The worst four-letter-word developers use

There’s a simple four letter word that’s potentially a disaster when misused: the word “Just”.

Take a look at these two examples.

You have to install and set up a local development server.

You just have to install and set up a local development server.

Note that the requirements here are exactly the same. The only difference is that the second one is easy. You can tell it’s easy. They said “just”.

Just is a malicious word. It subtly implies that the stated action is going to be easy. You just have to create a learning AI and teach it Philosophy. Oh good, I was worried it would be something hard!

The word just in too many IT conversations doesn’t actually convey any useful information. And what it does convey is often not helpful. “This is easy. Why haven’t you done it yet?”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the word. In the right context it does have value. For example, if you’re telling someone about a better option, something like “You can just run this command to configure the application for your workstation.” has merit. It’s an easier way. But we need to be very careful when using it that we’re not obscuring complexity. The difference between “You have to set up x” and “You can just use x” lies only in language — the task is no easier for the wording.

When using the word just, we need to ask ourselves whether we’re genuinely stating that something is a simple task — and we should be considering whether it’s easy for them, not just us — or whether we’re handwaving the actual complexity. A context this often comes up in is as a dismissal. “Oh, sure, this software package doesn’t support that thing the competitor does, but you just have to install a third-party package for that feature.” That isn’t supported. You have to add another package.

State plainly what the task or solution is. If you have to hide behind “just” as a weasel word, maybe you should instead acknowledge the scale of the challenge.

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