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How to be successful

Michiel Hendriks
I shouldn't have written all of those tank programs.
・3 min read

I created an application and it has been hugely successful. Here is how you can do the same. — Is not what this article is about.

An article or book which has as primary subject on how you can also be successful should be (mostly) ignored. Except this article obviously ;)
The premise of articles and books which present a road to success is simply wrong. Without a doubt the authors did indeed do something which resulted in a success. But the actions they took are hardly transferable to other people, projects, or problems.

There is No Silver Bullet. Anybody who claims otherwise is deceiving you.


We learn from making mistakes. Not just our own mistakes, but also the mistakes of others. Ever since we are young we are taught that making mistakes is bad. There is a huge bias towards failure. People hardly ever report about it because it is seen as a negative thing. Just recall the last sprint retrospective you were part of. How much time was spend discussing the successes, and how much time was spend on discussing the failures. Were the failures even discussed, or simply mentioned?

Making mistakes is only bad if you do not learn from it.

If you are not analyzing and discussing the failures you are bound to make the same mistakes again in the future. "But we have to celebrate success." Yes, you should. Understanding your failures and learning from them is also a success. Ignoring them is just another failure.

The mystery of success

We can figure out what action or decision eventually led to the the failure. Even though the conclusion would be: "if we did not do this, then we might not have failed".

This is not possible for success. You took a path from A to Z, which let to you success. Going from A to Z is not a straight line. You make a lot of explicit and implicit decisions. And there are external factors, visible and invisible, which also dictate your route from A to Z. Unless you are able to gather all these decisions and factors which resulted in the path you took you will never know why you succeeded.

It is pretty much impossible to gather all this information because you are not aware of a lot of them. This in contrast to finding the cause of a failure.

Learn from the failures of others

As mentioned earlier. There is a bias towards failure, and thus it is often not reported on. Especially not on platforms like LinkedIn were people often like to boast on how great they are. Also academia has a problem with reporting on failures.

But also here on There are more posts about success than failure. Ben's discussion post What was the worst bug you've ever written? clearly shows we are failing a lot, and are not really afraid talking about it.

I would like to see #failure as a prominent tag on Filled with articles about how and where people failed, and how they overcame the issues. Overcoming failure is a bigger success than simply succeeding.

Call for documented failures

Besides asking people to contribute to with #failure articles. Please share in the comments books and articles which talk about failures in software development and projects.

  • 📕 Dreaming in Code. A book which chronicles the development of PIM software Chandler. It does not directly discuss and analyze the failures.
  • 📁 Game Developer Post-Mortem. The now defunct Game Developer magazine had a regular Post-Mortem article where a studio looked back on a past game and reported on What went right and What went wrong. Most of these articles, and new, are now available for everybody on GamaSutra.
  • 📕 The Soul of a New Machine. The hardware counterpart of Dreaming in Code.

Note that there are many books and articles which discuss how software and projects can fail. I am asking more for documented cases of failure, preferably by people involved.

PS. Depicting success

I explicitly did not use a header image depicting money or a person in an expensive suit to associate with success. If you search stock photography for success you will mostly find images like that.

Success is a personal thing. For some being successful means getting a CO position and heaps of money. For others being successful is creating an open and accessible platform where programmers share ideas and help each other grow.

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