Jay Little - Software Obsessionist
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Why I Can't STFU And Just Code A Solution To Your Problems

12/12/2019 16:21:33

So over the years I've had a number of people tell me that I tend to focus on the negative aspects rather than the positive aspects of situations. This feedback has been relayed to me on both professional and personal levels. Let me tell you: That this is absolutely the case. However I don't see it as a failing so much as an asset. The purpose of today's post is to both delve into why I feel this way and why clients, co-workers and compatriots feel the way they do.

The easiest way to explain my mindset is as follows. I'm a professional problem solver whose primary tool is code. People don't come to me and ask me to write code because everything is hunky dory. On the contrary they come to me and ask me to code a solution for whatever problem they are currently experiencing. When your entire career revolves around solving other people's problems (and occasionally your own) it's very hard to maintain the facade that comes with a figurative set of rose tinted glasses.

That's not to say you can ignore the positive aspects even while solving a problem. In fact I would say that doing so runs the risk that you could inadvertently create a regression that diminishes some of those positive aspects. In addition sometimes it can be very beneficial to study the positive aspects of a given situation just as much as the negative aspects you are tasked with addressing as they can provide very important hints on how a client defines success.

Moreover when I speak to clients and give status updates to co-workers and managers, my goal is to almost always present the worst case scenario. If I believe that I have a 75% chance of fixing a bug within an hour before I've looked at it, I won't tell them it can be fixed within an hour. Instead I'll say that I should be able to fix it within a few hours. The last thing I want to do is present an outlook that is too optimistic because it takes a lot more political and professional capital to roll back overly optimistic predictions than it does to roll back overly negative predictions. For example if I say it will take fours to fix and I fix it in one hour, everybody ends up happy. But on the flip side if I say it will take one hour to fix and it takes four hours, everybody will be less than happy. In my career, there is no firm reward for being optimistic. However there is a defined and consistent reward for being pessimistic. After a couple decades of success, I have adapted my work habits to accommodate and play into these realities.

So of course this mentality isn't directed at tasks alone, I tend to apply this approach to everything. I love trying to understand larger systems (whether they be tech, political, sociological or whatever) and trying to understand them well enough so that I can begin to predict their behavior. I do this quite a bit with politics and my track record in terms of predictions is mixed at best. But while my behavior from a task context is generally pretty tolerable and largely preferred, when it comes to relaying my observations that relate to these other systems, the response has been largely negative.

So why is that? Well I believe that for starters when it comes to professional tasks, my feedback has been specifically solicited and people expect me to provide the most sober assessment possible. At the rates I charge, it would be silly to expect me to blow smoke up your ass especially if the end result is an epic failure in the not-so-distant future. Once I go beyond that, even if the setting is a professional one and the system in question is a direct patient of my professional efforts, the response changes drastically. I believe there are two primary circumstances which contribute to this shift in response.

For starters there is the concept expressed in "Truth-default theory" which basically states the following:

This theory gets its name from its central idea which is the truth-default state. This idea suggests that people presume others to be honest because they either don't think of deception as a possibility during communicating or because there is insufficient evidence lending them unable to prove they are being deceived.

The other concept is the idea that most people are inherently optimistic when it comes to established systems. This seems to increase when the person is also a participant in said system. People have a tendency to get personally attached because deep down they are trying to extract a sense of value and basic worth from the contributions they make to these systems.

Given the combination of these circumstances, it becomes clear as to why solicited negative feedback provided in a specific context is tolerated fall better than unsolicited negative feedback provided in a more generalized context. This is especially apparent to me because once I've gotten familiar with a system by working on a number of tasks (the number of which varies based on the complexity of the system and the type of tasks), I reach a position where I am willing to start sharing more general observations whether or not they were directly solicited.

But because of these concepts, when I tell people that Purism's Librem 5 project has devolved into something which very much resembles a Ponzi scheme they react very negatively. The level of negativity in their reaction scales in direct proportion to their level of investment in the system. For example, Librem 5 backers generally reacted very poorly to my allegations despite the mountains of supporting information I provided to try and back them up. The more they kept up and the more involved in the community they were, the worse the reaction got.

These same trends can be easily identified in politics. Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on nowadays, you've probably noticed that discussing politics with people on the opposing side has become largely untenable. The reason for this is that once we adopt a specific side, we tend to become more optimistic about their actions and prospects. Modern day politics actually exacerbates this mechanic even more as it has now become commonplace to portray the other side as a Boogie Man of sorts.

In my professional life I have experienced this as well. It's one thing to provide negative feedback when examining a known security vulnerability and developing a fix. It's an entirely different thing to provide negative feedback regarding the companies entire approach to security after you've worked on enough tasks to begin making and sharing more generalized observations. This experience is not specific to security per-say, though that is a particularly relevant example that doesn't make it easy to nail down which clients or employers I might be referring to. This is very much by design.

In light of all this, you might be wondering: Do I plan to change my behavior? The answer is of course no. However it is beneficial to understand people's reasons for reacting negatively to negative feedback. An increased level of understanding here will not only help to reduce complications that arise from providing such feedback, but also afford me the opportunity to work on ways of delivering bad news in a more effective manner by attempting to cushion the impact in various ways. As with so many things in life, timing is exceptionally important. In addition, providing possible solutions and suggestions for addressing the underlying issue as part of the feedback can also go a long way to making bad news easier to swallow, regardless of the context.

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