Pivotal Engineering Journal

Technical articles from Pivotal engineers.

Failure is a part of the game

Failure is necessary

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“Fail forward!” “Fail fast!” “Failure is just a part of the game!”

Failure was an always-touted anthem I’d heard growing up. Failure was necessary. True grit came from failure. Grit was necessary for success. However, it was not until I experienced failure that those statements began to make sense. I began to understand why failure is so closely tied to success, and that you cannot succeed without failure.

Failure can come in a variety of avenues in life - career, love, and friendships to name a few. I’m choosing to highlight a few extra curricular projects to illustrate how success can come from failure.

Failure 1

The first hackathon-turned-business project I worked on was called “Wattson” (later renamed “Wattsly” because of legal issues). In its extremely early days - and when BBM for Android was still cool - Wattsly looked similar to this:

After two years of work, countless weekends, and multiple rounds of meetings with advisors, investors, and clients, Wattsly looked like this:

It was only after close to one hundred demo builds that we got to a point where we had a production-sound application which could connect with a third party and successfully deliver value to a customer.

Ultimately however, Wattsly was not able to reach a wide consumer base. It was heartbreaking to have something you cared about so deeply fail. At the time, there was so many things going wrong and so many negative feelings associated with Wattsly, that it was hard to understand where to begin fixing the problems. It did end, with an application that was functional but had minimal users, and we all had to learn to move on. (Kudos to the entire team who worked on Wattsly with me - despite its failure, I’m still extremely proud of our work - Shaheer Aziz, Arjune Selvarajan, Atindra Ganeshan.)

Success: We had an amazing team
Success: We built a product we were all extremely proud of
Success: We were able to understand the importance and responsibilities of each role, each individual, and the individuals necessary to achieve market adoption
Failure: We were not able to clearly articulate or identify where each problem existed
Failure: It took us a very long time to quit - longer than it should have
Failure: We were unable to reach the necessary users or clients
Failure: Wattsly was not profitable
Failure: We had a difficult time understanding the code quality differences in a development versus production-ready product

Failure 2

The next idea to come under the chopping block was SnapWedding - snapchat filters for weddings and special events, an idea I worked with Curren Pangler on.

We came really close to having some sort of monetary achievement with SnapWedding. We almost made $40 in revenue, which would not even have covered basic hosting costs. After a few months of SnapWedding, we quit the endeavour. It was easier to identify why SnapWedding was not going to succeed, so walking away from it was less painful, but it still hurt. Although this was a failed attempt, I’m happy that the Snapchat filters that did go out brought happiness to the entire two events that did enjoy them.

No matter how I looked at it, however, SnapWedding was still a failure; it fell flat and was not profitable.

Success: Using the learnings from Wattsly, it was easier to identify and realize product-market fit
Success: Using the learnings from Wattsly, it was easier to figure out if the product was worth working on, in the initial stages
Success: Using the learnings from Wattsly, it was easier to articulate the problems, and understand sooner that it made sense to stop working on the project
Success: It was a product that I am proud to have worked on
Failure: It was not profitable
Failure: It did not gain mass market adoption

Failure 3

I experienced a different kind of failure when I joined an organization called WOTSL - Women’s Ontario Tamil Sports League, the first women’s multi-league sports team in Ontario, founded by Thulasi Nandamakuran. WOTSL was already running on its own, and I joined as VP of Tech. As VP of Tech, I had to develop and maintain the website. Although my deliverables and tasks were complete, my own priorities and values at the time were not in alignment with the values of the organization.

In addition, I realized that in the role I took on, I was not able to learn a lot of new skills. It did not allow growth, simply an implementation of pre-existing skills. Growth is important, in any role or task you take on.

It is not enough to simple be a part of an organization. In order to be successful and fulfilled, you have to understand and embody the values of the organization. You have to live the values in order to lead, and to direct yourself to better influence and create impact. Most importantly, you have to grow.

Success: Using the learnings from Wattsly, SnapWedding, and Pivotal, was able to deliver and fulfill the required deliverables
Success: Using the learnings from Wattsly, it was easier to understand the product-market need and fit
Failure: Not fully understanding that being part of an organization means giving yourself entirely and taking on a lot of ownership beyond the specific role requirements
Failure: Not being able to realize the importance and necessity of the alignment of your personal values and the organization’s values
Failure: Not being able to grow my skills in the role that I took on

Summation

Each failure taught me something new and different. In the beginning, it was hard to identify whether an idea was worth working on, worth walking away from, and trying to differentiate between a bad idea or a lack of effort on my part. However, it is now easier for me to understand the different components that can increase the likelihood of making a product successful - understanding product-market fit, user acquisition, user retention, the necessary team members for development, expansion, growth, and the importance of alignment of personal and organization values.

The learnings from each endeavour are invaluable. Building a successful product is an issue that organizations face almost daily. Do you quit because there is a fundamental problem or do you keep trying? If you keep trying, what are you going to do differently to ensure that failure does not happen again?

On a broader scale, this applies to career failures, friendships, and relationships as well. The same questions apply - Is there a fundamental problem? Do you quit, or do you keep trying? If you keep trying, what are you going to do differently to ensure that failure does not happen again?

Although each of those failures stung and bothered me deeply for a very long time, they also allowed me to grow and succeed in a way I didn’t understand at the time. I can now look at a subset of problems and clearly identify and articulate what the issues are. I can speak about how to potentially fix the problem. I can better identify when to walk away.

Any success I have now is because of the failures I’ve experienced. Those are all successes that could not have happened without failures. It is not necessary to experience failure yourself every single time though - mentors, experts, and books exist to help you not repeat the same mistakes again. However, no one can save or prevent you from failing at some point in life. You will fail. Multiple times. Ideally, you will be stronger, better, and wiser for it. Hopefully with time, you can understand what went wrong and how you can approach things differently to ensure a little more success the next time around.

Takeaways

  • When approaching a new problem / concept / endeavour, try to find the necessary data / individuals to make it more successful
  • Be able to clearly articulate the problems that you encounter and break them down into smaller chunks
  • Define the cut-off boundary or “fail” point, after which you will change your approach or walk away
  • Understand that with anything you do, you will fail. It is only by repeatedly trying over and over again that you will be able to have some sort of success

Failure, after all, is simply a part of the game.


Forever grateful to the people / pivots I’ve been lucky to cross paths with who took the time to edit and make this post better: Jennifer Chow, Anam Alvi, Iryna Shustava, Rachel Heaton, Brenda Chan.