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Re: Second rate programmers and my confession

by George_Sherston (Vicar)
on Jun 05, 2002 at 20:05 UTC ( #171978=note: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

in reply to Second rate programmers and my confession


You can generally tell the people who *really* know their stuff because they'll talk about it a transparent way, using ordinary language and not afraid that you'll see flaws in it, nor upset if you do. Plus, they don't feel the need to make themselves feel good by hammering on (as opposed to modestly correcting) the weaknesses of others.

The preference for natural language among the Truly Great - not just a programming phenomenon. I came down with Bell's Palsy in Pittsburgh once (I'm fine now I hasten to add... and I don't *think* it was Pittsburgh's fault). The first doctor I saw was a nervous resident who said "it's an idiopathic self-limiting condition". Later, through a friend of a friend, I talked on the telephone to the top neurologist in California who said "we don't know why it happens but it gets well on its own".

Conclusion: the best doctors (s/doctors/programmers/) don't speak Greek.

George Sherston
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Re: Re: Second rate programmers and my confession
by cjf (Parson) on Jun 06, 2002 at 00:57 UTC
    You can generally tell the people who *really* know their stuff because they'll talk about it a transparent way, using ordinary language and not afraid that you'll see flaws in it, nor upset if you do

    Perhaps they really know their stuff because they've had this attitude since long before they were really good at what they do.

    As BUU points out, there are reasons to use advanced technical language (if you can call it that) but often people fail to consider the knowledge level of the person they're speaking with. Being able to talk about a subject in terms anyone can comprehend is a very valuable skill and definately shows a strong understanding of the subject.

      Perhaps they really know their stuff because they've had this attitude since long before they were really good at what they do.
      Excellent. I wish I had any votes left. :-)

      Makeshifts last the longest.
Re: Re: Second rate programmers and my confession
by BUU (Prior) on Jun 05, 2002 at 21:10 UTC
    I fail to see why using 'higher level' terms is symptomatic of a lack of ability. Perhaps the first doctor felt that "idiopathic self-limiting condition" gave you the most succinct and explanatory description. Perhaps it does so for him, and he would consider "it gets well on its own" a poor statement because it does not explain or teach as much as the previous one. My point being, that people will use what ever terms come naturally to them to explain their project. If you had to describe something, and there was a 5 syllable word that exactly explained it, you could use that, or perhaps you could use 4 or 5 sentences of 'lower level words' and still not have fully explained it.

    We could go even further in this analyzation, and say that perhaps the first doctor respected you and your intelligence, so he used advanced terms that precisely defined the problem, where as the 'top surgeon' did not feel the same level of respect and felt he had to "dumb down" the explantion for a "lay man".

    Or of course, i could be wrong. But people use whatever language they feel comfortable with, unless they are making a deliberate effort to reach a different level, either higher or lower.

      BUU wrote: I fail to see why using 'higher level' terms is symptomatic of a lack of ability.

      It may not indicate lack of ability, but oftimes, it is often indicative of communication problems. One company I worked at had a programmer who would deal with problems like this:

      Customer:    Why didn't I get my reports?
      Programmer:  I just checked and you got a SOC7 in GLJ0430R and I'm going to
                   have to reload the dataset and start from the top.

      That programmer was technically correct. Of course, he didn't answer the customer's question. Learning to target your message to your audience is important. I would have simply said "looks like we got some bad data. I'm going to fix it and have the report to you in an hour."

      Now, does the previous person have a "lack of ability"? I remember one professor who said "if you can't put it in writing, you don't know it." Quite often, if I find that I can't explain something in clear terms that anyone can understand, I really don't understand what I'm trying to explain.

      What's a SOC7? Well, it's a SOC7. It''s... it's a data exception. What is a data exception? Well, it's, uh, you know...

      You see my point? If I can't explain something clearly, I probably don't understand it. Of course, I may understand it very well, but simply be a poor communicator. I tend to be suspicious of those who want to use high-falutin' terms.

      Hope that helps :)


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        I agree: to quote Einstein: "If you can't explain something to a six year-old, you don't understand it yourself". Even though most of us (here) are reasonably technically proficient, I think (huge generalization coming up) that even we find it easier to understand things that are written in a natural language - after all, natural language is the tool we use every day.

        One of the arts of communication is tailoring your output to the audiences' level of comprehension - if you're talking to your non-programmer manager, you'd hopefully use language that he/she could understand. Trying to "blind with science" tends to make you appear arrogant, and will often alienate your audience. If that audience has some influence on your wage-packet, I'd watch out.
        As programmers, we generally have a higher level of technical knowledge than the average (customer, user, individual), but giving descriptions in "user-language" actively helps your ability to communicate.
        My 2 cents, take with the appropriate quantity of sodium chloride.

        Is this going out live?
        No, Homer, very few cartoons are broadcast live - it's a terrible strain on the animator's wrist
        I don't know what your point is. Perhaps you are trying to say that the programmer didn't understand the problem. But you didn't tell us what happened after the programmer talked to the customer. Did he screw up and the customer never got his report? Or did the customer get his report after the data was reloaded? In the latter case, I'd say the programmer did understand the problem.

        I strongly disagree that you don't understand a problem if you cannot explain it in a few sentences to someone totally unfamiliar with the field, and who has no interest in knowing.

        After I graduated, I did a few years of theoretical research at a university. The first nine months I spend studying topology before I could understand some of the problems I was working on. Was I a bad researcher because I won't be able to explain the problems here on this webboard? I don't think so.

        If all people who really understood things well all could easily explain things to other people regardless of their level, the quality of education would be much better. I've seen people, top of their field by a large margin, who write very hard to understand papers. That doesn't make them second rate.


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      Using "higher level" terms is, if not symptomatic, then at least strongly related to having "a lack of ability", as you put it.

      There is a theory of skill development which goes something like this:
      • Unconciously Incompetent
      • Conciously Incompetent
      • Conciously Competent
      • Unconciously Competent
      This is very similar to many Eastern philosophies regarding the path of learning.

      I have a feeling that when one progresses to the fourth step, there is no reason to talk in scientific terms or to use fancy words. Since a master understands the subject matter in a complete sense, that it is really an integral part of them, there's no reason to use symbolic references to advanced concepts, such as the example of "idiopathic". It's not "dumbing down" so much as not making it sound more complicated than it is.

      It is a natural tendancy for some people, especially those of intermediate skill, to start talking technical nonsense just to sound important. Anyone who knows what they are saying will find it devoid of real meaning, and anyone who doesn't will find it useless. It's only those that have an idea of what they are saying that will be impressed.

      PROGRAMMER A: Your hash reference buffer has no entries, so that must be why you're not getting any program output.
      PROGRAMMER B: I think what he's saying is that your document is empty, so that's why the page is blank.
      update poop scoop - this was meant to be a reply to the reply to my first reply...

      It's possible. But my take on that particular situation, and my generalisation from that and other observations, is that obscure jargon often (though by no means always) goes with weak thought and insecurity.
      (A) using a technical term gets one off the hook of explaining what one really means - maybe one does in fact know; but maybe one doesn't want to find out that one can't put it more simply. Certainly, if I can put my concepts into terms that the intelligent generalist can understand, then I can be fairly sure I have understood them, rather than merely having learnt to say their names in a convincing way.
      (B) In any event, if I really *am* uncertain about what I'm doing, then one way I may want to hide this, and make myself feel cleverer, is by dressing up the little I know in language that distinguishes it from ordinary knowledge.

      I'm often reminded of Richard Feynman, whose ability to put complicated concepts into everyday language seemed to me to be part of his genius - certainly an outworking of his ability to understand.

      George Sherston
      There's also the chance the first doctor didn't really know what he was saying exactly, he might've just remembered a term from a book and couldn't explain the true cause (neither could the second doctor ofcourse)

      ... Quidquid perl dictum sit, altum viditur.
      This is off-topic Perl-wise, but does relate to the discussion at hand.

      I don't think "best doctors" necessarily means "doctors with best medical ability"; however, there's more to being a good doctor than knowing a lot about medicine. IMO, the best doctors are the ones who not only have good medical ability, but can relate to patients, tell them what's wrong with them in terms they can understand, explain the treatments and how they work, and basically make the patient feel like a human being rather than a collection of symptoms. That's how I'd interpret it, anyway.

      "Abby-somebody. Abby-normal."
      Young Frankenstein
      I fail to see why using 'higher level' terms is symptomatic of a lack of ability

      In lieu of the discussion about this, I'd like to throw in my own ammendment to the original statement.

      Very learned persons, in any field, can be detached in a certain sense. To them, these complex and lotsa' syllable words aren't big or confusing, so it is a detached language. With Perl, however, a true expert can see the beauty of the language is in it's simplicity. Sure, it looks like hell from time to time, but the concepts are extremely simple, to the point of common sense. This holds true for almost anything; math, science, computers - it all comes down to ones and zeroes.

      Take science, for example. Someone told me they had no idea of the point of Quantum Mechanics. I could have gone into big words or explanations, but instead I asked, "How wide is that doorway?". They answered something in the range of 4 feet, and I corrected them: "No, the doorway is (closed one eye and held up two fingers) this wide. It would only be that wide if I was standing over there, but I'm not. And if I went over there, I'd have to ask again". I think this is what I think the original post intended...there's no ego, no pretension, just pointing out what persons were trying too hard to see (and are fully capable of seeing). Everything can be simple, you just have to know how to look.

      But I do agree with this parent's main point: assuming a lack of expertise based on any generality is wrong. We should, however, strive to see how easy and basic we can make anything we take on...after all, isn't that the point of Perl? ;)

      complexity kills.

      Concisely put, someone who has a deep knowledge of something gains, as a result, the capacity to appropriately hide its complexity through simple metaphor.

      When someone doesn't understand as well, he or she cannot as easily extrapolate a simple metaphor, and can only give a technical answer.

      When someone doesn't understand at all, he or she might simply hide behind impressive-sounding words.

      This is largely because the knowledgeable individual is much more confident about leaving out technical details, because he or she knows which details are unimportant for a given context. The less-knowledgeable has not not yet developed a feel for which technical details are really important in understanding a given concept.

      So, while an explanation filled with technical detail doesn't automatically mean the speaker/author is not knowledgeable, it does tend to work out that way.

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      The Code that can be seen is not the true Code
      I haven't found a problem yet that can't be solved by a well-placed trebuchet

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