31 July 2018

Strong Opinions

As Code Cop I meet a lot of developers and I have to tell some of them that their code is crap and that they need to drive down their technical debt. Others need to test more, maybe start doing TDD. There are a few who would not listen. Some of them are even proud of stubbornly not listening, they say that they have strong opinions about the topic. They do not seem interested in in another view on their code or design? Why is that? I have some ideas.

GorillaDunning Kruger Effect
The Dunning Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. In other words, beginners believe themselves senior and think that they know better. There is no need to listen to an outsider.

I know this effect myself: When I learnt my first programming language(s), as soon as I could write a few lines of code, I felt invincible. (I thought that) I could do everything. I ruled. I knew how to do it and I knew I was right and that there was no other way to do it properly. Today, after writing code for 20 years in more than 25 languages, I do not feel like that any more. Sometimes I would like to go back to my state of mind of the late nineties and I try to look at new languages like a child - with a beginner's mind - but I know too much details. I know there will be nasty details, even for that newest and hottest languages of today.

Expert Beginner
An expert beginner has quickly reached (what looks like) expert status. He or she voluntarily ceases to improve because of a belief that expert status has been reached and thus further improvement is not possible. (I recommend reading the whole series of Erik Dietrich, How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner and further posts of his series.) Expert beginners make up defending arguments because they are the experts.

I have met some of these. I vividly remember two senior developers who had been with one of my clients for more than 16 years. They were opposing me on everything I said. Sure they had a superior knowledge of the application they had built and maintained for so many years, and they knew the domain they were working in pretty well. I am sure they were adding value to the product. They both were strong influencers. As soon as they would speak their mind, all other team members would just agree. But, but, but... Sigh. They were still using Ant, did not know Maven, did not write unit tests, did not care for clean code and so on - they made me very unhappy.

Quadrants of Knowledge
The quadrants of knowledge seem connected to my previous points. The four quadrants are
  1. Known Knowns: What you know that you know
  2. Unknown Knowns: What you do not know that you know
  3. Known Unknowns: What you know that you do not know
  4. Unknown Unknowns: What you do not know that you do not know
When we advance our career in software delivery, we learn: We collect concrete knowledge (quadrant 1), we gain experience which allows us to have gut feelings about some things (maybe quadrant 2) and we hear about things that we have no idea about (quadrant 3). There are gazillion things in software that I have no idea of: ANTLR, APL, AWS, Category Theory, Distributed Computing, Elm, Gradle, Guava, Haskell, HBase, J2EE, Kubernetes, Mongo DB, Networking, Node.JS, Prolog, Security - these are just the first few that come to my mind. It is easier to list things which I do not know in areas that I do know. I have been Java developer for 15 years and there are so many things in the Java ecosystem which I have no clue about. On the other hand there are not many things I can say about C#, because I only know it little.

So the more we learn, the more we know that we do not know, increasing our Known Unknowns (quadrant 3). The philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC) even said, Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance. Like the Dunning Kruger Effect, beginners have no idea about the vast size of Known Unknowns quadrant and do not expect surprises or potential improvements.

Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
The ideas of the Dunning Kruger Effect, Expert Beginners and Known Unknowns offer some explanation why some junior developers are not open for discussions. I have also met senior and expert level developers who are the same. When attending Software Crafting unconferences, e.g. SoCraTes, attendees are eager to learn and open for discussion. After all, that is the idea of unconferences, right? Still, many of them have strong opinions about almost everything, e.g. Spring Boot is cool. No, Spring Boot is hell. ;-) Different from beginners, all of them know the problems of strong opinions and claim that they only hold onto them weakly.

Deal with itWeakly Held, what is that supposed to mean? Isaac Morehouse explains in These Four Words Will Help You ‘Hold Strong Opinions Weakly': You act as if they [your opinions] are true unless and until it is proven they are not. Maybe people like strong opinions because they give them the power of definiteness. Choices are much easier and life is more predictable with definiteness and absolutes. Holding opinions weakly also gives the power of openness. This sounds hard: Basing one's actions on some definite "truths" and re-evaluating these truths whenever they are challenged. Seems like a difficult balancing act, if not a contradiction. For sure that state of mind is not easy to get into. I still need to see someone with strong opinion - weakly held or not - to change his or her mind,

When I started this article, it was supposed to be a rant. As usual, writing down my thoughts helped me to structure the material in a better way. (I consider writing an act of learning.) So where is the rant? Here it is:

Person with strong opinion == arsehole who does not want to listen.

That is a bit harsh, I agree. Obviously beginners need to listen more and due to Known Unknowns I expect experienced and expert developers to be open to discussion on any topic at any time. The strong opinion itself is not the problem, but the resulting behaviour, especially if strong opinion is used as warning or justification of some sort. I witness strong opinion mainly as excuse to not discuss or challenge existing views.

What about me?
Of course I had strong opinions during my professional life. I did not earn the nick name of Code Cop for nothing. Someone even called me Code Nazi. And my opinions were definitely not weakly held. I like absolutes. (Now I see - as I just learned above - the power of definiteness.) I guess I still have some strong opinions, and they are not just opinions, they are dogma: a system of principles proclaimed as unquestionable.

I have changed and it seems that the Code Cop is getting soft. ;-) The extended experience and discussions have weakened my definiteness. There is always some special case, the almighty it depends. And since I am working with people, and try to help them, I am more compassionate. I understand their problems, the difficulty to get time for quality and the pain of legacy code. Sometimes I catch myself not recommending what I believe the technically best course of action because it will be a lot of unpleasant, hard work for the team. No, that is too soft. If they made a mess, they have to fix it. Time to fall back on dogma. (Sound of firing cannons in the background ;-) All the time these balancing acts...

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