The Importance of Being – Ignorant?

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I was sitting in a software requirements review meeting with a couple of project stakeholders last week, and one of them said sommonkeyething along the lines of “You’ve done a really great job with this.” My first reaction was to think “Are you kidding? There are tons of stuff we still don’t understand about this process.” Of course, I filtered that, and what came out of my mouth was “Thanks to your help.” But then I got to thinking about the conversation, and I realized that discovering just how much about the process we didn’t know was, in fact, exactly what needed to be done.

In the past, I’ve worked with a few folks who worked very hard to appear knowledgeable in every meeting and conversation. It’s a great gig, if you can work it. I have a Facebook connection who lives in Saudi Arabia. We get into conversations about soccer with a lot of help from Google translate. He thought my Arabic was pretty good. I confessed immediately to my cheat. I know I would get in way over my head if I pretended to be fluent in a language I don’t actually know a word of.

On a new project, you don’t even have Google translate to help you when you’re sitting in a meeting and the acronyms and unfamiliar terms start flying around. So I start by asking questions, lots of questions. You know what? It often turns out that I’m not the only person in the room with questions. I’m not the only person in the room who doesn’t know what that acronym means. I’m not the only person who doesn’t know that the order processing system does this and the manufacturing system does that. Asking those questions not only gives the person who has the knowledge the pleasure of educating the rest of us, but it gives the other team members the freedom to start asking questions too.

Apparently there’s a name for this. It’s what Professor Dan Berry calls “the importance of ignorance in software engineering.” When I heard him speak on this, a few weeks ago, I had an “ah-ha!” moment. There’s a name for it! Not knowing is a good thing! The obsessive-compulsive part of my brain that wants to be on top of everything all the time can just shut up and sit down. From now on, I’m going to focus on being a really good ignoramus.

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