Is a failed project as a learning experience something to hide?
November 10, 2012 12:53 PM   Subscribe

On my resume and/or in a job interview, do I mention my participation in the Google Summer of Code if I failed miserably at it (technically) and then handled that failure really badly (socially/professionally)?

A few years ago, I made a proposal for a project to the Google Summer of Code, and was accepted, to be mentored under an organization while completing the (at the time, ambitious) project. I was ill at the time, and underestimated my progress. On top of that, I took entirely the wrong approach. I didn't know it was the wrong approach, but I didn't reach out for proactive help from my mentor, and he didn't offer any. I ended up stuck. I handled things badly in the end, and dropped off the face of the earth for a while. I didn't get my last payment from the program, and I probably let a bridge burn through neglect.

However, I did eventually learn that I had been taking the wrong approach, and I know now how I should have done it, and how I would do it now given the same situation and technologies. It was an accomplishment just to have my proposal accepted, and I learned things from the experience.

Because I was dropped from the program, it's very hard to find any proof that I participated at all. I'm not on the official list of projects for that year, and the only thing that comes up in a search is a pre-summer map of participants. My mentor likely remembers me, but I doubt it would be a good idea to cite him as a reference.

So, what do I do with this on my resume or in an interview? I have little work experience, and it would be a nice addition - it was a very cool project. Is it worth mentioning for the learning experience and coolness factor, even if I can't give my mentor as a reference? Is "I took the wrong approach, but know what I should have done, and I still learned a lot" worth the "though I didn't finish and I didn't ask for help and it all crumbled away"?
posted by mock muppet to Work & Money (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should leave it off if you aren't on the official list of projects. You can mention that you worked on the project, but don't claim that your work was part of GSoC unless Google corroborates it. Anyone who checks it out to verify that you're on the up and up will think it's really shady that you didn't end up on the list of projects and it may make your whole resume look a little questionable. I don't think it's worth it.

Ultimately your mentor ought to have been more proactive - that's the whole point of Summer of Code, to give rookie coders a hand up and help them through blocks like these - but what's done is done. I *do* think it's not a bad idea to put the actual open source project on your resume assuming you actually submitted some patches, even minor ones.
posted by town of cats at 1:02 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

if you absolutely positively KNOW (not believe) that your mentor would give you a negative reference, i'd just put this in the "loss" column and not mention it.

but it is worth a shot to get back in touch. the worst thing that happens is that your message to your former mentor just gets sent to the trash and you now know not to list the position.

good luck!!!
posted by raihan_ at 1:02 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can leave it off, but still use a sanitized version if ever an interviewer asks about learning experiences.
posted by rhizome at 1:15 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You need to realize that your mentor failed far, far more than you did in that regard. Don't go out of your way to point fingers - Take responsibility for the failure - But take comfort knowing that any interviewer (for a position you'd want to have) will recognize that fact.

Personally, hiring someone "green", I wouldn't expect to hear about a lot of overwhelming successes anyway. I would, however, love to hear about your experience participating in a a Summer of Code project, including what you learned from failing miserably.

I would say go ahead and list it. At most interviews, you'll find the interviewer will eventually ask a question something like "how have you handled a failure in the past", and that will give you a talking point.
posted by pla at 1:20 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't mention it – unless you are interviewing at Google, I suppose, in which case you wound't have much of a choice (but you've most likely been "blacklisted" on their internal database anyway).
posted by halogen at 1:22 PM on November 10, 2012

Leave if off your resume. Never put anything on your resume that you aren't proud of and that you wouldn't want someone to investigate thoroughly. But, as suggested above, have a lite version of the story ready to tell if asked a question like "tell me about a time you failed and what you learned from it."
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:40 PM on November 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm a GSOC mentor and admin, as well as a guy who has to review job candidates sometimes, and I very much suggest that don't mention it at all on your CV or in a job interview.

Yes, your mentor might not have been up to the task, but the fact that you flaked out would indicate to me that you can't be relied upon. GSOC is a job, and the fact that you failed at it does not reflect well upon you, regardless of the circumstances. There's no way that you can spin the "my mentor didn't make enough effort and I was ill" excuse without sounding like you're blaming your mentor for your mistake, a mistake that wasted people's time and effort and also jeopardized the organization's chances of being admitted into GSOC in following years.

So, if you have patches accepted in the upstream project, mention that. But don't mention the GSOC bit. Be happy that you can leave this failure off your record.
posted by cmonkey at 1:45 PM on November 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have never been in an interview where an opportunity to use this story wouldn't come up naturally.
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:45 PM on November 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Umm, no one wants to hear about your lack of interest in actively pursuing assistance, either on paper on in an interview. You don't get bragging rights for coming up with an idea that you personally killed albeit learned from. You might say you participated in the GSoC but I would seriously downplay the role you played, cmonkey has the chops to speak to what you coulda shoulda woulda done but didn't. This is a job you got fired from (no last paycheck) buy don't have to mention. So don't.
posted by ptm at 1:53 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would definitely add it to the list and be honest about it when asked - don't blame your mentor though- just say words to the effect of "I did eventually learn that I had been taking the wrong approach..."

I interview a lot of young developers, and I'm more keen on people who have a go at something rather than think that software dev is a job.

Coding isn't a career, it's a calling.
posted by the noob at 1:59 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would not list it. I cannot see anyway that this is going to turn out as a positive in an interview or on an application (especially if the person contacts your mentor and your mentor refuses to give a reference for you). Yes, you learned from the experience, but you were also essentially fired from this program (or, at least, that's what it sounds like). It's great and positive that you learned from this experience, but I suspect all the interviewer is going to hear is that you were fired and couldn't handle the experience. That may not be fair, but it is probably what is going to happen. (They may also feel that you'd be a needy hire, which is probably not the image you want to project.)

Can you spin the skills/experience you acquired in some other way, at least in the interview?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:10 PM on November 10, 2012

Don't put it on your résumé, but do use it as your "mistake that I learned from" story. Be sure, when you tell it, that you indicate at every point exactly what your poor decisions were and what you should have done differently. If at all possible, include anecdotes from other subsequent projects where you DID make the good choices, and show how those good choices led to good results.
posted by KathrynT at 2:10 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Don't mention it, don't sanitize it, bury it deep and don't mention it.

Find something wher e you prevailed for your "mistake I learned from" story.

A mistake you learned from is something that ultimately worked out great and saved the company millions of dollars.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:51 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Man, you guys sound harsh!

Not talking about a seasoned veteran coder here, but basically an intern. Interns don't save the company millions of dollars. They cost the company money as a learning experience, hopefully a break-even if they don't suck, and in a year or two they might have learned enough that the company hires them as a productive worker.

So how many of you rocked your first project as an intern? Personally, I started by kitting out proto boards, and still sucked at it; by the time I graduated college, they had me writing firmware and hired me as a productive member of the team.
posted by pla at 7:53 AM on November 11, 2012

I have summer interns and I'm an online mentor for high school students. It's hard for me to help silent people. Maybe it's the silent ones who most need the help, but it's the noisy ones who actually get the help. You might try writing your former mentor to tell him how sorry you are the project didn't work out and describe the "right track" that you eventually found. If he/she is anything like me, he/she will write you back with an assessment from the other side of what went wrong and then give you some advice for your future career search. I never expect my student interns to save me millions of dollars. I see internships as ME showing students what it is like to be a scientist and them deciding if it looks like what they want to do.
posted by acrasis at 10:03 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, "I fucked up and I damaged some important relationships and I ran away and hid but in hindsight I know that's bad now" isn't quite the insight you're suggesting it could be.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:38 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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