02 March 2015

Today I attended a workshop at QCon London led by the erudite James Lewis on Designing Microservices. I noticed he caught himself saying “it depends” a few times, so after giving him a light-hearted wind-up on Twitter about it I thought perhaps it’d be worth explaining that I don’t think the classic consultant line is a cop-out answer.

I find myself grinning wrly when I hear someone else respond with “It depends… well, really, it does!” in answer to a question because I find myself doing the same thing at times. Sometimes when people ask what appears to be a simple question you need a way to indicate that the answer is actually more complex and situational, and it certainly beats pushing your glasses back up and saying “Actually, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” (unless you do actually intend to dismiss the person asking the question!)

Listen up

If someone answers you with “it depends”, this is your cue to listen up because the full answer might not fit into a tweet or a two-second response, and perhaps trying to oversimplify it at this moment would leave you missing some important information.

For a common example, if people interview for a job at Kainos with me and ask something like “So, which technologies do you use on your projects?” my first answer is going to be the somewhat clichéd “It depends.” This is because to just quickly answer with “Java” or “.Net” would be shortening the answer to the point of being misleading. Being a development and consulting company, we typically work within whatever constraints exist in our customer’s environment so sometimes we get to pick technologies and sometimes we have certain decisions already made by the nature of the engagement.

Saying “it depends” is the best way to quickly let you know that the answer is going to be more than just a two-word response.

Occasionally you might find the archetypal consultant tries to deploy this answer as a verbal hand-waving reflex to deflect complex questions, so when you get this expect to prepare some questions yourself about the context and admit that you don’t necessarily expect a quick answer.

“It depends” is the gateway drug, the answer that leads you to the harder stuff, that lets us prepare the audience for a bit more nuance and detail.

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