Perplexinomicon

Apprenticeship Patterns: Accurate Self Assessment

Apr 18

One of the challenges of being an apprentice is finding time to digest everything that you’re learning. Every day serves up new challenges, both technical and interpersonal. The reflexive reaction, especially for someone like myself, might be to try to fit the new challenges into familiar boxes, to fight fear with imagined competence rather than humble terror. It probably does not come as a surprise to you that–according to Chapter 4 of Apprenticeship Patterns by Dave Hoover–this is a mistake.

Dave’s advice is that I practice Accurate Self Assessment, that I attempt to measure myself well and know my own strengths. For interpersonal challenges this is easy, I have an unlimited fund of people near me who are always willing to tell me the many ways I’ve revealed myself to be an alien and uncivilized creature. And that’s great, because I’d really love to be able to pass as human, and these people are helping me towards that goal.

Assessing my technical abilities is more challenging. I tend to get a lot of feedback like “No complaints” or, “You’re obviously technically strong”, “So-and-so says you are technically strong” and other bits of positive feedback. I have only gotten one piece of negative technical feedback while at ThoughtWorks, and it was couched in such vitriolic terms as to convince me that it was my alien nature, rather than my coding chops, that were on trial. This is a problem. I am not as technically strong as I want to be, and I’m not as technically strong in many areas as the people around me. That’s good, because another pattern from Hoover is to “Be the Worst”, but the reason to be the worst is to get better, not to stay the worst. So how do I get where I want to go?

It is up to me in this situation to accurately assess my skills. One tendency I need to fight is the tendency to underestimate myself. If smart people that I trust tell me that my technical skills are up to their standards, than I can’t argue with them. But I can’t overestimate myself either, because even if my skills are up to someone else’s standards, that’s sort of beside the point. As Hoover points out, “Your goal is to measure your abilities and find ways to be better than you were yesterday.” The first part of that seems to me to be the hardest part. How do I measure my abilities today? Against what yardstick do I measure them?

One way that it occurs to me to do that is in the first sentence of this post: Find time to digest what I’m learning. Which should, ideally, involve some repetition of the things that I’m learning. I take a lot of notes, so there’s some opportunity to reread those notes. The things I write down might be notes about the problem that I’m trying to solve, or notes about questions I have about the problem, or the things I didn’t understand.

That last part is probably the most useful for this purpose–if I know what I don’t know, I can at least ask myself whether I’ve learned it.