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January 13, 2020

Charles Eaton Explains How Technologists Tell the Difference Between Good Failures and Bad Ones

True technologists think strategy first. They're intensely curious and have a passion for solving problems.


But not every trivial problem.


In this conversation from the Technologist Talk with Charles Eaton podcast, Eaton, CEO of Creating IT Futures, explains that the best technologists view technology in what's called a “constructive context.” In short, they embrace their failures as learning experiences, which is one reason he calls them “fanatical learners.”


In this excerpt from our podcast series about the “5 Traits” of technologists, Eaton, author of the award-winning book, “How to Launch Your Teen's Career in Technology: A Parent’s Guide to the T in STEM Education,” elaborates for host R.C. “Bob” Dirkes:


Charles: We can't automate ourselves or solve every problem. That is an annoyance, right?


There [are] real issues we have to deal with and things that are pivotal or systems that are inefficient that, yes, they're ripe for change, right? …So, technologists need to be out there branching out, seeing the whole construct of the world they're in, and the impact of what they're doing… .


We question all the time with our IT-ready program, ‘All right. So, we're putting people of color and women…’ – the heavy majority of our students fall into one of those two categories— ‘We're putting them into this technology space, and are we putting them in companies that are good companies for them…?’


It's about being self-aware and it's about being culturally aware and aware of the way the world is working around you.


Bob:  Thinking in a constructive context isn't something you're born with, necessarily. It's not an instinctual thing. It's something that is cultivated. It's something that can grow from discussions like we are having today. It's a type of skill that can be sharpened and refined, just like technical skills. Is the challenge getting an aspiring technologist, a young person, to see these traits as another set of technical skills?


Charles:  Absolutely. It's just part and parcel. Leadership has evolved, for example… It used to be that being strong and a decision-maker… that was the number one thing: ‘We want people who just can make decisions and move ahead and charge ahead.’ Now, we're at a place where Emotional Intelligence is more highly valued. So, that has evolved to be about emotional intelligence and awareness and all these [soft skills]. Those are the kinds of leaders now that will succeed in the next 20 years.


There's a set of skills that are needed in this more diverse, more thoughtful and empathetic workforce that we have because competence isn't what's going to necessarily win you a promotion. Right? It’s going to be: ‘Are you competent and do you align to the culture and align to our values?’ …Technologists need to be clued in to, ‘Yeah, no matter how good you are at designing the technology, if you don't get all the other stuff, you're not going to have a super successful career.’


Bob:  I like the terminology, a ‘constructive context’ because it applies beyond just building things. It goes into why we build things… talk a little bit about the importance of mistakes and failure.


Charles:  I think that there is good failure and bad failure. Good failure is, within a limited time frame, attempting to manage and acknowledge all the potential points of failure that you could have, and design a product that works really well or design a service or engage in a relationship.


With my team, it's all about, ‘Did we consider X, Y, and Z? Do we have a process and a plan for how to execute? Are we going to be smart about this? And if it doesn't work, that's a good failure and we analyze it.’


But a bad failure is when you haven't done those things and I won't be able to tell if it was because we didn't plan or it's because the idea was bad, or the execution was bad. What is it? There'll be too many variables that we won't know because we didn't do enough work on the front-end to make it successful. So, it's a tough balancing act between speed, agility, and planning.


Bob:  How do we show an aspiring technologist, a young person… that it isn't all about perfection in performance and winning?


Charles:  You need to have people as mentors or advisors who talk about failure. …Everyone relates to stories. I tend to tell more failure stories to people than I do success stories… So, I talk a lot about jobs where I made a bad decision, management times or leadership times where I wasn't ready, or I didn't know enough.


No one should ever be afraid of admitting failure… if we're going to be smart, especially when it comes to technology because it's going to change rapidly. We're going to be making mistakes on the way that can be mostly fixable fairly quickly… . It just has to be an iterative process.


And I think that's what's cool about talking this way, as opposed to [being] strong and silent and not admitting any failure and always pretending to be in charge. As leaders… [we] have to show vulnerability because you're not believable otherwise and you can't connect with people. Vulnerability allows me to connect with diverse populations and younger employees… I can't hold myself in a little bubble.


Technologist Talk with Charles Eaton is a podcast from CompTIA’s tech workforce charity, Creating IT Futures, where we talk to business leaders, workforce professionals and talent developers about shaping technology careers.


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