67

I'm wondering whether you wonderful people here could offer me some advice on how to deal with a written warning that I received today.

Background

I've been working for a software company for the last 8 years who deals with broadcast email. Clients use our service to upload their customer lists and send them promotional emails, track email responses etc. Some of these emails can be sent out to hundreds of thousands of people at a time.

There was a problem with one of the applications involved in sending the email. I was assigned to look at the problem by my immediate manager. I had not really seen this part of the application before, so its process was completely new to me; I had to learn as I went.

After some investigation I found the issue and reported back. My manager then asked me to make a change in order to fix the bug. However, I was asked to do make this change in the live version of the application, not the development version. For the non-software developers out there, this is not best practice and is potentially dangerous.

I didn't question my manager as I assumed (wrongly) that if he's willing to allow me to make a change like this to the live application, it couldn't really be that catastrophic if something went wrong, so I made the change. I asked about how we could test this and he replied:

"Client X have scheduled an email to go out to 5k clients in 10 minutes; that'll be a good test".

He then left for his lunch, and so did I. Upon returning, I was informed by the support staff that the process had failed, meaning an incorrect email had been sent to their entire database rather than a subset of their clients.

The fallout

This morning, our managing director arrived at the office and was extremely cross at what happened. He hauled both my manager and myself in to a meeting immediately and asked what happened. My manager stayed mostly silent throughout the entire meeting, leaving me to do all the talking. At the time, I didn't want to throw my manager under the bus as I wanted to allow him to admit his mistake in instructing me to do the job on a live system. However, this time did not come. The managing director then stopped me talking and issued us both with a written disciplinary notice as there is a potential to lose this client who is worth about £200k per year.

My question

I've been given the right to appeal the written notice, however I must do so within 7 days. I feel as if this written notice I have been issued with is unfair as I was only acting under direct instruction from my manager. I spoke to my colleague about it today, and she told me that she heard the entire conversation between my manager and I about testing on live data and thinks that my notice is unfair.

Do you think I have a point for appealing this decision? and if so, how would I approach it? We're a small company (10 employees), and I don't really want to make things awkward between me and my manager in the office.

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    While I realise that hindsight is 20/20 and what's done is done, I'd expect a developer with 8 years of experience to know better than make changes to a production environment, especially when it's a public facing CRM system, and especially in a broadcasting application. This is the kind of thing that ruins careers... – Lilienthal Sep 16 '16 at 14:00
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    "Client X have scheduled an email to go out to 5k clients in 10 minutes, that'll be a good test". He then left for his lunch, and so did I. Really? Really? You've been working in software for 8 years and this didn't set off alarm bells? I'll echo the sentiment that you're both lucky to still have jobs. – Daenyth Sep 16 '16 at 17:39
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    In retrosepct, you should have asked the manager if he was absolutely sure it was a good idea, made sure he was aware of the hazards (or at least known that there might be some), and thrown him under the bus at the follow-up meeting if he still insisted on it. As it stands, I don't think you have any better option than accepting the notice and continuing with the company, or else finding another job elsewhere. Good luck with whatever you decide; I'm afraid this isn't a great situation. – anomaly Sep 17 '16 at 23:09
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    how many layers of management do you need in a 10 people company? – njzk2 Sep 18 '16 at 2:06
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    It is not necessarily against best practices to deploy a fix to live production. I have done it. The keys are: (1) is it absolutely necessary? I fixed a bug in production that kept a student from finishing an academically required test. She would not have wanted to wait. (2) are you absolutely supported by management? in my case it was abundantly clear that they wanted it to happen. (3) can you practice on a staging server? (4) can you screen record? Document everything. – emory Sep 18 '16 at 11:23

12 Answers 12

18

There are numerous comments and answers criticizing what the standard practices not being followed etc but I know from personal experience that such incidents are not too uncommon in small mom-n-pop type of non-tech companies. There is usually no change management, no standardization, inadequate test/staging environments, no version control...and everyone (sometimes even the non-IT guys) have administrative access to production databases/servers. In such companies, most small enough changes go directly to production/live systems because the existing developers know the systems inside out (such systems are not too complex either). But when someone new joins, he/she is very likely to make such mistake initially when not properly supervised.

What happened is clearly that your manager took your word for it when you said you have fixed it but as it turned out, you had not fixed it. It is not your fault either because you were new to the system and your manager should have known better.

That being said, I think this could actually be a great opportunity for you to either get promoted or gain sufficient respect in the eyes of your managing director for the next appraisal. Below is what I would recommend you can do -

  1. Setup a meeting with your MD (and anyone else higher up except your immediate manager) and explain to them what transpired. Don't blame your manager and don't take the blame all on yourself but do explain the facts of the case. Don't forget to make it clear that it was not your own idea to mess with the production system and that were following your manager's instructions throughout (but again without directly blaming him, a tricky conversation). If you can't do this conversation without making it look like you're backstabbing your manager then don't do it.

  2. Then emphasize on the fact that the real problem here is the lack of industry best practices like change management, release management, TDD, continuous integration etc in the company. Explain how they were followed in your previous organizations and that such issues were nonexistent there. Tell him confidently that you are well versed in those practices and if he likes, you can implement them here as well. This step is is going to launch your career in this company because this will change you from the-new-guy-who-messed-up to the-new-guy-who-will-make-our-problems-go-away. Do make sure to thoroughly understand the best practices before this meeting so that you know what you're talking about, people in senior positions are usually smart enough to see through lies.

Remember that the key is to use all of the tact at your disposal to shift the focus from who did it to what the real problem is and how you're going to implement the industry best practices to make such issues go away forever (and doing it while giving the impression of being completely honest and sincere, believe in yourself and your ability to do it).

The above steps will most likely eliminate the need to worry about the written warning and stuff and you'd have placed yourself in a very favorable position with your MD. In addition, you'll have the opportunity to implement the best practices that will not only help strengthen your position but also improve things in your company across the board. It's a small 10 people shop, if you're good with your MD, you can stay there forever.

Good luck.

  • 8
    I really like this answer very much. Just as John F. Kennedy said “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger--but recognize the opportunity.” – scaaahu Sep 17 '16 at 9:22
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    Personally, I have no idea whether this is a good idea or has any chance of success but +1 but another suggestion and for actually addressing the question of how to deal with the situation rather than dwell endlessly on whether or not the OP should be blamed for his or her actions. – Relaxed Sep 18 '16 at 1:56
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    @smci You would be surprised at how things work in so many very small non-tech companies. IT department is more of an afterthought for these companies because that is seen more as the cost than the actual business. I know at least 3 different companies in which BAs have complete access to prod db/webservers. OP's company clearly lacks some best practices. Going to senior management and saying "I will make all of these problems go away, just give me a chance" or just offering to fill the gaps will show initiative and help mitigate the issue. And that is why it is an opportunity imho. – Achilles Sep 18 '16 at 2:11
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    @smci The reason it would be a bad idea is that the manager would not be around to defend himself. Setting up a private meeting with the MD and giving the impression that the agenda is to backstab his boss to save his job is going to destroy OP's credibility. That is why it has to be done tactfully or not at all. – Achilles Sep 18 '16 at 14:45
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    OP is hardly a "new guy", after 8 years working there. – Mr Me Sep 19 '16 at 12:35
125

As I don't know your jurisdiction, this is my personal opinion heavily based on European influences:

  • You did what you were ordered to do.
  • You knew it was potentially dangerous.
  • Both you and your boss were warned for this.

So yes, you acted on a direct order. However, your duty as a good employee is to warn your supervisor if he does something wrong. So in my eyes, what you need to prove is that you did. That you not only relied on your supervisor to be right, but you presented your own knowledge and your supervisor overruled you.

So if you have a mail where you tell your supervisor that you don't want to do this because it's dangerous and a reply from your supervisor where he tells you to continue despite your objections, then you definitely have a case where it's his fault alone.

If you don't have any of this, maybe because you assumed your boss would know what you know, then I guess you both deserve the warning. Your supervisor for making a stupid decision and you for not calling him out on it.

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    Even if you deserve the warning, it's going to be important to inform senior management that you were acting on direct orders. They may still decide you deserve some of the responsibility, but senior management deserves to know the facts. – DJClayworth Sep 16 '16 at 14:37
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    @DJClayworth My take is they already know. After all they gave his manager the same warning. – nvoigt Sep 16 '16 at 14:40
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    @Nathan Likely he would not. My advice is to quickly, and I mean quickly, inform senior management that you were acting on direct orders and that you both understood it was potentially dangerous. But it sounds like they already know that fact but you'll want to make sure that it is written down with HR that you were acting on direct orders despite this knowledge. – Dan Sep 16 '16 at 15:51
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    One thing you should establish is "what does the company think I should have done?". Should you have disobeyed your manager and refused to do the change? Should you have checked with higher management? You are entitled tom know what they think the correct action is. – DJClayworth Sep 16 '16 at 17:14
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    If we're talking proper software development practice, then possibly the managing director should issue himself with a written disciplinary warning for presiding over a system in which a developer has access rights to change the live server, despite protocol being that a manager should do it ("It's something I never do! Where I work, if a bug is urgent the management will make changes in the live system"). From that POV alone I agree that senior management should get the details when things go FUBAR. – Steve Jessop Sep 16 '16 at 22:15
40

If you were following explicit instructions from a superior, then you have a point in appealing. However, depending on your status and experience there would have been some expectation on you to anticipate and alert your boss to his potentially risky instruction. Was it reasonable to expect you to know the likely consequences of a mistake? Had you warned him and he had insisted on proceeding, you could reasonably be considered blameless; that's not the case here and you should be prepared for some of the blame. If there's one lesson to come away with, it is that you should always follow your instincts in checking what you're asked to do if you have genuine doubts.

At the time, I didn't want to throw my manager under the bus as I wanted to allow him to admit his mistake in instructing me to do the job on a live system. However, this time did not come.

Well done on taking the moral high ground. However, it's clear your boss is not above throwing you under the bus. And here lies the greater value of an appeal - if senior management have the impression that you had the leading role in this, and you simply accept the warning while he appeals forcefully, you're likely to take the full weight of the consequences.

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    it's clear your boss is not above throwing you under the bus. - I do not see where you get that. The manager realized nothing he said was going to affect the outcome of that meeting. He did the smart thing and said nothing. In a meeting like that the smart thing to do is to listen and volunteer only the absolute minimum. His boss didnt want to hear what happened, he had to ask the question, how the meeting was going to end was predetermined unless someone said something to make it worse. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Sep 16 '16 at 22:00
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    @Chad Nonsense. The manager actively made the decision to take this course of action and it is his responsibility to take responsibility for that decision. That's what a manager's job is. If our dev OP is going to be taking the heat for decisions that weren't his then 1) OP should be the manager, and 2) OP should be making the decisions. You make the decision, you take the heat. That's how it works. Sneaking out of that is terrible behaviour and I would not hesitate to immediately remove a manager from a position of responsibility for trying to hide their mistakes like this. – J... Sep 17 '16 at 2:54
  • @J... - He did not sneak out of it. He sat there and took the berating he deserved and accepted the punishment for that action. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Sep 19 '16 at 14:28
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    But he didn't say "I told Nathan to do it", which would have been the honest course of action. By staying silent, he's hoping the senior draws a different conclusion, one that can only be less favourable to the OP. – Julia Hayward Sep 19 '16 at 14:32
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    @Chad He sat there and watched his subordinate get disciplined for a decision he made without standing up to take the responsibility fully himself. That's cowardly, ungentlemanly, and unbecoming of a manager - full stop. – J... Sep 19 '16 at 15:42
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This is what's often referred to as a "career limiting move" (or CLM). Regardless of whatever else happens, you're the guy who almost cost the company a £200,000 a year client. (Or the guy who actually did, should the client take its business elsewhere).

You made two mistakes that I can see.

The first was deploying to production without a written directive from your boss - you should have sent an email outlining the risks, advising against it and requesting written confirmation of his decision to do it anyway. This is how you protect yourself when a decision like this backfires.

The other mistake was expecting your boss to simply volunteer that it was his decision when you met with upper management. Hopefully little else needs said on this note. Expecting people to voluntarily take the fall for you is ... unwise, to say the least.

You can appeal the decision, but both these mistakes will make a favorable decision that much harder now. And even if you do get one, so what? Upper management knows/believes that you are one of the two people responsible for this disaster, whether you have an official reprimand or not.

Both these mistakes are learning experiences for your future, but I would advise that regardless, you have limited your future at this company. They may or may not decide to get rid of you (and/or your boss), but even if they don't, your opportunities for advancement will be very limited. Therefore, in your position, I'd recommend trying to find another job at a different company, where you don't have a black mark against you.

  • 1
    You're probably mistaken on the first point. The direct manager directed a test using 5K live clients. Given the 10 minutes timeframe, that precludes tests in preprod. So the CYA trail is in place. As for the "opportunities for advancement", well - it's a 10 person company. – MSalters Sep 18 '16 at 23:52
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    @MSalters Advancement can be more than just going up the ranks. Raises, interesting projects and other benefits can all fall under that term. – Lilienthal Sep 19 '16 at 8:29
  • The only minor caveat is corporate culture. Some view mistakes as the cost of training. – Richard U Sep 19 '16 at 12:45
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    @MSalters The point you are making is the same faulty logic that led to this situation, a situation in which the outcome of thinking that there could possibly be a "limited" test in Production was proven wrong given that there was a bug that evaded the intended scope of the test. This is why we don't test in Production: anything can go wrong, including far worse (i.e. law of unintended consequences) given that this appears to be a shared / SaaS application where the code is shared by all customers. – Solomon Rutzky Sep 19 '16 at 15:09
  • @srutzky: No need to tell me it was a bad idea. The real point that I was making is that there is a written trail, despite the assertion in this answer ("The first was deploying to production without a written directive"). – MSalters Sep 19 '16 at 17:11
14

I'd appeal and quietly start looking for a new job. No way I would want an accepted written warning on my record, never mind anything else. And it may be a prelude to termination in any case as the self-admitted scapegoat.

General rule is not to admit to anything formally without weighing up very carefully the possible repercussions. You have no 'real' idea of their agenda, but you can pretty much bank that it's not favourable to you.

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    I certainly wouldn't want to continue working for a manager who apparently threw me under the bus. – Raystafarian Sep 16 '16 at 20:42
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    @Raystafarian if I would be a manager I would certainly would not want to work with an engineer who does not follow best practices and can't inform and warn me about them. As an employer I would not want to pay for a 8-year experience guy who blindly follows orders without thinking about consequences – Salvador Dali Sep 16 '16 at 21:31
  • @Raystafarian The manager didn't throw his employee under the bus, the employee jumped in front of it himself. I grant that it's not exactly chivalrous or noble to let the employee take the hit... but neither is putting the manager in a position where he has to sacrifice himself for an employee. – HopelessN00b Sep 17 '16 at 2:10
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    Moot point guys, the damage has already been done, now it's time to mitigate to the OP's best advantage, can point fingers all day. – Kilisi Sep 17 '16 at 2:15
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    Or more specifically, the bus was coming, the manager, who wasn't paying attention to the road told the employee to cross the street, employee saw bus but didn't question, and got hit. – Kroltan Sep 17 '16 at 18:49
14

As a developer, I believe that you handled the situation really badly and now trying to find some support that you are not to be blamed. In my opinion you should admit your mistake and either look how to improve your reputation or look for another job.

Here is my justifications for this belief:


I was asked to do make this change in the live version of the application, not the development version. I didn't question my manager as I assumed that if he's willing to allow me to make a change like this to the live application, it couldn't really be that catastrophic if something went wrong, so I made the change

You are a developer with 8 years of experience and you just thought that it is ok to just do stuff on prod-service which can potentially affect huge amount of users. If you thought that this is wrong, it is your responsibility as a professional to warn a person who gave you a task and explain all the consequences. It does not look that you have done so, but instead you just assumed that everyone else except of you will be responsible and everyone else agrees with this.

I would add that this

I had not really seen this part of the application before, so its process was completely new to me, I had to learn as I went.

is not a valid excuse, because in any reasonably big system there are many parts of the application that one has never seen before and even there are some parts that no one in the organization has never seen before.


Another part:

I asked about how we could test this and he replied: "Client X have scheduled an email to go out to 5k clients in 10 minutes, that'll be a good test"

and still after 8 years of experience you agree that testing potentially dangerous application which you admitted you had never seen before should be done on live real people. Really? Where is your hey manager, what the hell is this? We should never do this and this is one of the worst things that you can suggest me. Here is what I think we should do: xxx. And then if he really think that this is what you should do - let you give this in written form.


ok, and finally

He then left for his lunch, and so did I. Upon returning, I was informed by the support staff that the process had failed

so you have done two very dangerous mistakes and instead of sitting and being ready to fix everything the second after the collapse, you decided to leave (or you were expecting that everything will go smoothly?)


So based on this I believe that you are even more to blame here than your manager.

In the end imagine this situation: you come with one of your relatives (who is very ill) to a hospital. You are paying the doctor, so you kind of the boss. The doctor start treating your relative and you start to give him suggestions what to do. The doctor blindly follows whatever you told him to do ignoring the fact that he has 8 years of experience and what you suggest does not make sense and then you both happily go to eat.

Something terribly bad happened to a patient and the doctor says - 'you know what - I just followed what my boss said to me'.

This is very exaggerated situation but the main point is: you are the professional, you should know potential problems with dangerous stuff you do. It is your responsibility to explain them to the management. And do them only if they heard your complains and instructed you to do otherwise in written form.

  • 1
    The only comment I can make in mitigation for the OP's behaviour is that in the kind of company he describes, it's highly likely that his manager is also a professional developer who should have known the risks of taking this action just as well as OP did. Other than that, +1. – Periata Breatta Sep 17 '16 at 8:22
  • (-1) Explanation: just like the top-voted answer (also see my comment there), this sounds more like an elaborate comment on the “Background” section than an actual answer to the question asked. – Relaxed Sep 18 '16 at 1:52
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    @Relaxed not at all. His question is: Do you think I have a point for appealing this decision?. My answer is no you do not. You are lucky are were not fired. Admit your mistake and move on. With justifications (based on the background provided) why I think there is no ground to appealing to the decision. – Salvador Dali Sep 18 '16 at 2:53
12

Honestly I'm surprised you were both not fired for this. This is a rather serious breach of customer confidence in the company. In the software development industry, as you know, playing with live data is never a good idea especially if such manipulation is going to affect a wide range of customers. Affected customers may get angered and voice their anger towards the company. If higher ups get word of this, they'll go after everyone responsible, regardless of who said what. Think about the Wells Fargo scandal going on right now. 5800 people were fired. How many you think were simply following what their superiors told them?

However, I do agree that it is very hard to report such a breach in process when there are no channel to do so. Even if you do report it, it's very easy for your manager to flip it back on you.

So I sympathize with you that this is a rather difficult thing to block. For future cases I believe you can deflect this by first saying you think you identified the problem but you need to test it after you set up a development environment. Make sure you get each and every email clearly and make sure if you are asked to manipulate live data that you repeat it back with a question, "I want a clarification that you want me to change live data with something I didn't test?"

It might not be enough to protect your job but it will be enough to where if you were wrongly fired that you could have evidence to the contrary.

  • Plenty of good advice but I am not sure I understand how this addresses the question at hand, which is how to approach a possible appeal. Do it or not? I am guessing you tend towards not doing it (because not being fired is already a good outcome) but is that what you mean? – Relaxed Sep 18 '16 at 1:58
6

Do you think I have a point for appealing this decision? and if so, how would I approach it? We're a small company (10 employees), and I don't really want to make things awkward between me and my manager in the office.

Your behavior of trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings is coming at a high price. You got called to the carpet, and thought your manager was gonna be the virtuous knight in shining armor and rescue you, but that didn't work. Your manager probably knew better than to be adjusting production code, but took a shortcut. By that, there was already a red flag as far as integrity was concerned. So maybe you were expecting too much in the meeting.

Now you're still concerned that there's going to be some discomfort, even though you actually did nothing wrong, if you tell the truth. Your manager apparently has a better stance at dealing with negative emotions than do you. You're putting his feelings ahead of your own ability to bring home a paycheck. To save your own tail, you're going to have to get wise, emotionally.

Here's where this can go, if things sour: no job, late notices in your mailbox, and an empty refrigerator. Speak up for yourself.

  • Just a reminder to our answerers and commenters of our Be Nice policy. Please keep all interactions professional and polite. – Jane S Sep 16 '16 at 21:04
  • @JaneS it is not clear for me how does this violates be nice policy? As far as I understood be nice does not mean confirm OP's belief and explain him that he is correct and everyone else is to blame. – Salvador Dali Sep 16 '16 at 21:36
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    This version is both more effective and more useful. Thank you. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Sep 16 '16 at 21:55
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    "even though you actually did nothing wrong". Yes he did. He pushed untested code into a production environment. Professionals say no when asked to do something unethical. And this was unethical behavior. – ThatGuy Sep 17 '16 at 0:37
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    "Unethical" -- not quite. There are environments (unfortunately, I work in one now) where management hasn't figured out the advantages of having a lot more discipline over what can be done in a production environment. He didn't lie, cheat, sneak, break the law, or steal -- THOSE are unethical. He followed instructions. Was it unwise? Hell yes! Worth escalating above the head of his boss? Depends on who's above the boss! But if there weren't such adverse consequences, this wouldn't even be an issue. – Xavier J Sep 17 '16 at 0:42
4

Appeal it. You may not win, but you can at least get your story out.

Do so humbly, explain that you were told to do what you did, and ask what you should have done differently. Tell them that you take this very seriously and want to ensure this not happen again, regardless if there be a warning on your record or not.

In the mean time, and forever after this point, document everything. If a manager pulls you aside and says "do this". The first thing you should do when you get back to your desk is to write an email that says:

"As per our conversation earlier today, you instructed me to do ABC. Should anyone else be informed before I start work on this, and are there any concerns/dependencies/required permission I should obtain before beginning work?

I just want to make sure everyone is on the same page. Thanks in advance for your clarification"

This is how you can document even side conversations and make sure that is clear in advance that you are not a loose cannon.

As I used to tell my reports "Anything before something happens (deadline, mistake, et cetera) is expressing a concern, anything after is an excuse which nobody will listen to. Be full of concerns, and document them.

4

You don't want take the main blame retroactively and others discussed that. However, you have to be aware that there most certainly is one thing that you and nobody else are to blame for: you installed an important change on a live system about to make a large transaction and then, as the person responsible for the technical execution, went to lunch when your manager did and let the shit hit the fan in your absence.

And that after this was called a "test case" and thus there was no full expectation of success.

That's like a demolition master setting the timer on the explosives for a skyscraper and then leaving for lunch, in the expectation that he'll return to a razed building.

That part of the incident is really topping off the recklessness of the whole event and rightfully belongs on your record and is not something you can reasonably expect to be cleared of. So the question is how much you hope to improve your situation by getting other stuff corrected.

  • 1
    Right; this is the real problem right here. Failing to advise the manager in strong enough terms that this was a bad idea is a problem, but not being onsite for the time scheduled in advance for an event where you should have known there was a non-trivial chance of failure is, IMO, unforgivable. – Periata Breatta Sep 17 '16 at 8:16
  • (-1) Explanation: just like the top-voted answer (also see my comment there), this sounds more like an elaborate comment on the “Background” section than an actual answer to the question asked. – Relaxed Sep 18 '16 at 1:56
2

I feel strongly that you and your boss both deserve the warnings you each got for deploying a hotfix live into production and then going to lunch.

The fact that you were ordered to deploy the hotfix live is your bosses mistake (and possibly yours for not pushing back strongly - there are times where my bosses might ask me to do something that I know is dangerous and I'd be expected to refuse and point out why as the subject matter expert for that area). But fine, we'll give this one to your boss, this is where he earned his warning.

The fact that you then went for lunch when you knew there was a live run about to take place with client data is absolutely mind-boggling. I'm sorry but this is the time at which your written warning was truly earned, and I don't see how appealing will help. You needed to be around to take responsibility and ownership of any issues that occurred with this fix and you fell down on this by going to lunch at the exact wrong time.

0

Your manager's duty is to determine what needs to be done; set priorities, make tough decisions and the like.

Your duty is to know how to do what needs to be done, to keep in mind best practices, to calculate the trade-offs... and communicate this knowledge to your management and help them take the right decisions.

You failed to acknowledge a dangerous situation.

You failed to communicate this to your manager.

You mention that you didn't know much about this part of the system.

However you have been working for 8 years in a 10 people company.

If I were your manager I wouldn't expect you NOT to know what you are doing.

  • If you didn't mention your manager your lack of knowledge in this part of your system,
  • and if you didn't mention the potential risks on making changes on live and not in development to test them

Then, I am sorry - it is your fault.

protected by Jane S Sep 18 '16 at 2:07

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