Aaron Turon

Tech | Personal | Academic | Music | About

Project maintained by aturon Hosted on GitHub Pages — Theme by mattgraham

aturon.log: listening and trust, part 2

In the previous post in this series, I recounted an early lesson for the Rust Core Team about working in the open. In this post, I want to talk about the delicate interplay between listening and trust when doing design in the open.

I honestly despise being subtle or “nice”. The fact is, people need to know what my position on things are. And I can’t just say “please don’t do that”, because people won’t listen. I say “On the internet, nobody can hear you being subtle”, and I mean it.

That’s Linus Torvalds on talking and listening in OSS. There is, of course, a long and continuing battle in the OSS world around codes of conduct, and Linus is often cited in these debates (by both sides). Given that the Rust community is firmly in the pro-CoC camp, it’s tempting to think that what Linus is describing here is simply not relevant in the Rust world.

But notice that Linus talks about two things here: being subtle, and being nice. The “being nice” part is indeed covered by codes of conduct, and is by and large not an issue for the Rust community. But the “being subtle” part is, well, more subtle.

To be concrete, saying “This idea is insane” or “An idiotic unreadable mess” is obviously not being nice, and the CoC draws a clear line here. But what about “I very strongly object” or “Doing this would ruin what I love most about Rust”? These aren’t personal attacks, and they’re often given along with detailed technical critiques. Moreover, they accurately describe the feelings being experienced by the author! Yet, I think such un-nuanced statements are often counterproductive to the design approach at the heart of Rust.

I’m going to spend the rest of this post unpacking that sentiment.

Pluralism and positive sums

In the run-up to 1.0, the Rust community went through a process of articulating the value propositions of the language, and — relatedly! — the design values for the project. We developed a pattern of slogans that summarized our understanding at that point:

and ultimately: Hack without fear.

The common thread here is reconciling oppositions. Not just finding a balance in a tradeoff, but finding ways to reduce or eliminate the tradeoff itself. In our 2016 RustConf keynote, Niko and I talked about this as the Rust community “knowing how to have our cake and eat it too”, as part of our challenge to the community to take another such step:

In short, productivity should be a core value of Rust, and we should work creatively to improve it while retaining Rust’s other core values. By the end of 2017, we want to have earned the slogan: Rust: fast, reliable, productive—pick three.

Of course, such reconciliations are not always possible, and certainly aren’t easy. It’s an aspiration, not an edict. But Rust’s culture and design process is engineered to produce such outcomes, by embracing pluralism and positive-sum thinking:

  • Pluralism is about who we target: Rust seeks to simultaneously appeal to die-hard C++ programmers and to empower dyed-in-the-wool JS devs, and to reach several other varied audiences. That’s uncomfortable! These audiences are very different, they have divergent needs and priorities, and the usual adage applies: if you try to please everyone, you won’t please anyone. But…

  • Positive-sum thinking is how we embrace pluralism while retaining a coherent vision and set of values for the language. A zero-sum view would assume that apparent oppositions are fundamental, e.g., that appealing to the JS crowd inherently hurts the C++ one. A positive-sum view starts by seeing different perspectives and priorities as legitimate and worthwhile, with a faith that by respecting each other in this way, we can find strictly better solutions than had we optimized solely for one perspective.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve experienced positive-sum outcomes when working with the Rust community. Times when I’ve ended up with a design much better than the one I started with, and got there because I thought it was important to listen to people with different priorities.

But there’s a lot of nuance here. Rust does not seek to be a language for everyone, but the audiences and use cases it does target are nevertheless diverse. And pluralism happens at the level of community and goals, not at the level of the actual design. We don’t embrace “there’s more than one way to do it” as a goal for our designs, nor do we “take the average” between opposed priorities (and please no one). Ultimately, we have to make hard decisions.

It’s the formal Rust teams, the people who make the final decisions, who are tasked to take in and care about a plurality of perspectives, but ultimately put forth a singular, coherent vision. They are the keepers of the vision, the counterbalance to the process of exploration and give-and-take.

Fear and power

Second, [we must] “defend” the language many times, but failing once has dire consequences. No matter how good the defenders are, they are going to let something slip from time to time.

(from Fortifying the process against feature bloat)

Many times, the language team hasn’t had a chance to even read the thread before it spirals out of control like this one, because every little bit of discussion makes you feel like you’re losing the fight.

(comment from @rpjohnst)

The idea that discussions can be “purely technical”, i.e. devoid of emotional content, is bogus. If we care at any level about what we’re discussing, then our emotions are going to play a role, and more likely than not, they will spill over onto the thread.

People care about Rust. It resonates with their values and experiences, in specific and highly personal ways. Because of that context, seeing a proposal that appears at odds with those values and experiences can be distressing. And that feeling is only heightened when you also feel you have limited power. Someone else is making the decision, there seems to be growing momentum around it, and so you reach for the only tool you have: raising your voice as loud as you can.

And so we come back to Linus’s issue of “subtle” communication. His recommendation is to amplify these feelings, to yell loud to make sure you’re heard. “I’m against every idea in this proposal”. “This feature will ruin Rust”. “Rust is heading in the wrong direction”.

These feelings are real and legitimate. But embracing and amplifying them works directly against the principles of plurality and positive-sum thinking. Escalation encourages a zero-sum environment, an us-versus-them battle, completely at odds with the positive-sum thinking that has led to Rust’s best innovations. And it’s a vicious cycle: if everyone is yelling, truly listening becomes very painful, and you “grow a thicker skin” in part by learning to not take other people’s feelings so seriously… which means they need to yell louder…

Humility and trust

Those that do argue for the proposal you hate often don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other yet—they may bring up counterpoints just to have them on the table, or to explore the design space. And, you should note, they often do wind up agreeing with you!

(comment from @rpjohnst)

Fear and creativity don’t mix. Working in a positive-sum, pluralistic way requires significant vulnerability and emotional labor:

  • Humility, in order to genuinely question the instinct that your values, ideas and opinions are the Right Ones.

  • Empathy, in order to genuinely “put on” someone else’s perspective, needs and values as if they were your own.

  • Introspection, in order to reach a deeper understanding of your own impulses and values.

We look for these skills when selecting people to join the Rust teams, and we expect them to do this kind of work when exploring a design space. But this is delicate work, and we do it best when the work is shared by the whole community, not just team members. And, in particular, “unsubtle” shouting driven by fear makes this work so, so much harder.

This is why I feel distraught when I see accusations of bad faith, of people having an “agenda” and the “listening” done in the RFC process being a charade to avoid revolt. Or the sense of “luckily enough of us yelled to stop the terrifying original proposal from happening; the moment we stop speaking up, Those People will start pushing in that direction again”. All of these sentiments indicate a rising distrust, a zero-sum power-focused framing, with a dose of tribalism to boot.

What we need is to work against the vicious circle of escalation by creating a virtuous circle instead, based on humility and trust. If we can trust each other to listen and take concerns seriously, we free ourselves to be uncertain about those concerns, and open to possibilities that superficially work against them. In other words, we free ourselves to communicate and explore with subtlety and nuance. Trust and humility go hand-in-hand. And they are the key to finding positive-sum outcomes.

A code of conduct is not enough. Being “nice” is not enough. We need to take a leap of faith and embrace humility and trust in our discussions. It is my strong belief that doing so will lead to strictly better ideas and decisions, enabling us to find positive-sum outcomes. But I also think it’s vital for keeping our plural community whole and inclusive.

In the next post in this series, I’ll present some concrete case studies from Rust’s past and present, examining how the discussions functioned and what we might learn from them.