How to say I don’t know

Dear new developer,

The honest truth is that you won’t know everything. No one does. The CEO, CTO, the team lead, that really smart senior developer on your team, none of them know everything. In fact, I bet if you asked any one of them if they’d been stymied in the past week, they’d reveal that yes, they ran into something they didn’t know how to do or how to approach.

Encyclopedic knowledge isn’t a good goal. You need to know how to figure things out. But when someone asks you “can you do X?”, you need to be prepared with the right answer, even if you don’t know how to do X. For example, I was tasked with setting up a static IP for a heroku application. I didn’t know how to do this. Rather than say “I don’t know how to do that”, I said “let me do some research and get back to you.” I also asked about deadlines and how high a priority this was.

I did some research, read some docs and came up with a proposed solution. I discussed it at standup with my team, including my boss, and we came up with a path toward implementation.

When you don’t know something, and someone asks you about it, there are a few things you must do.

First, you should tell them you don’t know. They might have some clues for you, or pointers to documentation. These can all accelerate your ability to do what is asked of you.

Depending on the situation, they may assume you know, based on their experience. For example, I work in the authentication space right now, with standards like OAuth and OIDC. When I first started, I had to ask what every piece of jargon meant, but after a few months I got up to speed. Now when I talk to other audiences, I need to be careful not to use too much jargon or assume what others know. One favorite technique I use is repeating back what someone said: “Can I repeat back to you what said to make sure I understand it? What I heard is that the OAuth code grant redirects to the client application after the user authenticates. Is that right?”

When you say “I don’t know” don’t stop there. Say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Again, they may point you in a direction, but by adding that second clause, you indicate that you’ll solve this problem. You should also ask about timeline and priority if that hasn’t been communicated (by story points, a task tracker or in some other fashion).

Finally, do what you say you’re going to do. Find out what you didn’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your team members, spend time on the internet searching, set up your dev environment and tweak settings, brainstorm, get frustrated, and write down hypotheses that you can test out. All of these are techniques I’ve used in trying to figure things out.

Saying I don’t know, honestly, with a plan to remedy your ignorance, is a key part of being a software developer.

Sincerely,

Dan

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