Dome Scratcher One of the things I am seeing less of lately is the understanding that reasonable people can and will disagree with one another—without either of them being any the less reasonable or intelligent for doing so. It seems to me that people become so invested with the “rightness” of their ideas that they deny the possibility that those who disagree with them may be equally intelligent and well-informed. You see it a lot in politics, but I think that this attitude has crept into development discussions as well.

I saw a manifestation of this in action after a recent Stack Overflow podcast wherein Joel had the temerity to question Robert Martin’s SOLID principles (SOLID was the topic of a recent podcast with Scott Hanselman that Joel had apparently heard). I highly recommend both podcasts. It didn’t take long for some bright stars in the Alt.Net universe to talk about Joel jumping the shark or the state of his imperial wardrobe. I’m not sure why the impulse to denigrate those who disagree with you is so strong, but it appears to be nearly universal. We go from the belief that somebody is wrong to the conclusion that they are incompetent or ignorant without taking time to draw breath, really.

I think this impulse is not only wrong, but damaging. It represents a voluntary limitation of our ability to engage in important dialog and stretch our understanding.

Education

One crutch of those who participate in this hidden hubris is the belief that people who disagree must be missing data. You can see this most commonly when someone tells you to “educate yourself” or its milder form “try it and you’ll see”. The underlying message in those statements is that if you knew what they know, you’d do what they do.

And that may be correct. It really could be the case that someone is missing data and if they had that data they might agree. Since software development is so change-driven, much of development blogging is motivated by the desire to teach others things they might not have heard about before. You have to honor the often unrewarded efforts of those who take the time to put information out there for the benefit of those seeking education.

The problem is that telling someone who questions your tools or methods to educate themselves is arrogant, even if you are completely sincere and honestly well-meaning. You see, there are really only two possibilities for someone questioning you: they lack data or they have arrived at a different conclusion after weighing the data themselves.

In the first case, telling them to educate themselves notifies them of your superiority (you are in possession of data they lack) at the same time you deny access to yourself as a resource (you are directing them elsewhere for acquiring that data). It’s a dismissive brush off. In the second case, telling them to educate themselves is a judgement of their experience and conclusion without the benefit of explanation or debate. In both cases you are saying that you are better than they are and that they shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the discussion as a result.

If you honestly believe that someone disagrees with you due to lack of information, a better response would be a series of questions or even challenges geared towards examining their point better. “Have you considered” questions or “I disagree because” statements are more helpful; they give others the chance to respond and have the courtesy of taking someone seriously enough to invest in the discussion.

Weighty Matters

What if I’m already educated and I still disagree? What if I’ve done the recon, seen the scene, danced the dance, bought the souvenir and I still beg to differ with your Great Truth? How can two intelligent people look at the same data, having access to the same information, and arrive at two legitimately different conclusions?

Allow me to educate you. (heh)

You see, most decisions are complex and involve competing principles. Do I take the time to add an abstraction layer that will be useful later or do I YAGNI my way through with the simplest solution that works right now? Do I hassle with System.Data.Common to support multiple database providers or allow a strong dependency on SQL Server? Do I use test first to drive out my design or am I confident that my planned design is decoupled enough and tests ex-post-hackto will be adequate? All of these decisions break down into factors that we weight according to our experience and expectations.

I’ll illustrate what I mean. Lets take, for example, deciding if Georgette Heyer is better than Meg Cabot. It can be argued (and I would, indeed, so argue) that they have comparable ability with characterization, prose, story, and plot. However, Meg Cabot sets her characters in modern settings and Georgette Heyer’s books are chiefly set in Regency England. Two people could easily disagree over which author is best if one has a strong weight on “historical regency setting” without either being any the less intelligent or in need of education.

Back to software development. Consider some of the factors that might go into deciding to use TDD.

  • Force strongly decoupled design
  • Ensure a minimum level of test coverage
  • Early API exploration and (pseudo) documentation
  • Commit project to a test framework
  • Commit project to a mock framework
  • Commit project to automated testing infrastructure
  • Writing tests without the benefit of intellisense

How you weight each factor will determine your judgement of TDD. Someone who is not worried about forcing decoupled design (either because decoupling doesn’t pay off in their environment or because they feel they can achieve decoupling without force) will be less likely to chose TDD for their project.

And it gets even more complicated when you realize that each factor can, in turn, be comprised of additional factors with their own weight and trade offs (you could easily break “decoupled design” down further, for example).

Learning to look for underlying principles and the weights that others may apply can be interesting as well as useful. More importantly, it opens up the gray areas and opportunities for honest disagreement (without denigration) that are vital when working with IRealWorld.

Educating Yourself

As software professionals, we owe it to ourselves, our employers, and our clients, to be educated in our craft. That’s a not inconsiderable burden in a field that grows by leaps and bounds year after year with no sign of slowing any time soon. It is hard enough learning all the concepts, patterns, and practices (not to mention tools, environments, and platforms) that it is often tempting to find a core of experts that you rely on to make decisions for you (and there is some benefit in doing so initially as you come up to speed on the intricacies of our field).

But to be truly educated, you have to go beyond what your experts say and learn about the principles that exist underneath. That’s extra work but more importantly it is extra responsibility. It may be that when you break a practice down into its constituent principles that you will find yourself in a situation where “Best Practices” aren’t, in fact, best. To me, it is the ability to not only make that determination but to then act on it that truly makes a “professional”.