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Friday, April 13, 2012

Don't react badly to genuine questions

Last week, Etsy started something called the Hacker Grants program. It will provide ten grants of $5,000 each to women who want to join Hacker School this summer but need support. That in itself is interesting, but their blog post about it also makes some interesting points.

One of the rules they mention at this school is "no feigning surprise". In other words, you're not allowed to pull some kind of dramatic "You don't know who Foo is?" garbage when someone doesn't recognize a name. What's interesting to me is that I've seen this go terribly wrong, and never realized it was a pattern. My eyes have been opened.

Years ago, I was in a dreaded college math class: calculus 2. I was having a miserable time, but still not nearly as bad as what happened to someone else. One day, the teacher used an analogy and referenced John Elway. I should mention this class was taking place in the state of Colorado, for what it's worth.

Anyway, one of the other women in the class asked who that was. She needed context to better understand this guy's analogy. She really had no idea who he was. The "prof" was just flabbergasted, and could not believe that anyone could not know who he was.

It didn't help that this particular student had only been in the state for a short time. She was from New England, and probably knew nothing about football. The prof couldn't make heads or tails of that and proceeded to tear into her as if she was asking that on purpose.

There were many tears and a lot of bad feelings all around. I doubt she got much out of that day in class. I know I sure didn't.

Stuff like this can make or break a system.

Until I saw that post, I had never connected this particular memory with a bigger pattern. It did make me think about all of the name-dropping which tends to happen in the industry, and particularly in this one notorious company from which I recently escaped. People would frequently mention some name and then take on an annoyed or disgusted look when you had the gall to say ... who?

In recent years, after events like this, sometimes I wind up with a certain '80s song running through my head, but hey, that's just me.

To bring this full-circle, let's talk about the problem of being disgusted with someone's lack of familiarity with a topic. It's one thing if someone claims to be proficient with something and then turns out to be a numbskull. That just means they are a filthy liar, and you have exposed them. Good for you.

This is not about that. This is about when you have someone who is there to learn, and they genuinely have no idea what you are talking about. Why would you possibly switch into the realm of assuming malice when they are merely ignorant as to the thing you were referencing?

If anything, it means that you haven't done your homework. Truly teaching something means conveying it in some form where your student can understand it. If you're using terms and references which make no sense to them, then you haven't actually managed to appreciate just where they are coming from. You have to know your audience.

For example, if you wanted to tell me about doing something devious to a closed-source program, you could start with "it was dynamically linked, so we slipped in our own .so and intercepted their library calls". I'd nod and we'd go from there. We share a certain common base, and so you can use that to expedite the conversation.

Now, if you wanted to explain that same thing to someone who hasn't had any reason to learn this stuff, you'd have to come at it from a totally different angle. It may even turn out that they don't care how it actually works. Just telling them what you managed to accomplish with it might be sufficient. If they want to know how it worked, they can always ask for clarification, and then you can go into the whole LD_PRELOAD thing.

Personally, I love taking a "deep dive" into some topic with someone who's genuinely interested in it. If I'm confident with it myself, then I'll tell them everything I've found about it and how I got there. I want them to be able to join me at that same level of confidence. Sharing that kind of stuff makes me happy.

I've actually been thinking about starting up a "personal trainer" thing for technical topics. If you're interested, send me a note.