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Consider your target audience when giving advice

March 9, 2014

I’m seeing a common pattern lately – respected mentors with weight in the community giving people ‘advice’ in the form:

X is usually bad, therefore never do X

Giving this kind of advice IS bad, therefore don’t do it (not even a hint of irony here). If you find yourself making these kind of blanket statements, you need to ask yourself “Who is this advice aimed at?”

Juniors/Intermediates

Often we want to direct our information at people who are still learning, but are being led astray by the majority of advice they may be reading. In doing so, we hope that they can avoid making a mistake without having to first master the subject.

This is a noble motive. The flaw in this approach is that making mistakes is a really important way in which people learn.

When you have driving lessons, you’re being taught how to operate a car safely and reliably enough to pass a test. Learning to ‘drive’ is an ongoing process that takes years of practice, almost all of which will come after you pass your test and get out on your own.

What makes this tricky is that often junior developers within teams are not given this early opportunity to make the mistakes they need to… they are expected to be able to drive the car on their own, or teach themselves to do it.

Your blanket advice is bad for this audience. It will conflict with and confuse them.

Seniors/Experts

Some people in this audience are still very keen to learn, others are very set in their ways. Depending on your role or standing, this is probably where the bulk of your followers lie. There’s a thin line between a senior who is very keen to learn and a junior as both have a capacity to misinterpret advice.

Assuming that your blanket statement is encountered by a true expert however, they may be offended and rightly so. These people assume that you know your stuff and you know your audience, after all you’ve worked hard to get where you are right?

When an expert encounters an unbalanced statement that does not take into account the true circumstances and complexity of the situation, they immediately either question it or dismiss it. Most likely it’s the latter; you’ve not helped your cause and you’ve made yourself look like a bit of a tit.

Your blanket advice is bad for this audience. It will insult them and undermine you.

Your peers

When directing content at your peers, it is much more likely to spark debate and inspire theoretical discussion which will help drive both your ideas and the community forward. You can stand to omit well understood details, be smug, sarcastic or controversial without fear of your advice being misconstrued.

In this context however, what you’re really conveying is a concept, idea or opinion which is at risk of being consumed incorrectly as advice by one of your other audiences.

This is what is known as Leaky Advice. It’s leaky in terms of it’s target audience, and leaky because you can’t cover a complex underlying problem with a simple statement. Just like leaky abstractions though, it’s only a problem if your audience or use case is not the correct one.

Your blanket advice is great for this audience, but it’s no longer advice and you shouldn’t frame it as such.

Solving the root problem

If you seek to provide advice, you have a duty to educate your audience correctly. The more followers you have and the more respected in the community you are, the more important this becomes.

Bad advice is propagated by people with a poor understanding – they’ve read an over-generalised post or tweet somewhere and treated it as gospel because it has come from a reliable source, without thinking about the consequences.

By tweeting blanket staments to the wrong audience you are not helping to end the bad practice that you were trying to educate people against, you’ve simply made it worse by providing more bad advice and adding to the confusion.

We owe it to our followers and readers to provide balanced arguments along with evidence. We are scientists after all.

 

Pete

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2 Comments
  1. one of our juniors recently decided to stop using lambdas because he read on SO that “lambdas are terrible performance bottleneck”. When I noticed that and asked him about the whole thing, he shrugged: “Not sure, but it was the accepted answer”

  2. Oversimplification of the complex occurs in news, politics, rhetoric, blogs, documentaries and TED talks, Twitter (http://goo.gl/uWNM3g) because audiences want simplicity.Critical thinking served in parallel is more ambiguous, less articulate and concise. It’s less simple. You nailed it Pete – great post! It could have been titled “How to Start a Cargo Cult” or “Stop Telling Everyone to Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water!” 😉

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