This tip is really an extension of the previous “Never Lie” tip. Every engineer in the history of the world has made mistakes. In fact, the best engineers are the ones who have made LOTS of mistakes—and learned from them. As mentioned previously, pain is instructive, and a painful mistake is a wonderful way to ensure that you will not make the same mistake again. However, if you never admit it happened, not only will you fail to learn, but others will not learn either.
Concept: Every engineer screws up. It is not a question of if, but when it will happen. Do not make a bad situation worse by failing to admit it.
Details: If you screw up, admit it early and publicly. Your co-workers or clients will think much better of you for admitting your fault rather than choosing to blame others or making excuses. Unfortunately, some individuals in engineering are too proud to admit their errors, and so they play the “blame game.” Someone else is always responsible, or they make excuses to explain why the problem “really wasn’t their fault.” When a person acts this way, their colleagues catch on quickly and may either refuse to work with them or set them up to fail in a public way. Either way, the final result is always dramatically worse than if they had just admitted the mistake right up front.
Just as important as admitting your mistake is learning from it. Take time to understand what went wrong and make changes to ensure that it will never happen again. Better yet, go one step further and tell others about your mistake so they can avoid it themselves.
Watch-Outs: Be wary of co-workers and bosses who try to blame YOU for their mistakes. You will learn to spot them quickly. In such a situation, protect yourself with e-mails and paper trails.
Exceptions: As odd as it may seem, you can be TOO quick to admit a mistake. In the heat of a start-up (for example), a client can jump to conclusions and decide something is “wrong” when it really is correct. When a problem comes up, before you acknowledge that you made a mistake, take a moment to investigate it and determine whether there really is a problem. Then, if you have made an error, admit it and move on.
Insight: You will be amazed how a quick admission of error can defuse a potentially bad scene. When a client or co-worker discovers a problem, it may be tempting to deny or minimize the problem or push it off on someone else. However, the best response is to immediately acknowledge the problem, admit the mistake, and start working toward a solution. Even if the problem is NOT your fault, avoid the witch hunt and seek to resolve the problem first. Once the crisis is over, you can determine what went wrong, and everyone involved can learn from the error.
Rule of Thumb: When (not if) you screw up, admit it and move on. Admit your mistake and set about correcting it. You never actually fail until you give up.
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.