Self Assessment

Background Knowledge

The Dunning Kruger Effect [1] is something everyone should read about. It’s the effect where people who are bad at something rate themselves higher than they deserve because their inability to notice their own mistakes prevents improvement, while people who are good at something rate themselves lower than they deserve because noticing all their mistakes is what allows them to improve.

Noticing all your mistakes all the time isn’t great (see Impostor Syndrome [2] for where this leads).

Erik Dietrich wrote an insightful article “How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner” [3] which I recommend that everyone reads. It is about how some people get stuck at a medium level of proficiency and find it impossible to unlearn bad practices which prevent them from achieving higher levels of skill.

What I’m Concerned About

A significant problem in large parts of the computer industry is that it’s not easy to compare various skills. In the sport of bowling (which Erik uses as an example) it’s easy to compare your score against people anywhere in the world, if you score 250 and people in another city score 280 then they are more skilled than you. If I design an IT project that’s 2 months late on delivery and someone else designs a project that’s only 1 month late are they more skilled than me? That isn’t enough information to know. I’m using the number of months late as an arbitrary metric of assessing projects, IT projects tend to run late and while delivery time might not be the best metric it’s something that can be measured (note that I am slightly joking about measuring IT projects by how late they are).

If the last project I personally controlled was 2 months late and I’m about to finish a project 1 month late does that mean I’ve increased my skills? I probably can’t assess this accurately as there are so many variables. The Impostor Syndrome factor might lead me to think that the second project was easier, or I might get egotistical and think I’m really great, or maybe both at the same time.

This is one of many resources recommending timely feedback for education [4], it says “Feedback needs to be timely” and “It needs to be given while there is still time for the learners to act on it and to monitor and adjust their own learning”. For basic programming tasks such as debugging a crashing program the feedback is reasonably quick. For longer term tasks like assessing whether the choice of technologies for a project was good the feedback cycle is almost impossibly long. If I used product A for a year long project does it seem easier than product B because it is easier or because I’ve just got used to it’s quirks? Did I make a mistake at the start of a year long project and if so do I remember why I made that choice I now regret?

Skills that Should be Easy to Compare

One would imagine that martial arts is a field where people have very realistic understanding of their own skills, a few minutes of contest in a ring, octagon, or dojo should show how your skills compare to others. But a YouTube search for “no touch knockout” or “chi” shows that there are more than a few “martial artists” who think that they can knock someone out without physical contact – with just telepathy or something. George Dillman [5] is one example of someone who had some real fighting skills until he convinced himself that he could use mental powers to knock people out. From watching YouTube videos it appears that such people convince the members of their dojo of their powers, and those people then faint on demand “proving” their mental powers.

The process of converting an entire dojo into believers in chi seems similar to the process of converting a software development team into “expert beginners”, except that martial art skills should be much easier to assess.

Is it ever possible to assess any skills if people trying to compare martial art skills often do it so badly?

Conclusion

It seems that any situation where one person is the undisputed expert has a risk of the “chi” problem if the expert doesn’t regularly meet peers to learn new techniques. If someone like George Dillman or one of the “expert beginners” that Erik Dietrich refers to was to regularly meet other people with similar skills and accept feedback from them they would be much less likely to become a “chi” master or “expert beginner”. For the computer industry meetup.com seems the best solution to this, whatever your IT skills are you can find a meetup where you can meet people with more skills than you in some area.

Here’s one of many guides to overcoming Imposter Syndrome [5]. Actually succeeding in following the advice of such web pages is not going to be easy.

I wonder if getting a realistic appraisal of your own skills is even generally useful. Maybe the best thing is to just recognise enough things that you are doing wrong to be able to improve and to recognise enough things that you do well to have the confidence to do things without hesitation.

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