A few weeks ago, I read a funny news article about a 11 years old boy who stole a bus and drove the normal route with it. When the police stopped him, he had already picked up some passengers and somehow managed to only inflict minor damages along the way. The whole story (in german) can be read here.
This blog entry is not about the unheeding passengers, it’s about the little boy and his mindset. This mindset exists in the business world, too. It’s the mixture of “what could possibly go wrong?” with “I’m totally able to pull this off” and a large dose of “everybody else is surely faking it, too”. In the context of the Dunning-Kruger effect, this mixture is called “unskilled and unaware of it”. It’s a dangerous situation for both the employee and the employer, because neither of them can properly evaluate the actual risk.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
Let’s start with the known theory. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals assess their ability (in the context of a given skill) much higher than it really is and highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their (relative) competence. The problem is not that real experts tend to be modest about their expertise. The real problem is that “if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
So in short: Being unskilled in a certain area probably means you don’t really know that you are unskilled.
Or, translated to our young bus driver: If you don’t know anything about driving a bus, you certainly think you are as much a decent bus driver as the man behind the wheel. It looks easy enough from the passenger seat.
The effect in practice
Why should this bother us in software development? Our education system ensures that we are exposed to enough development practice so that we can counter the “unaware of it” part of the Dunning-Kruger effect. But it isn’t effective enough, at least that’s what I see from time to time.
Every once in a while, I have the opportunity to evaluate an existing code base. Most of the time, it produces a working, profitable application, so it cannot be said to be a failure. Sometimes however, the code base itself is so convoluted, bloated and riddled with poor implementation choices that it absolutely cannot be developed any further without a high risk of regression bugs and/or absurd amounts of developer time for little changes.
These hopeless source codes have one thing in common: they are developed by one person and one person alone. This person has developed for months or even years, showing progress and reporting no problems and suddenly resigned, often shortly before a major milestone in the project like going live with the first version or announcing the next version. The code base now lies abandonded and needs to be adopted. And while no code base is perfect (or should even try to be), this one reeks of desperation and frustration. Often, the application itself is not very demanding, but the source code makes it appear to be.
A good example of this kind of project is my scrap metal tale (in three parts) from five years ago:
- A tale of scrap metal code (Part I)
- A tale of scrap metal code (Part II)
- A tale of scrap metal code (Part III)
A more recent case is littered with inline comments that celebrate small victories of the developer:
- 5 lines of convoluted, contradicatory statements
- 3 lines commented out
- 1 comment line stating “YES! This is finally working! Super!”
- Still three obvious bugs, resource leaks or security flaws in these few lines alone
The most outrageous (and notorious) case might be the Brillant Paula Bean from the Daily WTF, but this code base is at least readily comprehensible.
The origins of the effect
I think a lot of the frustration, desperation, anxiety and outright fear that I can sense through the comments and code structure was really felt by the original author. It must have been incredibly hard to stay on course, work hard and come up with solutions in the face of imminent deadlines, ever-changing requirements and the lingering fear that you’re just not up to the task. Except that we’ve just learned that developers in the “unskilled and unaware of it” state won’t feel the fear. That’s the origin of all the bad code: The absolute conviction that “it’s not me, it’s the problem, the domain, the language, the compiler, the weather and everything else”. Programming is just hard. Nobody else could do this better. It’ll work in the end. Those “minor problems” (like never actually speaking to the hardware, hard-coded paths and addresses, etc.) will be fixed at the last moment. There’s nothing wrong with an occassional exception stack trace in the logfile and if it bothers you, I can always make the catch-block empty.
The most obvious problem is that these developers think that this is how everybody else develops software, too. That we all don’t bother with concurrency correctness, resource lifecycle management, data structures, graphical user interface design, fault tolerance or even just basic logging. That all programming is hard and frustrating. That finding out where to insert a sleep statement to quench that pesky exception is the pinnacle of developer ingenuity. That things like automated tests, code metrics, continuous integration or even version control are eccentric fads that will pass by and be forgotten soon, so no need to deal with it. That we all just fake it and dread the moment our software is used in the wild.
A possible remedy
The “unskilled and unaware of it” developer isn’t dumb or hopeless, he’s just unskilled. The real tragedy is that he doesn’t have a mentor that can alleviate the biggest problems in the code and show better approaches. The unskilled lonesome developer cannot train himself. A good explanation for this novice “lock-in” can be found in the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition (I recommend you watch the excellent talk on this topic by Dave Thomas): Novices lack the skills for proper self-assessment and cannot learn from their mistakes (as stated by the Dunning-Kruger effect, too). They also cannot recognize them as “their” mistakes or even “mistakes”. They need outside feedback (and guidance) to advance themselves. A mentor’s role is to give exactly that.
If you find yourself in a position of being a “skilled and fairly aware of it” developer, please be aware that you’ve probably been mentored sometimes in the past. Pass it on! Be the mentor for an aspiring junior developer.
If you suspect that you might fall in the “unskilled” category of developers, don’t despair! Being aware of this is the first and most important step. Now you can act strategically to improve your skill. There is a whole book giving you invaluable advice: Apprenticeship Patterns: Guidance for the Aspiring Software Craftsman by Dave Hoover and Adewale Oshineye. Two prominent advices from the book are “Be the Worst (of your team)” and “Find Mentors“. And my most prominent advice? “Don’t stick it out alone“.
Programming is (or should be) fun after all.