The Sympathetic Approach

August 7, 2012

I have a predictable threshold for Macy’s. Not too long ago, I was shopping there with a girl — which is to say that she was shopping, and I was serving dual life-sentences back-to-back for a crime I didn’t commit. The likeliest explanation for my unjust, albeit fashionable, incarceration was that she was a heartless shrew who had no concern for my long-term psychological or emotional well-being. In the unlikely event, however, that she was not pure evil, but merely that the allure of fragrances and cosmetics had acutely undermined her ability to feel specific empathy for the opposite sex — the scents having temporarily transmuted her into a sort of sociopathic shopaholic — I felt it would be in my best interest to point out that not only was Macy’s not where I would like to spend 84 hours of a Saturday afternoon, but also that it was utterly absurd to spend $1.4M — which is only a slight exaggeration — on eye shadow.

As you might imagine, this was an unfortunate strategy. In retrospect, I would have arrived at a much more desirable outcome if I had mentioned that I was getting hungry and that the myriad of overpowering fragrances were starting to give me a headache. The problem was that I made an impersonal and non-relatable case. This is also a mistake I make all too often when attempting to persuade organizations to change their ways. Too many times I’m stoic instead of understanding; calculating instead of concerned. I’ve grown accustomed to using words like “absurd” when describing an organization’s 18 minute, non-deterministic build process.

You know what the truth is? It is fucking absurd. Many times, the ridiculous challenges organizations are plagued with have no earthly business being problems in 2012, and it tends to be extremely difficult for me to relate to them. However, I’m not there to write a dissertation on all the ways they’ve misunderstood encapsulation, and I’m not there to win a debate about Java’s terrible inheritance model: I’m there to improve a situation. As a general rule, whenever I’ve made this mistake in the past, I would have been far better off had I taken the sympathetic approach. Maybe instead of explaining that a 1500 line POM file is atrocious, I could instead sit down and listen to the sordid tale of how the organization ended up with 53 unused dependency entries, among other perversions. Maybe I could mention how these types of challenges are really tough when you don’t have an exhaustive and comprehensive understanding of the tools you’re using. And maybe next time I won’t mention that, by the way, that’s the information they hide in books.


John is a serial conversationalist who spends entirely too much time engulfed in problem domains he knows nothing about and has no earthly business trying to learn. He can occasionally be found at your local coffee shop writing algorithms and trying to think deep thoughts.