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Team Geek by Ben Collins-Sussman, Brian W. Fitzpatrick

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Chapter 4. Dealing with Poisonous People

As the opening quote of our book suggests, the hardest part of software development is people.

Up until now, we’ve taken an introspective approach. We began with an examination of your own private behaviors and how to focus them on the principles of humility, respect, and trust (HRT). We then explored ways to build a communicative team culture around these concepts. In the preceding chapter, we explained how to mold yourself into an effective leader of such a team, should the need arise.

In the second half of this book, we’re going to shift gears and start looking outward. How does your team interact with people outside your immediate group? There are almost always folks wishing to join or collaborate with your team. There are issues in dealing with the politics of your larger organization. And, of course, you need to have a plan for dealing with the most important outsiders of all: the users of your software!

In this chapter, we’ll discuss the importance of preventing destructive outsiders from trashing the cooperative culture your team has worked hard to build. Perhaps more importantly, we’ll also talk about how to deal with poisonous people already on your team.

Defining “Poisonous”

We’ve already reviewed the importance of building a solid, communicative team culture. We spent most of the time talking about what a good culture should include: things like consensus-based development, high-quality code, code reviews, and an environment where people feel comfortable to try new things and to fail fast.

Just as important is the need to talk about what your culture should not include. If you’re trying to build a highly efficient, fast-moving team, it’s important to focus on what you don’t want. While brilliant engineers can make your team faster and more efficient, certain antibehaviors can make your team slower and less efficient, and make your company a less comfortable place to work—and eventually erode the bonds that hold the team together.

When we first began speaking about the social challenges of software development at conferences, we came up with a presentation titled “How to Deal with Bad Eggs.” The conference chair suggested we rename the talk to “How Projects Survive Poisonous People,” with the hope that a more tabloidlike title would draw a bigger audience. And he was right: we gave the presentation over and over at different conferences to standing-room-only crowds. It’s not just the sensational negativity of a word like poisonous that attracted people, but the fact that everyone seems to have some sort of personal experience in dealing with irritating people. The talks would almost always turn into a group therapy session, with audience members swapping war stories and seeking advice.

But there’s a danger here. In general, it’s not healthy to spend one’s time stewing in an ocean of negativity—it tends to eat you up and can create more conflicts in the long run.[41] The term poisonous person is a nasty label and automatically creates a dividing line between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (those nasty jerks). There’s a better way to think about the problem. Instead of running your team as an elite fraternity with a mission to repel mean people, it’s healthier to create a culture that simply refuses to tolerate certain negative behaviors. It’s the behaviors you want to filter out, not particular individuals. It’s naïve to think of individuals as purely good or bad; it’s more constructive and practical to identify and reprimand the intolerable behaviors.

For now, we’ll continue to use the term poisonous person as a simplifying piece of rhetoric, one that refers to a person who isn’t behaving well. In practice, though, this is probably not the term you’d want to use in everyday conversations!

Fortifying Your Team

Recall our yeast metaphor: how a team culture grows from an important starter culture. The biggest single influence on the long-term culture of your team is the team you start with, and if the founding team doesn’t establish a strong enough culture, strains of other cultures will overgrow it. If your starter team builds a strong sense of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, these expectations will endure for many years.

The two of us have spent a lot of time in the world of open source projects, and our own experiences jibe with this idea pretty strongly.

The project we were most involved with—Subversion—was started by a very small group of people. They had a lot of humility and naturally trusted and respected one another. After 11-plus years, the project has gone through at least three or four generations of participants (the founders are mostly gone), and yet the same culture persists—everyone is kind, is polite, and expects that same behavior from everyone else. The culture perpetuates not just because of high standards, but because cultures tend to be self-selecting. Nice people tend to be attracted to existing nice communities.

Self-selection can easily work in the other direction as well. When a team is started by a group of angry jerks, the effort tends to attract more and more individuals of the same sort. Certain projects that we won’t mention here (like the Linux kernel community) are keen examples of this—endless bickering, chest thumping, and sniping. The team may get a lot of work done, but the overall efficiency of its operation is doubtful. How much more work would get done if so much energy weren’t being spent on personal attacks? How much potential contribution is lost because polite people are being driven away at the front door?

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Fortify your team against unacceptable behaviors.

We bring up this topic again because you need to understand what’s at stake: poisonous people are a direct threat to your high-functioning team. If you allow bad behaviors to persist, not only does your productivity decrease, but also you may find your culture slowly changing for the worse. The best defense is to fortify your culture through a strong set of best practices and procedures. We covered them in Chapter 2, but here’s a quick refresher:

  • Have a visible mission statement, to keep you focused on both your goals and nongoals.

  • Establish proper etiquette around email discussions. Keep archives, get newcomers to read them, and prevent filibustering by noisy minorities.

  • Document all history: not just code history, but also design decisions, important bug fixes, and prior mistakes.

  • Collaborate effectively. Use version control, keep code changes small and reviewable, and spread the “bus factor” around to prevent territoriality.

  • Have clear policies and procedures around fixing bugs, testing, and releasing software.

  • Streamline the barrier to entry for newcomers.

  • Rely on consensus-based decisions, but also have a process for resolving conflicts when consensus can’t be reached.

The bottom line is that the more ingrained these best practices are, the more intolerant of poisonous behavior your community will be. When troublemakers arrive, you’ll be ready.

Identifying the Threat

If you’re going to defend your team against poisonous people, the first thing you need to do is to understand exactly what constitutes a threat and when you should become concerned.

What’s specifically at risk is your team’s attention and focus.

Attention and focus are the scarcest resources you have. The bigger the team, the more capacity the team has to focus on writing software and solving interesting problems—but it’s always a finite amount. If you don’t actively protect these things, it’s easy for poisonous people to disrupt your team’s flow. Your team ends up bickering, distracted, and emotionally drained. Everyone ends up spending all their attention and focus on things other than writing great software.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder: what does a poisonous person look like? To defend yourself, you need to know what to look out for.

In our experiences, it’s rare to find people who are deliberately being malicious (i.e., are trying to be jerks on purpose). We call such people “trolls” and typically ignore them. Most people who behave badly, however, either don’t realize it or simply don’t care. It’s more an issue of ignorance or apathy, rather than malice. Most of the bad behaviors boil down to a simple lack of HRT.

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You must protect your team’s attention and focus.

Here are some classic signals and patterns to watch for. Whenever we see these patterns, we talk about “flipping the bozo bit” on the person—that is, we make a mental note that the person is consistently exhibiting poisonous behaviors and that we should be extremely careful in dealing with her.

Not Respecting Other People’s Time

There are certain people out there who simply are unable to figure out what’s going on in a project. Their damage is most often in the form of wasting the team’s time. Rather than spending a few minutes of their own time reading fundamental project documentation, mission statements, FAQs, or the latest email discussion threads, they repeatedly distract the entire team with questions about things they could easily figure out on their own.

In the Subversion project, we once had a participant who decided to use the main developer discussion forum as a sounding board for his daily stream of consciousness. Charlie made no actual code contribution. Instead, every two or three hours, he’d send out his latest daydreams and brainstorms. There would inevitably be multiple responses explaining why his ideas were incorrect, impossible, already in progress, previously discussed, and/or already documented. To make things worse, Charlie even started answering questions from drive-by users, and answering them incorrectly. Core contributors had to repeatedly correct his replies. It took us quite a while to realize that this affable, enthusiastic participant was in fact poisonous and draining our collective energy, and later in this chapter we’ll talk about how we dealt with the situation.

Ego

Perhaps ego isn’t the perfect word here, but we’re using the term to describe anyone who is incapable of accepting a consensus decision, incapable of listening to or respecting other points of view, and incapable of reaching compromises. This person will typically reopen discussions that have been long settled (and documented in email archives) because she wasn’t around to participate in the decision. The person won’t read or think about the history at all, demanding that the debate be replayed just for her sake. She will often make sweeping claims about the project’s success, claiming that doom is imminent unless she gets her way.

The Subversion project had a notable episode in which an intelligent programmer showed up on the email list one day and declared that the entire product was ill-designed. He had seen the light, had radical ideas about how things should work, and insisted that the entire project start over from scratch. He even helpfully volunteered to lead the reboot himself. Without his leadership, he proclaimed that complete failure was looming just around the corner.

An entire week was wasted while the project founders endlessly argued with this person and defended their original design decisions. A huge amount of attention and focus was lost. It became clear that this person wasn’t willing to compromise or integrate any of his ideas into the current product, and the product (which was already in beta and being used in the wild) wasn’t about to start over. At some point we simply had to walk away from the debate and get back on track. Ironically, years later, this person’s predictions turned out to be correct on many levels, but that didn’t stop Subversion from becoming wildly successful anyway—at least in corporate software development. The point here isn’t about who is right or wrong, but whether a disagreement is guaranteed to come to a conclusion and whether it’s worthwhile to keep a debate going. Never stop asking yourself those sorts of questions; at some point you need to decide when it’s time to cut your losses and move on.

Overentitlement

Anytime you have a visitor who demands that something be done, your alarm should go off. The person puts all her energy into complaining about the inadequacies of the software, but is unwilling to directly contribute in any way.

This sense of entitlement sometimes bleeds into troll-like behavior. While running Google’s Project Hosting service, we once had a project owner ask us to ban a user for obscene behavior. The open source project, a video game emulator, didn’t work properly for his favorite video game. The user started by filing a rather rude bug in the issue tracker. The project developers politely explained why the game didn’t work yet, and why it was unlikely to be fixed for a good while. This answer was unacceptable to the user, who began to harass the developers daily. He would open bug after bug with the same complaint. He started adding comments to other bugs saying what “idiots” the developers were for refusing to fix his problem. His language became increasingly obscene over time, despite repeated warnings from the developers and Google administrators. Regardless of all our efforts to eliminate his destructive behavior, he steadfastly refused to change, so we were eventually forced—as a last resort—to ban him entirely.

Immature or Confusing Communication

The person doesn’t use her real name. Instead, you’ll see only childish nicknames like “SuperCamel,” “jubjub89,” or “SirHacksalot.” To make things worse, often the person will have different nicknames in different media—one name for email, a different one for instant messaging, and perhaps a different one for code submissions. In extreme cases, you’ll see these people communicating in lol-speak, 1337speak, ALL CAPS, or with excessive punctuation!??!1!!1!!

Paranoia

As seen in the earlier example, sometimes an inappropriate sense of entitlement leads directly into open hostility toward a project. Many times we see it escalate into complete paranoia. When an existing team disagrees with the visitor, the poisonous person will sometimes start to throw accusations of a “cabal” and conspiracy. It’s amusing to imagine that the project finds the visitor so important that they’d go through the effort of conspiring against the visitor. And if you already have an open and transparent culture of communication (as we pushed for in Chapter 2), this makes the accusation all the more hilarious, since every conversation is already a public record. The recommendation here is to not even bother responding to such charges. By the time the poisonous person goes this far over the edge, anything you say will only dig yourself a deeper hole in his mind, so why bother saying anything at all? It’s time to get back to the important work of coding.

Perfectionism

On the surface, perfectionists don’t seem dangerous at all. Sure, there may be a touch of odd obsessive-compulsive behavior now and then, but usually the person is humble, polite, respectful, and a good listener. He seems stuffed full of happy HRT and good intentions. What’s the problem, then? The problem is the threat of paralysis.

Let’s look at a person we’ve worked with in the past. Patrick was a brilliant engineer. He had great design chops, wrote high-quality code and tests, and was easy to get along with. Unfortunately, when it came time to design new software, he could spend the rest of his life tweaking and improving his design. He was never satisfied with the plans and seemingly was never ready to start coding. While he certainly had good points and excellent insights into the problems we were trying to solve, the rest of the team ended up becoming immensely frustrated; it became clear that we were never actually going to write any code. Several of us on the project deliberated quite a bit on what to do about this. On the one hand, Patrick was a huge help to our team. On the other hand, he was preventing us from making forward progress as a group. Every time we’d begin to code he’d politely veto and point out potential theoretical problems that could matter in the distant future. He was paralyzing us without realizing it. We’ll talk about how we resolved this in the next section.

Repelling the Poison

Recall that we don’t advocate throwing people out just because they’re being antisocial or rude. As we mentioned earlier, it’s not healthy to create a clique focused on “us” (the nice people) versus “them” (the mean people). In our prior examples notice that we didn’t focus on booting the person, but rather on booting the behavior. Bad behaviors will not be tolerated. If, after repeated warnings, the behavior doesn’t change, only then does it makes sense to consider formal rejection.

Concentrating your effort on removing toxic behavior is often enough to turn an intelligent (although perhaps socially awkward) person into a productive member of your team. A few years ago we had a team member who was an excellent engineer, but had an annoying habit of accidentally insulting teammates. Rather than just ejecting him from the community, one of us pulled him aside and asked him if he was aware that his words were alienating people. He seemed somewhat surprised that this was happening and didn’t exactly understand why his actions were having this effect. But he agreed that it would be worthwhile to try to temper his actions in the interest of being a better team member. And everything worked out perfectly. He changed his behavior, and the problem was resolved. Not every anecdote ends in exile!

OK, so you’ve identified a poisonous person. Perhaps there’s someone distracting and draining your team’s energy right now. How do you deal effectively with the situation? Here are some useful strategies.

Redirect the Energy of Perfectionists

Once a good-enough solution is found for the original problem, point the perfectionist to a different problem that still needs attention.

In the case of Subversion’s perfectionist, this strategy worked well. Eventually, we reached a point where we took Patrick aside and said, “OK, we’re just going to start working from this design as it stands now, and see what happens. Hopefully you’ll be able to help us navigate around any problems that crop up down the road.” To our surprise, Patrick was OK with this and instead moved on to a different subject as the object of his obsession. No feelings were hurt either way, and Patrick kept contributing to the overall effort.

There’s an old saying to not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and in your quest to create a high-performing team, you need to be just as vigilant about avoiding perfectionism as you are about calling out more obvious disruptive behaviors.

This trick of redirecting energy also works on the overly entitled people who spend more time complaining and criticizing than helping out. It’s tempting to respond to such a person with a standard “patches welcome” remark—the open source community’s euphemistic version of telling someone to put up or shut up. Instead, try getting him to take an interest in formally testing the software and pointing out regressions. It allows him to keep complaining, but in a useful way.

Don’t Feed the Energy Creature

This is an old adage from Usenet.[42] In particular, this works best against deliberate trolls—people who are purposely trying to get a rise out of you or your team. The more you respond, the more the troll feeds off your energy, and the more time you’ve wasted. The simple silent treatment often works best. Regardless of how much you’re dying to deliver that one-line zinger that’ll put him in his place, resist the urge. When the person realizes nobody’s paying attention, he typically loses interest and just leaves. Note that it often takes quite a bit of willpower to not respond. Stay strong!

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Don’t Get Overly Emotional

Even if the person isn’t deliberately trolling, it’s all too easy to get defensive. When somebody accuses you of making a bad design decision or of conspiracy, or simply wastes your time by asking too many questions whose answers are obvious, it’s easy to get upset. Remember that your job is to write great software, not to appease every visitor or repeatedly justify your existence. The stronger your emotions are, the more likely you are to waste hours or days writing passionate replies to someone who doesn’t deserve such attention. Choose your battles carefully and keep calm. Carefully decide who’s worth replying to, and who you’ll let be.

Look for Facts in the Bile

Continuing on with the theme of staying clear of too much emotion, a corollary is to actively look for facts. If someone is complaining, listen carefully. Always start by giving the person the benefit of the doubt, despite the angry or rude language. Does the person have a real point? Is there something to learn from the person’s experience, or is there an idea worth responding to? Very often the answer is “yes”—that despite a poisonous person’s vitriolic prose, some wisdom really is buried in there. Always bring the argument back to a technical discussion.[43].

Our favorite example of this is the day we got a rancorous email from a well-known leader of the open source community. It was a bug report of sorts, but on the surface it was more like a rant about the team’s overall intelligence. The post was chock-full of slander and hyperbole, and seemed intended to inflame the team rather than to get the bug fixed. One of our team members, however, responded to the report with just a few specific questions, focusing only on the bug. The bug reporter replied with more clarification, but still it was wrapped in over-the-top venom. Our team member continued to completely ignore the insults, investigated the issue, and replied with a simple “Thanks for the bug report, I see how to fix the problem—we’ll release a patch soon.”

We were immensely proud of the way our team member handled the situation. Remaining utterly calm and fact-driven only made the original poster seem like more of a lunatic as the conversation progressed. By the end of the exchange, the bug reporter had lost all credibility with his audience and no longer had any interest in hanging around.

Repel Trolls with Niceness

To take the preceding approach (of remaining cool-headed and factual) even further, sometimes it’s possible to scare people away just by being too kind! Here’s an actual chat transcript from the Subversion IRC channel:

harry: Subversion sucks. This is quite a nuisance.

sussman: If you need help, then ask.

harry: I want to cvs someone’s files. No, I just want to gripe. But this person is hung up on this thing called Subversion so he has svn instead of cvs.

sussman: So get an svn client and checkout his sources.

harry: So I go and download this Subversion thing…can you configure make make install Subversion like you can cvs? Of course not. I blame him more than the subversion people.

sussman: Just because *you* can’t ./configure; make; make install doesn’t mean there’s a big widespread bug. People do that with the svn tarball every day.

harry: I didn’t say there was a bug.

sussman: Do you think we would have released the tarball if something that fundamental were broken?

harry: I am just griping about this bozo. I just have to install expat or libxml. *sigh*

sussman: Those things are usually pre-installed on most systems.

sussman: Is this guy using an apache server? Perhaps you should just grab a binary.

harry: I don’t know, he just says svn…

sussman: Which distro are you on?

harry: FreeBSD

sussman: Just cd into the ports tree and make the port.

harry: You people are ruining my rant…I came here looking for an argument…you are too helpful and friendly.

sussman: :-)

harry: When the hell do you come to an IRC channel and everyone tries to help you? Blah.

— Harry has quit

Know When to Give Up

Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you simply need to flip the bozo bit and move on. Even if you’ve already spent a lot of attention and focus trying to correct bad behaviors, you need to know how to recognize a lost cause.

Let’s return to our story about Charlie, the friendly philosopher who was posting far too often to the Subversion email list. Eventually we did an analysis of the email discussions and discovered that this participant had grown into the third most frequent poster over the course of two months; the first and second most frequent posters were core project contributors, and 70% of their posts were spent replying to Charlie! Clearly our energy and focus were being sucked away, despite no ill will from Charlie himself. Our final solution was to privately email him (and politely) ask him to stop posting so often. It was a difficult conversation to have, mainly because he was unable to see the amount of disruption he was causing. After a few more weeks without a significant behavioral change, one of us actually had a long (and even more difficult) discussion with him over the phone where we asked him to stop posting altogether. He ultimately withdrew as requested, a bit sad and confused, but respectful of the team’s wishes. Everyone felt a little guilty about it because he never quite understood the harm he was causing, but everyone also felt it was the right thing to do. It was a delicate situation to resolve, but we used a great deal of HRT to keep things civil and appropriate.

Focus on the Long Term

The path to a mature software product is lined by thousands of distractions. If there’s a common theme in dealing with the distraction of poisonous people, it’s that it’s all too easy to get caught up in the immediate drama of a situation. If you’re witnessing what you think may be poisonous behavior, you need to ask yourself two critical questions:

  • Despite the short-term loss of your team’s attention and focus, do you truly believe the project will still benefit in the long run?

  • Do you believe the conflict will ultimately resolve itself in a useful way?

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Focus on what matters, not on short-term drama.

If your answer to either of these questions is “no,” you need to intervene to stop the behavior as soon as possible. It’s easy to persuade ourselves that the short-term gain of tolerating poison is worth it, but it usually isn’t: for example, somebody may be a great technical contributor but still exhibit poisonous behavior. There’s a temptation to turn a blind eye to the behavior in order to benefit from the technical advancement. But be careful! A strong culture based on HRT is irreplaceable, while technical contributions are definitely replaceable. To quote a former teammate of ours:

I have several friends who know him to some degree. One of them said, “He often walks the fine line between genius and lunatic. The problem is, genius is such a commodity these days that it’s not acceptable to be an eccentric any more.”

—Greg Hudson

Of course, Greg isn’t talking about literal “genius” here; he’s pointing out that the world is full of highly competent programmers. If you find one who’s offensive or threatens your culture over the long term, it’s best to wait for another one to come along.

We once encountered this sort of situation in the Subversion project. The team has a strict policy of not putting names into source code files (the very policy we discussed in Chapter 2!): we feel it creates territoriality. People are afraid to change code if it has somebody else’s name on it, and it keeps the bus factor artificially low. Instead, we allow the version control’s history to credit people appropriately, and we keep a single top-level file with all the contributors’ names in it.

One day a smart programmer showed up and volunteered to write a sizable new feature that was sorely needed. He submitted the code for review, and our main feedback was simply requesting that he remove his name from the top of the file—that we’d credit him in the same places as everyone else. He refused to do this, however, and the debate led to an impasse. In the end, the decision was made to reject his code and he left, taking his toys with him. Of course, everyone was disappointed, but we didn’t want to violate our policy (and dilute our traditions) just to get the new feature sooner. A couple of months later, someone else ended up reimplementing the feature anyway.

To be totally explicit: it’s not worth compromising your culture for the short-term gains—particularly if it’s about a brilliant contributor who doesn’t acknowledge the importance of HRT.

A Final Thought

This chapter discussed quite a number of scenarios, and after taking everything in it’s easy to develop a deep sense of paranoia. Please remember that most of the world isn’t full of jerks. As the saying from Robert J. Hanlon goes:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

We prefer to use the term ignorance rather than stupidity, but the idea is the same. As we mentioned in the beginning, it’s naïve to think of people as Good or Bad. There are no evil people out there trying to deliberately crush your culture—most of them are simply misinformed or misguided. Or perhaps they just want recognition and are too socially inept to fit in. Either way, your job isn’t to cultivate condescension and lock out the less-enlightened peasants from your project; rather, your job is to be intolerant of destructive behaviors and to be explicit about your expectations of HRT. It takes wisdom to understand the difference and real skill to carry it out.



[41] Yoda would probably have something to say here about avoiding the Dark Side.

[42] Which may itself refer to that original Star Trek episode, “Day of the Dove,” in which negative emotions fed an energy creature. Kirk and his Klingon counterpart Kang ordered their men to stop feeding the energy creature, and it departed from the Enterprise. See, it all comes back to Star Trek.

[43] For more on this subject, see Norman Kerth’s “The Retrospective Prime Directive,” in his book Project Retrospectives (Dorset House)

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