Was It A Give-A-Damn Mistake?


I just watched this excellent lecture about “The Myth of the Genius Programmer” — and yes, Excel users, you are programmers. 

One anecdote that really got me thinking is around the 14:45 mark. I found a copy of the anecdote online at The Happy Manager:

Tom Watson Jr., CEO of IBM between 1956 and 1971, was a key figure in the information revolution. Watson repeatedly demonstrated his abilities as a leader, never more so than in our first short story.

A young executive had made some bad decisions that cost the company several million dollars. He was summoned to Watson’s office, fully expecting to be dismissed. As he entered the office, the young executive said, “I suppose after that set of mistakes you will want to fire me.” Watson was said to have replied,

“Not at all, young man, we have just spent a couple of million dollars educating you.”

(Source: Edgar Schein in his book Organisational Culture and Leadership)

Fascinating, right? 

As analysts, we are on the brink of failure — cobbling loads of data from God-knows-where in the manager’s insatiable quest for more information. Sometimes, we make mistakes — especially when the data collection is left to clunky, error-prone processes.

If you read this blog, you are the type of analyst who is bothered by this state. And you want to improve things, so you aren’t meddling with spreadsheets all day, and finding needless mistakes.

So you take it upon yourself to improve the system. And guess what — mistakes still happen. A database connection failed. Your code runs into an unexpected bug.

And you take even more time fixing your elegant, streamlined solution when a hand-to-mouth manual process would have worked.

Of course, you’ll get the bugs ironed out of that macro in a few days, and take the process from 0 to 100. But that manual process could chug along at 70 for years. 

Look out for the manager who can’t distinguish the mistake that occurred because you gave a damn from the mistake that occurred between you didn’t give a damn.

The former is more likely to sound like Mr. Watson.

Keep in mind, however, that in this quest to improve you have kind of made things harder for yourself (You do have to make a return on that million-dollar investment, you know.). 

But, with all that time you’ve saved outsourcing your work to the computer, you should be able to make that return. 


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