How To Trick Programmers To Write Articles For You [A Dirty Little Guide for Marketers]
Updated: Sep 8, 2019
Wow, that was a few minutes of my life I will never get back,” my friend Roberto commented about an article I’d sent him that was authored by an engineer. “I expected bad, but this went beyond all my expectations.”
Roberto is something of a mutant. English isn’t his first language but his written English can fool you. He’s an engineer himself, a 25-year Microsoft veteran, so if you want to know his last name you can sneak into the conference center in Redmond and find it on a plaque.
I establish his bona fides because it’s more credible if one engineer criticizes the writings of another. Engineers can be rather brutal in their remarks¹, and Roberto himself likes to say that most non-technical articles by engineers have a Shannon’s entropy of zero, snarkily implying that the entire article could be compressed to an empty file with no loss of information.
Procrastination elevated to an art form
So what’s wrong with the writing of engineers?
Roberto explains it this way: “Most articles by engineers happen as a result of their manager saying ‘Go write this article; it’ll be good for your career.’ The engineer objects passive-aggressively with statements like ‘I have more urgent things on my plate now, like cleaning the underside of the keyboard and reformatting all spaces with tabs in the source code.’ Then the engineer wastes time until the deadline, when he puts together some pseudo-AI code that scans other corporate magazines on the topic and semi-intelligently lifts sentences to compose enough words for the article.”
Putting something off until the last minute is a classic symptom of not taking it seriously². But writing isn’t a biology exam, and last-minute cramming about the Krebs cycle isn’t going to help you. Engineers know this. But they persist.
The fact is that engineers have cool jobs. Even a bad writer can make an engineer a hero (see many if not most articles about Elon Musk), but it takes an exceptional writer to make technical subject matter cool (see John McPhee on geology or citrus plants). A great writer who is an engineer himself is something altogether special (Fyodor Dostoevsky).
There are plenty of great writer-physicians (Siddhartha Mukherjee, Ethan Canin, Anton Chekhov), so why can’t we have more good engineer writers, if only at the corporate blogger level?
Those asking for the articles (marketing people) are partly to blame. Marketers are in a difficult position in that their jobs are fairly disposable³ compared to coding jobs. Engineers matter in IT firms, and it’s the rare marketer who has the clout and the credibility to tell an engineer his writing sucks and insist he throw it away and start over.
All he needs is love
Jack Handey once asked: “Can someone without a sense of humor be taught to have one? Or must it be beaten into him?” With engineers, I believe it is more often the latter.
So this is the message for marketers who serve as their company’s newsletter or magazine editor:
Don’t assume whatever the engineer gives you is a work of genius — and perhaps asking him (or her) to write anything isn’t your best option.
So how does one extract cogent text from an engineer? How does one ensure the resulting material is not an embarrassment to the both of you? Use the oldest trick in the book, the one that works even when training animals: positive reinforcement.
If you understand that software engineers in particular have a somewhat justified overinflated sense of importance, that they constantly hear stories about “10x developers,” you understand that they value time differently⁴. So to make it worth the developer’s time, there better be something more than it just being “good for your career,” over which the marketer has no control anyway.
So what is it the engineer wants? What makes it worth his while? Despite their relatively impressive salaries, developers often care more about peer recognition than they do about money (note open source coders). If you can get him to produce an article that will elevate him among his peers, not only will he be grateful to you, he might even want to do another.
Write it for him
But he’s not likely to produce this good article without your help, so consider the approach of ghosting the article for your engineer. (True, fixing other people’s articles is much harder than writing your own, but this realization rarely comes to developers⁵.) So invite the developer to lunch and tell him you want to “pick his brain.” He gets to show off his knowledge, you ghost the article, and then send it to him for “editing.”
This way, the engineer does not demean himself to do the lowly-paid marketer’s job, and if he’s fixing the marketer’s mistakes he’s both showing who’s the boss and preventing the company from embarrassment (“What would they do without me?” goes through his mind here).
If all else fails, you can simply bribe the developer. “I got much more out of a well-made latte⁶ in my office,” says Roberto, “or from giving tchotchkes of any kind. I had millionaire developers help me in exchange for a logoed sweater or a jacket, something they could have bought with the money they made in the few seconds it would have taken them to utter ‘piss off.’”
Take this blog post as an example. Since I didn’t have any tchotchkes Roberto could possibly want, I sent him a draft and asked for his feedback. Of course, he recognized the tactic at once, but he still fell victim to it. “You didn’t ask me to write the blog, you asked to ‘pick my brain,’ and I’m sending you a ton of stuff back as a result. Deep down, Scott, you knew the answer to your question already.”
See? Flatter a developer properly and he’ll not only write the blog post for you, he’ll even flatter you back.
1. “If I’d written that sentence I think I’d just cut off my arm so I could never write another,” said a novelist friend when offering advice about a young writer’s work. So maybe writers are more cruel than engineers.
2. Roberto says engineers can actually make procrastination part of a highly-optimized process to manage time and be more productive, with books like The Art of Procrastination being a classic (should be The Engineering of Procrastination, if you ask him. “I honestly think many engineers hope that something more urgent will save them from writing the article, or the manager will forget. Hence procrastination as a strategy to be productive at ‘the real job.’)”
3. Most of the time, marketers just don’t earn enough money to earn the respect of the tech folks. In the US, the starting salary for a developer is easily over $100,000 per year. If they do well, they’re soon earning a lot more than that, at least if you count stock options. Marketers, however, are part of the so-called middle class for whom Silicon Valley developers are building dormitory-type housing.
4. Roberto: “A software’s engineer job is focusing on tough problems for at least eight hours a day. In order to effectively develop or debug code, you must build in your mind a complete model of everything that’s happening in the code and visualize how your code fits into that, and what are the positive and negative side effects of everything you are writing. It takes at least 15–20 minutes to ‘get in the zone’ after each pause. When you stop and deal with an interruption or another task, the first 15–20 minutes you get back to your main task are spent rebuilding that model. Good software developers ruthlessly manage their time in order to be productive. Meetings, email and other tasks all subtract from available (productive) coding time. Engineers evaluate any “ask” against their main deliverables and priorities. Add to this that coding is usually done in a very competitive environment (i.e., other developers being evaluated against them), and it’s clear why developers really dislike spending time on non-coding activities.”
5. Roberto: “I learned over time that fixing other people articles is much harder than writing my own, but most developers never figure that out. I also guarantee that a marketer sending an article to a developer will get much prompter follow up (if nothing else because the developer loves to show off) than a request to write an article (which will always be at the end of the developer priority queue).
6. Roberto, being Eyetalian, has a zero-tolerance policy towards bad espresso, and has been on a personal jihad (in the literal sense of “efforts toward the moral betterment of society”) to fight the mermaid-logoed corporation committed to foisting over-roasted espresso on the world. As an engineer working in a million-square-meter, 80-structure corporate campus, he also realized that having an espresso machine in the office meant people asking to hold meetings in his office (and driving there). According to his calculations, his PID-modified Rancilio Silvia with bottomless portafilter saved him at least four hours per week of driving time, making it his best financial investment of all time. His lattes are still the stuff of Microsoft legend, honey-like espressos with a dense crema, topped by microfoam milk poured with a latte-art rosette. And if you’ve read this far, you truly deserve to see his set-up:
Originally published here