How to Recover After a Professional Slip-Up

5 minutes

It’s not a matter of if, but when you’ll make a mistake at work. One of the best known examples of a very public mistake at work is HBO’s “Integration Test Email #1,” which was affectionately nicknamed  the “dear intern” incident of 2021. People from all industries responded with their own anecdotes of work blunders with varying degrees of impact, and (spoiler alert) most were not catastrophic or career ending. 

Whether you’re an intern, a newbie developer, or a senior engineer, mistakes can actually be pivotal learning moments — it’s all about how you react to them, according to Jean du Plessis, Senior Engineering Manager at cloud platform Upbound (you may remember him from this blog about how to make yourself a promotable software engineer). 

Jean still vividly recalls a mistake he made early in his career as a junior developer. “It was my first project in the first few weeks of the job, and I was excited to be building something already!” Jean says. After building a customer enquiry form for a tourism website, he inadvertently deleted all the records of the enquiry submissions — not realizing that he was the only person receiving them. He recovered, and has now been on both sides of minor and major incidents, as a manager and as an individual contributor.

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It sounds counterintuitive, but having past mistakes to point to can make you a stronger candidate when you’re applying for jobs. “I actually ask candidates to give an example of a mistake they’ve made when I’m interviewing,” Jean says. “I’m looking for signal that they took responsibility and learned from the experience.” It’s easier for hiring managers to judge whether you’re a good fit for their role if you can speak to challenging experiences and show how you overcome them. Here are Jean’s tips for what to do in the aftermath of a work blooper, and how these mistakes can make you a better developer.

1. Own your mistake

Whatever the scale and impact of your mistake, the first and most important thing you can do is own it. Take responsibility. Trying to hide your mistake or deflect blame onto someone or something else is usually transparent and won’t help you to win back your manager or team’s trust. 

“The act of taking responsibility shows that you are learning from the experience,” says Jean. “It speaks volumes about a person’s character when they admit to messing up.”

For example, you might set aside time to talk to your team leader in a one-on-one setting. First, address your error, and reiterate that you understand the consequences of your misstep. You can try saying something like: “I want to acknowledge that this was my mistake, and I accept full responsibility for it.”

2. Take steps to mitigate

If there’s a way to fix or undo your mistake, do it immediately. If you’re not sure the best way to address the problem, work with your team leader or a trusted colleague to come up with an action plan. This is why it’s so important to own up to the slip-up; you can’t collaborate on fixing it if you’re trying to cover it up. Working to correct your error is the quickest way to get over your embarrassment or shame about it. 

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3. Propose ways to prevent it from happening again

“Mistakes expose gaps in your process,” Jean says. In his case, the senior engineer he was paired with should have checked that the enquiries were going to the client. “That early mistake led to the creation of a post-deployment checklist for engineers to verify after something goes live,” he says. 

You can turn your mistake into a positive, valuable experience if you use it as an opportunity to identify single points of failure and manual processes that can be automated to avoid human error. “We had an incident at a previous company when an engineer spun up a Kubernetes cluster for testing, and forgot to tear it down afterwards,” Jean says. “Come the end of the month, we discovered an unexplained jump in cloud costs. This prompted us to put mechanisms in place to monitor and control our cloud expenditure.” 

One way to come up with preventative measures is to conduct a blameless postmortem, in which everyone involved in mitigating the mistake shares the actions and expectations that led up to the incident without placing blame on an individual. This format of postmortem is designed to shift the focus to the process and how it can be improved in the future, rather than penalizing people who made mistakes. 

If your company doesn’t have a practice of blameless postmortems, you can suggest adding it to your remediation process. Even if you’re not reading this in the immediate aftermath of an incident, now is a great time to propose implementing them so the structure is already in place for the next incident. 

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Remember: The only developers with no mistakes under their belts are those with no experience. If everything goes smoothly at work 100% of the time, you’ll never learn how to respond to a crisis or test the limits of your knowledge.

Realizing that you made a mistake is always going to feel deflating in the moment, but the best way to mitigate that feeling (and any potential damage) is to be prepared. Join us for our problem-solving soft skills training on November 1 to take the first step.

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