Altitude, attitude and self-rationalization

Here we go again – another one of those columns that have little to do with technology as such, and much more to do with the predilections (there’s your 50-cent word for the day) of those of us who do, or don’t, make the technology work.

I spent much of the last week celebrating my 40th birthday (who said a celebration like that has to be limited to a single day?), well away from work, away from e-mail, away from the cell phone, and close to as much good snow as I could find above 11,000 feet 60 miles west of Denver.

That altitude appears to make for great skiing (it also makes my drive 10 yards longer in the summer, in case you wondered), but they also say that the relative lack of oxygen up there makes the mind work a little differently. Good – then I can blame the lack of rigor in my thinking that follows on oxygen deprivation, certain that it had nothing to do with the hours spent in the hot tub playing Halo on my buddy’s new Xbox, or the other hours spent perched on a bar stool over a cold beer in the Old Dillon Inn.

Inhibited ability to think or not, I did get to thinking about our business and my 18 (18!!! I’d never counted them up before) years in it. And I got to thinking about what needs to change in the next 18.

And what needs to change first is something that I’ve seen run rampant lately: an incredible capacity for self-rationalization. Have you noticed that whenever anything “bad” happens in our business – the dot-com meltdown, decreased demand for technical people, nightmare projects that bleed out of every orifice and never deliver benefits – that the people involved seem to be making the case that the fault lies with someone else and not them?

It happens at the corporate level: the decline of Netscape is/was the fault of the predatory practices of Microsoft, certainly not any deficiency on Netscape’s part. The struggle that Sun is having in battling for supremacy in server operating systems is Microsoft’s fault too (seeing a pattern here?), certainly not a reflection of an inadequacies in the Sun Solaris OS. And the dot-com meltdown, the demise of many a new business, was never because of a flaky idea or an inadequate or poorly thought out business plan, it was always the fault of the fickle market or a weak-kneed business partner.

These folks all sound like Jeffrey Skilling at Enron used to: anyone who questioned his organization’s approach to doing business was told that they clearly “Didn’t get it.” Even now, I have yet to see anyone in that organization say, “Yeah, we screwed up.”

Blaming someone other than oneself for a failure can be self-rationalization at its worst.

Self-rationalization: now that I think about it, that’s what really bugged me about a conversation I’d had in my office a couple of weeks back. A guy I’d gone to school with, who fashioned himself something of a tech entrepreneur, was bringing me up to speed on what he’d been doing for the last 15 years.

As we talk and plugged the gaps in our personal and business histories, it struck me that this guy had done a whole lot of different things in the tech area (custom development, software sales, tech type body shopping), and none of them had really been a success.

And the striking thing about the end/the failure of every single venture he was involved with, every single technology, every single partnership, was that they were, in his mind, always someone else’s fault. Every time, every failure, the fault of someone other than him – he was entirely blameless.

And then, as I sat on a barstool, a more ominous thought: most of the people I’ve been talking to about less-than-successful undertakings do exactly the same thing.

And then, worst of all, the realization that I do it too. For all the stuff I’ve failed at, I’ve got someone else to blame too.

Resolution for my fifth decade: don’t blame someone else when I’m at fault, as tempting as it is, and watch for this habit in others as well.

I can only hope that we all get to be as objective in assessing ourselves, good and bad, successes and failures, as we think we are in assessing everyone and everything else.

Yeah, in this business we’re all going to fail once in a while, and we’re only going to be better for the experience of failing if we can acknowledge our own role in the failure, and learn from it. It’s something I’m trying to learn, maybe you will too.

Sermon over. Back to the usual stuff next time.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at