Don’t Shit on Someone Else’s Work

Dear new developer,

There will come a time when you are looking at a system and trying to understand the choices behind it. You may be looking at a particular class, a subsystem, or a more fundamental choice, like the language or the system architecture.

And you’ll wonder what the hell the initial implementer was thinking. You’ll wonder why this system is still in production. You’ll wonder why someone didn’t fix this.

You will be tempted to trash talk this piece of work to your colleagues.

Don’t do this.

Why?

It’s not helpful. Now, it’s perfectly acceptable to point out issues and ask questions about why choices were made. It’s a good idea to suggest improvements, whether those be code changes, removal or replacement of portions of the system or something else. But complaining about the existing system doesn’t do any of that. It’s just complaining.

It displays a lack of empathy. Chance are you don’t know the constraints and pressures that the original implementer and past maintainers faced. Making judgements based on code without knowing the constraints is like hiring someone based on the color of their shirt–you just don’t have all the information needed.

Trust me, in the future you’ll face constraints, like lack of knowledge, time or labor or money, that will cause you to make choices that are suboptimal. At least once in my career I’ve come across a boneheaded piece of code. Cursing under my breath, I wondered “who wrote this crap?”. As I pulled up the commit log, my face fell as I realized that I had. Doh!

(What should you do if the code or system doesn’t work at all? In that case, the questions about constraints and understanding how a failed system was built are even more important. But again, complaining doesn’t help anyone at all.)

In short, when you are working in a codebase and trash talk it, you are the critic, not the man in the arena.

Sincerely,

Dan

Beware Of Your Arrogance

Dear new developer,

I wrote this post years ago, but it still applies today.

Ah, the arrogance of software developers. (I’m a software developer myself, so I figure I have carte blanche to take aim at the foibles of my profession.) Why, just the other day, I reviewed a legal document, and pointed out several places where I thought it could be improved (wording, some incorrect references, and whatnot). Now, why do I think that I have any business looking over a legal document (a real lawyer will check it over too)? Well, why shouldn’t I? I think that most developers have a couple of the characteristics/behaviors listed below, and that these can lead to such arrogance.

Just because you are good at something valuable (development) doesn’t mean that you are good at everything. I was blinded in my youth because I was good at asking questions, paid attention to details, and was good at creating logical constructs in my head. That is helpful in so many contexts.

But it is also true that almost every profession has as long, if not a longer, sense of history and as big, if not a bigger, well of knowledge than software development. So beware that your ability to probe, ask questions and solve problems doesn’t inadvertently (or worse, intentionally) dismiss the learning of other professions.

On the flip side, domain expertise (through lived experience or study) and software development is a powerful combination. You can model software such that end users can speak in the domain. You’ll be closer to understanding their problems.

Another issue with arrogance is that when you’re sure you know the answers (or have the right way to find them), you don’t listen to other people as well.

I was very happy to charge forward with whatever solution I thought made sense, and that led to suboptimal solutions. Both in the coding sense and in the sense that you have to bring people along. The best coded solution in the world won’t work if people won’t use it. So listen to your users and make sure you fully understand their worldview as best as you can before you charge ahead implementing solutions.

Sincerely,

Dan