« All Episodes

What Will You Say When You Don't know?

Published 6/18/2020

In today's episode, we're  talking to early engineers and challenging all new engineers to think about how they will handle the pressure of not knowing the answer to a question asked by a co-worker. 


🙏 Today's Episode is Brought To You By: ZeBrand

Setting up your brand with ZeBrand only takes 5 minutes and you’ll have instant access to your assets to start showcasing your product today at https://zebranding.com/

Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
How will you handle the pressure of not knowing something? This is something that I'm specifically targeting early career engineers to start thinking about this as early as possible in your careers. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea and my goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. And this question is one that will prepare you for the inevitable. The inevitable situation where someone asks you a question or maybe you get a ticket in whatever your project management software choice is. And the problem that you're facing, you have no idea how to solve. And this happens for a lot of reasons. Perhaps it's something that you just haven't encountered yet or maybe it's something that you're not really primed to solve. It's something that is outside of what your job description is. It's outside of what you really even want to know about. And yet you've encountered it in some kind of professional scenario or even outside of your professional world in your personal life. Maybe someone is asking you a question that you don't know how to answer, but for some reason you feel pressured to answer anyway. What will you do in this situation? Why does it matter to think this way? Let's back up for a moment and talk about why it matters to answer this question before we ever even face this situation. We're fairly confident that we will face this situation because there's a vast amount of information that we just don't have. As we said so many times, especially recently on the show, the process of learning is confronting something that you don't yet understand and then working through it to a point where you do understand it. And realistically, understanding something probably isn't going to happen when you deal with it only once anyway. So encountering some experience that you've never encountered before and then adapting and dealing with the situation and taking away lessons from that experience. So we're pretty certain that the vast amount of possible learning, in other words, the landscape of things that you have yet to learn absolutely dwarfs the things that you have already learned. This is true for basically anybody at any point in their career. The amount of information grows faster than we can manage as individual engineers. And so it's very likely that you'll face this for your whole career. So answering this question, we start by answering this question preemptively for a couple of reasons. One, we believe we will face this situation. But then the next question that naturally arises is, well, why can't we deal with it when it comes? Generally speaking, this situation is frankly uncomfortable. When someone asks you a question that you don't have the answer for, especially if they expect you to have the answer. And even more, if that person is more experienced than you or holds a higher position in the company that you work at, maybe it's somebody that you look up to, or even if it's just merely a coworker of yours, if you have someone asking you a question that they expect you to be able to answer and you simply cannot, that can be a stressful situation. Specifically, this is a socially stressful situation because you don't want to lose the credit that that person is implying that you have earned. By asking you the question, they show that they trust you to be able to answer, at least that's what our brains believe. And by saying that you don't know or by answering incorrectly, you're showing a way that the credit was misplaced. But here's the critical factor. Typically, if we don't know the answer to something, we're likely to make something up. Why is that? Well, when you ask the question of what you have to lose in that social scenario, if you say I don't know, well, you immediately lose everything that you can lose. At least once again, that's what our brains tell us. But if you delay the loss, if you make up something, if you try to shift the conversation so that you can get out from underneath the responsibility of having to know something that you don't yet know, at the very worst, your brain believes that you are delaying that loss. And in the very best case scenario, maybe you guess right. Maybe your answer is reasonable enough to pass that social test. So in that moment, especially if you are being asked something that you can't really prove the answer one way or another, you get some kind of gratifying response. Your brain is relieved. That stressful situation is eliminated and you haven't lost anything. It's kind of accounting, the social credit accounting that you're doing in that scenario can be really dangerous for the long term because if you continue doing this long enough, eventually, your incorrect or improper responses are going to be found out. And perhaps more importantly, someone will end up relying on you more heavily for things that they shouldn't be relying on you for. The final problem that this causes runs pretty deep for a lot of us as software engineers. This is the source of a lot of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome for you because you know you're having to answer these questions in a way that is basically untruthful, but it also creates imposter syndrome for other people because they don't hear anyone else saying that they don't know. This creates the illusion that we all know, that we can all answer every question that's being asked of us. When you have a culture where everyone believes that they should be able to answer every question that people are asking them, then you perpetuate this problem that we should have a depth of knowledge that prepares us for every possible conversation. This is totally unrealistic and yet we continue to perpetuate this picture simply because of that social credit. So what should we do about this? That's what we're going to talk about right after we talk about today's sponsor, Zbrand. If you are building a company, odds are that you want to put your money in the places that it will have the largest impact. Zbrand helps you launch a product with minimal visual brand design resources without hiring internal designers, costly agencies or questionable freelancers. With Zbrand, you can launch your product without investing too much time and money on branding, which means your team can give 100% of their focus to product development. By asking some simple questions about your product, AI-based Zbrand algorithms create a uniquely tailored brand toolkit full of branding and marketing essentials, including fonts, color palettes, pitch deck templates and much more. Zbrand is easy to use. That's free to get started. Head over to zbranding.com. That's zebranding.com. It only takes five minutes and you'll have instant access to your assets to start showcasing your product today. That's zebranding.com. Thanks again to Zebrand for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. How will you do when you face the situation where you don't know something? Where somebody is asking you a question or they're asking you to do something that you feel wholly unqualified to do? Maybe they're pressuring you for an exact number of days that a particular feature is going to take to build. If you were totally honest, your answer would be, I really have no clue. If you were totally honest, you would say, I don't know that language or I've never worked with that kind of problem before. If we were all honest with ourselves and with others, we would be able to admit where we see our own deficiencies. And in turn, it might be a little bit easier to talk about other people's deficiencies as well. Now, it's not that cut and dry. It's not that simple. Of course, we are very complex and social creatures. So the power of social credit is incredibly important. We shouldn't just simply throw it away. There's a reason why this is difficult. Cooperation and trust is built on the idea that people are consistent and reliable. So what can we do? Well, it makes sense to start practicing saying that you don't know. One of the best ways to do this is in a low stakes environment and forcing yourself to become a beginner again in some area. Picking up a new subject or learning a new skill doesn't even necessarily have to be related to your career. But to put yourself into the mindset and into the pattern of being embarrassingly under qualified of being an absolute beginner and not even knowing a tenth of the fundamentals of a particular area, becoming familiar with this feeling, this idea of humility may help prime us to be more honest about our shortcomings in other areas. Additionally, remember that your knowledge is not static. Your ability to learn new things is incredible if you are dedicated to that learning process. And so when you don't know something, you don't have to end the answer with, I don't know. You can end the answer with, but I'm willing to invest the resources to find out. Or you can say, I don't know. And I think someone else may have a better set of experience for that particular problem. Ultimately, we will all feel much better off if we can be optimistic about our own shortcomings and give other people the space to not know. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. Thank you again to today's sponsor, Zbrand. Head over to zbranding.com that's zeebranding.com. It only takes five minutes and it's free to get started. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. Today's episode was produced by Sarah Jackson as a part of the spec network. Head over to spec.fm to find other shows that are made specifically for you as a designer or a developer looking to level up in your career. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.