How I Fail S01E24: Greg Wilson (PhD’93, Computer Science)

How I Fail - Greg Wilson |

Greg Wilson has worked for 35 years in both industry and academia, and is the author or editor of several books on computing and two for children. He is best known as the co-founder of Software Carpentry, a non-profit organization that teaches basic computing skills to researchers. You can find out more about him on his website.

1. Hi Greg, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hi Veronika; thanks for having me. I’m Canadian, I wrote my first program on punch cards in 1980, and my family doesn’t let me use power tools (I’m kind of clumsy).

2. What’s on your list of failures?

Oh, I have a loooong list. Off the top of my head, I have half a dozen unfinished book projects that I only call “unfinished” because I’m not honest enough to call them “abandoned”, all three of the open source software projects I started myself fizzled out years ago, and when I teach software engineering, I use stories from my first startup as examples of what not to do.

3. Was there any particular event that made you decide to join this series?

I organized a workshop earlier this year for programmers who want to learn about community organization because I think it’s pretty clear that decisions about tech are being made by people who either don’t understand it, or don’t care about the collateral damage caused by their greed. About two dozen people showed up, and there was a lot of lively discussion, but there wasn’t much follow-up from participants. I’ve been trying to figure out why not, and I’ve been drawing on my past failures to give myself a vantage point.

4. What does “failure” mean to you?

I think of “weak failure” as “I put in a lot of work and nobody got much out of it”. I think of “strong failure” as “I put in a lot of work and did harm that could have been avoided”. By that standard, my thesis was a weak failure, and things like Twitter and Facebook are strong failures. The fact that many people think they’re successful is, to me, the biggest misconception people have about what failure actually is.

5. Do you keep track of failures?

Absolutely: sometimes, late at night, I’ll put on some Johnny Cash and line my failures up side by side and count ’em one by one. Then I’ll have a look at this cartoon and remind myself that I’m an idiot sometimes and then have some hot chocolate and go to sleep.

6. What do you think about sharing failures online?

Yeah, I used to be one of those guys who said “fail early, fail often, fail loudly”. I also used to tell people that their Stack Overflow profile was their real resume, and that if they weren’t contributing to open source projects they weren’t “real” programmers, so I guess by my own definition, my younger self was a strong failure.

What I’m trying to do now with pieces like this is help people like my younger self understand why these positions are wrong by saying, “This is who I used to be/what I used to believe, and here’s why it was harmful, and here’s a better way to think/speak/act.” I also find that I can only really know what I think about something when I hear myself say it out loud, or when I write it down, so sharing my failures helps me figure out what if anything I learned from them.

7. Have you experienced differences in attitudes towards failure throughout your career?

Yes, but they’ve mostly been self-inflicted: I dwell on my failures much more often than I take pride in my successes. I don’t think that’s healthy, but then, I just ate a completely unnecessary butter tart, so…

8. How do you think the changing landscape in computer science [men/women, number of people in general] affects our relationships towards failure?

There’s a lot more discussion in tech companies and open source communities than there used to be about inclusivity, mental health, and unearned/unrecognized privilege. Clearer and more critical analysis of things like “Stack Overflow is your resume” and “if you’re not working weekends, you’re not really committed to success” is part of that.

9. What can we learn from how failures are dealt with in software engineering?

I think we can learn that people are able to rationalize and explain away almost anything 🙂

10. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?

Yup. I have so many projects on the go that I’m not making much headway on any of them; I keep telling myself to set some aside, but that’s working about as well as swearing off butter tarts.

11. If you could reach any group of people with a single message, what would that message be?

I would tell everyone – everyone – to get out and vote.

12. I understand you’ve read all the previous interview of the series – can you share (i) something that was a new insight for you and (ii) something you disagreed with?

The thing I remember most clearly is Felienne Hermans’ comment that “Felienne of 2013 would not believe me, I’m sure of that”. I’m equally sure that Greg Wilson of 2010 would probably not believe how much and how little the Greg Wilson of 2018 has accomplished. I honestly can’t recall anything that I strongly disagreed with – I spent most of my time nodding and bookmarking as I read the other interviews.

13. What can this series do better to improve things for everyone?

Be more widely read 🙂

14. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Be kind; all else is details.

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