There appears to be a general culture in IT, partly, but not completely, because it is male dominated, that it is bad to say the wrong thing, reveal your weaknesses, or be an “idiot”. I have been an Engineer for about 10 years now, and I have felt it from the beginning. When I first started learning Unix/Linux at the beginning of my career, I felt stupid quite a bit, and was afraid to ask questions as there was a culture that scoffed at “stupid questions”. Why don’t you read the manual, “idiot”?
When I transitioned from working as a sysadmin to working as a Video Engineer in Film and Television, I felt the same way. By that point, I had done enough in my life that I wasn’t as deterred to ask stupid questions, but I do remember several times people telling me, you should know this, why are you asking this question?
As I transitioned from working strictly in Film as a Video Engineer/Systems Engineer, to working just as a software engineer, I have often felt the same way. Maybe I shouldn’t let someone know that I don’t know everything about Python or programming? What if people think I am an “idiot”?
In the movie, “The Edge”, there is a great quote that directly applies to any Engineer, “Most people lost in the wild die of shame. They didn’t do the one thing that could save their lives –thinking”. How many potential skills or dreams die because of our shame? How much quicker could people learn if they were able to act like an idiot at some new skill they are learning, and truly learn it the way a child learns.
Now that I have some perspective from working as a Systems Engineer, a Video Engineer, and a Software Engineer, I will tell you that in each industry, I have had someone tell me that the Engineers in my previous field were “idiots” because they didn’t do “X”. For example, when I was a Video Engineer I had a couple of people tell me, “…you see Systems Engineers aren’t real Engineers because they can’t read a line drawing.” When I was a Systems Engineer, I had people tell me that Software Engineer’s aren’t real Engineers because they don’t really understand how equipment works. Since I have been a Software Engineer I have had people tell me that Systems Engineers aren’t real Engineers because they can’t program.
This situation I have described is a classic case of the “Observer Bias”, of course. From Wikipedia, “Observer bias is error introduced into measurement when observers overemphasize behavior they expect to find and fail to notice behavior they do not expect.” When you’re an engineer in one field you notice that all the people like you are smart and know how to do what you do, but strangely everyone else is an “idiot”. This critical scientific fact is the exact reason why all engineers should do something where they feel like an “idiot”, as it gives them true perspective and allows them to grow.
My piece of motivational advice is to ignore your inner feeling of shame as an engineer. Attempt to do something new, express a controversial opinion, invent a new technique or technology, learn to program, or learn a new language or skill. Step out of your comfort zone and do some activity where you are perceived as an “idiot”. In this sense, it is really important to be an idiot. Being an idiot, means losing the sense of self-criticism that is often found in programmers, sysadmins and engineers and truly learning. Being an idiot is important!