“I Don’t Know”

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I’ve learned to be more comfortable not knowing. “I don’t know”, comes easier now. “I don’t know anything about that.” It’s okay. It feels good to say.

Whether it’s service workers, Houdini, shadow DOM, web components, HTTP2, CSS grid, “micro-front ends”, AVIF… there are many paths before us. This list doesn’t even broach JavaScript frameworks and libraries. Much of this tech isn’t even novel in 2020—but together act as a clapperboard cueing in me a familiar fear of missing out or imposter syndrome.

How does someone stay current, let alone learn something new? I am reminded of a comment made by Melanie Sumner recently:

Anyone else feel like paying attention to any specific area of development causes the other skills to rust?

To achieve deeper understanding in a topic, one must seclude themselves to a focused path, etching only a tiny arc on the complete circle that is the web. Mastery of a subject comes with it both the elation of achievement and an awareness of the untraveled, much like Matt Might’s The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. Piercing or expanding the boundaries of our own spheres of knowledge is exhilarating, yes. But as Melanie observes, it’s a bit like reaching a remote mountain peak only to see more summits stretching out to the horizon. It’s a solitary place, not without reward, but not easily replicated. You must make that next trek from the bottom once more.

The seclusion is as physical as it is mental, given the challenges a global pandemic puts us in. Gone are the meetups, the watercooler moments, the overheard new thing. It was hard enough to ask for help when I could physically tap someone on the shoulder and interrupt their flow. Strangely, it feels more difficult to strike up a call or chat when I’m stuck. Everyone is at the same time a click and a mountain away.

I’ve learned to push through this tendency to seclude and embrace my teammates’ talent. Where I used to enjoy taking a heads-down day to research a problem, I now try to shareout in nearer-to-real-time my findings. The feedback loop is tighter. I’ve adjusted the internal clock that tells me when I am spending too much time on a problem. The team exists to help one another. We’ve set aside time to pair program, mob, and demo. These plans are not without occasional setbacks, however.

Or the time when we got stuck on a bug for 4 hours, only to have fresh eyes glance at the stack trace and find a new path in the span of 15 seconds.

Our more collaborative patterns create a union of skillsets too. We combine arcs of knowledge across the tech we need. We can unblock each other faster, like long-haul truckers tag-teaming a journey. Shared understanding helps us retain context and communicate with less writing. Working more closely on even the mundane has led to change. For example, that engineer that gives me regex tips every time? Where I once bristled, or leaned into their experience, gave way to preemption. “I don’t know how to do that” turned into better and better ideas where to take my first steps. I’d expanded the circumference of my skillset a teensy bit more, journeyed a bit up a new mountain, a guide to help me see the trailhead.

I still walk alone sometimes, and that’s where I can do some of my best work. But I have a better awareness of what I don’t know, and a working realization that my team can go further together than one of us individually. I fret less at the peaks I haven’t explored yet, and am more eager than ever to ask others if they know what’s over there.


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