Every developer and tester, at some point in their career, has found themselves making a mistake that seems like the end of their job. Some of us have dealt with these situations more than once. No matter what level of experience you have or how many years you've been in the industry, it's inevitable that you'll mess up pretty badly. Don't worry - we all do, so you're in great company.
I've had my fair share of screwups in the past 20 years doing this work. Most of them have been small and relatively insignificant in the bigger picture. However, some were pretty significant blunders. The most memorable mistake I made happened as I was starting as a developer when I accidentally wiped the entire production database of a web portal.
It was one of the best things that could have happened in my career.
Before the screwup
My accidental deletion of production data happened almost immediately after graduating from university. I was barely one year in the software development profession, working at a small startup where I was the lead developer, lead tester, and overall lead tech person—mainly because there were no other developers or testers at the company. How I became the sole person responsible for a production app with such little experience is a story for another day.
Being the only developer and tester in an organization so early in my career allowed me to get crucial hands-on training, despite having responsibilities that were way over my experience level at the time. That meant working on QA, bug fixes, and new features from start to end. The only reviews and feedback I'd receive came after I deployed updates to the production site, usually when something wasn't working correctly.
I got to the office early one morning, ready to face a new work week. My task for the next few days was to tackle a new requested feature for the web portal. At the time, one of the first things I did when focusing on anything new in the web application was to start with a fresh database to begin coding and testing the new functionality. I had a script that did this and ran a few end-to-end tests automatically, which I executed as I had done numerous times before without thinking twice.
In the previous workday, I spent a few hours debugging an issue on the live website. Since it was an urgent issue that needed to be resolved before the weekend, I plugged in the production website's database credentials into my local development environment to expedite my debugging session. That allowed me to run a few database queries to isolate the problem quickly instead of logging in to the affected server.
I diagnosed and fixed the issue by the end of the day and wrapped it up before heading out for the weekend. Instead of reverting the production database credentials, they remained in my local development environment. After a weekend of relaxing and clearing my head from the past week's work, I completely forgot to revert the credentials before I began to work the following Monday.
When I ran the script to clean up the database and run the automated tests, it took slightly longer than usual, which I found strange since it didn't take as long to execute the script. As the tests ran, I suddenly remembered the production database credentials were still in the local configuration.
By the time that realization hit me, it was too late - I nuked the entire production database.
My saving grace
Although this happened almost 20 years ago, I still vividly remember how I felt then. I felt nauseated and getting as pale as a ghost. I probably would have collapsed if I weren't sitting in a chair. A thousand thoughts came rushing into my brain at once—mostly about how I would get fired and needed to find a new job the next day.
Thankfully, one positive thought snuck through all the negative ones bombarding my brain. I remembered that I had set up automated hourly backups of the web portal's database just a few weeks before. It wasn't a task that someone assigned to me. I had worked on that process because it was something that I had wanted to experiment with on my own time to gain experience.
Thanking my past self for this blessing, yet still overwhelmed and panicking, I found the most recent database backup and began importing it into the production database, praying all the way through that it would work. Obviously, with my inexperience, I never bothered to verify if the backup system was functioning correctly. A few minutes later, I could finally relax as the database restoration finished, and I could confirm the production database contained its data again.
Crisis averted—or was it?
The web portal in question had two primary groups of users: the sales team used it as a CRM to keep track of clients and the services we provided to them, and external clients could log in to verify the status of any pending orders. It wasn't a heavily-trafficked site, meaning the damage I caused would likely be minimal.
I tend to begin work earlier than most, so most of the sales team wasn't in the office when I nuked the database. I also checked some logs and didn't notice any external clients in the system at the time either. The elapsed time between the data deletion and restoration took about 10 to 15 minutes. It seemed like no one noticed I had wiped the database clean. I was still freaking out over my mistake, so I consciously decided not to tell anyone about it.
A few moments later, one of the sales team members walked by my desk and mentioned that she was looking for some notes she had written for a client earlier that morning and couldn't find them in the system. Embarrassed, I confessed what happened earlier and apologized for causing the issue. I was fortunate enough that she was a friend in and out of work, so she graciously let it slide since there was a limited amount of data loss, and she could recreate it quickly.
I continued working there for three more years after this incident. As far as I know, only one other person knew what happened that day, and no one had any issues stemming from my misstep.
Accidentally destroying an essential element of your organization's business carries boatloads of stress and anxiety, as you might imagine. Despite that, I've become grateful that it happened. Obviously, I wouldn't want that happening to me again, and I don't wish that it would happen to anyone else. Still, it brought forth plenty of valuable lessons that continue to guide my career to this day.
Always have backups
Needless to say, backups saved me from a disaster that the company would have needed to spend weeks or months recovering from. It also saved me from losing my first tech job because of an easily avoidable mistake. My career would have been very different if I hadn't been able to recover that lost data.
Messing up production data ingrained the habit of always having backups for everything I do. Whether using external hard drives for weekly backups in my local development systems or hourly backups to the multiple cloud providers in live production environments, I'm backing it up if there's data I can lose.
I also learned the importance of verifying that I can use those backups to restore whatever state I need, which is an unfortunately common oversight. I was lucky that the backups I had at the time worked when restoring the data, but that's not always the case. Just because your backup processes don't raise any errors doesn't mean restoring them will work. You never know when you're going to need them.
Plan for the worst
I'm forever grateful that my curiosity guided me toward implementing backups before a catastrophe. Before then, it didn't cross my mind that there was a possibility of losing all the data in that production database. It happened because of my mistake, but it could have also occurred for other typical reasons like hardware failure or a network glitch corrupting the data.
It doesn't matter whether you're a developer, a tester, a DevOps engineer, or any other technical worker—mistakes will happen, no matter how careful you are with your processes. It might be something challenging to predict like a sudden server crash, or it could be an accident like someone spilling coffee over your laptop (yes, I've seen this happen to others). The point is that there's plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong.
The only thing we can do to handle the inevitability of disaster is to prepare for it. When the day comes that your systems aren't working, having a contingency plan can mean the difference between a brief, annoying interruption and a long, arduous road to recovery.
Always be honest
As mentioned earlier, only my coworker and I knew about the destruction of the database. I never told my boss or any other coworkers about it for many reasons, from shame and embarrassment to the fear of losing my job. Even though nothing came out of it, I still feel a bit guilty that I never reported the problem.
I'm guessing most of you reading this might be thinking "You got away with it! Why would you want to tell your boss?" I feel that if I had admitted my mistake, I would have increased my credibility and reliability at work. It likely improved some situations, like actively implementing and improving our development processes instead of ignoring them.
Would my boss have reprimanded me for my mistake? Would my coworkers have lost faith in my ability to handle their work tools? I don't know the answer to those questions. But I know I wouldn't carry that guilt. Even if the repercussions of such a mistake seem daunting, what I took out of that incident is to always report the good and the bad in equal measure. Whatever happens next will always work out for the best, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time.
Embrace and own your mistakes
While my database disaster caused me much stress, it eventually helped me become a better developer and tester. The situation imparted plenty of lessons—those mentioned above, along with dozens of others indirectly—that might have taken years to learn if it hadn't happened then. I probably would still be doing irresponsible things like using production credentials in my development environment. Of course, at the time, I thought that my career as a developer was over and that I'd never find work again. In hindsight, it was an excellent lesson to receive.
Errors and slip-ups are going to be part of your professional journey. While you don't want them to happen, they will. The key is never to run away from them and embrace the good they'll bring, even if it looks like there's no upside. Most mistakes will have at least one thing you can learn from, shaping your career and providing you with the most valuable lessons that no university course or textbook can offer.
So don't fear making mistakes. In fact, embrace them. Through these situations, you'll experience the most significant growth in your career and life.