Thoughts on doing something difficult

Having survived a difficult challenge – I had to make some notes (credit)

Hello again and apologies for not writing much in the month of Feburary.

Contary to popular rumours, I have not won the lottery and retired in the Bahamas (alas), I have just been extremely busy preparing and undertaking a massive exam at work. The prize? The “You’ve made it in this company” certification, where you start getting taken seriously for lead technical roles and the pay grades start bumping up rapidly. Also the option of being taken seriously for contracting occurs, as if you have this certification, you have a known set of skills which are very “marketable” to a potential client. Wish to claim this grand prize for yourself? Well nobody said it was going to be easy…

To protect my anonymity and the company I work for I won’t be going into specifics of what was in the exam, just an overview, but what I really want to talk about is how to prepare yourself for doing something very difficult. It could be an exam, that new exercise routine you’re planning, that big presentation you have coming up, or anything really where you’re less than 100% confident you’re going to smash it.

My own challenge

So what was I up against in this challenge?

  • Two 3 hour exams, fortunately multi-choice, unfortunately bloody hard with trick questions and barely enough time to complete them all
  • An interview with a long-standing technical lead answering obscure questions to products you’ve probably never used before
  • And the biggie: a 7 day continuous system build. It’s basically a 168 hour exam question. You start with a blank slate and build everything defined in the scenario question.

Put off yet? Only 1 in 3 people pass this process on average.

Starting at the beginning

The exams are simply knowledge checks. You’re tested on the contents of certain courses provided by the company. You’re expected to know quite a bit of this stuff just by simply doing your day to day job and learning the idiosyncrasies of how the software does certain things. Some of these are well known, others are not.

So I rocked up feeling pretty confident with myself, with pages of hand written notes and diagrams and all that good stuff you learn at University. I’ve been working at this company for several years now in big projects and am regarded well technically for developing and fixing things big and small. It can’t be too hard right?

Oh, bollocks. Is that a 45% fail grade on my exam?!

Ahem. After eating some humble pie, an additional week of study (and doing all the test exercises, extra external readings, talking with someone who’s done the exam previously and asking the product team why the hell does it work that way), and not wasting an hour of set study time I go for the exams again.

How the hell is 65% not a passing grade?!

Turns out it’s 70% oops. Which leads me to my first point.

#1 – You will fail. Repeatedly.

Roughly what I looked like after the first exam (credit)

Unless you’re one of those top 0.1% of people who can take on any task and make it look effortless, you will fail. A lot. Perhaps you underestimated the size of the task. Perhaps your abilities really just aren’t good enough yet. There’s no shame in it. Eat the humble pie, thank yourself for the experience and accept you need to grow. We all start at ground zero; it’s up to you to start the climb up.

Fortunately, you can improve! One of the most amazing things about humans is our ability to share knowledge and experience. Once you’ve identified a weakness, you can take steps to minimise and correct it. I wasn’t being thorough enough in my studies and got a wake up call. My corrective actions, while not leading to a pass the second time bumped up my score significantly. I went from feeling “holy crap I don’t know if I’ll be able to beat this” to “argh I was just a few percent off a pass” in a week. You’ve only truly lost when you give up.

Oh, I passed the third time by the way!

#2 – Make a plan and stick to it

The interview was more of the same. The key part I want to talk about is the 1 week build from hell. I’m used to working to tight deadlines. I’m used to people asking for the world yesterday and demanding it be delivered to last week. I’m used to to-do lists running several miles long all marked “Critical”. And yet I knew this would be the hardest challenge to me.

Why you ask? This 1 week build is a time management test. And I’m not great at that.

The one advantage I have is that the build scenario has a defined number of questions and you’re told what each question is worth e.g. one may be worth 20% and the other 40%. Armed with this knowledge and the ability to do basic maths, I plotted out rough time slots for each part of each question based on roughly how many hours i would have based on this percentage. The key is to then stick to those times! Speaking of which…

#3 – Check your progress against your plan

Get a timer – use your phone if it won’t distract you and check it regularly. It is frankly astounding how fast time goes when you really don’t want it to. Setting aside 3 hours to do a design document and finding out you’re two-thirds through the time and you’re only half done definitely puts you in panic mode and has the wonderful side effect (for me) of focusing my mind very firmly on the task at hand! Which leads to…

#4 – You have no time for perfect

Tick tock, tick tock (credit)

That bit of code that you know you could do better but is a bit janky now? It won’t get fixed, don’t kid yourself. The goal is ‘good enough’ and if you have the time, improve that to ‘slightly refined’. Perfect takes an inordinate amount of time. I’ve started applying this logic to my exercise routines as well – I’m not going to do every single workout perfectly and some days I’m going to just be off my game. The fact I’m doing it to the best of my ability given the constraints is enough.

Of course, the examiners in my case aren’t expecting a full bells and whistles build. They are expecting a working functional build though. The fact I even made it through the whole exam without collapsing into a caffeine-fuelled coma is a testament in itself. I know of other people who threw in the towel on day 4-5 because they just couldn’t picture the end result or messed up their first couple of days spending too much time on ‘nice-to-have’ features which weren’t that important to the end result.

#5 – Get feedback so you can improve next time!

People are generally a really nice bunch and are willing to help you if you only ask. Where possible, ask them to review your work. That week-long build I did? I failed.

However, I qualified for a “re-build” which meant I was given an additional day to improve the build but the pass mark went up. As a bonus though, I received some valuable feedback on suggested areas of improvement which made planning out how to make the most of my 24 hour grace period a lot easier to determine what to focus on.

And having just submitted my updated build a couple of days ago… I now play the waiting game to find out if the above advice was any good to myself!

EDIT: A last-minute update!

Not one day after I drafted the first ‘ready to go’ version of this post, I am happy to report that I have passed my exam! Time to work on that promotion speech! Woohoo!

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