August 3, 2012

Failing Forward: My First Install Experience

“Failing forward” is a term I never heard until joining Covalent Marketing, but have practiced for years.  It’s when you put yourself out there, trying something new/different/innovative and don’t get it exactly right, but you are able to take something away from the experience and apply it to your next attempt. It’s that old mentality of “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”.

I was recently given the opportunity to fail forward on an internal effort to get an IBM Unica Development (Dev) Environment installed. This would be a challenge since we were starting with a blank server.

The project consisted of installing and configuring:

  • A DB2 V9.7 database
  • The WebSphere V7.0.0.23 Web Application Server
  • Four Unica 8.5 marketing management applications
    • Unica Platform
    • Unica Campaign
    • Unica Marketing Operations
    • Unica Optimize
    • Cognos Business Intelligence V8.4
    • All available patches

Before starting any new challenge I always do my homework. In this project, doing my homework included gathering all of the installation documentation, reading through it, developing a work plan and ensuring we had all of the prerequisites before moving forward. This preparation allowed me to have information at my fingertips when I needed it – and since this was my first attempt at anything like this I would be referencing it often!

From the start, I was asking my colleagues questions like:

  • Q: What is the relationship between RAM and disk space on a server?
  • [A: RAM is temporary memory like when your internet browser remembers the previous page you were on; whereas disk space is permanent memory like when you save something to your desktop. Computers usually have far more disk space than RAM.]
  • Q: What does a JDK (Java Development Kit) do?
  • [A: The JDK allows the user to compile code which in turn would allow them to then execute the code and other Java apps through the Java Virtual Machine (JVM).]
  • Q: How do I change the permissions for a file on a UNIX system?
  • [A: Use the following command: chmod <numeric value> <file name>]

My colleagues often challenged me and weren’t giving away answers right away. Though this was helpful in broadening my basics, I’m a much more visual learner. The majority of the time reading about something won’t stick right away; I need to see/imagine how that will work before fully comprehending. This literally came down to one of my colleagues making a metaphor about the WAS ulimit being a playground. All of the applications that we put on WAS were children; with some needing more attention than others, but ideally they will all “play nice” and coexist. That explanation would save me enormous amounts of time vs. reading about a topic for a half hour.

I have made mistakes on my first attempt, but by going back and making the necessary adjustments, I learned more about ports, JDBC, UNIX, etc. so the next time I won’t have to go through the same problems.

(If you are interested in a more thorough understanding of your learning style, I recommend you read Liz Kaufman’s blog post: What Are You Trying to Do: Train or Educate?)

Failing forward is a method for improving our cognitive abilities. Through the application of this process we cancel out options that don’t work and discover ones that do. By constantly training our brains to search for the right solution, it should become second nature and free up space to think of new and innovative solutions to our problems. If people were less worried about “failure” then there may be more failing forward and we’d all be a little smarter for it.