The Experience to Say "I Don't Know"

One of the difficulties with managing a software project is simply getting people to be honest about the progress they're making and the difficulties they're facing.

I think one of the signs of experience in engineers is that they're not afraid to admit when they don't know something or are having a hard time with a bit of work. I know that when I was a junior engineer it was hard for me to feel okay about not doing something perfectly, and I didn't want anyone to see me struggle with anything.

There's a sense of security that comes with experience. You know enough to know that you're never going to know everything. Just surviving in the industry as a working software engineer for several years, experiencing the inevitable ups and downs, and then simply continuing on. You realize that feeling out of your depth is a common feeling in a line of work that is constantly changing.

So I think it's important to encourage engineers and other technical folks, especially more junior folks, to raise their hand high early when they're bogging down. For most teams that are using an Agile methodology, any kind of daily stand-up is a great time to check in on progress. But of course, we can't help each other out if we aren't honest with each other about our progress.

Say these things as early as possible:

  • I have too much work assigned to me this sprint, and I don't feel confident I can get it all done on time.
  • I know less about this area of the project than Person X, and I think it will take me longer to do it than they would take.
  • I've run into some unforeseen difficulty with Feature X, so I think it will be necessary to wrap up the part now that I understand, and tackle X again in a future sprint.
It's okay to say, "I don't know." It's okay to say, "I'm struggling." We should all say them more often! In fact, the health of a software project depends on it.