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It's ok not to know
Making software engineering more vulnerable
"Shit", I muttered under my breath.
This ticket had been under my name for pretty much the whole week, and I had left it until the morning of the client call to try and solve. On first glance I thought it would be an easy fix and had put it to the back of my mind, but turned out it was a much more complex issue than I thought. A few passes at it, and I was no closer to solving this problem. I felt sick. I shuffled nervously in my seat.
I imagined my response on the call with the client as they noticed this ticket hadn't been resolved and they asked me what the issue was. Saying 'I don't know' wasn't an option here, I simply couldn't. They would catch on that I was a fraud and that would be career over. A few months in to my first software job and I had blown it already.
"Hey, could you come have a look at this?" I said weakly to the senior engineer who was sitting behind me. "Sure thing bud, one sec".
Turns out a problem we all thought was going to be simple, was really a complex change that took several people a couple of days to work through. Maybe I wasn't so stupid after all. I breathed a sigh of relief and helped out where I could.
That fear I felt early on in my career will always stay with me. The twisting that appears deep in your gut when you realise you don't know something. What if this is the problem you can't figure out? In a way riding that fear almost became addictive, like an adrenaline rush. The unsettled feeling of not knowing how to solve something, and then the pure satisfaction of working through the problem and coming to a solution was a drug that kept me coming back.
That fear that I felt as a junior engineer, sometimes it is still there, even now. I felt it when I turned up at Zoa to lead their Infrastructure team, a completely fresh technical challenge for me. Sure, it is less harsh and I am far more tenured in my ability to handle it when it does play up, but nonetheless it still on occasion rears it's head.
We have done pretty well as an industry, I think, to make a start in normalising those feelings of anxiety we all face when we are starting out. It frustrates me so many of these conversations are being driving by engineers who are a few years into their careers and talking about these struggles though. Either that or more senior people who are reminiscing about their early years and the mistakes they made back in the day.
It shouldn't only be that way. Senior engineers and leaders should also be showing this level of vulnerability out in the open. Not doing so paints a somewhat lopsided and incorrect image that 'not knowing' is something that the majority of people will grow out of.
I understand it though. The ‘higher you climb’ the more it feels like people are looking to you to have all the answers.
I can count on less than two hands the amount of times I have seen really experienced engineers or tech leaders speak about the times they didn't know the answer to something or have been transparent enough to speak about the things they got wrong outside of the constraints of their own company or peers. A few conference talks perhaps (and these seem to be aimed at a more senior audience), and possibly a handful of articles - but not many.
One of these instances is Dan Abramov's article "Things I don't know as of 2018". In his own words: "People often assume that I know far more than I actually do." and this piece of writing is a celebration of the things he doesn't know.
I fairly regularly coach engineers through moments of low confidence, especially around comparing their skillsets to their peers. Dan's article is the first thing I point to, as it gives some reassurance that having specific knowledge is more than ok. The effect that someone simply saying "these are the things I don't know or am not good at and I am ok with that" should not be undervalued. As a manager, I wish there were more of these articles out there of industry 'thought leaders' showing that they too are just humans beings.
I have said many times that I resonate mostly with those who are openly 'figuring it out.' We have lots of quality engineering publications on Substack, LinkedIn and Twitter (X doesn’t feel right still) from experienced engineers, but so many of them are "This is how you do X or Y" with a straightforward explanation of how to do said thing.
Whilst that is great for reference, I crave more of the war stories behind these lessons. I long for more vulnerability. How did you find that hard lesson out for yourself? What mistakes have you made as a manager? Do you ever have days where you doubt yourself? These are the valuable teachings, and I would love to see more of this from key figures across the software landscape.
There is nothing more empowering for me, than when my manager comes to me and says "I would like your help with this, because I don't know the answer". The best companies and engineering teams are built on that kind of vulnerability - it runs through their veins. When senior leaders make ill-informed decisions to save face without consulting their team first, that is when things start to go wrong.
Let's embrace that we don't have all the answers. Lets write and talk openly about it. No matter how senior we are.
Because after all. It's ok not to know.
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