"Women in white" doctor Navy planes (motors) at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas. Mildred Webb, an NYA trainee at the base, is learning to operate a cutting machine in the Assembly and Repair Department. After about eight weeks as an apprentice she will be eligible for a civil service job in the capacity for which she has been trained. 1942 by Howard R. Hollem. Via Library of Congress.

Details Matter If You Want to Succeed

Forrest ChristianCareers, Coaching Leave a Comment

Whether you side with those who prefer God or the devil being in the details, it’s hard to imagine that they don’t matter. To be successful, you can’t ignore the details.

That thought struck me as I was reading a recently The Register editorial about how Google’s and Amazon’s cloud computing initiatives will take your money and step on your dreams (warning: obscenities). Dzuiba says:

Google App Engine offers a developer all of the things that he would look down his nose at an ops manager to provide: data storage, web hosting and caching. Web developers are too busy to worry about the app to figure out why the database is running slow. No, it couldn’t be a grotesquely complex query anywhere in my code. It’s a database problem. The DBA must have [screwed] something up in the config. Yeah, that’s it. If those DBAs weren’t always down at the pub, we could get some real work done around here.


No matter what the name, you, the developer, will still be dealing reliability and accountability. Using someone else’s infrastructure for your application will forever be a business risk, but it sounds so much less so with a cuddly name.

NASA image of a problem o-ring
NASA image of shuttle o-ring. A little detail that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger.

Amazon and Google are making money in part by supplying a service, both of which have several problems, that their customers think poorly of. Web developers rarely understand the technologies that they are deploying: they don’t have the depth in systems to know how things interact.

Lesson 1: You can make money by supplying the details that customers arrogantly think are simple,

You then don’t supply high levels of service since you don’t have to: it’s idiot material. All outsourcing in IT runs on this premise. Since [insert some technical domain] is just plumbing, we can send it out of the corporation.

Of course, you then lose the ability to make all those last-minute changes that were bringing down the servers. You cede a massive amount of power and control to an external vendor, who then forces you to accept control process that you would never have accepted from your internal technical staff.

Lesson 2: If you want to beat out competitors, worry about these little niggling details.

This is how Wal-Mart and Dell became massive. You can include here people like the 1980s O’Connor & Associates (financial), Walgreen’s (drug store and pharmacies), and McDonald’s (restaraunts) — including their purchases like Pret a Manger (UK) and Boston Market (US). They obsessed over getting the details of their operations right.

This is so hard to do well because it requires both ego strength and raising the level of different parts of the organization. The ego strength is required because the details are not the “cool” parts of the material. But they are the important parts.

While trying to figure out a scientific computing system, a senior development contractor made the point that the academics who were creating the software “only developed for Happy Day scenarios”, the place where the system and users all do what you want them to. “That’s only 10% of development,” he went on. “The other 90% is figuring out how to fail gracefully.” In the end, their software and their jobs were superseded by an external vendor whose system worked more often.

Details matter, but only the right details.

Which is the real trick.

Either way, the details matter. You won’t be able to convince the boss that they matter because you are already capable of seeing a longer time horizon than he or she can. You see them as troublesome details. The boss sees you as a naysayer and pessimist. The details that concern you aren’t on the boss’s radar. You are worrying about problems at a different level of work. And that’s a problem that we’ve talked about a lot.

But when you are leading your on game, you will need to worry about them.

Image Credit: “Women in white doctor Navy planes (motors) at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas. Mildred Webb…” Photograph by Howard R. Hollem, 1942 (public domain). Via Library of Congress collection.

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