This blog contains whatever random tech stuff I'm thinking about recently. And a lot of conference reports.

"You really don't know what feigned surprise is?"

 Image: www.publicdomainpictures.net

Image: www.publicdomainpictures.net

I'm completely comfortable admitting the things I don't know. Well, pretty comfortable at least :-) I try to do it a lot. Senior people asking questions is valuable for a team's culture and ability to learn, and mostly people respond great to it: "Wait, you mentioned X, what is that?" "Oh it's really cool, let me tell you!". But not always!

I saw something recently that I haven't seen in the wild in years: someone did feigned surprise at me! Well, maybe it was real surprise, but it amounted to the same thing: double checking that I really hadn't heard of whatever piece of software he'd just mentioned. SERIOUSLY? Yes, not everyone has heard of everything! 

Expressing shock that someone doesn't know something is, at best, a little rude. At worst, it makes people scared to ask questions and it takes much longer to learn anything. 

This one was innocuous so I let it go, but I was delighted to realise how long it's been since I'd seen one of those last. Is that just me? Have I just been lucky/selective with the people I've worked with recently? If it is decreasing (and I think it is!), I give full credit to the Recurse Center, who were the first people I saw call it out as a bad nerd habit.

 CJ asking Sam about the Census is a  funny scene . Man, Sam's condescending though. I wish they'd had Donna know about the census for some reason. (Like, maybe she read the wikipedia page?) She would have been a great tutor.

CJ asking Sam about the Census is a funny scene. Man, Sam's condescending though. I wish they'd had Donna know about the census for some reason. (Like, maybe she read the wikipedia page?) She would have been a great tutor.

Feigned surprise used to be standard conversation for sysadmins and software engineers. "You've seriously never used Linux?" "You really don't know how to use irc?". It was part of the BOfH toolbox, designed to undermine those who were still learning (the noobs and the lusers) and let the more experienced tech folks feel superior. How do you ask questions in that environment? Mostly you don't. You make a poker face, try to keep up and hope the topic changes back to something you know. When you absolutely can't avoid it, you ask for help in private.

But then the Recurse Center (then called Hacker School) shared their four social rules and one of them was "no feigning surprise". Calling out the phenomenon and naming it gave people power over it:  the realisation of "it's not just me", a behaviour to ask people not to do, and the ability to laugh at it. (I think the Recurse Center folks also named the "well actually", so we all owe them everything forever.)

Technology is an enormous domainWe have specialised knowledge and vocabulary for hardware, networks, security, cloud computing, storage, operating systems, software patterns, UI, mobile, web services, etc, etc. Every programming language comes with its own intricate ecosystem of tools and buzzwords. Nobody can know all of it.

We spend a huge amount of our work lives communicating, trying to get a shared model of the world into our brains so that we can collaborate or make decisions. It slows everything down when some of the people in a conversation are bluffing, or when they're disengaging a bit because they don't want to be called on something they don't know. We need to be comfortable admitting ignorance if we want to do good work.

When I'm a senior person in a team or org, or even in a meeting, I want to create an environment where it's completely ok not to know things. I make a point of asking about things I don't know. A very tiny number of people have been condescending about this, but mostly it's been very positive. It's habitual enough now that I don't really think about it. I just ask questions.

A few weeks ago I got an amazing email that made me think about it all over again. Jarek and I worked together years ago, when he was the brilliant new grad on a team where I was tech lead. When I announced that I was changing jobs, he sent me this:

"I'd heard people say knowing how to admit you didn't know something was a valuable skill, but I don't think it really sank in until working with you. It blew my mind at first that the TL that I thought was so competent asked me how to do something. I pretty quickly realized that's WHY you were so capable and competent. It took me a while to adjust my behavior to match that, but I could definitely tell how much better an engineer (and person) it made me."

This mail made me so happy. I'm sharing it (with permission!) because I think admitting ignorance is one of the most important things we can do as tech leads, senior engineers, mentors, managers and other influencers of team culture.

If senior people can admit they don't know things, everyone else can too.

A grab-bag of advice for engineers

Hacking scared humans