Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Don’t be a correctness bully

From “Yellow: principles (or useless aphorisms) for software dev”.

Text version is below the video.

Don’t be a correctness bully

Don’t be a correctness bully.

We all know the type that is just, “that’s not the way you do that”.

“You’re doing it wrong”.

“You need to do this a different way.”

You have the people who correct people’s grammar, endlessly.

Even if the original might not have been technically wrong, they find flaws with it anyway, because everything is flawed.

You can always find flaws, but there’s a difference between knowing what is correct and incorrect and being able to communicate that to people who have asked you for that feedback.

Then you have the people who are correctness bullies and use their knowledge of correctness or incorrectness to bully or manipulate their co-workers.

Software developers more often than not fall into the bullying category. They – which is ironic considering that how many software developers experienced bullying themselves – tend to be absolutely horrendous towards newcomers, towards those who are just starting out, towards those who are unfamiliar with the industry.

They keep bullying people with correctness, rather than trying to reinforce what people – the parts that people do well. Positive reinforcement is the only thing that works.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re teaching, or training an animal, or communicating, you can’t talk people out of their misconceptions, their dislikes, or bad habits.

The only viable solution in most training, in most communication, is positive reinforcement – is reinforcing the things that are done right.

Because then they will do those things again, and they will associate your feedback with something positive, with a positive emotion and with an improvement in their work.

If you bully them on what they do incorrectly, they will associate you with something negative – with feeling bad. They won’t do the incorrect thing less.

Because that’s not how the human mind works.

We don’t work along the lines of negative reinforcement. We work on the lines of positive reinforcement. We seek out things are beneficial, trigger positive emotions, and feel constructive. So don’t be a correctness bully.

Try to focus on positive reinforcement and don’t try to talk somebody out of hating something.

This goes for every aspect of software. You can’t talk somebody out of hating CSS. You can’t talk somebody out of hating JavaScript or fearing HTML. But you can reinforce the positive. Give the behaviour you want and think is desirable, positive reinforcement. When somebody tries their hand at CSS who otherwise avoids it, you should focus what they have done well and point out how to do it better.

If somebody who is usually just wraps everything in HTML in a div, then attaches JavaScript and calls it a button, you should not focus on how bad of an idea this is, the fact that they made something that’s horrendously inaccessible and is going to ruin some end-users life. You focus on what they did well, the structure, the fact that the overall widget behaved, and then add:

“If you switch that to a HTML button element you get a lot of other stuff for free. It makes your work automatically better. You can improve what you’ve already done just by renaming the element. Now it gets focusing features and keyboard activation for free.”

You’ve given them positive reinforcement. You’ve told them how to take what they already know and do better. You haven’t told them that what they did is bad and that they’re bad people for doing it that way.

So, positive reinforcement.

It’s the only way to genuinely change behaviour, and it’s pretty much the only way to train or teach anybody, even yourself.

Being negative about your own work has the same effect.

Focusing on positive reinforcement for yourself is just as important as it is with people around you.

Try and see and focus on what you can improve with what you have done instead of focusing on thinking of it as a flawed thing.

Don’t think that doing it was a mistake.

Make it better.

Don’t think of your work as mistakes.

Think of them as things that you can do better.

Yellow by Baldur Bjarnason

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$10 USD for the ebook-only version.

Yellow is an experiment.

In it, I use audio and video to outline some of the core principles that drive my work using casual and approachable language, even when I’m covering potentially complex topics such as Gall’s Law or loose coupling.

Principles (or useless aphorisms) for software dev

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