My Name Is G. Jason Head.

“I Don’t Know”


| 9 Comments

Three words that strike fear and disgust in project managers, creative directors and especially account executives in agencies across the globe.

Me? Well as a web developer and manager I embrace them.

I think it’s high time that we got rid of the stigma attached to “I Don’t Know”. This is especially relevant in the web development industry – where the technologies we use come and go as fast as the speed of light.

Over the years I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for web dev positions on my teams. One thing I always want to hear from a prospective employee? I want to hear them say “I Don’t Know.”

But you know who hates hearing this? Your colleagues who are not developers (especially those Client Service folks!). And I’m here to tell you that they need to lighten up a little bit. They should also want to hear you say this once in a while. It’s healthy. It’s normal. It tells your colleagues to trust you.

“But Jason!” you scream! “Why would I want to work with someone who says they don’t know how to do something!”

Because when it comes to web development – we can’t know everything. I’ve been working as a front-end web dev for close to 20 years. (Oh man, that explains my demeanor I guess!) Every single project I work on – yes: every one – has some part that I have to learn something new on. This is simply the life of a web developer. We are used to it. Our job is basically putting together puzzles and doing brainteasers all day. Our industry moves so darn fast that we have to step into the unknown every time we open up our code editors.

This is why I want someone I interview for a dev position to tell me “I Don’t Know”. Knowing that you are confident enough in your abilities to figure something out is a key skill. “Problem Solving” is just as as important a technology as as knowing php, javascript or any other programming language. Sometimes it’s even more important. Being humble enough to recognize this is a trait I would take in any developer over someone with “award-winning” on their resume. It’s not really fun working with someone who describes themselves as a “ninja” or “rockstar” – unless of course you are making a kung-fu movie or being a roadie for Metallica.

Let’s look at the other end. I’ve been in a number of planning meetings when non-dev team members look at you with faces of dread when you mention “Sorry, I can’t tell you how many hours this will take because I need to figure it out first.” Look, I understand their worries. But if you wanna tread in the waters of building interactive development, you have to get used to it. Put trust in your developers to know what they are doing. Don’t be scared when they tell you they need time to figure something out – it’s in our job descriptions.

Side note: Developers – don’t forget that you still need to have some people skills too. Sure, we need to figure out how to do things, but you also have to know when to hold em’ and know when to fold em’. There are gonna be times when you can’t figure something out – and you’ll need to keep the communications open with your team members to let them know – and also when to ask for help. In other words – be honest. Let people know ahead of time rather than an hour before it’s due. A late deliverable can throw off everyone on your team – and they will all talk bad about you at lunch.

It’s a fast-paced world out there for people in the web development industry. Let’s all make sure to say “I Don’t Know” once in a while and then getting to work figuring all this stuff out!

| 9 Comments

  • nessthehero

    Agreed. It’s better than lying about your skillset or setting expectations you can’t meet.

  • Pete Nicholson

    excellent post. I could get a few parts of that printed on t-shirts!

  • Andrew Hahn

    Well said!

  • So true.

  • I still have a lot of work to do to improve my writing, but thanks everyone for reading/sharing/discussing my recent blog post!

    And yes, I agree that “But I’ll Find Out” is a great way to follow this up, but ya’ll get the gist :)

  • Bruno Girin

    I learnt how to say “I don’t know” in my very first job (install real time systems in bank trading rooms) because it was complex enough that I couldn’t wing it and figured the best policy was to be honest with my customers. The result was very simple: they trusted me and when I said “I know”, they listened.

    Fast forward to today and it’s a method I use when interviewing people for a job: I’ll ask a tough question and see how candidates answer it; if they try to invent an answer, that’s a red flag; if they are honest enough to say “I don’t know”, we’ll have a chat about the subject and that will enable me to work out how good they are are de-constructing a problem.

    Technology moves too fast, it’s impossible to know everything, even in a very narrow field. In fact, if you know all the answers all the time, I’d argue that you’re in cruise control mode and that you are not challenging yourself.

  • Chris_Krammer

    So true, thanks Jason!

  • andrewdj

    Absolutely spot on. Similarly, a common mistake for junior dev and even mid level devs is the feeling they have to be seen to know everything. It’s just not possible. You learn as you go, forget stuff you stop using, and learn new stuff as you work on new projects and solutions.. Experience teaches you to say “I don’t know”, or “I’m not familiar with that, I’ll check it out.”

  • chris field

    Thanks for writing this. I always feel a step short because there is so much I don’t – can’t possibly – know.

    A great way I learned about what I don’t know (when I thought I did), I’ve found, is to teach it to someone. Questions out of left field, assumptions challenged, having to respond on-the-spot without the precious Google search bar handy…

    Spinners, callbacks, markdown, deprecate, initialize, gems, helpers, hooks, and loops. WTF happened to a simple ‘Hello World!’?

    The web dev world is a joyous and magical place. It’s great to see that I’m alright not being Head Mage in Charge. There’s just too much I don’t know.