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Stop Arguing with Software Developers on the Internet

I won’t bother pasting the iconic XKCD that we’re all thinking about right now, given the blog post title.  Instead, I’ll just lead with the premise.  You should stop arguing with software developers on the internet.  In fact, you should probably stop arguing on the internet altogether.

Now, before you go any further, notice that this is a post in my “developer to consultant” series.  What follows is thus advice for someone who is looking to be a consultant — someone for whom an internet presence is a marketing asset.

If that doesn’t apply to you, then don’t worry.  If all you’re looking to do is find some catharsis because the expert beginner serving as tech lead in your group has outlawed writing unit tests, then go nuts.  Pick every fight out there on Reddit and in comments sections.  Sharpen your reasoning or debate skills by bouncing ideas off of other people with varying degrees of mutual hostility.  Do you.

But don’t kid yourself — what you’re doing is a hobby, not a hustle.  It might be fun, and it might help you in a vague way, but it hurts you professionally (unless you’re doing it in a very calculated fashion, but this is an AP tactic I’ll return to).

Arguing on the Internet as an Employee is a Lot Different than as a Consultant

When you’re an employee, the internet is sort of a vast sea of potential fights to pick.  You can argue with your cousin on Facebook about politics for a while.  Then, you can mix it up by posting an angry screed to Medium entitled, “[Thing Everyone Currently Likes] Considered Harmful.”  And finally, maybe a few palate-cleansing down-votes on a Stackoverflow before you call it a day of sometimes doing your work.

As long as your Twitter handle contains some boilerplate about how your views aren’t the company’s, you’re mostly good.  From there, you really just kind of need to avoid being overtly offensive when people can trace your words back to you, and your company will just shrug off anything you do.  You play in a vast yard, and the only thing that will trigger your metaphorical shock collar is running outside the generous boundaries of “reflecting poorly on the company.”

Not so when you own your own career and brand.

When you own your own career and brand, your presence on the internet becomes a digital job interview, writ large and made permanent.  As an employee interviewing for jobs, imagine your interviewer being wrong about something.  You’d bite your tongue, turn slightly red, hemorrhage a bit internally, but ultimately keep the indignation to yourself.  When you go on your own, you should approach your online presence this way.

To really underscore why, let’s place you in the role of a buyer through an analogy.

When Looking for a Landscaper, is “Argues a Lot with other Landscapers” an Important Criterion?

Let’s say that, like me, you have a house on some property with irregular landscape features.  Meaning, you’re on a steep hillside or you’ve got a small ravine running through part of your property.  Whatever — details not important.

What you want to do is, working with these features, boost your house’s curbside appeal.  Looking around on Angie’s List or whatever, you find three different options:

  1. Alice, whose landscaping company has a nice website with the motto, “Making Unusual Landscapes Beautiful.”
  2. Bob, whose landscaping company has a site that talks a lot about surveys, soil composition, and such.
  3. And Chuck.  Chuck doesn’t have a website.

Let’s look at each of these options in a little more detail.

Alice Makes Unusual Landscapes Beautiful and Doesn’t Seem to Have Time for Much Else

When you go peruse Alice’s site, you see a lot of testimonials and specific benefits to you, the property owner.  She’s helped people with small cliff faces make the property safer for children.  She’s leveled hills that made garage access problematic.  And so on and so forth.

When you go to the site’s blog, it has a lot of helpful tips and tricks about knowing when to hire a pro and when you can do things yourself.  She also then tells you a lot about how to do some things yourself.

Now, while it’s unlikely that you’re going to care much about comments on her blog posts, you notice a few.  Most of them are friendly, asking questions that she helpfully answers.  Some are a little weird or pedantic, and she seems to just kind of let these be.  One commenter named Debbie lectured her extensively about topsoil once, to no reply, and another guy named Chuck actually responded to Debbie, correcting her on 5 or 6 points.

When you look elsewhere to see if Alice has more internet presence, she really doesn’t have too much.  She’s on social media, which mostly promotes her site.  And that’s pretty much it.  It seems she puts all of her effort into her business.

Bob Seems to be More of a Generalist and More in the Weeds

Next up is Bob.  His site confuses you, though it sounds like he knows what he’s doing to someone not in the weeds alongside him.  His site lists dozens of options for installing pavers, flagstones, fencing, etc.  And that’s just in the the section about “man-made building features.”  He also dives into detail with scores of plants that he’ll plant for you, and different labor options for moving soil and sod around.

Before long your head is swimming in options, so you change the pace by clicking on his blog.  But that’s actually worse.

It contains posts that read as though he wrote them for his employees or his competitors or something.  You don’t really understand them, but you do see Bob going back and forth with people in the comments — sometimes extensively.

Our pals Debbie and Chuck are both there, often arguing with each other and with Bob, sometimes in a heated fashion that makes you chuckle.  How can people get so worked up about hybrid grass seed?  Settle down, children.

When you go over to Bob’s social media, it’s also like this.  He’s having all sorts of constant, opaque discussions you don’t understand.  And, for good measure, he also seems to argue with people about random topics.

Chuck… oh, Chuck.

When you ask Chuck for his company’s site, he tells you that he doesn’t have one.  Oh, he means, he does, but he hasn’t had a chance to get it to where he likes it yet.  He’ll have it up once he’s satisfied that it contains an exhaustive list of topsoil best practices and the definitive guide to flagstones, organized by region of the world.

When you ask what he can show you, he tells you that he’s active on social media, on gardening forums, on various blogs, on Landscapers’ Stack Exchange.  Really, he’s everywhere.

And, when you start doing your research, that’s actually true.  You can’t make heads nor tails of what Chuck actually does, but he is everywhere.  He’s on Facebook, leaving poor reviews for some mom and pop store that sells timber.  He’s on Landscapers’ Stack Exchange arguing with the editors that censor him.  There he is on some old vBulletin form about wheelbarrows, hurling invective about the newfangled plastic ones being inferior to the good old metal ones.

And.. oh my God.  You didn’t put it together.  That’s the Chuck that was in Alice’s blog comments section.  And Bob’s too!

Chuck, it seems, must have a lot of free time.  How can he possibly have any customers when he spends all of his time arguing about random, unrelated things that tangentially relate to you, your problem, your yard, and your needs.

Who Would You Pick?

Is this a perfect analogy?  No, of course not.  It’s going to be strained in some places.  (But it was kind of fun to write.)

But it certainly reverses the roles and prods you to see yourself through a buyer’s eyes.  If you’re looking to build your brand and attract buyers, you are necessarily looking to speak to people who need your expertise because they lack it.

When you’re hiring a landscaper to level out an unsightly hill in your backyard and replace it with terraces containing nice looking flowers, that’s really all the more you want to know.  You don’t want to know about the PH balance of the soil or whatever.  You certainly don’t want to be an unwitting party to people arguing about that subject.  As a buyer, this stuff doesn’t matter to you at all.

You’re going to pick the vendor that seems to grok your problem and has solved similar problems for similar buyers in the past.  You’re not going to care who has the most landscaping points on landscape overflow and, if any of these vendors bring something like that up to you, you’ll just assume that it’s a slimy sales tactic.

That’s how your buyers see you.  So you need to ask yourself whether you’re Alice, Bob, or Chuck.  Then you need to make yourself Alice.

The Optics of Where You Generate Content

Moving away from this metaphor, let me drive the point home a little further.  I’ll tell you what you should do instead of what you should avoid.  Taking a lesson from Alice, you should focus your energy on creating good, original content that you own.  Why?  Well, among other things, optics.

Any time you write a blog post destined for virality, that blog post has one author.  Maybe you have hundreds of readers.  They start to share that post, bringing the total eyeballs to thousands.  Maybe 10 people comment.

Then the thing makes it onto Hacker News or whatever.  Tens of thousands see it.  Hundreds comment on Hacker News, arguing with each other, hurling insults and exchanging death threats.  Dozens drop by to comment on your blog.  It’s a whirlwind, so let’s put a bit of a hierarchy to it.

  • Tens of thousands of readers
  • Thousands of sharers
  • Hundreds of comments across forums
  • Dozens of comments on your site
  • One author.

Now imagine this breakdown and hierarchy from a buyer’s perspective.  They don’t know the details, nor do they know the nuance of who is right or wrong.  What do they know?

They know that you wrote something and that tens of thousands of people are talking about it.  They know that hundreds of people have spent hundreds of hours typing thousands of words, vying for your attention, which you mostly don’t have time to give them.  And, while they really can’t say definitively who is right and who is wrong, or who matters and who doesn’t, you can bet they’re going to come away with what they consider to be a very educated guess.

Is that fair or just?  Not necessarily, but it’s life.

Stop Arguing with People and Start Producing Your Content

As I said in the beginning, this is aimed at people who want to brand and position themselves as consultants — as experts.  Doing this requires concerted and shrewd effort, and it requires prioritizing how you spend your time.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with people, and it doesn’t mean that you shy away from contrarian points of view or conflict.  It just means that you choose these battles dispassionately and fight them on your own turf.  Recently, I could have debated something on Twitter, but I didn’t — I spent time building my blog instead.  Post your side of the debate on your own site.  Make enemies when doing so endears you to your buyers.  But do (or don’t do) these things according to a plan.

Take an inventory of where all you’re generating content.  By all means, leave the occasional comment on someone’s site or interact with people on social media, but don’t pour tons of effort into those venues and don’t argue.  Channel those impulses into original content on your own site that can actually help you.  You can still make your case to people, too — you just do it with a link and an “I wrote a thing.”

Scott Hanselman made a rather poignant site that says simply, “you have a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die.”  How do you want to spend yours?  Do you want to spend them demanding that questions on Stack Overflow be closed, or typing a comment that some blogger is going to delete on a whim because it is, after all, her site?  Or do you want to spend them building a career for yourself?

If it’s the latter, then stop arguing with other developers and start talking to your buyers.

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Can’t I comment in old posts?