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When Good Developers Go Bad

09.19.2008
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Having spent many years on different online communities and forums, not least JavaLobby, I've noticed some trends about how developers act from behind their monitor. To get a broad range of opinions, I've also asked some of the other Zone Leaders from DZone for their opinions on this. I don't mean to say all developers are the same - I've been one long enough myself - but I want to find why people hunt in their packs in communities and forums.

Firstly, I admire anyone who takes the time to write an article for publication on JavaLobby, or any other developer community. It takes up a lot of your spare hours, but we really appreciate new content and perspectives from a variety of developers. I also acknowledge that it can be difficult to put your point out there, where it can be easily shot down in comments sections or on forums.

The Flaming Process

So, you've written your article and it gets you some visibility across the web. You feel good, until you start to notice comments that you get in. "Your article is out of date", "you're article sucks and is pointless. You should use <framework/methodology here>. You start feeling bad now, and the worst thing of all is you get a lot of unqualified comments. For most people, this stops them from posting, and maybe even commenting, ever again.

In my opinion, community is everything. Every article is different, and some might not be quite right in their conclusions. People should leave comments on the article, but they need to be constructive, and encourage further discussion. It's great to see debate, but not at the expense of putting someone down or not giving reasons for your disagreement.


Why Are Developers Like This?

I'd really like to get to the bottom of this - why are developers so angry sometimes? Maybe there's some personality type that we can associate to developers or is it just a product of our lifestyle?

A recent article poses the question Are Cocky Developers Worth It?. This goes through some of the traits of someone considered a great programmer, and discusses how he is perceived by the rest of the team. This is at company level, rather than across the community, but it raises some interesting points.  I hate to paint a picture of one personality type for developers, but let's give it a go, focussing on the not so good parts:

  • Defensive
  • Unhelpful
  • Over confident
  • Egotistical
  • Proud

Maybe this is just the vocal minority. And I'm just asking the question - most developers I know personally don't fall too far into this band. As we learn and adapt to software development, we're conditioned to be all of the above. We need to have pride in our work, we need to be confident that what we pass out to the general public works well. But maybe there's some mis-wiring along the way!

It's possible that some developers become fanboys (or girls) of a particular technology and appear like zealots in forums. For example, we've have the Java and .NET debate for a long time - I wonder were we just protecting the technology that we've invested a lot into.

So now it's over to the other zone leaders to see what they think.

Meera Subbarao

In my opinion, all these bad developers lack just one quality in them, and that's Humility. The wikipedia defines "Humility, or being humble, is the defining characteristic of an unpretentious and modest person, someone who does not think that he or she is better or more important than others". The dictionary defines humility as modesty, lacking pretence, not believing that you are superior to others.

Over the past several years in this software industry, I have worked with many developers. The ones who were achieving great success in their career were the ones who had this quality. These successful people bragged the least, and the more humble they were. I admired these men and woman so much.

On the other hand, there are these developers who think that they are the experts and behave like a know it all person, and have no clue whatsoever to say " I don't know". That's when the problem starts and they start acting like what you have said above. They don't have to be behind a monitor to write stuff like this, many behave the same way all the times.

As the saying goes "Empty Vessels Make The Most Noise” these bad developers may be making these statements because they know little or nothing about it.
They try to express their opinion and want everyone to be impressed by what they say. And in many cases it's the other way around.

I would suggest to all those bad developers to practice humility. If you need help, let us know. :)


Aslam Khan

I totally agree with Meera that humility is a characteristic of good developers. Another is courage and this is a simply a matter of having the courage to tackle tough issues and challenges, both technical and soft. Even greater is the courage to admit to failure or lack of knowledge. And the greatest is the courage to accept responsibility and honor that responsibility.

I truly believe that software development is, first and foremost, a social exercise and, secondly, a technical exercise. It is about people working together to achieve a common outcome. Breaking down stereotypes by acknowledging the diversity in cultures, histories and attitudes that exist in a team is vital to achieving harmony and maximizing productivity. It is actually about ubuntu (not the linux distro :-) ) which proposes that people are only as good as their relationships to other people.

So, for me the "bad" developers are also lacking courage and basic ubuntu.


Geertjan Wielenga

I think more often than not we don't spend enough time thinking before writing a comment to something we disagree with. We really do need to blink, at least long enough to write something that is mostly constructive. Short abrupt responses along the lines of 'You're an utter idiot' are not only unhelpful but also potentially quite harmful to the recipient. How much more useful would it be if we'd either phrase our responses in a respectful way or not at all, if your only response is going to be scathing anyway? It takes a lot of courage, especially the first time and especially when you're broaching a topic that is new (at least to yourself) to post opinions in a very public place. I think it makes more sense to encourage that than to humiliate the writer to the extent that they'll never be heard from again, hanging their head in shame, and blinking away their tears...

Schalk Neethling

Looking back at the last 7 or 8 years I have been involved with the web and development in general I have to say the web has treated me well. However, casting my mind back a couple of years I remember starting to utilize the internet more and more, specifically forums, to get answers to some of the questions I had and the problems I faced and could not solve on my own.

I was what you can call a "virgin forum user" seeking the advice and help of the more experienced developers out there. We I started developing, all of my efforts was focused on Java and I thought, what better place to ask for help then the forums on java.sun.com. Alas, after posting a few questions I decided to avoid these forums at all cost as I was not getting any help but instead received criticism and basically told that I was looking for an easy way out without looking for the answer myself.

To me this seemed really weird. One of the things the web gives us is an ability to interact and learn from our peers. Constructive criticism is always appreciated but just slamming someone because they decided to cover a framework that some might feel is not relevant anymore, or because the title blurs what the content describes or, someone is a newbie with some simple questions to ask is no reason to attack.

In the end we are all developers and/or designers trying to reach the same goal, create software and services that ads value and satisfies our clients and users. So instead of breaking down someone's confidence; instead look at how you can assist and encourage. After all, each and every one of us was, at some stage, the newbie looking for help. Ask yourself the question, what would have been more helpful, an insightful answer or getting creamed because the variable names you used was not descriptive enough.

Comments

Laurent Cohen replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 7:43am

Thank you guys for expressing a staightforward view of "commenters".
You are demonstrating by example something that's missing from too many posts, and especially subsequent comments: taking responsibility for what we write.

When posting a comment, we not only express a view or opinion to the author of the article, but to the entire community of readers of that article. The problem is not so much what others will think about us, but how our comments will reflect on the authors and the community. So when I write something I keep asking myself a few questions:

  • am I committed to what I'm writing, will I take a stand for it?
  • if I were in the author's shoes, how would I take it?
  • what am I bringing to the discussion and to the community?
  • if I disagree with the view expressed by the author, should I just express my disagreement, or can I bring something more constructive, such that I could be inspired or simply learn something from the answer?

I agree with Meera that humility should be a natural trait for all of us, there to balance an ego that needs to express itself. Self-expression should be encouraged, we are also a social species after all... And with any social interaction comes responsibility.

You might have noticed that I didn't use the word "developer" (unitl now). From what I was able to see and read, I believe that this article applies to more than just the developers' world.

I acknowledge all of you for the courage it must have taken to write this article, and for bringing some authenticity in a global conversation that badly needs it .

-Laurent

Eric Asberry replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 7:49am

Interesting article.  I think the "bad developers"  are the "vocal minority", as you alluded to.  I have definitely worked with a few who fit the stereotype over the years, and I occasionally found myself wanting to strangle them for being so obnoxious, but they are definitely in the minority in my experience.

It also reminds me of a bumper sticker  I saw once:  "Mean people suck."

Meera Subbarao replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 7:49am in response to: Laurent Cohen

[quote=lolocohen]

When posting a comment, we not only express a view or opinion to the author of the article, but to the entire community of readers of that article.

[/quote]

100% correct, Laurent. Very well said. The other thing I have noticed in many online communities is for one person to start the trend of writing negative comments, and next you see a whole batch following. 

Meera Subbarao

Meera Subbarao replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 8:42am in response to: Eric Asberry

[quote=eriqthegeek]

 but they are definitely in the minority in my experience.

[/quote]

And these minority are the ones who are destroying the budding writers, the online comminuty, and in many cases buildings, and countries as well. So, we should definitely watch out for them.

Meera Subbarao

Martijn Verburg replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 9:30am

Great article!  I've worked as a contractor in several large commercial organisations and have run across my fair share of egotistical developers ("I work for this big X company because I'm the _best_") and they cause nothing but pain and suffering for everyone around them.  My experiences in Open Source communities and recently on Javaranch have been a breath of fresh air!  Any poisoned apples in those communities simply get voted out or asked to leave, something which sadly is not always possibly in the corporate environment :(.

As an aside, several of my non IT colleagues have commented on the fact that they think that IT workers are generally brighter than the average populace (I'm not entirely convinced of this).  They therefore wondered if it was the same sort of scenario as a not very nice Sports Jock lording it over smaller people because s/he has got the bigger muscles..

Daniel Gary replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 10:00am

Actually Laurent, your list works equally well in concept from the Writers side as well.

 If a person gets nothing but praise their whole life they more often than not end up as one of the

  • Defensive
  • Unhelpful
  • Over confident
  • Egotistical
  • Proud

people. Criticism helps ground you and build a wall around you, but that wall operates both ways, it keeps the rude, abrasive and dumb comments out, but it also keeps them in, it gives you a natural reality check to actions you do in life.

Criticism isn't all bad, but only when its CONSTRUCTIVE Criticism. Blatant rips suck as "You suck" do no good without a reason why the person sucks, do they suck at grammar? can they not write in an easy to follow manner? or is it just because they like VB.Net?

But back to my twist on Laurent's points;

As a writer you should be willing to stand behind what you write. Lets put it in the realm of Scientific Publications, if the writer wasn't willing to stand for his/her publication it would have been ripped to shreds, but ripped to shreds by logic and reason, the community doesn't accept "Your an idiot" as an answer, but does accept an equally abrasive statement when backed by sound logic. But it makes the writer go back, reevaluate their theory and come back with a better argument. If your unwilling to back what you write, then in the eyes of the community, you weren't as sure about your topic as you thought you were.

But often I see articles with an almost cannon fodder theme, posts and posts and posts, of little substance, or posting on almost the exact same topic with almost the exact same material as has been posted a thousand (or more) times before. If a comment shouldn't be posted because it doesn't bring anything to the discussion, then perhaps we should hold the authors subject to the same rule, if an article doesn't bring anything to the community, it shouldn't be posted, at least not as anything more than a blog post.

 

On the reverse side of our "negative critcism" posters, we also have authors who can't TAKE criticism, constructive or not. If we shouldn't take negative criticism from commenters we should do equally well to place authors in the same boat, for the same reasons.

 

But then I guess we should blur thats distinction, author and commenter, they are really one in the same, just an original commenter and subsequent commenters.

 

so, as Hippocrates said "make a habit of two things - to help, or at least to do no harm. Which I think sums up the whole point doesn't it.

 

 

 

James Sugrue replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 11:31am in response to: Daniel Gary

Nicely put Daniel. Thanks to everyone so far for their insightful comments.

James

Mike P(Okidoky) replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 3:22pm

I think most here deserve cudos for living up to a higher standard than many other online forums. I youwant to find motivated individuals with a decent EQ (Emotional Quotient), you'll find them here for sure. If you want to find childish immature condescending people, then Youtube is your grand central.

Not in every place where you work or talk with other supposedly professional developers, that people treat each other with respect. Younger generations often have a sense of entitlement. Often they overlook that experience is the most valuable asset, and instead easily make claims that what they think must be correct just because they said so. Others feel that people should live up to what they think are the correct standards, and fight anything that gives them friction using condescending remarks and accusations. No one has taught them that when you say something, you need to think ahead strategically. If you have a disagreement, how can you fight through things, without spoiling any future encounters with the same people.

Sometimes I find that when you point out that a person is being "condescending" or "arrogant", they might actually look up the meaning of the word in the dictionary, and quickly realize some like: "...is *that* what it means - o... well... - I don't want to be known as someone who is often condescending..." and they end up adjusting their personal behavior.

Good grief, it all sounds so mushy.

"Those aren't two pillows..."  (Steve Martin - Trains Plains and Automobiles)

Raveman Ravemanus replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 3:32pm

i think saying "Your article is out of date" is not a bad thing, lately we had article saying how Struts1 is great. it was just 10 years out of date. I agree that more should be said that just that.

Plus like "Are Cocky Developers Worth It?" said some of us are smarter and we will do whatever we want until we want to change. Plus as article says you should be nice to us and dont fight back. The funny thing is that those good developers and bad people are accepted the way they are, because they are needed.

However some article are offensive to reader, like lately "why Vim is great" or something like that. I had to use Vim a few times and i have never found anything i hate more.

Daniel Gary has a great point, I always though it was discussion and author posts because he wants to see what other people think about it.

 

John Resler replied on Fri, 2008/09/19 - 6:30pm

I agree that comments in regard to postings often seem overtly harsh and critical. I have stopped contributing to many forums because of precisely that issue. I've been developing in Java quite sometime but it becomes such an issue attempting to help someone when you're either being flamed or an 'authority' is adamant that a problem exists somewhere else. It's just not worth the frustration.

 

 - JR

Steven Baker replied on Sun, 2008/09/21 - 7:21pm

why target developers in this?

Most net forums are like this, it's just that younger people coming into developer forums, act like that in most other forums.

Simply called: trolls.

Jeroen Wenting replied on Tue, 2008/09/23 - 6:17am

well said Steven. And those young people act like that not just online, but everywhere.
There's a reason why ever more older people are afraid to leave their homes, especially if there are groups of young people around.
They have a massive sense of entitlement, no humility indeed, are terribly insecure and externalise that insecurity through agression and bullying.
Anyone stating anything that contradicts their point of view, however minor or unimportant it may be, is automatically guilty of insulting them and their intelligence, and is targetted not just by them but their entire peer group/gang.

To a degree this has happened in all times and places, but with the 1960s/70s generation of "flower power" people now being the parents of a generation of teens with internet access, teens who have never been raised to respect other people, have discipline, listen to opposing arguments, behave in a civilised way, etc. etc. it is now the majority of younger people acting like that rather than a small minority that's quickly put in its place by those elder people and generally will listen if only reminded sternly that they're misbehaving.

Are older people any better? Yes and no. We too can have our deeply held beliefs that we will defend violently. But at least most of us will not resort to personal attacks on those opposing those beliefs with reasoned arguments.

Mike P(Okidoky) replied on Tue, 2008/09/23 - 11:17am

So, for a company to hire good developers, they should, in addtion to giving an IQ test, also do an EQ test.

What formula does one use to calculate a final score?

Small team, project that probably only has a few years life left before it'll be canned or sold: IQ*.9+EQ*.1

Larger team, flag ship project, with company's success on the line: IQ*.5+EQ*.5

Temporary contractor, just solve the damn problem and get out: IQ*1+EQ*0

Funny how the temporary contractor, *if* he doesn't have much downtime between projects, rakes in the most money.

So, EQ doesn't pay in quick cash, but EQ pays long term through stock options. In todays market, EQ doesn't convert to cash looks like.

Good grief, one could create a whole graph system out of this ;-)

John J. Franey replied on Tue, 2008/12/23 - 1:41pm

But I AM humble.  I'm already very humble.  I've got to be the humblest person I know.  I have more humility in my little finger than....  I'm going to forward this article to all my co-developers.  I can tell they are not as humble as I am; they are always yelling at me.  I think if they consider this article, they will  appreciate my humble contributions.

 

// removing tongue from cheek, here.

 

One characteristic of humility: once you think you have it, you've lost it.

Thanks for an article that calls me to look more closely at myself and my behavior.

 

John

 

Dave Nicolette replied on Tue, 2008/12/30 - 7:51am

 James,

 I couldn't help noticing that if you rearrange the list of characteristics of negative commenters, you can get an amusing (if unhumble) acronym:

  • Unhelpful
  • Defensive
  • Over confident
  • Proud
  • Egotistical

Eddy Jhon replied on Wed, 2009/03/25 - 6:26am

Firstly, I admire anyone who takes the time to write an article for publication on JavaLobby, or any other developer community. (custom research paper) It takes up a lot of your spare hours, but we really appreciate new content and perspectives from a variety of developers. (Custom Essay) I also acknowledge that it can be difficult to put your point out there, where it can be easily shot down in comments sections or on forums. Cause & Effect Essay

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