Monday, December 17, 2012
Ben Kamens of the Khan Academy writes the kind of
piece I wish I had encountered when I was just out of college. He describes a phenomenon he has repeatedly observed, and offers his
explanation for its causes:
I've noticed that the most mature and accomplished developers I've worked with are also those who most frequently say "I don't understand" when they're listening to a technical explanation.He adds that many new developers don't realize how common it is not to have fully wrapped one's mind around a problem upon first encountering it.
In one way, it's counterintuitive. Shouldn't the senior devs already know everything? But it makes a lot of sense. Those who are most secure in their own abilities are the most comfortable to admit when they haven't fully wrapped their minds around something. Newer devs assume that their confusion is their own fault. They don't want to interrupt others due to their own perceived shortcomings. [bold added]
What he observes is hardly a phenomenon of software development alone, or even of technology alone. I would hazard to guess that, on top of what Kamens observes, many people also don't grasp how common it is for people to act as if they do understand all manner of things that they really don't. (The more you understand a field, the easier it is to see this.)
Many times in my professional life, but especially right out of college, the simple admission on my part that I did not feel like I yet understood something new well enough was taken in completely the opposite way that it should have been: People reacted as if I were admitting a lack of self-confidence! The context of a question-and-answers period after a presentation provides one of the more glaring examples of the problem, but I noticed the same thing if, say, I couched an answer in something like, "Well, to the best of my knowledge, this is true, but to be really sure, I'd need to know ..."
Kamens is absolutely correct that a big part of the problem is the fact that we can only guess about what other people in the same room might be thinking (and so wrongly extrapolate general understanding due to a dearth of questions). I think there might also be a cultural element involved, as well. For example, one person I knew professionally simply could not stand my refusal to just guess and project confidence when I knew that what I actually had was just a good first stab at an answer. Over time, he revealed himself to be envious of people who have actual knowledge. For example, once when, in intellectually familiar territory for the first time in a while at a new job, I took him aside and corrected something he said, and explained why I was right. He belittled me on the spot and, I noticed, went on as if I had said nothing, repeating his earlier mistake some time later. (Incredibly to me at the time, he did this in such a way as to rub it in.) Such deliberate attempts to stifle honesty are usually more subtle ("You mean you don't know this?") and, I am afraid, much more common than they ought to be. I encounter things suspiciously like this quite often.
What the Kamens piece does, in addition to raising the issue, is provide encouragement to people who really are interested in understanding the world they live in. Kamen provides two valuable pieces of information: (1) The best people have questions all the time; and (2) Too many people are content to either take things at face value too easily or remain satisfied with a woozy, approximate, "understanding" after hearing something. Don't underestimate yourself or overestimate others just because you have raised a question that they haven't.
Your questions do not make you dumber than everyone else, and you may well be one of the sharper knives in the drawer. More people, especially the young, need to hear just that.