There comes a point in every person’s career when we have to offer criticism of someone else’s work. For software developers and managers this can be especially difficult since most programmers view the software they write as an extension of themselves, and take criticism of that software very personally.
We all know how to criticize, but the question is how to criticize well.
The #1 rule of good criticism is be specific.
In Freaknomics, Steven D. Levitt examined phrases in real estate listings that had a positive correlation on sale price (meaning a higher sale price), and ones that had a negative correlation (lower sale price). The results were as follows:
Higher Sale Price
state of the art
move in condition
Lower Sale Price
What you’ll notice is that higher sale prices resulted from being more specific. Tangible, real things like granite, corian, maple, new, outweigh ambiguous, possibly made-up things like fantastic, charming and wonderful.
And so it is with criticism. Telling someone their code is “total crap” is not helpful. Telling them they misspelled two variable names, have several place where they’ve repeated code, and they need error handling in all of their methods is much more helpful. It not only allows them to improve their current code, but perhaps it will help them out in the future, as well. They still may get mad, but that’s up to them.
It certainly takes more time to itemize mistakes, but it’s worth it.
Criticize the Code, Not the Person
If someone writes crappy code, talk about the code, not about the person’s ability to code. If someone doesn’t meet a deadline, talk about how that affected you and what needs to happen in the future, don’t talk about how the person is a complete slacker (at least not the first time you discuss it). Doing so will help keep the conversation less personal.
Without much effort at all I can give you a list of negative things about Los Angeles: traffic, smog, too many people, and a distinct lack of trees.
I could also give you a list of bad things about the internet: spam, viruses, poorly-designed websites, and pornography. Just because I can point out a ton of negative things doesn’t mean that the internet is not worth your time, and doesn’t mean you shouldn’t live in L.A. For all the negatives there are tons of positives to outweigh them, at least for the 10 million people who live in L.A. County, or the 1 billion people on the internet.
It’s easy to be negative. It’s easy to come into a situation and complain. It’s easy to point out the flaws in everything (have you ever read the comments on Digg or Slashdot?). If you don’t have a suggested solution in mind it’s going to be difficult for people to respect your opinion. Someone who complains often will be ignored rather quickly.
Constructive critisism is helpful; venting just pisses people off. Before you criticize something stop to think if it really matters to you and needs to be improved, and make sure you’re talking to the person who can do something about it.