Thursday, June 25, 2009

Programmer Confidence and Arrogance

At SpeakerConf 2009, one of the speaker's wives asked me: Why is it that most speakers are confident, and some are simply arrogant. The question was also in the context of "software is nerdy, how can you speakers be so cocky". I pondered for a minute and replied: When no one knows what's "correct", people with confidence generally win the discussion.

Imagine the early days of medicine. Three different doctors give you three different surgery options. There's not enough experience in the industry to show which is the correct choice. Who do you trust? Probably the doctor who managed to be the most confident without being overly aggressive or cocky.

As I've said before, we're still figuring this stuff out. I constantly try to improve my processes for delivering software. I share those processes via speaking and blogging. However, I'm definitely aware that I could be doing it entirely wrong.

In general, I'm weary of developers who speak in absolutes. Most solutions I've seen are contextual, and even in context they tend to be fragile. We simply don't have the heuristics to determine what true best practices (for our field) are.

When pondering the original question I remembered when I wrote about Despised Software Luminaries. At the time I blamed passion; however, I'm guessing confidence and arrogance probably also weigh heavily on the source of animosity.

There's a direct correlation between being a luminary and your compensation package. Therefore, luminaries are enticed to gain as much market share as possible. Your luminary status is determined by the speed at which your ideas are adopted. And, without absolute proof of correctness, the speed at which your ideas are adopted can largely based on your confidence. I'm sure some luminaries see this situation and walk the line between confidence and arrogance.

Of course, not all luminaries are in it for compensation. I truly doubt Martin Fowler does what he does for money. But, the people who are looking to take market share from Martin may be motivated by a compensation package. Therefore, it's pretty hard to escape the the effects of confidence and arrogance.

The confidence and arrogance discussion is also interesting if you've ever met a luminary who you found to be completely incompetent. Perhaps they truly don't know what they were talking about, and they've just been confident enough to fool the majority of people they've met so far.


  1. "In general, I'm weary of developers who speak in absolutes."

    This is really not limited to developers IMO, anybody who speaks in absolutes about almost anything should be taken with a grain of salt.

  2. What a confident post. Perhaps almost cocky at the end. ;)

  3. Anonymous8:23 AM

    @Zack, indeed. =)

    I try to stay on the confident side, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who find me arrogant and cocky.

  4. "...if you've ever met a luminary who you found to be completely incompetent."

    As I've started attending more national conferences, I've had this experience many times. But I tend to assume that I'm not asking the right questions. Many luminaries are highly specialized experts. So maybe Luminary X seems laughably ignorant of Java/C#/Agile/Ruby/whatever, but maybe they'd seem like a god if you discussed SOA/high throughput data architecture/graphics libraries/whatever else.

    There aren't that many Martin Fowlers, Kent Becks and Bob Martins -- examples of people who, to me, seem to have a wide breadth of knowledge and several areas of deep technical expertise.

    I'm just saying that when you meet a luminary who seems incompetent, it's probably just that they don't know much about what you care about and you don't care about what they do know much about.

    But of course there are those luminaries who actually are incompetent, people who did something great 10 years ago and have been skating by on confidence since then. It's disheartening when you hear a presentation and then ask some followup questions, only to realize the speaker hasn't actually worked with the technology/methodology he just lectured on.


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