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I'm from the age of typewriters telex machines, menu driven programs, and disk-loaded operating systems.

Back then, computers were unreliable, and your chief source of information was still books.

Fast forward several decades:

I have a colleague who is of the "If it doesn't exist on the net, it doesn't exist" mentality. He is very intelligent, but absolutely refuses to listen to any folk wisdom, experience, or advice unless there's an online article that he can read.

Now, being in the business for decades, I learned things before there was the WWW, and half of these things, I don't even know where to look.

Worse, he tends to look for articles that contradict what I'm telling him. Many of these articles are right about the situation in general, but not for the specific circumstances we are dealing with. One example was when I was talking to another colleague about the "freezer trick", to recover data from a hard drive. He then pulled up an article on PC world, or something like that that said the trick doesn't work. Again, true for SSHDs, and on many of the newer drives, but it is still something that we can try on the older equipment. (and some of ours is VERY old)

Edited for comments. This is not a pride issue. I like the guy, but there is folk wisdom (not just mine). I don't pretend to know everything, he's been right about quite a few things, and as I said, highly intelligent. I'm just trying to get him to look at other information sources.

What are some strategies to deal with a colleague who relies too heavily on the internet?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 12 '20 at 14:35

11 Answers 11

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As I see, relying on the internet for gathering info is not the problem, blindly believing everything seen on internet is.

You need to make them understand, unless the info is backed by some trustworthy source (ex: official channels of OEM etc.), the authenticity of the info is always doubtful. It can be personal opinion, it can be one-off case, it can be erroneous, it can be a lie, it can be one or all of them.

"he tends to look for articles that contradict what I'm telling him. Many of these articles are right about the situation in general, but not for the specific circumstances we are dealing with. "

Don't contest verbally, show them.

Once they refer to an online article opposing what you mentioned, and you know they did not consider all the required aspect of the work, go ahead, show that the approach mentioned by you still works, and actually encourage the co-worker to write/publish about it on the internet, so that next time someone else does not have to repeat the same. This way, you hit two birds with one stone (win-win)

  • You'll prove that the experience is not something found on internet articles, and without experience, knowledge cannot be actually applied / useful.
  • You'll not be seen as someone opposing the internet / modern / digital era (or ways or learning), rather trying to embrace and enhance it.

EDIT:

To be explicit, this goes both ways. However hard to believe (and acknowledge) it is, there can be practical limitation of first-hand knowledge also. (Example: Programs containing undefined behaviour, which is tried on one particular setup where it seems to work).

As mentioned earlier, the best way is not to rely on presence (or lack thereof) of any article / information on internet or a book, or folk-wisdom, rather try things out as much as possible, guided by the information or folk-wisdom. This will

  • Either establish the fact that the folk-wisdom is correct, and the information was actually missing on internet (rare, but possible. time to publish article as mentioned above)
  • Or, the information available on internet is actually correct, and we get to update our own experience / knowledge.

Bottom line: There is seldom a case where "one fits for all" analogy or solution is applicable, we need to find out what is the best solution for the problem under current scenario / circumstances.

On any day, hands-on experiment beats speculation.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 12 '20 at 14:36
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I think he's managed to move your focus away from the issue, and now you're looking at how to teach critical analysis of internet sources.

The real problem is that he has a pattern of contradicting you. It's hard to break these patterns because egos get in the way.

Make him work with you, not against you. This might mean broadening your tolerance for ideas that you know won't work, until you can get this person to see why they won't work. It also means broadening your tolerance for ideas that you know won't work, until you can get yourself to see why they will work, with a few additional changes.

If you stop addressing it as an informational problem, and start addressing it as an interpersonal conflict problem, you'll make better progress.

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  • I think this is actually the best answer. In my opinion the root of the issue is really around offense taken. – Matt Nov 16 '20 at 20:26
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As someone probably closer in age to your colleague than yourself, my perspective:

If it exists in a book, it probably exists on the internet. If it is "folk wisdom" and is valuable, it probably exists on the internet. If it is not useful, it also probably exists on the internet, but also there are probably counter-articles explaining, on the internet, why that information is wrong/not useful.

Hence, there is nothing wrong with "using the internet instead of books" or what have you. Heck, our sister site StackOverflow is probably the most useful resource for programmers known to mankind, much more useful than any resource you could find in print anyway. So cut your coworker some slack, he can probably find a lot of great information online.

Now, as for your particular issues, data always beats opinion. If he says "that's dumb, it doesn't work", then show him that it works. If he says "the freezer trick is useless" (I don't know what the freezer trick is, but nevertheless), then do it and show him that it does indeed work. Or maybe it doesn't, and then you have some crow to eat. If you're right a few times, he'll start questioning you less.

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    "If it exists in a book, it probably exists on the internet." I have to disagree. Even in the domain of computer development software (compilers etc.) I've come across- and sold- plenty of stuff which quite simply has never existed if you rely on Google et al: there are either no hits, or there is so much noise involved that the few valid hits are unfindable unless you already have the text for which you're searching. And that, I suspect, is the best way of dealing with this issue: find a problem which can only be solved by reference to something which only exists in an unscanned archive. – Mark Morgan Lloyd Nov 12 '20 at 21:57
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    And all of the books published before the 1990s? There's a reason that I took a couple of days off work to help with Jason Scott's effort to save old tech manuals : ascii.textfiles.com/archives/4683 ; ascii.textfiles.com/archives/date/2015/08 – Joe Nov 13 '20 at 0:35
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    This answer highly inflates the value of online resources. While I use Stack Overflow myself, there is plenty of bad accepted answers there as well. Here's the news. All major libraries subscribe to publicly unavailable online resources, because Internet has only so much useful information, especially if you don't only want to brush surface on many topics. – Gnudiff Nov 13 '20 at 7:13
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    I have spent considerable time cleaning up code that was "borrowed" from our sister site. I rarely use it myself – Old_Lamplighter Nov 13 '20 at 14:36
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    @Old_Lamplighter You are not supposed to use Stackoverflow as a code repository and to just copy stuff from there. The code there is meant to examplify a solution to a problem, it' generally not meant to be straight up copied and used without understanding it and making sure that the solution is applicable and well suited for your specific issue. – Alex Nov 14 '20 at 0:02
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Maybe the problem isn't so much with him but with you?

For example, take the freezer trick article that you talk about found here:

That old 'freezer trick' to save a hard drive doesn't work anymore.

If you actually read it in detail, it explains why it could work sometimes but the author still didn't recommend it. But the point was, it might have worked sometimes and you might have also used it and had it work for you.

So is the problem really that he tried to prove you wrong and you felt unsettled? I personally think you might need to examine your own reaction. You've said he's smart.
I'm not discounting your experience, but I too have had to fight the feeling of the smart new younger guy unsettling me and thinking I was going the way of the dodo despite all my years of IT knowledge.

To counter this feeling just remind yourself that this isn't an attack on you personally. And you need to work out a comeback/response. For example, you can't argue with experience. So you could have just said something like

Well back in the 90's we had this old hard drive stop working. I heard about freezing it to get it running and then copying the data off. So I tried it, and sure enough it worked! So don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

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Your colleague could just as easily have posted a question titled, "How to deal with an older coworker who is too reliant on folk wisdom?" The problem with online sources and the problem with folk wisdom are the same problem: they both risk being too anecdotal.

The way to counter that is to provide actual justification, and not just anecdotal evidence like "we used to do this all the time." Something like, "We still have old drives that are subject to stiction. We've tried everything else and we just need enough time to copy data off the drive to a new one. All we're risking is making a broken disk more broken."

Sometimes experience manifests as a "gut feeling" and you can't really justify it. In those cases, you should try to communicate the appropriate level of skepticism, and shouldn't feel bad if people "trust but verify."

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  • Well, I am getting cranky in my old age. – Old_Lamplighter Nov 12 '20 at 14:45
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    "All we're risking is making a broken disk more broken"—If you might send the disk out for professional data recovery, making it more broken could cause further or total unrecoverable data loss, as described in the PC World article. This argument makes sense if you're not planning on paying for data recovery services no matter what and just trying the freezer trick for fun, but if that's the case, you don't seem to care about the data anymore. – Zach Lipton Nov 12 '20 at 19:56
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    @ZachLipton For those who are curious, I knew a guy that did data recovery. It's expensive because, in "worst case" scenarios, they source two identical (down to the model number an production run) hard drives for a failed drive. Then they use one to construct a working drive from the failed drive. Since that drive is "compromised" in the frankenstenian process, they immediately copy it off to third unopened drive. Just sourcing the "old" drives is enough to make one batty; but, opening a hard drive can cause all sorts of additional failures if the environment isn't "clean" aka dust free. – Edwin Buck Nov 13 '20 at 20:52
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The most practical thing you can do is to post an article on the WWW describing your proposed suggestion and extolling its virtues. Then cite it in response to his adversarial citation.

One quick way to post a short article is as a self-answered question on a discussion site or even on a Q&A site like Stack Overflow. You can even use an alias when creating the account.

Of course there's always the danger that you'll be quickly downvoted into oblivion.

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Posts on the Internet is the same old folk wisdom, only from people you don't personally know. For instance, the HDD freezer trick is discussed here at SU, which ironically seems to reach a conclusion similar to your colleague's: deep freezing doesn't make a faulty HDD work any better than letting it cool down to room temperature every once in a while. My personal experience tells me the same. The opposite opinion can also be found right there, though I don't trust it personally: my experience tells me that bearings have more trouble rotating when cold due to the increased viscosity of the grease.

I'd say there's nothing you should do with your colleague. Working with information includes carefully picking the sources, otherwise you'll never finish analyzing all the information that's available. You may think your colleague is missing on the extra information folk wisdom could provide, but if deliberately excluding such sources improves the signal-to-noise ratio for him, you're not going to do any good by insisting they should listen to you.

Of course, this does not apply to cases where pertinent information is not widely available. If you have experience with a system which your company developed in-house, you should share that kind of knowledge and your colleague should listen to you, rather than reading a blog about how someone else did something similar and assume that your company's system is the same.

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If you're the team-lead / lead developer...

If you're over your colleague in some way, then there's a bigger problem here: your direct report is undermining you. Basically you need to listen to input and truly consider it, admitting and changing when you're wrong, but at the end of the day you need to make it clear that you get the final say (and responsibility for anything that goes wrong if you're actually wrong), and that regardless of what the individual in question thinks, they have to adopt the approach you've dictated. That is, after all, the definition of authority. You can and should communicate this in a kind, respectful, and humble manner. But you do need to do it. As it stands, if this colleague is your direct report, they're definitely not acting like it.

However if they're really just a colleague...

If they're truly just a colleague, then as other answers mentioned, show them situations where the guidance they found in articles is wrong--demonstrate with an experiment that your way works. And work to mentor this junior colleague. Show them the value of the wisdom you hold. It sounds like they are of the mindset that you're old, your skills are rusty, your knowledge is obsolete, and thus (sadly a common junior viewpoint) you shouldn't be a senior dev. If this is correct, they're likely pushing back against you as a subtle power play to try to take you down a notch. I'm not suggesting it's malice, just run-of-the-mill junior dev arrogance/folly. I was one of those junior devs once (not quite this aggressive mind you, but still arrogant)...

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I am in your shoes - my first computer did not even have a disk, much less a disk operating system, and I am often in a role where I coach or otherwise help young (or inexperienced) colleagues. I have one in particular right now who could be the person you are describing.

I do not think you can change them in any way, directly. Any direct, confrontational approach will lead to what you experienced. Their self-image is centered on being "digital natives" who are deeply ingrained with the 'net, and that you and I are dinosaurs who know little of value.

The core of the problem is, I think, that "digital natives" are often contrasted to more senior people who did not have an extensive IT background (i.e., people who did not have a computer or otherwise electronic device until a few years ago, much less internet access). You and me not only had access to these things from the very first days of their existing, but we took part in all the ups and downs that came and went over the years (10Base2 or older networks, uucp, dial up boards, Fidonet, PPP, etc. leading up to today's ubiquitous internet access). We have been digital natives decades before the word existed...

So, looking forward: I tend to offer them my input, but when it becomes clear that they want to go their own way, I very quickly let them do that. I go back a step - I do not care how they do their work, but whether they are able to produce results or not. One approach that helps not only with them but with every technical problem is to stop arguing about stuff, but instead test, measure, benchmark in an objective way. Let reality speak for itself.

If a topic is too dangerous to let them play with it (i.e., important customer data, production servers etc.) then there must be a place where it's not about coaching them, but about how the policies in your company are. Then it's not at all about who is seniour, but who is the responsible person (see the RACI principle). They decide. If your youngsters is in fact responsible for something, then they have to bear the consequences. If they are not, then they have, at some point, to subordinate to whoever is.

Hope that helps. Don't fight fights that are impossible to win, you will only have two people who've lost...

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I feel that I am slightly qualified to answer this question because I am very similar to the colleague you mentioned in your question. I trust in the internet over all else and the moment someone tells me something that I am not aware of/ I disagree with, I immediately check it up online. However I eventually realized that the internet is notoriously unreliable- no matter how legitimate a source looks, it should be taken with a pinch of salt (in most cases). The best thing for you to do is to - as childish as it may sound - create instances where you directly prove that the information that he has may be wrong. Don't directly try to start a fight or anything, but you should show him practical examples where the knowledge you have is more reliable and useful than something you would have gotten online.

All the same, nowadays its fair to rely on online sources. If its there in a book, its probably there online. And practical tips can be found in most forums.

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Start a blog and explain your experiences/expertise there. If it's on the internet, it must be true.

Please let us know if/when he tries to show you one of your own articles.

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