About this post

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a strongly opinionated professional explaining why I should also be using micro-services for small projects. Despite the fact that I don’t share the same opinion (which is irrelevant for the sake of this post), I remember that I disconnected right after he had started talking.

After his dissertation, I felt troubled because I usually enjoy tech talks, but I was unable to prevent my brain from activating the self-protection shield against another ‘ivory speech’ voiced by an strong-opinionated professional.

And by ’ivory speech’ I mean a bunch of information with little real-world background, no success stories behind it; just words spoken by a self-inflated ego, filled with fairy tales from blogs and tech talks. A group of concepts beautifully organised to sustain the urge of an insatiable ego.

Wouldn’t it be better if a professional’s ego is sustained in the success of his stories, and not in how smart he think he is?. In my experience, cleverness does not mean too much in software development; it could be a quicker way to become a good professional or even an extraordinary one, but nothing more. Being smart does not provide you with the authority to talk about tech stuff with strong opinions, only real expertise and successful stories should.

It disturbs me that the guy I was talking to, turned himself into a technology-preacher as if he had successfully implemented micro-services in a dozen projects, and presented himself as an expert in this field; he had no doubt about his advice, no second thoughts, no questions about his approach. He had a one-off rule that applied to every single situation, every individual problem.

The interesting thing is that he matched the pattern of many strongly opinionated professionals: no successful projects behind his speech, an average developer (not particularly brilliant), a smart guy, good consultant skills and a very big ego and self-esteem.

So, this brings up a major problem: he was explaining micro-services with strong opinions, and I was listening to this information in the wrong format. He could make me feel that he masters the information he is sharing with me, but the truth is: I could be listening to an ’ivory speech’ wrapped in sweet words and sustained in an ego that does not match his skills.

My humble rule

So, when I face strongly opinionated people, I find myself following this simple workflow:

  • Does he have strong opinions?
    • No: cool! Let’s talk
    • Yes: Has he written any books about it?
      • Yes: nice!, I’m listening
      • No: Is he an authority in the field?
        • Yes: woohoo! This is going to be interesting
        • No: I disconnect, praying for a quick and painless end

So, to summarise it, I do not pay attention to strongly opinionated professionals as I don’t find it worth the time.

Some behavioural patterns

  • They don’t care about what you have to say. They are focused in double-checking their awesomeness with you, without being open to second opinions.
  • They will never ask you to explain something in more detail; there are practical reasons for it: they just don’t care about what you have to say.
  • They might pretend they are listening to you, but only to find the weak points, destroy your arguments and ’beat you’.
  • When you finish talking, they usually reply with: but…, you have not considered…, that is not right because…
  • They don’t care if you understand what they say. Indeed, if they explain something, and you don’t get it, they feel good, because it means, as he was suspecting, that you are not as smart as him.
  • They think they are better than you, and they want you to acknowledge it; because being smart is part of his core values and he will try to sustain his ego on top of your lack of cleverness (in their world you are one step below them)

Risks

It is unfortunate the increasing number of strongly opinionated professionals. They only need to master a few concepts to lecture everybody around. They dangerously provide professional advice by following other professionals’ recipes, and I find it terrifying.

Listening to strongly opinionated people could bite you in a few months or years just because you got tricked by fancy words or nice power-points. You might have followed the advice of somebody with a narrow vision of the implications of his advice. Next year he could be preaching the opposite, and find again fancy words to justify the change. He will probably blame you for not understanding his advice correctly in first place. Again, his ego is playing against you, and you are the one with the problem, not him.

An example

I love TDD, and I try to improve my TDD skills on a daily basis, but regardless of how much I love it, this is a very prolific area for strong opinionated professionals.

How many strongly opinionated professionals talking about TDD have you met? When I see the result of their awesomeness, of their strong opinions about how TDD should always drive the design, how you shouldn’t breathe without writing a test first, how they know the truth about perfect software…, the result of their work is not that impressive. They achieve a good test coverage, readable tests, but not the best Object Oriented Design. Which is interesting, because I would expect that those strongly opinionated professionals would be delivering the best software ever in order to match their ego and speech. Again, strongly opinionated people with a big ego and average performance playing against you.

The exceptions

Have you heard of Uncle Bob?, advocate TDD practitioner?, I have enjoyed his books, and watched his amazing screencasts… Do I listen to him?, Yep, I do.

He is strongly opinionated, but it’s irrelevant to me, because to my eyes he is brilliant; I have no doubt about it, it’s just evident to me. He has been in this industry for many years, his speech has been consistent, has written many books about software development, worked for many companies, and shared code in the community. I have enjoyed his talks even when some ideas don’t always fit my mental model. I listened to him trying to understand the rationale behind his speech. It has been worth every minute I have put into understanding him. He is strong-opinionated but this is irrelevant to me. He is wrapping up his speech in words that are consistent with his background and value. Same applies to David Heinemeier, for example.

Be humble my friend!

In my experience, best professionals are usually humble.

If I think backwards in all those professionals that have influenced me personal and professionally, most of them followed the same pattern: they were gifted professionals, they were nice people and they were humble.

They cared about sharing the information with me, they wanted me to understand their positions, and they were talented enough to spoke the right words in a simple way so I were able to understand their positions about a particular matter. Being surrounded by this kind of professionals is a gift, as they will level you up on a daily basis, and they will make you feel good.

Interestingly, they are usually quite open to listen to others. I guess the main reason is that they have explored so many paths that they know they don’t master everything, that there is always room for improvement.