At BadCamp this year, one of my favorite panels was called Conquering Imposter Syndrome in the Open Source Community. It was extremely validating to hear the panelists' thoughts, and it got me thinking more generally about the unique ways in which working with technology forces all of us to continually confront our lack of knowledge. As technologies change and the open-source community evolves, we are all constantly learning new concepts and skills. How you deal with the Unknown says a lot about you and your probable success as a web developer. In this post I outline ways I see people dealing with their own un-knowing and how those styles impact their success.
1. The Explainer
Their MO: The explainer is the sort of person who you rarely hear ask questions. Instead, The Explainer usually won't admit that he doesn't know something — or he may not even know that he doesn't have the answer. But when an issue does stump him, he may spend a lot of time explaining why a proposed solution won’t work, without necessarily offering an alternate solution.
Why it works: It doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes if you’re trying to explain a concept you only partially understand, you’re going to end up confusing the people around you (and worse, silencing ideas that might otherwise be helpful because you’re sure they won’t work.) But some of the time, explaining a specific concept can be helpful for clarifying aspects of it that you may be hazy on. Explaining something forces you to clearly articulate a problem and synthesize the various issues involved, which can lead to a greater understanding of the solution.
Advice for the Explainer: Admit when you don’t know the answer and give the reins over to someone else. Even the most experienced developer is going to have some gaps in his knowledge, simply because there’s so much information out there. Sometimes you can muddle through something by relying on your skills, but sometimes it’s best to just (metaphorically) raise your hand and ask.
2. The Self-Taught
Their MO: “I’ll figure it out on my own” is a common refrain from The Self-Taught. Through some combination of Google, trial-and-error, and sheer force of will, the Self-Taught developer knows how to hunt down the answers she needs, no matter how obscure the problem.
Why it works: So many people in this industry are self-taught, and that’s part of what makes open source so great. Someone with the skills and tenacity to dig into a problem until he reaches a solution will go far in this industry — farther than someone who starts off with a lot of of knowledge but doesn’t know how to accumulate more.
Advice for the Self-Taught: Learn how to ask for help. It’s all well and good to be able to Google and code-wrestle your way to victory, but if you think that there’s someone around you who might have encountered this problem before, it might be faster just to ask. Take advantage of the fact that you’re not alone in this business, and be willing to admit your own ignorance. Even if you can spend four hours figuring out a problem on your own, sometimes it’s good to recognize that taking ten minutes to ask someone how is the smarter option.
3. The Confident Questioner
Their MO: This person is generally unafraid to ask questions, whether it’s asking for a basic overview of a module or concept, or asking a very detailed, complex question about a certain situation. This person might ask their questions on issue queues, Slack channels, or in person.
Why it works: The Confident Questioner is well on his way to becoming an expert because he already knows what it is he doesn’t know, and he’s not afraid to admit it.
Advice for the Confident Questioner: Learn how to tackle some of your questions yourself. I admire people who stand up and ask a question without worrying about whether it makes her look stupid (in my experience, it rarely does), but I also think that if you get too used to people telling you the answers or showing you how to do something, you’re limiting your growth as a developer. Learning how to step out on your own and track down solutions to problems is a huge part of this business, and the more you flex those skills, the better off you’ll be.
4. The Open-Source Explorer
Their MO: This person lurks on the issue queues, reads and rereads documentation and maybe even attends a users' groups. The Open-Source Explorer knows how to take advantage of the unique community built around the technology he uses.
Why it works: The Open-Source Explorer is a perfect combination of the Self-Taught and the Confident Questioner. He knows that he is a part of a unique industry that values knowledge-sharing and communal problem-solving, and he knows how to make the most of it.
Advice for the Open-Source Explorer: If you haven’t already, think about contributing back to the community. If you’re confused about something and you take the time to figure it out, document your confusion for the next person who comes along with the same problem. The more you invest in the open-source community, the more you’ll ultimately get out of it.
So, do I have everyone covered on this list? Is it fairly accurate? Let me know on Twitter at @katypool .