My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 1)

Notes_HeaderMy colleague Bill has a favorite interview question.  It is a question that really helps an interviewer get to know the job applicant.  It reveals preparedness and self-awareness, shows how quickly someone can think on his or her feet, and is a terrific measure of personal integrity.  The question has two parts.  “What is your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?”

This is not an easy question to field, particularly if one is not prepared for it ahead of time.  You need to be quick-witted enough not only to pull such a failure out of your hat on the fly, but also turn right around and synthesize a lesson from it.  Most of us don’t go around advertising our failures, so unless one was reasonably recent it is not going to be top of mind.  Many people do not want to answer the question at all lest it should reveal weakness.  It does, actually, but not necessarily the way they might think.  I have watched interviewees skate around it, tap dance around it, and try to sneak around it.  I have also seen a few rare people square their shoulders and rise to the occasion.

Personally, I have been asked the question only once.  It was Bill who asked it in an interview over nineteen years ago.  I was unprepared as I recall, and muffed it pretty thoroughly.  I must have done something else right because I ended up getting the job.  But in reflecting on this the other day, I realized that it is still a difficult question for me.  The challenge now is to choose which of my biggest failures to showcase.  There are several excellent examples, each with a lesson.  Then I thought of you, my readers.  What if I were to lay the options before you?  Perhaps you can decide for me.

Each one of these three cautionary tales is…well…a tale and therefore requires some telling.  Rather than string them all together in a single post of Wagnerian proportion, I have decided to serialize them instead.  Here is the first of my three favorite failure stories for your entertainment and edification.  They continue to inform my life and work, as you will see.  Every word is true, although I have changed a few names.

Geoff the Consultant

I was working for a small BI consulting firm in California when this took place.  Engaged on a number of high profile projects and stretched for talent, we were looking to bring someone new into the firm who could pinch hit in several key areas.  That is when we found Geoff.  Geoff was an experienced consultant with a long list of successful projects at major Fortune 500 companies.  His resume aligned perfectly with our needs, his references were stellar, and he interviewed superbly.  We all agreed that he would make a great addition to the team.

Having just completed a major project for a client in San Francisco, we were preparing for a demonstration of the solution.  Participants were coming from around the world and represented both technical and business users  (including a key Vice President from the New York office).  The event would consist of three full days of presentations and discussions, followed by a Friday morning wrap-up session.  Martin (the other developer) and I would lead the sessions, presenting specifics about the analytics as well as the underlying data. We tapped Geoff to sit in the back of the room and take notes, keep track of the “parking lot” issues, and generally act as scribe for the sessions.

Gosh, Geoff was a good-looking fellow.  He was trim, fit, and sported a full head of wavy brown hair.  The tailored sport coat, dress shirt open at the neck, khaki trousers, and polished Oxfords made him look every inch the world-class consultant.  I don’t know about Martin, but I sure felt out-classed. I also don’t know what the Vice President from New York felt either, but Geoff made a point of chatting her up during most of the breaks.

The sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday went well and at the end of that second day I asked Geoff to send me his notes so that I could get a head start on creating my summary for the Friday morning wrap-up. Geoff assured me that he would send them from the hotel right after dinner.  That sounded fine to me.

Martin, Geoff, and I dined at a nearby restaurant that evening.  The conversation was distinctly odd. Martin was trying to explain to Geoff about the technology we were using and how it was different from a spreadsheet.  What made it peculiar was that Geoff had spent the prior two weeks in technical orientation with Nick, our chief developer.  Geoff’s questions that evening were garbled and confused, suggesting that the training had taken place through an early incarnation of BabelFish with Nick translating from English to Russian and then back to English while Geoff had perhaps gone from English to Korean to English.  Geoff’s seeming obtuseness confused Martin as well, and I could tell that my colleague’s frustration was rising as he tried to explain relatively simple things.  I made a mental note to get a read on Geoff from Nick.

The meeting notes did not arrive as promised.  When I cornered Geoff the next morning he apologized, saying it had simply slipped his mind.  I asked Geoff if I could have them right then.  He didn’t have a network connection.  Could he put them on a zip drive?  He didn’t have one with him.  I told him that I had one.  He told me that he wanted to clean the notes up a bit first.  It was time to start the session, so I could not pursue the matter.

However, knowing that Geoff was flying out on Friday morning before the wrap-up, I reminded him twice on Thursday afternoon to send his finalized notes before dinner so that I would have time to prepare the summary.  “Of course, Steve, no problem,” he said.  The notes did not arrive that evening.  Instead, they arrived by email at 4:45 AM on Friday morning. Geoff had been kind enough to copy the Vice President from New York.  Then I opened the file containing Geoff’s notes.  I nearly soiled my kilt.  They looked something like this.


I kid you not.  There were seven blank lines between every block of words, running on for thirty-seven pages of uselessness.  I rang the boss at 5:00 and we triangulated on how best to avert disaster.  I was able to create a reasonable summary from my own notes and complete the wrap-up successfully.  My boss managed to reach our client, who called the New York Vice President to let her know that a file with unfiltered meeting notes had been sent to her accidentally.  I have no idea whether or not she ever looked at them.  Geoff never understood why we did not consider these to be consultant-quality notes, or why he was being terminated.

Analysis: I failed here in two crucial ways, letting my boss down and nearly jeopardizing a client.  First, I did not seek proof during the interview process that Geoff was actually and specifically capable in any capacity.  I relied on both the resume and the recommendation, knowing full well that neither is proof of substance. But then, I had never met anyone before who could talk such a good game on so many levels and still be inept. The minimum requirement should have been a writing sample.  For a technical position, it should have been code samples.  To this day, I demand work samples that demonstrate competence no matter how glowing the recommendation. The applicant must be able to prove that he or she actually did the work and must be able to speak intelligently about it.  My second failure was not supervising the new guy.  All the warning signs were there for me.  After a two-week orientation with Nick, Geoff was still lost in any conversation about our practice. That made me all the more uneasy when he was schmoozing the New York executive during breaks.   In retrospect, I should have been all over that situation. Until there is a track record, nobody goes unsupervised.  I will not be Geoffed again.  No, no.

LessonIf the dude can’t prove it, he doesn’t have it.


Please stay tuned, friends.  On Thursday I will release episode two, The Sanitation Pyre.

12 thoughts on “My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 1)

  1. Ruth Fisher says:

    I learned early on that a polished resume and an ability to speak glibly is not proof of competency. I always ask very pointed questions, such as “what were your responsibilities on the project and what specific tasks did you perform?” I also devised a VERY basic Excel test, not to test the interviewees’ Excel skills, but to see how they approach problems, and to see if they’ll ask for help when they need it. My greatest disappointment is that NONE of the analysts I interviewed over the years, all presumably with strong quant skills, knew the difference between a simple and weighted average. Also, none knew what “transpose a matrix” means, let alone how to do it in Excel. Sigh.

    • bimuse says:

      Ruth, thanks for your thoughts. Actually, you have hit on one of my pet peeves. So many resumes today focus on projects and what they were about, not specifically what the individual DID on the project. I have had so many unpleasant interviews trying to ferret out exactly what the candidate did. “Yes, it sounds like a fun project. What exactly did you DO on the project?” “Like I said, I was the project manager.” “No, that was your role. What did you do?” [confused or angry stare]

      I love the Excel idea. Mind if I steal it? By the way, I was okay with simple versus weighted average, but I had to look up “transpose a matrix.” I guess I would have muffed that interview too.

  2. Ray Bannon says:

    Getting results more useful than these shouldn’t require major interviewing skills, other than the ability to know how to take notes. Was he actually interviewed/tested for the tasks that were to be required/exercised, or was he sent through the sort of generic, purposeless IT interview I experienced a couple of months ago from Amazon? I didn’t move on to the second phone interview, but after some GlassDoor evaluations of Amazon working conditions, I’m not too disappointed.

  3. Nancy De Long says:

    Fabulous read.  (thankfully those weren’t MY notes!!!)  Whew!  😉  Can’t wait for the next chapter!

      Regards, Nancy


  4. andytilley says:

    This is a great story, Steve. I’ve seen similar situations where smaller consulting companies were more intent on filling an “immediate requirement” with a warm body, than determining that the warm body was capable. The consulting company is primarily interested in being seen to be able to fill the requirement, start billing and collecting margin. The (existing) senior consultants assume that the consulting company has delivered to the client a resource comparable to themselves. I’ve met plenty of Geoffs.

    • bimuse says:

      We all have, Andy. The hard part here was that we really thought we HAD done due diligence and found gold, when in reality we had cut a corner and found otherwise. Thanks as always for the perspective.

  5. Peter Garnett says:

    It occurs to me, coming back to this three-parter after I’ve had a chance to digest it, that an interesting response to Bill’s question would be, “my biggest failure in this industry, or just in general?” Of course, the idea of interdisciplinary application is a big focus of this blog, and I think we’ve seen plenty of examples where something outside BI or whatever still taught an important lesson about it. But, not knowing Bill, I’d not know whether he’d prefer an anecdote that was in the same domain as the job I was trying to get, and the answer would certainly help me narrow down my own list of failures.

    • bimuse says:

      Great extension to the conversation, Peter. My guess is that Bill would want the failure that best informs the industry in questions, though not necessarily from that industry. In my case, the example from my industry experience (“Geoff the Consultant”) is not perhaps the strongest lesson for my profession. I think that “The Eight-Thumbed Piano Man” would be my choice under those circumstances because role clarity (along with concept of conflicting role requirements) is a key success factor for the BI practitioner. Thanks for your thoughts.

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