What You Contribute By Not Knowing

3 minute read

Whenever you start at a new job or rotate onto a team that’s working on a problem you haven’t seen before—you’re going to be bad at first. There is no other way it can be. You haven’t gotten the experience yet that you need to become good.

This is one of those truths that is easy to accept intellectually, but difficult to believe in your heart. When you’re surrounded by people who are more competent than you, it is natural to get imposter syndrome, even if you know you shouldn’t. We have all sat in a meeting at some point and felt like the dumbest person in the room, not following the conversation but staying quiet because we were too afraid to speak up and say we didn’t know.

In moments like these, there is a strong temptation to hide your lack of understanding. But not speaking up is a huge mistake. It’s okay not to know everything. In fact, not knowing makes you an invaluable asset to your team, and expressing your uncertainty openly is one of the quickest ways you can start providing value in your new role.

Not knowing gives you a license to ask questions and improve

“If you impress people in these first months, it should be because of the seriousness of your desire to learn, not because you are trying to rise to the top before you are ready.” - Robert Greene, Mastery

As the resident new guy, you are in a very rare and privileged position. No one expects you to know things, and everyone wants you to learn so you can start pulling your own weight. This means that you can ask all kinds of seemingly dumb questions to people who do the same thing as you professionally—and they have to answer you! So if you don’t understand, just suck it up and ask.

You are sitting on a gold mine of information, and all you have to do in order to gain access to it is swallow your pride and admit that you don’t understand things. What a small price to pay!

Once you’ve been around for a while, people will expect much more of you. They are not always going to be so patient in answering your every question, so take advantage of this opportunity while it lasts. Ask so many questions that you become the resident expert on the team’s process, tooling, business strategy, and history. Take notes. One day you’ll look up and realize you’re the one explaining things.

That’s how you stop being a beginner.

Your team needs beginners

As the person with the least experience, you bring an essential perspective to the table: that of the beginner. Having someone around who can voice this perspective is important to your team for a few reasons:

  1. More people are going to join your team in the future. Those people are going to be beginners too, and they will probably be confused about all of the same things that are confusing to you right now.
  2. The users of your product will be beginners at first.

As you develop software, your must regularly consider both of these perspectives. Someday, someone else will need to maintain this code you’re writing, so you better make sure they’re going to be able to understand it. Someday someone will have to adjust the permissions on this s3 bucket, so you better make sure the login information is stored somewhere where they can find it. And someday, someone out there in the world is actually going to have to use your product, so you better design it and document it in such a way that they can learn how.

Regularly considering the perspective of the beginner is vital to making software that lasts. It is vital to avoiding tech debt. But it is very difficult to do for someone who has been immersed in a project for so long that they know it inside and out, a.k.a. the people on your team.

That’s where you come in. You are real life beginner. There you are in every meeting, asking questions when you don’t understand, and in the process holding a mirror up to your team and showing them what their work looks like to someone just getting ramped up. If you’re confused, that might be a smell suggesting that that other beginners might be confused. By asking for clarification, you can accidentally shine a light on the things that need fixing, the things no one else sees, revealing ways for the team to improve.

An important word of warning

All of that said, your goal in asking questions and voicing your own confusion is not to change your team. Your goal is simply to understand the way things are. Refrain from passing judgement.

One of the fastest ways to destroy your rapport with a new team is to be the guy who shows up on his first day and starts telling everyone that they are doing things wrong. Your job in the beginning is to learn. Until you deeply understand the status quo, you are not qualified to have an opinion about it.

Let the others decide if your lack of understanding says something about the health of the team. Don’t even bring it up.

“Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room—until you change that with results.” - Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

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