Have you ever been asked to provide your professional opinion on something? Does it make you uncomfortable when someone phrases the ask that way? You’re not alone! It can feel like a loaded question even for people with significant relevant professional experience. But, with some preparation, you can approach these questions with confidence and provide significant value to those who ask.
Preparation: Forming a Strong Professional Opinion
What makes a strong professional opinion? A strong professional opinion:
- is based on trusted information from expert sources.
- is informed by personal experience and the experience of peers.
- can change given new information.
We all have opinions, but not all of them meet these criteria. Let’s analyze this example:
The basis for this opinion of mine is mostly personal experience and preference. I grew up eating pineapple on pizza and a lot of my family and friends like it, though I know there are some with differing opinions. I’ve never researched the history of pineapple on pizza or sought other expert opinions. I haven’t read any research to know what percentage of pizza eaters would agree with this opinion. And I’m not sure what new information could change my mind — perhaps reports of mutant pineapple variety that develops poisonous compounds when baked at high temperatures.
By my earlier definition, it’s not a strong opinion. It could be, though, if I followed through on a little research. I’d love to be able to pull out quotes from Guy Fieri, Alton Brown, or Gordon Ramsay to strengthen my position. Or maybe I’d learn that there’s a genetic trait that affects how individuals perceive the flavor of pineapple on pizza, similar to cilantro, so I could explain why others might disagree with my position. It might still be a stretch to call it a professional opinion but it would be stronger.
Developing a strong professional opinion takes work, but it’s important and worthwhile work.
Read books and articles and attend conferences. Ask others for suggestions. Investigate opposing schools of thought and understand those perspectives, too. Have conversations with others in the industry to understand their perspectives and sharpen yours.
And, importantly, keep track of the books, articles, authors, and other resources you find most valuable. That way, you can revisit them, share them, and weigh them against new information and experiences. Professional journals and retrospectives can be a good resource for tracking your own experiences.
Sharing: A Strong Presentation
Now prepared, share your strong professional opinion!
It’s worth writing some notes down even if you plan to share your opinion verbally.
Tailor the feedback to the audience. Don’t feed technical jargon to people who don’t want it, and do your best to directly address the questions they care about most. A potential investor in a company will want to hear about how technology will scale with use in units of users and dollars, whereas a technical leader may care more about run times for data loads, test runs, and deployments.
Keep it professional. Highlight risks and problems without disparaging commentary. Keep it factual, what you observed and why you believe it’s a problem. Don’t catastrophize — one risk or problem doesn’t make the whole thing a dumpster fire.
Share your observations and connect them to the background and great references you’ve collected. Leveraging reference material helps you provide a concise response while providing lots of background for recipients to dig into if they wish, without having to write the book yourself.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Write your response and then see if you can delete a quarter of it. Or half of it.
Get feedback from other people, especially people with different perspectives and less technical backgrounds. See what you can clarify, simplify, and de-jargon.
Finally, share your opinion when it’s good enough. It won’t be perfect, but it will be well-founded and valuable.
Here are some examples of references I use frequently. I’d love to see comments with some of your own go-to references in the software design, development, and delivery space!
- For everything Scrum and team organization related, I love nearly everything Mike Cohn has published. I frequently recommend his book Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum.
- AWS’s Well-Architected framework and reference architectures are a great resource for architecture, especially if you’re deploying to AWS.
- For references on code quality and developer practices, The Pragmatic Programmer by David Thomas and Andy Hunt is a longtime favorite.