Author’s Note: The latest version of this essay is now a chapter in the Coding Career Handbook.
We are often told that Knowledge is Power. This is mostly true – except for at least two points in your career.
Have you thought about how Ignorance can be Power too? I can think of at least two stages in a career when you can wield lack of knowledge as a form of power (in the neutral, ability to influence others to do what you need sense, not in the petty dominating over others sense).
And we’ll talk about how you can wield ignorance throughout the rest of your career too – with Lampshading!
First, when you’re in senior management, typically at least a couple layers removed from individual contributors. Beyond a certain level you are not being paid to have the right answers – that’s what your reports are for. It’s your job to ask the right questions, and to enable your team to figure out how to get the answers.
In my career so far I’ve often noticed that it is senior management, not middle or junior people, that are most likely to say “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t understand what’s going on here. Can you explain like I’m five?” Done right, it can expose weak reasoning and bust bullshit, particularly when framed with the (mostly correct) belief that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”.
Note I’m not absolving incompetent management of the need to know domain knowledge necessary to be an effective leader. I’m simply observing that at senior levels you are not expected to know everything, and that’s an interesting violation of “Knowledge is Power” you have probably experienced.
Second, when you’re new, typically entry level in a career or a new joiner to a community or company. At this level, again, nobody expects you to know anything. Sure, you needed to know enough to fool someone into hiring you. But so long as you never lied or lied-by-omission, nobody is going to turn around and fire you for having holes in your knowledge.
Of course, there are cases where this doesn’t apply. Junior talent are the most expendable, and some companies don’t have a healthy attitude to mentorship and hiring. But in general, I find the tech industry a lot better for mentoring than, say, finance. Tech companies generally place explicit responsibility on seniors/team leads to mentor juniors, especially as part of their career progression goals.
You might imagine, having restarted my career 2-4 times depending how you count it, that I have a good deal of personal experience with being a total newbie.
Here I can tell you about my first day on my new dev job, fresh out of bootcamp.
My team all joined on the same day – 3 new hires (me and 2 more experienced devs). My new boss, a confident senior dev who had had a long tenure with the firm, was walking us through our tech stack. All of a sudden he paused, and said, “oh by the way, we’re going to use TypeScript. You all know TypeScript, right?”. Coworker 1 nodded, Coworker 2 nodded. There was that unspoken sense of duh, we’re all professionals here, of course we use TypeScript.
And then all eyes were on me.
I don’t do well with peer pressure. In Gretchen Rubin’s 4 Tendencies model, I’m an Obliger – I like to please people and put my own concerns aside. Of course my bootcamp hadn’t taught TypeScript, we’d only had 3 months to learn fullstack JS! And of course I wanted to say yes!
I had a probably visible moment of panic, before going with “no I don’t know TypeScript.” My boss simply nodded, saying, “you can learn on the job”, and moved on.
I think in my first few months I probably had a dozen little tests like that. Did I know how to do professional code reviews? (No) Did I know how to do BEM naming? (No, and I proudly still don’t) Did I know what Clean Code was? (eh.. nope).
Every time I confessed ignorance, they gave me what I needed to learn, and I caught up. If I made a mistake, they taught me what I did wrong. What were they gonna do, fire me? They knew what they were doing when they hired me out of bootcamp.
So we see that confessing ignorance works at both the senior and junior stages of careers. But it also works in isolated situations as well, for example when you caveat what you don’t know while learning in public.
Given my casual interest in creative writing, I often compare this technique with Lampshading. To quote from TV Tropes:
Lampshade Hanging (or, more informally, Lampshading) is the writers’ trick of dealing with any element of the story that threatens the audience’s Willing Suspension of Disbelief, whether a very implausible plot development, or a particularly blatant use of a trope, by calling attention to it and simply moving on.
Applied to real life: You call out your own weakness, so that others can’t.
In fact, by most functional team dynamics, others are then obliged to help you fix your weakness. This is soft power.
Many Americans (of a certain age) immediately sympathize with this by linking it to the final battle in 8 Mile. In it, Eminem kicks off by naming every single weakness of his that his opponent Papa Doc was going to, literally stealing all the words from Papa Doc’s mouth and turning himself into a sympathetic character. Weakness is strength here purely because of lampshading.
In real life, I often lampshade by invoking the “Stupid Question Safe Harbor” (SQSH).
A “Safe Harbor” is a legal idea that explicitly okays some behavior that may be in a grey zone due to unclear rules. So I use it as an analogy for how we act when someone says “I have a Stupid Question”.
When we invoke the “Stupid Question Safe Harbor”, we are acknowledging the question is potentially stupid, AND that we all know that there’s not really such a thing as a stupid question, but we’ll just get it out of the way to ask something really basic – because getting mutual understanding is more important than saving face.
The trick here is you actually are saving face – now you’ve invoked the SQSH, people understand you’re roleplaying, you’re explicitly invoking a well understood mode of conversation, and you’re not ACTUALLY that stupid. Right? Right?? nervous laughter
When you are in a group scenario, the SQSH has positive externalities. There may be multiple people wondering the same thing, but only one person has to “take the hit” of asking the “stupid question”, and yet all benefit. I like performing this role of Stupid Questions as a Service.
Once you learn to look out for Lampshading, you may see powerful users of it out there in the wild who use it to Learn in Public:
Dec 2020 Edit: Chris Coyier chimes in with some very kind commentary of his own.