Training like an ogre

Early in my career, when I worked in online customer service, I applied for an internal position change, so I could be a trainer. My parents were teachers, and I thought I had picked up a thing or two from seeing how they approached education. As a supervisor, I focused on coaching, particularly with positive reinforcement and talking through ways to continue to improve.

I didn’t get the job, and I’ll never forget the reason they gave me.

“You aren’t enough of an ogre.”

In their mind, being a good trainer meant getting upset and scolding people if they didn’t learn things fast enough, I guess? To me, that seemed completely counterproductive. If being too nice was a flaw, as they told me, then perhaps their idea of good training was not my idea of good training. I moved on to greener pastures soon after.

That phrase has always stuck with me: the image of a hulking brute, pounding his fists when those trying to learn fail to do so immediately.

I couldn’t fathom how being an ogre would help people to learn. Yet over a decade later, I see that pattern of teaching all too often in tech, whether on Twitter or in a conference session.

I’m not talking about somebody spouting off wrong information and getting upset about it. All too often, I see good people who have all the right intentions, spout off about people doing something wrong. Some of the corners of the web that I am most passionate about seem particularly prone to this approach.

How often have you heard well-intentioned rants about inaccessible websites? Or about websites that are not great at performance? Or some other best practice, whether that’s adhering to web standards or a particular coding practice or whatever, really. People I deeply respect all too often make blanket statements that feel a bit too much like an ogre’s fist pounding.

I get it, it’s frustrating when people do not do things the way you know would work out for the best. It’s easy to think that you are venting at people who are not your friends, who are not listening in, and you’re just sharing your feelings with people who already agree with you.

Unfortunately sometimes, maybe many times, that’s not true at all. Somebody who mostly agrees with you and looks up to you listens to your rant only to feel awful because that thing you’re ranting about? They had to do that on a project. They may not have liked doing so, but constraints of a project timeline made it not possible to adhere to every best practice. Sometimes stakeholders want something done a certain way, even when you explain that doing so has downsides.

And sometimes, that best practice you’re sure somebody knows is something a person hasn’t encountered before. There are a lot of best practices, and a lot to learn, and the things we need to learn change constantly.

How does yelling about how something is a bad practice help? If the person who actually needs to hear that message listens to that rant, a likely outcome is feeling ashamed. Not being really excited to do something a different way.

Confession: I have been guility of acting like an ogre all too often. I get passionate, and now and then I have vented and ranted. I would like to think I am learning and not doing that as often, but it’s certainly possible I will slip up and end up making somebody feel bad.

Rather than talking confidently about how everybody knows that X is a bad thing to do, how else could we approach that? If we really want to stop doing X, how do we get people on our side to make that change?

My belief is that empathy is incredibly helpful here. If you can articulate why people might need to do X, but then offer helpful ways to get around that problem, then you are bringing people to the table. Rather than saying that everybody must do Y, share why doing Y has worked well for you.

Imposter syndrome is prevalent in our industry, that feeling that everyone will discover you don’t know a certain thing or aren’t good at a certain thing. There are many reasons that’s true, but Ogre Rants are probably at least a contributing factor. Well-intentioned ogre rants for all the best reasons can still be harmful.

Maybe this is just my Minnesota Nice gene. My desire to avoid conflict is pretty strong. Not everybody approaches conflict in that same way. I know I personally do not react well to people calling me an idiot. Maybe some people do make changes when their actions are strongly criticized.

I think the world could be a little better with a little more empathy, and fewer ogres.

I’m not going to pound my fist about it though.