Never Heard of It

About a year ago, I was on a conference call. The customer was a Fortune 500 company with a correspondingly enormous web presence, and they wanted some help validating that their new Sass architecture would result in CSS that would perform well across devices.

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One of their developers was giving an informal presentation about their progress. He said something to me that I can paraphrase as: “Sass’s new placeholder syntax is pretty great, isn’t it?”

There was a stutter and a pause, that sound of windy emptiness on the call, while I gathered my wits.

“Actually, I’m not familiar with it,” I said.

Owning up to posturing#section1

Not long before, I had started noticing a habit I had, a tendency to nod or make vague assentive noises when people around me talked about things I’d never heard of.

When I did this, my motivation wasn’t to claim knowledge I didn’t have as much as to deflect a need for outright admission of ignorance. I’d let the moment glide past and later scamper off to furtively study up.

I recognized this in myself, this fear of looking like I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t love it. At the same time, there was so much to keep on top of—JavaScript frameworks, browser bugs, devices, hacks, techniques, workarounds, etc.—that to be entirely informed about all of these things wasn’t feasible either, no matter the level of effort.

I decided that I wanted to come to terms with not knowing everything, to be able to say never heard of it and not feel panicky.

Finding confidence in a hazy profession#section2

This was easier resolved than done.

I go through periods of self-doubt about my qualifications as a web developer. I have a sense I’m not alone in this. Our field is by nature a generalists’ field, where expertise involves synthesis of concepts and technologies, not complete mastery of a single, static topic. It’s hard to know how to tell if you’re good at your job.

On closer self-reflection, I realized my fear wasn’t that I’d look like I didn’t know what I was doing, but that maybe I actually didn’t know what I was doing.

There’s no defined lesson plan or standardized test for the many branches of real-world applied web development, and the whole profession is a moving target. So if we can’t possibly know everything, all the time, what things do we need to know?

Can you Google it?#section3

As I surveyed the patterns in my daily information bombardment, one dichotomy appeared rather quickly. Boiling it down to a quick litmus test: some things can be easily Googled for when needed, and some things cannot.

This is a useful barometer, a differentiator between things to reference versus concepts to know. Of course, I’d still have to have the guts to admit when I didn’t have these minutiae at my mental fingertips, but I felt more confident once I recognized them for the details that they were.

All in good time#section4

On good mornings, I have time to read my RSS feeds. Most mornings, however, are not good. Last week was a multi-day pitched battle waged between an outdated version of PhoneGap and native status bars in iOS7. There were no ceasefire agreements to allow for checking the latest updates on Feedly.

This daily task of separating the noisy chaff from the meaningful wheat is another piece of our knowledge burden, a vague necessity akin to being well-read or informed. Except that while I feel like I have a lifetime to read the major Athenian dramatists, I suffer from a nagging, constant twitch to check the latest tech headlines.

But wherefore the urgency? Yep, it is a worthwhile thing to keep current, to have general awareness of the newest Nexus phone or that a slew of unpleasant WebKit bugs are coming your way, but it’s the knowledge and skills one can’t glean from a news feed or a speedy Googling that make or break us.

That is, higher-level concepts: software architecture, the successful union of Responsive Web Design techniques, working on distributed teams, the application of design patterns, usability concerns—these are what web mastery are built from, and so these should be the linchpins of my own personal, continuing curriculum.

Re-calibrating the knowledge burden#section5

With the web, as with soccer in my childhood, I play the midfield. Rooted neither in the front end nor the backend, I have to run around a lot. During fierce matches, frenetic and muddy, I have no time to assess strategy except in a lower-brain, reactive fashion.

And so part of upping my game was to remove myself selectively from active play, to assert calculated time-outs and extended practice sessions, allowing me to survey the current lay of the technical field and to master certain complex maneuvers without the crowd watching, all the while boosting my confidence in my own competence.

And thus my strategy: dimming down the details a bit; employing just-in-time Googling; pruning my news sources and allotting time for longer-term study of deeper topics that matter. Choosing my battles and pursuing those doggedly while ignoring distracting skirmishes; acknowledging that there will be some border incursions I will fail to foresee. Being able to hold my chin up when faced with the latter—that’s the rub, and it comes with confidence in one’s own game plan and growth.

We are not going to know all of the things, nor are we going to know them immediately. No, in fact, I haven’t tried out that JavaScript framework yet (stop looking incredulous). I didn’t see that one guy’s tweet about that memory leak thing. But I do know quite a bit about Sass placeholders now. Isn’t it fun to learn?

Maybe what I should have said on that conference call was, “I’m not familiar with it…yet.”

46 Reader Comments

  1. Thanks Lyza, I enjoyed this article!

    Saying “never heard of that” is something I’ve been working on too.

    So far I’ve noticed no ill effects, except maybe a slight feeling of awkwardness.

    But if learning and being upfront are goals, it’s the best way to go.

    Cheers!

  2. Thanks Lyza — I can also honestly say, I can relate 100% with this article. I do my best to keep up with the “latest/greatest” but what I think I need to know may not be what everyone else knows. I am doing what you are doing, picking and choosing what to spend more time on and now I can also feel better at saying “I’m not familiar with it…. yet”. Thanks for a great article!

  3. Brilliant thoughts, I can relate 100%. “Hazy profession” is a perfect definition. I’ve also found that those time-outs are key to assessing what’s relevant and what’s not.
    I’d say my current biggest difficulty resides in being able to transport newly-acquired knowledge into the analysis or the development processes – something I’ve been working on for a while now, using a sort-of-molecular approach (that is, mixing in the smallest bits of usable new stuff) and getting better at it every day.

  4. Ahh the joys of working in a field that has so much going on in it that it’s impossible to know everything. 🙂

    It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one out there that would get overwhelmed if they tried to learn everything there is to know and has to focus on specific areas, with Google as my backup.

  5. Totally agree with your article. For me, the most difficult thing is to combine newly learned stuff with support on… and adding new features on existing solutions and techniques. But I’ll take your advice… and take a few time-outs to work on the new things that matter (without the crowd watching)! Thanks.

  6. Thanks for sharing your candid thoughts on such an important issue. I think it’s vital for developers, including myself, to realize that it’s okay to not know everything. We’re not robots. We have friends and families, and other non-web hobbies.

    We don’t have unlimited free time to learn and research new technologies, but what we can do is keep track of the ones that we really want to learn and make an effort to be a student when we can.

  7. I noticed the way people try to gloss over lack of knowledge about things, even if trivial, even if a bit of Googling wouldn’t go a miss. I thought it was lame and then to my horror realised I did it myself.

    For me it was pretty easy to overcome, just a different reaction to the feeling that you’re about to look inferior.

    I think too many people try to BS their way through technical discussions to protect their ego. Having someone admit a gap in knowledge is very productive and by no means a fault: we’re not walking technical references.

    I’ve actually got “Admit I don’t know something” on a checklist when I go for interviews, because I find that interviewers find it refreshing to have someone straight up admit they lack a full understanding or awareness of something rather than unconvincingly try to bumble their way through the conversation.

  8. Great write up! There is no shame in saying, I don’t know the answer. We all start somewhere. I could care less if someone knows more than me. That’s great if they do. I’m happy for them. However, if they are arrogant about it then then they should rethink their approach because there is nothing more humbling then a boot to the head 😉

    Really though, life is about learning and we are all on different learning paths. 🙂 Some things can be googled and some things cannot. That is where you can choose to really push through the hurdle.

    I was just watching lynda.com yesterday going through fundamentals of programming for which I have done frequently over the past few years. The narrator said this eloquently about RexExp’s. “ReExp are very complicated string patterns that have been pretty much figured out and to try and memorize them is foolish. Of course, one would memorize after many many times of using them but to know what they mean and how they are used is the key.” Then he proceeded to show a reference guide on mozilla and suggested to keep that handy. I thought that was remarkable!

    I like sites like Stack Overflow because you don’t get chastised for asking a question and the answers are quick. Google is great but there is a lot information out there and sometimes its hard to decipher which method is the appropriate one.

  9. Great article. I think all of us, especially those that work solo, can relate. I do find myself often telling clients (finally without hesitation) “honestly, I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I can find out”.

  10. I really liked your article Lyza. Well done for writing it; I think you’ve shared a valuable lesson.

    I was fortunate enough to learn this myself when I was still relatively young and studying A-level economics. At the age of 17 I had not the first clue what the teacher was talking about. Keynesianism / Moneterarism / what???! I came to the view that everyone else in the class clearly knew what the teacher was talking because they were clever and I was stupid. I explained my fears to my father. He responded by saying “probably no-one in that class has the first clue what the teacher is saying – and if you don’t ask you’ll never know either”. There followed 2 years of me sticking my hand up and saying “Teri, I don’t get it” and then getting an education in response!

    I’ve found that that lesson is well applied in my daily life. One of the most valuable I’ve learned.

  11. I was in a meeting just last week where I thought I might sound uninformed if I asked a question about something I was unsure about. But I sucked it up, and asked anyway. Turns out, more than half of the people in the meeting had the same question.

  12. I think being a Web/software designer or developer doesn’t mean you have mastery in anything, but rather that you’re an excellent problem solver. When new technologies or methodologies arise your true value shows in your ability to understand and apply them to solve real-world problems.

    The only constant I’ve had in this profession is that I know next year I’ll have to relearn everything I think I know now.

  13. Thank you Lyza for touching upon one of those things we don’t always want to admit (but should). I often find myself in the same situation you described at the beginning of your article – should I own up to not knowing this? Is that okay? Rejection is – well – terrifying! But this is how we learn, this is how we start to help each other become better people and better work partners.

  14. Finally, an article that keeps it totally real. I, too, tire of the mad scramble to keep up with EVERYTHING at the risk of being thought inept or uninformed should someone raise a topic from among the many things that, admittedly, I don’t even have time to familiarize myself with let alone pressing need. This is part of why it frustrates me when job interviewers want to play quiz-show-hosts. There’s a reason I don’t carry an encyclopedia in my head; it’s called, I can have that info under my fingers in 2 seconds or less via Google, and as soon as I do, I can make use of it. I don’t have to memorize every granular aspect or pedantic shop-term of, say, javascript to dive into code that is broken and fix it, or extend it to perform new functions or offer new features, or mine what’s out there for parts to build my own which is just as good if not better than the original.

  15. If you don’t have an ego you should have no qualms admitting you don’t know something. Unfortunately in the dev realm egos run rampant…

  16. @Malte Baden Hansen Amusingly, we ended up building against the iOS 6.1 SDK. Too much woe with iOS7 in our case. Upgrading to PhoneGap 3.0+ wasn’t in the cards on this project, and none of the released fixes, plugins or hacks were compatible with pre-3.0 PG. I flailed around a while in Objective-C before remembering why it was I was a web developer, anyway, and a smart coworker suggested the idea of building against an older SDK.

    @dean b I don’t think that devs have a monopoly on egotism, particularly, but perhaps posturing is somewhat built into the culture a bit. I think the insecurity around admitting one’s ignorance in something is more of a universal human frailty. The unique challenge I think we face as web developers is that the field we are supposed to be expert in is *so* broad that we end up being put into these situations a lot (although I don’t discount that there are likely other comparable fields with subject matter that is expansive and overwhelming).

  17. I too am grateful for your article’s frankness. When you wrote “my fear wasn’t that I’d look like I didn’t know what I was doing, but that maybe I actually didn’t know what I was doing” I wanted nothing so much as to hug you. I’ve just finished my first month at a new job after being back on the market for about as long and I spent a good deal of time coming out of interviews wondering if somehow I’d been just fooling people for the past umpteen years and now it had all caught up to me and I’d been found out.

    Having had the experience of having gone through a number of interviews where I had to admit not knowing some technique or that I was unable to recall the name of a specific method I came to realize more than ever that evaluating developers on the basis of their ability to regurgitate details that are usually only a few keystrokes away via the very thing that keeps us all in business is incredibly flawed, but that many employers have little or no idea how else to do so. Much more important is going to be the ability to solve problems through experience, research and creative thinking, but those are things that can’t be quantified quite so easily.

  18. Thanks for this great article Lyza! I play midfield too, and suffer from the same habit of saying .. “hmm, yes, I know this” … perhaps it’s time I owned up and started saying – “Nope, I have’nt heard of it”.

    Thanks to your article, I know that I am not the only one who has the nagging feeling inside me and it gives me the courage to say I don’t know 🙂

  19. In tweaking an older WordPress theme to work with our current site, I realized I was a little more removed from the latest techniques used to develop responsive sites that I thought. Eerily enough, that lead me to do some Googling, which lead me to SASS. I had to admit to myself, and my co-workers, that I would need more time because I was learning something new. Thanks for summing up my thoughts and experiences almost to a ‘t’!

  20. I think @brad_frost or @beep wrote a similar thought about knowledge of new devices. I still find in meetings people will challenge and judge about the latest tech, but ive now let go as it’s just impossible and boring to track every variation of every product.

  21. I’d also note, I’m pushing for R&D time in the workplace for my team (challenging financial services org) to keep up to date with our skills. We’re billed out at 100% capacity, yet expected to perform and consult on the latest techniques.

    That doesn’t add up to me. We’re fighting for 75% allocation billed at 100%, allowing 1 day per week R&D time. Else, the numbers and expectations just don’t add up.

  22. Good article, as the “web guy” at the small company I work for, I can get pretty stressed out when something crops up that I can’t do. I’m trying to not be so stressed and find people that can do what I can’t to fill in my knowledge gaps.

  23. Another web foot-soldier here saying “THANK YOU” for sharing your self-doubts. I bathe in self-doubt, sometimes to the point where sometimes ironically it can actually effect my work. Next time that happens, I’ll keep your essay in mind.

  24. Thank you for sharing this! I’ve definately done that thing where I nod and play along, and go check it out later. A really good read, and reassuring for all of us.

  25. Great article Lyza, this is definitely something that most developers have wanted to put into words, and you’ve done it very well.

    To me, the theme of this article is summed up by one of your headings: “Finding confidence in a hazy profession”. The haze, however, is a different kind of thing altogether depending on who you are. Those who employ us might see our profession as hazy because they don’t know exactly what’s involved in what we do — in contrast, we see our as profession hazy because we know of all the things we could be doing, but aren’t — and that because we aren’t doing those certain things (yet), we must not understand the value of them, and we’re missing something crucial. (Of course, it’s also hazy simply because it’s difficult for the layman to define “developer”, aside from “person who makes stuff happen on the internet”).

    Most of the developers that we deal with on a daily basis through Twitter, newsletters, etc. are in the top percentile, those brilliant developers that we look up to who are pushing the leading edge of the web forward, and we think “how far behind am I?” which might lead to “how respected is my workflow if I went to a hackathon?” or even “am I too far behind to be hired? I haven’t interviewed in years…” I think the insecurity that some of us feel when assessing our skills comes from who we’re comparing them against, in the same way that one could get anxiety from looking at your friends’ accomplishments on social media. Remember that even those who have made it big have had some low points along the way.

    I agree with what Jeremy AAsum said, that at the core of your skill-set as a developer should be strong problem-solving skills, as well as a willingness to embrace change and adapt to your work environment (it’s different for all of us: some are working at startups in SF, some are freelancing, a lot are somewhere in-between). At the end of the day, your job is enjoyable if you’re able to use your strengths, and to stay sane it’s important to understand that it’s your strengths that make you capable, and, importantly, useful to those you create for. We are the best at judging our own shortfalls — that uncomfortableness is part of the job, and it’s what makes us want to keep learning. While our clients may be content with our work, we all have some insecurity about how our skills/personality/reasoning might be judged, but we should leave that to others (those whose job it is — interviewers, managers), and take just as much time to recognize that we are still doing what we love despite all the self-doubt it can create.

  26. Wow! Your article struck a chord! I’ve recently begun to doubt myself with the never ending explosion of new technologies, best practices and tools, wondering how I can change the label of ‘what I do’ as I can’t keep up. I will now sleep better at night knowing that it’s okay to not know everything.

  27. It’s always good to come clean and accept that there’s no way of knowing everything there is for us to know about web design and development. I’ve always likened this game of feigned familiarity with listening to a bunch of hipsters talk about bands. No one wants to admit they were the last one to be into a band or (gasp) have never heard of them, so everyone in the conversation pretends to have heard of them first.

    I shunned the hipster tactic about six years ago when it came to talking about web technologies (and bands). And, guess what? It didn’t ruin my career. In fact, it helped it because when I was faced with a project that might call for something that was unfamiliar to me, at least the expectation was set that, for at least portions of the project, a little extra time would be needed.

    Because, as I’m sure many others have experienced, when you smile and nod and act familiar with something you’ve never heard of, you tend to get expectations that you can do that thing in your sleep. And, more often than not, sleep is the one thing you don’t get while you’re trying to meet that aggressive deadline you made for yourself because you weren’t honest.

  28. I’ll echo what most people have responded with. I’ve also heard it referred to as “imposter syndrome”, especially at a new job, where you’re waiting/expecting the wool to be pulled from everyone else’s eyes, to reveal that you don’t, in fact, know what you’re doing.

    @Craig – I, too, have pushed for R&D time to give myself & our engineering team time to learn & grow. It’s a very tough sell to the business. I no longer push for that. Instead, I’ve become an efficiency nazi – and look to automate as much of our workflow as possible, organically creating the space we need to evolve. As an example, implementing GruntJS gave us the free time to implement SASS, which in and of itself, will provide ongoing ROI as our codebase becomes increasingly modular.

    Further, as you start to implement these grass-roots efforts, it makes the “20%” sales pitch to the business team easier, when you have proof of return (especially useful when you spend a sprint or two really pushing velocity after you’ve increased developer throughput)

  29. Great article.

    Reminds me of something April said on Parks and Recreation:

    “I’m going to tell you a secret about everyone else’s job: No one knows what they’re doing. Deep down, everyone is just faking it until they figure it out. And you will, too, because you are awesome”

  30. Lyza, Very well articulated article. From someone who has been doing this a very, very long time (think telnet & bulletin board systems on WWIV – if that registers) I greatly appreciate what you have acknowledged here. More specifically I admire your candor on the conference call with a fortune 500. That required a good deal of courage and I find the honesty refreshing. Being professionals requires focus and specialization. Unfortunately, this means missing a few broad knowledge shifts/nuances along the way. It is important for us all to remember that, apart from instinct, we are born 100% ignorant. It’s a natural state of being. Acknowledging this should keep all of our egos in check.

  31. Wow, you hit the nail on the head. One of the most destructing things in (bigger) teams is that you can’t say what you don’t know. But, honestly, what kind of team spirit is this? In a climate of fear nobody can grow fast and strong. In teams we must allow each other to ask, “what’s that? I never heard of it”, and grow stronger and wiser fast every day.

    By the way, I need to figure out how these Syntactically Awesome StyleSheets work—that’s why I landed here…

  32. Wow, this was a great read! So much resonance for everyone in every profession, really. My boyfriend is a chef and from time to time we go on a food documentary binge on Netflix, Googling everything as we watch. He is both inspired and freaked out by the techniques that chefs are pioneering around the world. There is such a fine line between staying informed enough and spending all day everyday trying to find something new.

    This is precisely why I think working with great teams are so important. One person cannot go a mile wide and an inch team without coming up short from time to time.

  33. So glad I found this article, it gave me great encouragement at a time when I most needed it, given that I’m currently going through that self doubt stage.

    I’ve recently burst out of the bubble of a long term contract to find that the world has changed around me. It’s difficult to know where to catch up first. Spent too much time getting the job done at the expense of personal growth.

    I too have suffered bad interview techniques/procedures. I feel that companies are missing the point, whilst also only really looking for ‘battery hens’. I had an interview with a big company recently, so I researched some of their top people. One of them wrote in his blog “if I haven’t heard of you on GitHub then I wont even bother looking at your CV”. Great attitude eh!

    So thank you Lyza and thanks to all that have left a reply – it’s been a real boost for me.

  34. I commented recently in a chat stream that a conference one of the speakers had just mentioned sounded “funny”.

    Another attendee quickly singled me out in the chat with “what’s so funny…?”. It was an awkward moment but I quickly responded that I had “never heard of it” and I was there “to learn”, and would research the “World Domination Summit” after the call.

  35. This whole article – it’s like you’ve been inside my head, articulating the things I’ve been thinking and feeling for the last year, but didn’t know how to say (or what the reaction would be if I did).

    For me, I’ve been working on coming to terms that it’s okay to not know everything. Web development, design, UX, UI, usability, content strategy, device knowledge (the list is endless) – the world of web work is now so broad and deep that you can’t possibly know it all.

    I think that specialising in one area, being more-than-proficient in a few others and finally being aware (or at least not closed to) the rest is a solid approach.

    I feel fortunate that in my workplace, I am a part of a team, and I have been able to start influencing the idea that web (particularly web application) development should be made up of a mixed team of specialist skills, where by combining our strengths we can deliver solutions far greater than we could do individually or as a team of generalists.

    That fragmentation is already occurring more widely. To progress it further, I’d love to see a place where as web professionals we could easily sub-contract elements of a project to mutual benefit.

  36. There are two different issues being discussed here — there’s admitting you don’t know the answer to something, like how to solve a particular problem, and there’s saying that you’ve never heard of something, like a new Sass feature.

    In the first case, it’s difficult for everyone in this industry to learn how to admit they don’t know, but very important to do so; I’m sure we all know how irritating it is when someone pretends to understand something they blatantly don’t.

    But in the second case, there’s no shame in not keeping up with the latest trends, and it’s fine to say, not just that you haven’t heard of the latest Sass feature (for example), but that you’ve never used Sass and never intend to.

    We shouldn’t feel obliged to keep up with what’s cool. Important developments always filter through in the end. Never used jQuery? Never used GitHub? That’s fine too 🙂

  37. We can all relate to the sentiment and the practicalities covered in this article; I personally take the tack of being blissfully ignorant until I walk into the metaphorical brick wall that requires the acquisition of further knowledge or skills to ascend and conquer. Teaching Interactive Media is no walk in the park either, it seems to be a never ending CPD exercise; so the reading I do in my spare time is really concentrated on stuff that makes me go Wow!

    The development of web-technologies has been exponential to the point now where most mere mortals are overwhelmed and have regular crises of confidence; I reassure myself that is in the interests of health to actively admit saturation point and down tools. This occurs at 4:30pm every Friday without exception.

    As juniors we feel the need to say yes and undertake superhuman feats to prove our worth; through gaining experience as the article highlights out you learn to ‘pick your battles’ and also learn how to say no.

    It’s so nice to learn that so many other’s feel this way about keeping up 🙂

    One question though, does anybody else get fed up of the silly names that are concocted for new technologies?

  38. ah what a comfort to read this! This is a 3rd career for me and because of my age sometimes I feel such a pressure to know everything! I’m so happy to be in such a unique and exciting role but I suppose we are all learning to manage the information overload together. I’ve got my 4 or 5 emails that I rely on to curate the front end buzz and a new extra long train commute to consume them but what I’m missing is setting time aside for some deep learning. Great article!

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