Software Executive Decries ‘Toxic Certainty Syndrome’

Software Executive Decries ‘Toxic Certainty Syndrome’

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Software Executive Decries ‘Toxic Certainty Syndrome’ (



from the reply-hazy-try-again dept.

Michael Natkin is the VP of software engineering at the 3D printer company Glowforge. In a recent post on the company blog, he argues that the tech industry has “glorified overconfidence” with its philosophy of “strong opinions, loosely held”:

The idea of strong opinions, loosely held is that you can make bombastic statements, and everyone should implicitly assume that you’ll happily change your mind in a heartbeat if new data suggests you are wrong. It is supposed to lead to a collegial, competitive environment in which ideas get a vigorous defense, the best of them survive, and no one gets their feelings hurt in the process. On a certain kind of team, where everyone shares that ethos, and there is very little power differential, this can work well. I’ve had the pleasure of working on teams like that, and it is all kinds of fun…

Unfortunately, that ideal is seldom achieved. What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential… Even if someone does have the courage to push back, in practice the original speaker isn’t likely to be holding their opinion as loosely as they think. Having stated their case, they are anchored to it and will look for evidence that confirms it and reject anything contradictory. It is a natural tendency to want to win the argument and be the smartest person in the room.

As a fix, he suggests adding a degree of uncertainty to statements — which makes it easier for you to adjust them later while also explicitly encouraging feedback.

For example, in announcing the blog post on Twitter, Natkin wrote that “I’m about 60% sure it’s useful.”

“An organization dries up if you don’t challenge it with growth.”
— Mark Shepherd, former President and CEO of Texas Instruments


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