Solving Problems

Getting it right is easy. What you do when things go wrong shows real talent.

I was in lab last week with my two lab partners working on a Computer Hardware Design project. They’re two of the top students in my department, seniors, and they even hold down part-time consulting gigs during school. By virtually every measure available, these guys are amazingly good.

Yet they can’t debug. We hit a number of snags during our lab, and they just started freaking out. Was the oscilloscope bad? It must be, let’s run calibration. Try the circuit on another ‘scope. Different results. Curse some more at the equipment. Rip out half the circuit and replace it with a pulse generator (which caused its own family of problems). Blame the “bad” equipment some more. Eventually, we went home with no results.

These guys are used to getting it right the first time, and that cockiness hindered them when things went wrong. They’re fast, sure, when they already know how to do it and nothing goes wrong, but how often does that happen? Frankly, if I were a hiring manager, I would be hard pressed to hire either one. From what I’ve seen, things rarely go according to plan.

How you handle things when they don’t go according to plan is when real talent emerges. Maintaining a calm manner, having patience, and methodically isolating the problem are critical to being a good developer of anything, especially software.