Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Pearls Before Swine

Bob in Michigan sent me the link to the above cartoon (Click on the cartoon to see the whole thing). It's a good thing that I use the same hand for holding my coffee cup and clicking the mouse and thus can't do both things simultaneously. If I had mastered that trick, the coffee would've shot out my nose and I'd still be cleaning my keyboard instead of posting this note. I found the comic very funny and, unfortunately, often very true.

Over many years as a cyclist and more years as a human being, I've noticed that people don't react well to being told that they are doing something wrong, you are doing something right and that you are better than they are. As a strategy, it just doesn't seem to work all that well.

In much the same way that cookies yield better intelligence than waterboarding, it seems that the key to persuasion is establishing a true empathetic connection, seeing the other person as a person. We all have to make our ways in the world, connect with the ones we love, earn our livings, and keep track of our stuff. And each of us, each day, tries to solve the days problems in the way that makes the most sense to us.

Yesterday, I had lunch with my friends Mike and Raif. Years ago, they were part of my team doing QA work for a "large, Redmond-based software developer". As I've often said, "unless you can get paid to find sand at the beach, you will not have an easier job." Mike, Raif and many other very bright people found boat-loads of bugs. Another set of people, also very bright, patched code and created more features and there were always new bugs and old bugs that worked in new ways and software, like all art, is a journey, not a destination. For many years I sent email and went to meetings and daily triage sessions and maybe helped make some things better and would be happy if, at the end of the day, things would maybe suck just a little less.

Here's one thing I found there, the thing that I think has bearing not only on software development but also bicycle advocacy and a lot of other things. Some of the people involved in the project were not only very bright, they had a strong investment in being right. And my job was basically telling them that they were wrong. They would want to ship product X and I'd tell them that they couldn't ship because this, this and that are broken in product X. You'd think that wouldn't make me and my test team very popular, yet we were. People genuinely valued our input. Hell, they paid us a lot of money for our input.

We represented the end-users of the software, so naturally we tried to think like software users. But the people who read the bug reports and acted on them were the developers, so we really tried to think like developers as well, giving them as much info as we could about a problem. We'd occasionally try to think like the marketing guys as well, but that would just make our heads hurt and order too many drinks at lunch, so we pretty much stopped doing that. We learned to describe problems not in the "you're wrong" way but in the "the software is doing this, is this right?" way. Developers love to solve problems and we uncovered interesting, sometimes bizarre, problems. We would get the developers engaged by thinking like developers ourselves and trying to supply every bit of information needed to recreate the problem. The best developers thought like testers and the best testers thought like developers. As testers, we developed test code to automate the boring things. I'd always tell my crew "if some part of your job troubles you, find a way to change it."

It's that empathy, putting yourself in the shoes of the other, that is the way we truly share the road. Raif now works at a smaller place, testing software. Years ago Mike merged into the mothership and is now managing the new releases of code we all had a hand in testing years ago. And I now work at a place where most of the day to day problems I encounter are hardware problems, but some of the issues still come down to "the loose nut attached to the handlebar." We talked about our jobs, our families, the world at large and life in general. We noted that I was the only one who hadn't had to orbit the parking lot looking for a place to leave my car. Watching Raif do the "parking lot vulture" circuit brought back memories of a younger me who used to drive, a fellow who had a bug list involving parking, gas, insurance, and more places I wanted to ride to than drive. I closed out those bugs by changing my operating system to one based on two wheels instead of four, a system fueled by peanut M&Ms instead of petroleum. I'm not claiming it's a better solution for everyone, but it's turned out to be a better solution for me.

I didn't waste my lunch time trying to convince my friends that I'm smart for riding and that they're stupid for driving. It's not true, it's not the point and it's not productive. But by riding to the lunch, basically by riding everywhere for the past 20 plus years, I provide one small counter-example in a car-centric culture. I've talked about my riding philosophy before, specifically in this post, and basically it comes down to trying to respect the other users of the road. A great part of that respect is seeing the other people, be they drivers, walkers or cyclists, as people.

Those of us who are cyclists, if we are fit and tan and happy in our lives, don't need to tell people that we are fit and tan and happy. Our friends can see that. And if we aren't constantly telling people that they'd be happier if they were fit and tan and happy like we are, we might have more friends.

But sometimes, of course, we get this urge to preach. Maybe that's what blogs are good for.

Keep 'em rolling,

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