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Don't Act Surprised

I had an experience recently in my coder education that I had previously only read about in blog posts and twitter stories. It is when you state your ignorance of a certain topic to someone, (be they a peer, mentor or manager,) and their first reaction is complete and utter surprise. “You don’t know about (some topic in software development)? WOW! OMG”

There are few things more off-putting than this “acting surprised” phenomenon for the budding learner. It makes the entirely wrong assumption that knowledge that an experienced coder has internalized must be second nature to someone else, even if they are still learning the subject. This can be especially harmful for anyone who has just mustered the courage to ask the question in the first place on a topic that may be new or concepts that are still foreign.

At the coding bootcamp I attended we were encouraged to “expose your ignorance”. This is a great way to let go of any fears of appearing to know less than the sum total of all human knowledge, something that I have noticed some professionals in the wild seem to hold as an attainable goal. Putting the stuff one does not know very well out in the open provides a direct way of tackling these gaps and being able to learn and grow.

The concept here is that you may know some things that others don’t and vice versa. It is therefore completely natural to not know everything, (as strange as this sounds.) This reminds me of my beginning of the year post: It’s OK To Be Wrong

In a professional setting, if I am say, a coder with fifteen years of experience, and I ask a seemingly “obvious” question, then perhaps the person receiving that question could be permitted to act surprised over an apparent gap in knowledge. However, even in this instance the experience will most likely leave a bad taste in my mouth and I would think twice about asking that individual for help again in the future.

From the point of view of the mentor, just as one would not “call out” a child for not knowing what a mortgage is, how to file taxes, drive a car, or do any number of ‘adulting’ activities, one should also not act surprised (or worse) when a junior dev, intern or apprentice has expressed their ignorance over a topic that seems to the mentor to be trivially obvious.

Serious thought should be given to type of culture that one wishes to foster: a culture of openness and freedom to ask questions or one of closeted ignorance and constant fear of being judged for perceived shortcomings.

So the next time someone asks a question, please don’t act surprised.