The Guru Myth

Anyone who has worked in software long enough has heard questions like this:

I'm getting exception XYZ. Do you know what the problem is?

Those asking the question rarely bother to include stack traces, error logs, or any context leading to the problem. They seem to think you operate on a different plane, that solutions appear to you without analysis based on evidence. They think you are a guru.

We expect such questions from those unfamiliar with software: To them systems can seem almost magical. What worries me is seeing this in the software community. Similar questions arise in program design, such as "I'm building inventory management. Should I use optimistic locking?" Ironically, people asking the question are often better equipped to answer it than the question's recipient. The questioners presumably know the context, know the requirements, and can read about the advantages and disadvantages of different strategies. Yet they expect you to give an intelligent answer without context. They expect magic.

It's time for the software industry to dispel this guru myth. "Gurus" are human. They apply logic and systematically analyze problems like the rest of us. They tap into mental shortcuts and intuition. Consider the best programmer you've ever met: At one point that person knew less about software than you do now. If someone seems like a guru, it's because of years dedicated to learning and refining thought processes. A "guru" is simply a smart person with relentless curiosity.

Of course, there remains a huge variance in natural aptitude. Many hackers out there are smarter, more knowledgeable, and more productive than I may ever be. Even so, debunking the guru myth has a positive impact. For instance, when working with someone smarter than me I am sure to do the legwork, to provide enough context so that person can efficiently apply his or her skills. Removing the guru myth also means removing a perceived barrier to improvement. Instead of a magical barrier, I see a continuum on which I can advance.

Finally, one of software's biggest obstacles is smart people who purposefully propagate the guru myth. This might be done out of ego, or as a strategy to increase one's value as perceived by a client or employer. Ironically, this attitude can make smart people less valuable, since they don't contribute to the growth of their peers. We don't need gurus. We need experts willing to develop other experts in their field. There is room for all of us.

By Ryan Brush

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