experiment. The teachers didn't see it that way. There were more than a few times that I'd end up in the Vice Principal's office for conspiring my classmates to destroy lab equipment.
But I digress, the freedom to experiment is ultimately a good thing. It's been a while since I have really had the freedom to innovate at work, but it happens from time to time. The last time I was able to create something truly innovative was when I wasn't really part of any project and I could spend a few days experimenting with some ideas. It's been quite a while since I've been able to do that.

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