How To Be Critical

This is a follow-up post to Customers Aren’t Idiots.

I mentioned in my previous post that I’d try to list a few hints on how to provide constructive criticism, particularly for vendors who want to criticise competitors.

It’s all about tone, so here’s what I’d prefer to see.

Be Respectful

Respect your colleagues, and the competitive game that is modern commerce.

The people who work for your competitors are smart and capable. Many of them once worked for your company, and many of them will one day in the future. Ad hominem attacks are poor form, and make you look bad.

Some good natured ribbing is fine, but it’s the person on the receiving end who gets to decide if it’s good natured or not.

Show some sportsmanship, honour the game, and remember Wheaton’s Law.

Respect the Customer

Customers aren’t idiots. Respect them also.

Many of them have a deep understanding of how your products work in the real world, as distinct from your test labs. They encounter obscure corner cases you never even thought to test, and they do things with your products that never even occurred to you.

Customers may not care about the same things you do. What you think is a big deal is something they don’t even spend 5 seconds on. And what you’ve dismissed as irrelevant might be of deep concern to them. Don’t assume you always know what your customers are thinking. Or your competitor’s customers, for that matter.

And a lot of them used to work for vendors, too, or will some day.

Be Humble

Humans are fallible. It’s entirely possible that you’re wrong in your criticism. This doesn’t make you a bad person.

It’s possible that your competitor made an honest mistake. That doesn’t make them a bad person either.

If you think there’s a flaw in someone’s argument or product, try to phrase things in such a way that you’re allowing for the fact that you might be wrong. This will make it easier for you to back down if someone calls you on your mistake. A solid “Good catch! Yes, I got it wrong there, thanks for pointing it out” is the mark of someone secure in themselves.

And if you’re the one pointing out a flaw in someone else’s work, be gentle. It might be you next time. There, but for the Grace of God, go I.

Get Over Yourself

It’s IT. Most of what we’re doing isn’t discovering penicillin, or curing cancer, or creating cold fusion. Our customers might be, but we’re not.

We’re all just trying to find some meaning in our short lives while we keep our families fed and try not to mess up our kids too badly.

We’re on a very small ball of dirt in a big, cold universe.

Take a deep breath, count to ten, and be nice to your fellow humans.

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  2. savio saldanha

    amazing read – thank you and very timely and accurate.

  3. Hi Justin,

    I’m having a hard time following you here and since you wrote this in response to what Jim and I have on my blog, I think it merits discussion. Let’s take them in the order of your pieces of advice.

    1). Be respectful
    Jim’s initial post pointed out what he found was a misunderstood detail about a competitor’s offering. If he was disrespectful in presenting that information, I’m sure not seeing that. If you really take the time to read the comments, the disrespect came from what I’ll call NetApp enthusiast that only had an agenda of defending NetApp, not in clarifying any poor marketing. Go look at the comments from Nick Trianos, ANS, John Leavenworth, compadre, Matt Watts, etc. All of their comments either resorted to decrying FUD, or some other tactic that never directly addressed the original point Jim rose. As any rational, unbiased reviewer of the post will see, the disrespect was coming from the NetApp defenders.

    2). Respect the customer
    This one has me really scratching my head. If a company overstates or doesn’t clarify the details of an offering (as NetApp has done with MetroCluster) and that overstatement is called to light, how is that not respecting the customer? Both Jim and I have direct experience with NetApp customers or prospects that were NOT made aware of the details that he exposed in the blog. I’m sure there are many customers who do understand that once a failover has occurred, they are exposed to multiple single points of failure but there is no arguing or excusing that NetApp claims MetroCluster is designed for zero downtime when clearly it is not. I think the bigger question that you failed to ask here is why does NetApp not respect customers by giving them all the information they need to make informed choices (and interesting that IBM does in their Redbooks that detail the solution they OEM from NetApp). And if you really are concerned about respecting the customer, why don’t you insist that NetApp change the marketing of MetroCluster? Shame on them and anyone who thinks that this is a practice that respects customers.

    3). Be humble
    Agree – humans are fallible and agree that if we don’t have all the information, making wrong conclusions is entirely possible. But the fact is that Alex McDonald from NetApp confirmed what Jim’s whole point was in a Twitter message where he said, “sure, SPOF if failed over. Who said otherwise? Just like 2 disk fails in RAID5”. (Here’s a link to his Tweet for anyone who wants to continue to argue that Jim is talking FUD: Great, so Alex agrees with what Jim said but not one of the disrespectful comments from other NetAppers acknowledged this – and most of those comments were arrogant by anyone’s definition of arrogant. So again, you seemed to be pointing at what Jim and I wrote in my blog but if you carefully read the comments, any casual (unbiased) observer would reach a conclusion that it was the NetApper comments that lacked any sense of humility.

    4). Get over yourself
    This one isn’t very clear to me – how does one “get over yourself”? What the IT industry needs is a bit more honesty in marketing. Customers believe less than 10% of what marketing says (from a NY Times article that I saw in the last couple of years). I’m not taking on the role of the truth police but I’m disappointed that there isn’t more of an outcry about the tactics that NetApp uses. If anyone is comfortable with their marketing of MetroCluster then I dare say you are biased by your working relationship with NetApp or NetApp technology.

  4. Hi Calvin,

    Before I respond to your points, please let me clarify that this post was intended as a broad commentary on vendor-vs-vendor interactions, not specifically about the issue from my previous post. That post got me to thinking about things in a broader sense, and I put my thoughts here. I apologise if you felt singled out; that certainly wasn’t my intent.

    On to the points you raise.

    1) You don’t see a problem with Jim’s phrasing. I do. I’d prefer a drier, less ‘gotcha’ angle. That you don’t see a problem with the tone of his post is kinda why I wrote this piece. I’m trying to express what I’d prefer to see in its place.

    When I talk about respect, I mean giving the other person the benefit of the doubt (they’re smart people), and perhaps giving things a more charitable reading. Yeah, it’s time consuming and you have to grit your teeth, but I think the community as a whole deserves a more elevated level of discourse.

    I skimmed the comments, and I immediately skip over ones I think are poor form. In a race to the bottom, no one wins. As an aside, your “any rational, unbiased reviewer” is getting into ‘No true Scotsman’ territory, which isn’t a great tactic to use either. A minor oversight, I’m sure.

    2) When I talk about customer respect, I’m talking about the customers who are reading these blog posts, the tweets, the comments. The tone of the discourse, be it strident and argumentative, or reasoned and well mannered, reflects on all of us. I’d prefer a more collegial atmosphere than the bitter sports-team rivalries that seem to exist. I grow weary of the banner waving, and the cheer-leading. If I wanted that, I’d go to the football.

    Now, you want to highlight what you feel is a vendor failing, that their marketing and their actual product don’t match. A noble goal. Walk us through that. Highlight the claim, what you believe it really means, and then how you feel the product doesn’t deliver. For bonus points, indicate what would be required for the claim to be met, further strengthening your claim that the marketing is over-zealous. I’ve now learned something about a product I may not have known, and you’ve demonstrated strong knowledge of the field. A smooth segue into a description of how some other product fulfills this requirement would be extra nice.

    A respectful critique of another’s work reflects well on the critic. A shrill, triumphant ‘gotcha!’ with associated finger-pointing, not so much.

    A point here: you appear to be calling me out for not writing in support of your views on MetroCluster. You, and Jim, brought the issue to light, so the burden of proof is on you. If you’re unhappy that people are unconvinced, do a better job of convincing them. I’m writing about a different issue entirely, that of raising the level of discourse in these kinds of discussions.

    Implying that I’m not really concerned about customers in this way is.. well.. unfair, and unbecoming of you. You’re better than this.

    3) Um, wow. These people are nowhere near as humble as I am. I think you might have gotten a bit worked up over this issue, and posted in haste. I’m pretty sure you don’t really think that.

    4) I’m not sure if you’re responding to my post here.

    Calvin, I’m sorry I’ve offended you, as it appears I have. That wasn’t my intention.

    I’m trying to call out to all vendors (yes, NetApp too) to raise the bar on these discussions so they’re a little more… civil. Less hyperbole about how things are world changing, or totally evil. How the other vendors all boil puppies alive while we hand sew recycled blankets for orphaned kittens.

    And I’ll practice my writing so I can explain more, and offend less. Hopefully in fewer words, too.

  5. Since the comments are getting longer than the original post, I’ll make this much fewer words (though there’s much more I’d like to say here). Your opinions are biased by your unwavering support of NetApp. You said, “When I talk about respect, I mean giving the other person the benefit of the doubt (they’re smart people)”. You can’t be serious – when a vendor exaggerates the claims of their solution (as NetApp has done by claiming designed for zero downtime with MetroCluster), your answer is that they are smart people? How about misleading?

    In your response, you attributed to me “These people are nowhere near as humble as I am” – not only did I not say this, it’s not my attitude. Quote signs are used for what someone says (not for your opinion of their intent) and you using them was poor form and inflammatory.

    We’re not going to agree – you’ll continue to give NetApp a pass for their misrepresentation, Val will congratulate you on a well written blog,and we’ll get nowhere by discussing tone because you’ve sank well below your own stated standards.

  6. I’ve updated the typography in my comment to make it clear that it’s not a quote, but a paraphrase of how I felt your response came across. I even said inline, straight afterwards, that I didn’t believe that was your attitude. It was, however, the impression I got from what you did write, which just boggled me so much, given the topic. Hence my statement that you couldn’t possibly have meant what it looked like you were saying.

    As for respect, well, I’m trying really hard to be respectful towards you, and the points you’re making. I think I’ve been pretty fair and even-handed. You obviously don’t agree, so I need to work on my writing skills.

    I’m saddened that things have turned out like this, which was never my intention. I can only hope that the readers of this exchange don’t judge me too harshly for the way I’ve treated you.

  7. savio saldanha

    Justin!!! have you joined Netapp???
    Why did you not come and work for me!!
    Sorry that was just a bad Joke!!
    Read all the above – I think that all I got out of the original post not having an insight into all the “other stuff” is that as a vendor – if you follow a set of respectful behaviours and ethical virtues, you have more chance of attaining a respectful relationship and hopefully profitable relationship with a customer. Basically – you have just paraphrased many of my basic upbringings from a loving and respectful family. Maybe that is why your AMAZING article resonated.

    Interestingly – I sent the Blog to my entire sales team as a timely reminder. They are bunch of hungry, alpha male, overachievers. They appreciated it. Simply – thanks for writing it man.

    Savio Saldanha
    Director, Mainframe Sales CA Australia and New Zealand.

  8. savio saldanha

    PS. Your Article was also the cheapest sales training I put them on all year!!
    Watch out Frankin Covey!! :)

  9. Wow, thanks Savio. That’s some high praise indeed, coming from you. You’ve made my day. :)

    For the record, I haven’t joined NetApp. I work for a consulting company (Unicity) that is registered as a NetApp Contracted Delivery Partner, and many (but not all) of my colleagues do contract work for NetApp, but I spend my time working directly for customers, and deal with multiple vendors. I try to bridge the gap between customer and vendor, management and IT.

    I do spend a lot of time working with NetApp folks, so I’m certainly in danger of bias. I try to keep aware of it, and not give any vendor an unfair advantage, but yes, it’s an ever present risk. Eternal vigilance, etc. The onus is on me to demonstrate that I’m not unduly swayed by any particular vendor.

    I’m glad you and your team got something from the post. I’ll try to keep writing things worth reading.

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