Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Passionate, Not Dogmatic

Ted Neward recently wrote a blog entry that began with the following text:
... the debates have begun, with all the carefully-weighed logic, respectful discourse, and reasoned analysis that we've come to expect and enjoy from this industry.

Yeah, right.
Ted's comment is funny because it's true. Ted's comment is also disappointing... because it's true.

In the past 3.5 years I had the opportunity to interact with some of the smartest people in our industry. I consider many of those smart people to be among the best software developers in the world. Unfortunately, some of the smart people I met weren't much more than assholes. The big difference I noticed between the two groups was -- The assholes were dogmatic, while the best developers were passionate
passionate: expressing, showing, or marked by intense or strong feeling
dogmatic: asserting opinions in a doctrinaire or arrogant manner
--dictionary.com
The difference between passionate and dogmatic is slim, but the result is dramatic.

Martin Fowler is a great example of someone who is passionate without being dogmatic. For example, Martin is a classicist, he prefers state based testing. However, in Mocks Aren't Stubs Martin examines both points of view and makes no assertion on which was is absolutely correct. That's a tough thing to do, but the result is a classic article that both mockists and classicists often refer to. That's just one example, but almost every article by Martin provides at least 2 points of view. The result is extremely valuable.

I used to be dogmatic. I have no problem admitting it. My earlier writing is clearly arrogant and often shortsighted. Part of the problem was lack of experience. When you take an immature industry and give a platform to someone with limited heuristics you are bound to receive solutions with limited applicability.

As I gained more experience I realized that what I considered to be best practices were only best practices within certain contexts. I also realized that presenting something as the "one true way" only benefited those that worked within exactly the same context that I worked. People who follow my advice when it doesn't apply to their context must fail. The advice isn't flawed, but it is incomplete. You need to see the full picture.

Two interesting things happen when you write passionate entries instead of dogmatic entries.
  • Your advice is more widely and appropriately used.
  • Your traffic goes down significantly.
On a recent podcast Joel Spolsky noted that most advice needs contextual information. Unfortunately, contextual information implies that the advice isn't universally applicable. While that's great for a small subset of professionals who are interested in best practices and improvement, the vast majority of people in our industry are still in search of silver bullets. The easiest way to ensure that your advice is missed by the majority of the industry is to spend the first 2 paragraphs of the entry describing the context.

Conversely, our industry loves dogmatic advice. For example, DRY is blindly, dogmatically followed. I'm not a fan of blindly following DRY, so I wrote about the value of duplication within tests. I attempted to give a counter point of view with contextual examples, but at the end of the day the entry got a large amount of traffic solely from the authoritative title.

It's easy to spot the difference between a dogmatic entry and a passionate entry. The dogmatic entry focuses on the best practice alone. However, a passionate entry gives equal weight to context and the best practice. Passionate entries are much more likely to see successful application, even if they don't make the top of reddit.

Preferring passionate to dogmatic entries is ultimately good, but you suffer in the short term. A career in software development is obviously a long term play, but you can't always blame someone for looking for short term gains. Of course, Martin Fowler is an example of the success you can achieve by sticking with passion over dogmatism.

There is one large upside to being passionate instead of dogmatic: You gain significantly more opportunities to learn. I can't count the number of times in the last year that I've said "I prefer the way I'm suggesting because I know it works, but let's do it your way and see if it's superior". (credit: I'm fairly sure I stole that phrase from George Malamidis while we worked together at TrafficBroker) Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong, but I always learned something by trying a new approach.

That upside is what I believe truly separates the best in our industry from the assholes. The passionate leaders are constantly learning the best ways to do things, while the dogmatic leaders have stopped evolving their approach. As I said before, both groups are smart, but the dogmatic developers can only get by on their wisdom for so long. Eventually all dogmatic leaders become irrelevant.
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