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Fuzzy logic—The liberal arts

 All my life, I’ve lived among the willfully ignorant—people who might consider knocking wood a silly superstition, yet have no idea how their TV works, how planes fly, or how phones connect. To them, it’s all magic. They make up their own mythologies and rituals for getting technology to function. Then these neophytes have the gall to tell you to turn off the lights before you reboot or it won’t work.

Before I graduated from college, I had the perfect solution for dealing with these naive fools. I simply avoided and ignored them. Hanging around with techies was right in my comfort zone. That is until I married a “fuzzy”—a liberal arts major. All of a sudden, learning to communicate with the technologically superstitious became enlightened self-interest. We’ve been together for 20 years now, and I’m beginning to get the hang of it.

Eric AsideOh, the grief I got for this column (along with tons of praise). The grief was from techies who were private fuzzies and fuzzies who love technology. Both hated the stereotypes I drew. (Also, people who weren’t fuzzy or techie, like art designers, felt left out of the discussion.) As I say below, “Naturally, I’ve over-generalized here.” People are often too polite or hesitant to discuss contentious issues loaded with ambiguity. I over-generalize in every column to bring out salient points and drive dialogue.

It takes all kinds

Why should interacting with the ignorant be any concern of yours? Why not leave the fools to the foolish? I’ve got three reasons: coworkers, managers, and customers.

Sure, we hire folks for their technical savvy, but we all know that there are people who get it and people who tread water. For every one PM or manager who gets it, there are 5 to 10 who don’t. There are a lot of PMs and managers at Microsoft. Any improvements you want to make to your products or practices need to go through them. If you can’t communicate with PMs and managers effectively, I hope your geek past has sufficiently prepared you for a life of frustration.

Eric AsideMany PMs and managers come from the techie ranks. At one point, they understood all the details and took nothing for granted. However, over time it becomes expedient to let go of the details and think more about nontechnical aspects and the “big picture.” The world becomes fuzzy. Yes, I’m guilty of this myself.

As for customers, well, we don’t get to choose. Customers are customers, and the inability to effectively speak to a customer is career limiting. As I mentioned in my column Customer dissatisfaction, talking to customers is the key to making the right choices for critical product decisions. Customers don’t like to be patronized or made to feel small or stupid. I suppose managers and PMs are the same way.

You’ve got to understand fuzzy folks. You’ve got to appeal to their best judgment in a way that makes sense to them, makes them feel smart and in control. The alternatives aren’t pleasant.

They’re not like us

Liberal arts majors are not like us. It isn’t just the schools they attended or the classes they took. It’s a whole different way of looking at the world that you need to truly grok (a word that might not be familiar to them).

As luck would have it, I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to understand fuzzy logic. I’ve discovered some key differences you need to internalize:

  • Liberal arts majors believe rules are rules. Techies believe rules aren’t meant to be followed blindly; they are meant to be analyzed and understood, then used or altered as needed. Fuzzies believe rules are meant to protect you, and they simply must be obeyed. Even worse, a fuzzy’s version of the rules may not match yours. Just remember, if you plan to question or break any perceived rules in front of a fuzzy, you’d better be prepared to explain why it’s safe and have an authority figure to back you up. Why? Because…
  • Liberal arts majors respect authority. Techies typically don’t respect authority, though they do respect achievement. So it might not occur to you that manager approval is that big a deal—but it is to a fuzzy. The good news is that most fuzzies consider techies authorities on technology, so they’ll believe most anything you say in your area of expertise. Try not to abuse that advantage. Fuzzies may be different, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid or foolish.

Eric AsideAt this point, you might be saying, “Wait a minute, fuzzies have been breaking rules and disrespecting authority for years.” They have when they feel justified. In everyday life, fuzzies tend to prefer obedience to uncertainty. Techies prefer to rely on their own reason and logic to determine the rules and authority.

  • Liberal arts majors don’t tinker. Techies love to tinker; fuzzies avoid tinkering. Tinkering is breaking the rules. It feels risky and unsafe. This difference in attitude is subtle but very important. Fuzzies won’t just try stuff. They won’t right-click, press and hold, or try different menu items just to see what happens. So don’t expect fuzzies to experiment unless they truly know it is safe. Likewise, don’t expect a fuzzy to approve a change unless it’s well worth the risk and has a safe abort.
  • Liberal arts majors assume everything is simple. Techies know nothing is simple because techies focus on the details. Fuzzies focus on the larger picture where everything is simple, and if it isn’t, it should be. Neither view is wrong. Everything you do should be conceptually simple and easy to explain at a high level, or chances are good that it will collapse under its own weight. Yet, the devil is in the details. Simple is hard for technical folks who thrive in the details. But…
  • Liberal arts majors don’t care about the minutiae. Techies love the minutiae; often it’s the best part of a project. However, because fuzzies focus on the larger picture, tiny details only confuse the issues at hand. Therefore, if you are describing your idea or project to a fuzzy, you must leave out the minutiae and articulate the simple, high-level concepts and requirements behind your work. Otherwise, you’d better be prepared for no support, and rightfully so. Fuzzies aren’t simpletons who need to be babied. They are integrators who will tie your work into everything else going on, if you can provide a clear and simple picture of how your work fits in.
  • Liberal arts majors are not concerned with purity. Techies love purity. To them, it is beauty and grace. Purity washes away all the ugly tidbits, leaving the simple core truth of the problem. Unfortunately, all this escapes your typical fuzzy. Fuzzies don’t care about the ugly details in the first place. They expect things to be pure and simple. Telling a fuzzy that you’ve found an elegant, simple solution is likely to get a response like, “Yeah, I should hope so, what did you have before?” If you want to convince a fuzzy to adopt your elegant architecture, don’t argue the purity. Instead, talk to them about the customer or business benefits it provides like more reliability and easier maintenance.
  • Liberal arts majors care about feelings and appearances. Techies typically don’t even realize that feelings and appearances exist. It took my wife years of pointing out the importance of these things before I started understanding them. Fuzzies care tremendously about feelings and appearances. I know that seems stupid and counterproductive, but there just isn’t any way around it, so don’t bother arguing. Instead, when you propose an idea or plan to a fuzzy, be sure to consider how people will feel about it (assume that everyone is a fuzzy, which is how fuzzies think). Will anyone need to save face? Are you crossing into other people’s territory? Are you contradicting someone in authority? You don’t need to solve all these issues, but you do need to think about them and point them out to fuzzies. They will be impressed by how perceptive you are and then help you solve the people issues.

Naturally, I’ve over-generalized here. Not all liberal arts majors have these traits any more than all techies have the opposite traits. But you can’t assume everyone thinks the way you do. Just putting your preconceived notions on hold can go a long way toward achieving clear communication.

Getting past security

One of the more important implications of these qualities that make liberal arts majors different is that they tend to surround and protect people in authority. Because fuzzies respect authority and care about feelings and appearances, including their own, they can’t let just anyone talk to a senior manager or key customer contact. You’ve got to work through them. Sneaking past the fuzzy security may be fun and effective the first time, but when they realize what happened, the literary lynch squad will be offended and won’t forget it.

Luckily, there are ways to soft-talk your way through. Explain why it’s important to talk to the customer or manager. Allow the fuzzy to introduce you and set the stage (appearances, rules). Collect your issues and bring them all at once so the customer’s or manager’s time is respected and appreciated (feelings, respect for authority). Unless you are asked directly, leave out all the gritty details and cool design (minutiae, purity). Give the customer or manager clear choices of action (simplicity).

Management will love you; the customer will love you; and the crack fuzzy security force will love you.

Making things happen

If you want to drive engineering improvements on your team, you’ll need to convince the fuzzies. This isn’t easy because improvement means change, change means breaking the rules, and rules are rules. However, you can be an effective driver for change by following this simple strategy:

  • First, describe the problem you’re trying to solve. Use statistics to make it sound horrible. (It probably is horrible, but fuzzies respect the authority of numbers.) Don’t cheat—use real metrics. You want the problem to seem horrible to prove that the current rules are unsafe and need to change.
  • Next, describe what conditions the solution must satisfy to keep the project and team safe—for instance, a rollback strategy, conditional compilation, policy settings, regular reviews, or manager approval. Don’t just make this up; think about people’s concerns. You must do this before you describe your solution or else you’ll get battered by every fuzzy’s apprehension. Remember, change has feelings associated with it.
  • Now, describe your solution. Talk about how it meets the safety conditions (which you’ve previously worked out). Then talk about how it leaves the project in better shape. Suggest statistics that will demonstrate the results (like a percentage drop in regressions or pri 1 bugs or shorter stabilization times). Remember to keep it high level and simple. The statistics are particularly important because there’s no other authoritative way to prove you’ve improved. To avoid the statistics being gamed, always use team instead of individual measures. Be sure to have a celebration when your new rules allow you to meet your goals.

Better together

It’s easy to be cynical about liberal arts majors, or about anyone who thinks or works differently than you do. But different approaches bring out different values. Ultimately, we all benefit. It’s mushy, but true.

By learning to appreciate the balance that fuzzies bring to our techie world, you can become far more effective. Understand your differences, adjust your approach, tune your message, and respect your audience. In the end, you’ll have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Eric AsideSince I left Microsoft’s Engineering Learning and Development organization, my wife has been editing my columns for me each month. Even though we’re quite different as people, we still make a great match. I can honestly say after 26 years together and 22 years of marriage that it’s never been better.

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