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Clean Communication

Do you remember your early days of software development in a team setting? If you do, and you’re anything like me, you’ll have awkward memories of trying too hard. Eager to show that you were ready for a seat at the big kids’ table, you’d dive into new assignments with the sort of over-eager attitude that made the grizzled veterans around you roll their eyes knowingly and, perhaps, smile faintly indulgent smiles.

It was time for you to shine. Adding a new radio button option to an existing series of options was the perfect chance for you to show that you knew what the Composite Pattern was. And, why use any of the collection types in the standard library when you could roll your own and use a method header comment to prove, mathematically, that it sorted itself in O(n log n)? Any unimaginative clod could write code that did what the users needed it to do, but it took a visionary, like you or me from days past, to write code that mostly did what users needed it to do while showcasing lessons from all 4 years of your undergraduate programs. Each feature that you delivered was a chance to add to your own personal portfolio at the company.

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Eventually, that stops. As more responsibility comes along, you simply don’t have time, but even beyond that, you see the value in simplicity. You realize the inherent problem with creating scaffolding for a 7-tier architecture for something that could be accomplished in 1 line of shell script — you’re wasting time and creating needless risk of getting things wrong. And then, sooner or later, you generalize those lessons to understand that code is a tool for communicating software’s behaviors to those that come later. Over-complicating things for vanity becomes developer narcissism and perhaps the ultimate sin for a clean coder. Elegant solutions are effective, clear, efficient, and concise as they minimize or eliminate non-essential complexity. Grandstanding is not to be tolerated.

As rigorously as we apply this lesson to software, we seem to forget about it and fall into similar traps in other areas of our professional lives. One obvious example is in how we express ourselves in academic and business settings, to name a couple of prominent ones. I’ve written in the past about instances of using jargon-intensive language (in this case, in a waterfall requirements documents) as a tool to confuse and trick others, but I don’t think that’s the normal approach when we’re in meetings, writing papers, or giving presentations. So what gives? Why do we adopt, often in quite ham-fisted fashion, “business casual” and “formal” dialects of the English language in certain settings? Why do we try to talk like what we perceive to be slightly superior versions of ourselves?

To clarify what I mean, consider this snarky tweet I made, juxtaposing “business-ese” with a fairly crass statement that would be more common in a bar (which led to an interesting conversation, by the way):

This didn’t just randomly pop into my brain; my fiancee had shown me some prose written for a presentation or something that raised linguistic over-reach to an art form. I don’t recall the exact text, but someone had certainly done a find and replace with “use” and “utilize,” respectively. A bourgeois sentence like, “we need to utilize a synergistic paradigm to augment the popularity of our modern media communiques” might easily have replaced its proletarian cousin: “we should cross-post tweets to Facebook.” Sure, the second sentence might have been clear and easily understood, but come on, where’s the pizzazz?!

We humans seem to have a collective flair for the dramatic, perhaps reinforced by dressing up for special occasions and sprinkling various traditions and cargo cult activities throughout our months and years. But saying a special prayer for a holiday or wearing a certain kind of outfit to a wedding is fit for purpose — the primary goal of doing these things is to make the occasion special. To put it another way, we don’t put on suits and dresses at weddings because they help the ceremony move along more efficiently or because they lead to a reduced likelihood of divorce. The suits are ornamental because the occasion calls for ornamentation.

But when we’re giving a presentation on what our team’s strategy should be for Q4, it’s not an occasion for ornamentation. We don’t show up in tuxedos and gowns, we don’t ask the meeting attendees to join us in any prayers or toasts, and we probably don’t get drunk. So why do we ham it up for the moment with some business-ese? Our purpose should, for the benefit of the organization, be crystal clarity, and yet, we feel a pull to do quick, mental find-and-replaces in the moment, dressing up casual words like “use” with their dressier cousins like “utilize.” We’re taking situations that do not call for ornamentation and offering it up anyway, because we’re taking these situations and turning them into our own personal showcases… much like we did with over-complicated, flowery code as junior developers out to prove ourselves. Let’s not do that.

Do you know who Ernest Hemingway was? Oh, nobody, just The Most Interesting Man in the World. He was also a world renowned author who was known for a style that was starkly beautiful and haunting with its unadorned, approachable prose. Contemporary William Faulkner once quipped about Hemingway, “he has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemmingway’s reply was snarky and brilliant, but also strikingly parallel to what a clean coder might say to a newbie eager to prove himself:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

Nobody is ever going to look back on a presentation you gave and say, “that was very persuasive and clear but she never once said ‘move the needle’ or ‘think outside the box’ at any point!” But if you stand up there and dump buzzwords like a slot machine that just hit on 3 Gantt Charts, people may tune out or miss your point. If Hemingway were alive today, employed as a tech professional, and doing Dos Equis commercials, he might well say, “I don’t always make corporate power points, but when I do, I talk like myself.” You could do worse than following suit and offering no apologies for your clarity, just like the grizzled veteran that ships clean code quickly.

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Andy Bailey
Guest

Excellent post, invoked many memories from when I started out in the business.
It isn’t just technophiles that could do with using the simpler and better words, anyone who has to speak in public should do so.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Agreed. It’s quite a common phenomenon. I’ve actually seen it probably at its worst in academia. There seems to be a prevailing attitude of “if people don’t have to work to understand you, it’s not worth reading.”

Geoff Mazeroff
Guest
The concept of ceremony applies to many styles of communication and interaction. Over the years “ceremony” in the career sense has taken on a negative connotation. It’s extra work to be done because someone said that’s what is to be done. The flip side is that it can make us feel important that we’re going through grandiose motions, which is probably related to the cult of “busy.” I suppose the hard question to ask is why the ceremony exists, or why we feel the need to make things more complex and showy. Perhaps it’s because we feel undervalued and need… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
Good catch. I’m much more prone to mistakes now, lacking a regular editor and also lacking much time for proofreading; I’m surprised I don’t notice mortifying flubs on a regular basis, but c’est la vie. I’ve seen variants of the idea you’re mentioning; there was actually a cartoon I was looking for that showed developers starting out with a hello world kind of thing and then progressing in their careers by adding polymorphism, frameworks, logging, etc, and eventually winding back up at hello world, the one liner. I have a hypothesis as to why the ceremony exists, but it’d be… Read more »
Nicholas Perry ~ @UltimApe
Guest
The funny thing about cargo cult-ing: those Melanesian tribes used the same words that they adopted from the armed forces stationed there. I’m sure the word choice that they adopted worked a lot better at calling down cargo planes when said by the originators. When you are creating a presentation you are trying to persuade human beings. When you look at word choice as a form of cultural signaling mechanisms – it starts to make a little more sense. Its a way for people to say “look, I belong here!”. Show me a group of people who learn together and… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
That’s a great article. It brings to mind two questions in my head: (1) If that Oklahoma experiment and Lord of the Flies happened in the same year, what was their relationship and (2) is the “change personalities in your difference groups” the reason no one posts anything interesting on Facebook? In the meeting room, I’d think that the alliances and group identities are too murky and shifting for bombastic presentations to be a pure function of shared vocabulary. For instance, I think shared identity might explain why everyone suddenly starts referring to bathroom trips as “bio-breaks” or something (and,… Read more »
Nicholas Perry ~ @UltimApe
Guest
The story is more to suggest that we all meme. I’m not saying that all of these words are acting as a cultural identity, nor that all of them necessarily diverge into caricatures of their real meaning, but that they often get overused or mis-used by cargo-cultists because they are outsiders to these originating groups. For example, I know that communiqué is PR-speak for an official release, or an official memo (which is short for memorandum). It also might be part of a set of clues suggesting that the person who said it is possibly a star-trek fan. I think… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
Weirdly, I can remember exactly when I first heard the word synergy. I was in junior high or maybe high school, and during some kind of “Just Say No” thing, they used the word in an attempt to scare the bejeezus out of us in the context of “if you take more than 1 drug, there’s this thing called synergy where they interact and make your brain explode.” (Or something probably not too far off of this hyperbole) Anyway, I think it’s a fair point (and less cynical than my outlook) that groups will adopt vocabularies and that the words… Read more »
Nicholas Perry ~ @UltimApe
Guest
I just finished this talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=job2avPAbgU Made me think of this conversation. It mentions a bit about how deep seated the need to belong and identify with a group is and how it’s use in language might has some sort of evolutionary basis. I haven’t dug into the references he mentions, but the presentation of the general concept is quite good. Per the talk, perhaps what you are talking about is analogous to social peacocking. I’ll see what I can dig up on this and see if there is any research because I think you are right that there… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

I’ve had a busy weekend and this is a travel week for me, so I’m flying out in a couple of hours. Haven’t had a chance to take a look yet, but I should have some downtime over the next few nights in my hotel. I’m interested to take a look.

Bob212
Guest

In the distant past I admired people that could write a 3 page document that sounded very good but said absolutely nothing. I admired them because it seemed that writing these papers was much of what made them successful.

I think one reason people are intentionally vague is because they want “wiggle room” to claim that they were either on the right side of an issue or at least not against an issue.

Erik Dietrich
Guest
I definitely agree that there’s a motivation to using language to confuse rather than clarify in highly hand-wavy situations. The most benign example I can think of is something like a person being called on to make a presentation with unclear purpose simply to fill time. “Hey, Steve, can you put together a deck and present on new trends in social media at this quarterly marketing thing the board wants?” Steve thinks, “oh, crap, I have no idea what even to talk about, so I’ll regurgitate some impressive sounding terms, add a few graphs, and hope it’s over quickly with… Read more »
Nicholas Perry ~ @UltimApe
Guest
I actually see a lot more of this from marketing types compared to other groups (just try typing thought leader, growth hacker, PR or SEO into a tweet…). Trying to convince a business that you need a webpage, SEO, and an online social presence seems to be part truth, and part fluff. I think a lot of people are latching on to the hype train as a meal ticket and as such are incentivized to spread the positive equivalent of F.U.D. Cutting through the bullshit is indeed a hard problem. Sadly most small business leaders don’t have the time or… Read more »