You Don’t Have to Be Right

Not too long ago, I was asked during a job interview “how do you convince your teammates that you’re right?” I answered with probably the most surprising answer: “I don’t.”

It’s taken me years to realize that being right isn’t terribly important. Especially when there’s more than one right answer — which there usually is. It’s more important to work as a team. It’s more important to be respected and to have respect for others.

A few weeks after that interview, I was pair programming with the person who had asked me the question. We’re both senior developers, so we both have a lot of experience and opinions based on that experience. We were writing a shell script, and we both had an idea in mind about how to write the code. I let him proceed with his idea. It was a pretty good idea; probably better than mine. But we paired very effectively. I’d let him finish some code, and I’d find a way to make it better. Then he’d find a way to make my code better. What we ended up with was so much better than my original idea, and his original idea as well. I commented on this, and he agreed. We left that pairing session feeling the high of having accomplished something rare — two very experience programmers coming up with better code than we could have imagined going in.

I like to think of writing code as a path towards a destination. The destination is good code that does what it’s supposed to, is readable (intention revealing), is concise, and is well-factored so as to be easy to change in the future. But there are many paths to that destination. Especially when pair programming, the code gets refined as ideas are shared, getting you closer and closer to that destination. Sometimes the different paths end up with the same code; sometimes they end up with different code. But if the code does its job well (according to those criteria), it doesn’t really matter what code you ended up with.

Thinking back to the original question, I think the answer is a little more nuanced. (I’m pretty sure I followed up with an explanation, but I don’t recall the details.) It truly doesn’t matter in a lot of cases. If there are different paths that lead to the same destination, and they’re all roughly equal, then my rule works. It can also work even if the first path you try (a “wrong” path) doesn’t work out, as long as it’s easy enough to try a different path. I find that the majority of day-to-day coding fits these conditions.

But there are some places where it’s costly to get things wrong the first time. In these cases, it’s worth spending some time thinking about and discussing the alternatives before getting started. Software architecture is the big one that comes to mind. In general, weighing the pros and cons of each option and applying previous experience works best.

So next time you think about trying to convince someone you’re right, fight the urge. Instead, let them show you what they’re thinking. They just might surprise you. And more importantly, you might surprise yourself.