Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Turning Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence

I’m sure that I must have come across the Four Stages of Competence before, but it was when Luke Hohmann quoted the more humorous interpretation that it actually registered with me. Pete Goodliffe also brought up this topic up in his recent C Vu column and it’s got me thinking about how I turn Unconscious Incompetence to mere Conscious Incompetence. Oh yeah and the fact that I’m currently sitting in a garage whilst they drain the unleaded petrol from my diesel powered MPV brings the subject of incompetence to the forefront of my mind…

Luke Hohmann was quoting the “Known Knowns” statement from Donald Rumsfeld during an eXtreme Tuesday Club (XTC) meeting back in November 2009. He sketched a pie-chart with a tiny wedge to represent “what we know”, a slightly larger wedge for “what we know we don’t know” and the rest for “what we don’t know we don’t know”. His talk was about Innovation Games and his point was about where innovation occurs. As always it was an insightful session, not least because it got me thinking about how I’d go about reducing the size of the “what I don’t know I don’t know” slice[*].

I’d always thought that not knowing something in detail was not much better than not knowing it at all. But clearly there is value in it. After the better part of 15 years of C++ I don’t think it would be too modest of me to say that C++ was by-and-large in the “do know” region. My recent move to C# meant that I suddenly found myself drawing considerably on that somewhat larger “don’t know” section. Although for C++ developers the usefulness of MSDN Magazine vanished years ago as Microsoft drove headlong into promoting the New World Order that was .Net and C#, I kept subscribing and reading a significant portion of each issue as I felt that there was still an underlying message in there worth listening to. These days Jeremy Miller has a column dedicated to Patterns and Practices and James McCaffrey covers testing mechanisms, so some of those concepts are more readily digestible.

Still, the background noise of the articles has sat there at the back of my mind so that within the last 6 months I have easily been able to move to the C# world. Topics like Generics, Extension Methods, Lambdas and LINQ were high-up on the reading list as somehow I knew these were important. For GUI work I know there is ASP.Net, WinForms and WPF all vying for attention, and on the IPC front Sockets, DCOM and Named Pipes are all passé, and Indigo/WCF is the one-stop-shop. My recent WCF posts probably illustrates how I’m starting to cover the WCF angle, but the GUI stuff will just have to wait as I’ve no need to absorb that yet.

Clearly I knew more that just the names of many of these concepts so is that really fair to categorise them as Conscious Incompetence? Probably not. So how about a list of things that I know virtually nothing about at all except the name and a truly vague context:-

Hadoop – Something from Google related to Map/Reduce?
Scala/Groovy – Languages somehow related to Java and/or the JVM?
Maven/CMake – Stuff to do with building code?
Recursive Descent Parser – Compiler theory/technique?

Does it make sense to know this little about each of these topics? What if I’m actually wrong about the way I’ve categorized them? Does this fulfil the notion of Conscious Incompetence, or do I already know too much?

As each year passes it seems that keeping up with what’s going on in the world of Software Development is becoming more and more of an uphill struggle. There are so many languages and technologies that tuning into the relevant stuff is nigh on impossible (I could have said filtering out the noise, but so much of it appears interesting in one way or another that the term ‘noise’ feels disingenuous). My RSS reader is overflowing with blogs and articles demanding my attention, so after I’ve read the important stuff like The Old New Thing and The Daily WTF I start skimming the general purpose feeds like Slashdot Developers and Dr Dobbs. I say skim, but it’s pretty hard not to get drawn into reading the entire piece, and then of course you’ll follow a few links and have lost another hour or two of your life. That assumes the wife and kids have left you alone long enough for that to happen…

Therein lies the problem for me. I find it hard to leave many topics in the state of Conscious Incompetence. I want to know enough so that when the time comes my unconscious awareness ensures that I know where I need to go to discover more, but at the same time know little enough that I can still effectively filter out that which is most relevant from the daily bombardment of new innovations and revised practices. I guess I’m in need of a more Agile approach to learning.


[*I realised after having read the Wikipedia entries for these two topics more closely that I’m stretching the definition of the Four Stages of Competence to its limit by applying it to the acquisition of knowledge, but as Rumsfeld has shown, repeatedly using the words Known and Unknown would only make the prose more indecipherable]

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