Humility and how to avoid becoming an expert

Last year I wrote an article (which you can read here) for AccessHQ. The article describes six traits which I believe are important for people working in the development of software. I used the acronym ETHICS to capture the initial letters of the six traits and I intended to produce further articles explaining a little more about why I included each of then. I wrote about Empathy but then stalled. I’m going to skip ahead to the third trait now: Humility.

What is humility?

“The humble listen to their brothers and sisters because they assume they have something to learn. They are open to correction, and they become wiser through it.” ― Thomas Dubay

Oxford Dictionary online defines humility as: the quality of not thinking that you are better than other people; the quality of being humble

Wikipedia includes the following definition: having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context

A specific type of humility which is of interest to theologians, philosophers and psychologists is Intellectual Humility. In the simplest terms, Intellectual Humility relates to our awareness of the limits of our knowledge. If we display intellectual humility we are more likely to be open minded; to listen to the opinions of others, to learn and to take what we learn into account when forming our own views.

Humility should not be confused with a lack of confidence. It is entirely possible to have confidence in the skills and knowledge we have acquired whilst understanding that there may be more to learn, that other people may have more knowledge and that at times it makes sense to call on these people to assist.

What does this have to do with development and testing?

Software development is a rapidly changing field. Sometimes we move between roles and projects and don’t get the opportunity to use new skills or to retain knowledge we have acquired. The methods and tools which we become familiar with change, evolve and in some cases become obsolete.

That tool you learned to use two years ago, the one you haven’t used since. If somebody asked you to use it tomorrow, could you remember how to? Well, don’t worry because everybody else has moved on and nobody else uses it anymore either.

That is the nature of working with technology and it keeps things interesting. It also means that whilst you may have been considered knowledgeable two years ago, you might not be now. Maintaining up to date skills can be challenging.

Knowledge and skills are often siloed within roles and teams. There are sometimes good reasons for this. It isn’t feasible (or sensible) to train everybody in everything. However, problems can arise when communication breaks down and incorrect assumptions are made; the knowledge and skills are not shared or applied. If people operate under assumptions they may also be less inclined to carry out further investigation.

Displaying humility can help with these problems. Acknowledging what we don’t know is likely to have some useful results:

  • Learning new things: “I do not know much about this therefore I should learn some more.”
  • Building relationships: “My colleague knows about this. I should listen to my colleague.”
  • Investigation: “I do not know everything about this therefore I should investigate further.”

These are valuable for anyone involved in the development of software but there are some clear benefits for testers. Displaying humility might help us in finding problems or in pinpointing circumstances where a problem occurs. It might enable us to foster better relationships with developers, listen, discuss and enhance our credibility.

Conversely, a lack of humility might lead to incorrect assumptions, failure to communicate effectively and friction with our colleagues.

If you have young children you may be familiar with the TV show, ‘Peppa Pig’. It is a regular source of entertainment in our house. If the television isn’t switched to the appropriate channel at the appropriate time and a daily fix of Peppa isn’t administered, it can lead to complaints, upset and tantrums. Sometimes the kids complain too.

There is a scene in one episode where Peppa’s father (the rather cleverly named Daddy Pig) fixes the computer belonging to Peppa’s mother (yes, Mummy Pig). You can see the episode here.

If you aren’t inclined to watch a pre-school TV show, here is a transcript of the relevant part of the episode:

[Narrator: Oh, dear. The computer is not meant to do that.]

  • Mummy Pig: Daddy Pig. Daddy Pig.
  • Daddy Pig: What is it, Mummy Pig?
  • Mummy Pig: Daddy Pig, can you mend the computer?
  • Daddy Pig: Uhh…
  • Mummy Pig: I’ll finish the lunch while you mend the computer.
  • Daddy Pig: Uh, right you are, Mummy Pig, but I’m not very good with these things.
  • Mummy Pig: Oh, thank you, Daddy Pig.

[Narrator: Daddy Pig is going to mend the computer.]

  • Daddy Pig: Hmmm…Hmmm…Hmmm…Um, maybe if I just switch it off…and then switch it on again.

[Narrator: Daddy Pig has mended the computer.]

  • Peppa Pig: Hurrah, Daddy!
  • Daddy Pig: Yes, I am a bit of an expert at these things.

When I saw this, I thought it was very well observed. The notion of an expert is prominent in computing and IT. You can even get a certificate telling you that you are an expert. It is a strange thing, but other industries and professions don’t seem to put quite the same onus on being certified as an expert.

If you open up your browser and search for “expert certification”, IT certifications dominate the results. You can be certified as an expert in Microsoft Office, Adobe, SQL and of course, testing. It seems that there is something of a gold rush for ‘experts’ in our industry.

In ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, William Shakespeare wrote:

“Who knows himself a braggart, let him fear this, for it will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass.”

Let’s be honest; none of us really wants to be found an ass. If we are inclined to pursue recognition as an expert or to believe that we have learned all that we need, we might be better served by acknowledging our limitations, listening to others and continually learning. We might be better served by demonstrating humility.

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