Your managers and team members need confidence that you can deliver, but you are unfamiliar with some of the required technologies. This doesn’t just happen to consultants. It happens to everyone. Perhaps you’ve been brought in because you have a deep understanding of the business domain or some other aspect of the technology stack being used in a team. Or perhaps you’re simply the only person available to do the job.
Show the people who are depending on you that the learning process is part of delivering software. Let them see you grow.
According to research by the social psychologist Carol Dweck, the need to appear competent is ingrained into people of most industrialized societies. These societies are increasingly dependent on your competence as a developer, as software creeps ever-deeper into our everyday lives. Yet because of your inexperience, you have many zones of ignorance. You are in a bind. The people around you—your manager, your client, your colleagues, not to mention yourself—are all under tremendous pressure to deliver software. You can see the need for confidence in people’s eyes when they ask you how long feature X will take you to finish. There can be tremendous pressure to pacify them, to reassure them that you know precisely what they want, how you’re going to give it to them, and when.
Software craftsmen build their reputations through strong relationships with their clients and colleagues. Conceding to unspoken pressures and telling people what they want to hear is not a good way to build strong relationships. Tell people the truth. Let them know that you’re starting to understand what they want and you’re in the process of learning how to give it to them. If you reassure them, reassure them with your ability to learn, not by pretending to know something you don’t. In this way, your reputation will be built upon your learning ability rather than what you already know.
The most obvious way to expose your ignorance is to ask questions. This is easier said than done, particularly when the person you’re asking has assumed that you already know the answer. Press on! Sure, you could protect your pride and take less direct routes to obtain the required knowledge, but remember that your road to journeyman will be shortened by taking the most direct route available. With practice and time, you will find that asking direct questions to the most knowledgeable people on your team will become second nature. While you are exposing your ignorance, you are also exposing your team to your learning ability. And sometimes they will gain a new clarity about their own knowledge in the process of answering your question.
Get used to this learning process. This is craftsmanship. There are those who are uncomfortable with this process. Rather than becoming craftsmen, these people become experts, people who achieve expertise on one platform or in one domain and stick with it. Because of their narrow focus, experts can deliver functionality into a specific context better than anyone else. It is certainly important and inevitable for our industry to have experts, but that is not the goal of the apprentice.
Expertise is a by-product of the long road we’re all on, but it is not the destination. Over the course of their journey, craftsmen will work with countless technologies and domains. If, through necessity or interest, they Dig Deeper and develop expertise in one or more of these technologies, so much the better. This is to be expected, just as the runner training for a marathon develops stronger leg muscles. She’s not training to have strong legs; she’s training to run. Like the motivated developer who after working on a Python project for two years achieves a deep knowledge of Python, the marathon runner’s strong leg muscles are a means, not an end.
Some experts will do everything they can to remain wedded to a single context, narrowing the scope of their learning, their practice, and their projects. Craftsmen, on the other hand, need to have the courage and humility to set aside their expertise and wear The White Belt as they pick up an unfamiliar technology or learn a new domain.
One of the most important traits that a craftsman can possess is the ability to learn, identifying an area of ignorance and working to reduce it. Like bare patches in a garden, ignorance can be reduced by cultivating your seeds of knowledge. Water your seeds through experimentation, practice, and reading. You can choose to hide these bare patches from the light, embarrassed by their size, covering them to keep your pride intact. Or you can choose to expose them, being honest with yourself and the people who are depending on you, and asking for help.
By the end of your apprenticeship, you will have in-depth knowledge of a few threads of technology. With these threads you can weave together robust software applications on a small number of platforms and domains. The master craftsman has the ability to weave a tapestry out of myriad threads. No doubt he will have his favorite threads and his favorite combinations, but the number of threads will be large, allowing the master craftsman to adapt into a wide range of technological environments. This is where The Long Road will take you. By exposing and then confronting your ignorance, you will spin the missing threads much more quickly than you will by faking it in order to appear competent.
Write down a list of five things you really don’t understand about your work. Put that list where others can see it. Then get in the habit of refreshing this list as your work changes.