Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

How incompetent am I?

How do I measure my incompetence? How do I measure my levels of capability to do a certain job?

When the market was hot I was thrown out there with half a year of training in programming. I guess you can say I am one of those who jumped on the bandwagon. This led to some terrible performances by me. I was always the worst employee because I simply didn't have the training or the experience to carry my own weight.
Those terrible experiences scarred me. I was too inexperienced to realise that I simply didn't have enough training to suceed so I began to believe that I was naturally flawed.

Now, 5 years later, I find myself doing this work. I am about to graduate from college with a Bsc in CS. I have acquired enough experience to be considered a somewhat senior developer. I also notice that I am tackling more and more complex tasks all by myself. This may mean nothing to you but I taught myself C++ to use it at work. I the project was a sucess (out of schedule, but it worked).

The problem is, I can't shake the useless feeling. That feeling that I'll be forever flawed, forever unable to move upwards, to carry my own weight. While working as a consultant I keep on comparing my work to that of others to see who makes the most elegant code, who presents new technologies to the project.
When I am under a very tight schedule, I can almost *see* the useless feeling come inside of me. "You're late because you're dumb".

Ok, now I'm calling it quits. I've barren my soul too much. Any comments? Above all, has anyone ever been on the same position?

Spike Jonze
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Come on, Spike, don't say that! You're good enough, you're smart enough and doggone it, people like you!

Stuart Smalley
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Thanks! A pat on the back to you too!

Spike Jonze
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Contrary to what you were lead to believe throughout your early adult life,

Competence really doesn't pay that much better than incompetence.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

There is medicine for that Spike, take it easy !
And, at the same time there are always those people
at "" to lend you a hand :-)  Try the Incompetence Framed Litho … hang it next to your desk. It really helps !!!
---.P.S. On a serious note: we totally appreciate your honesty ! “We” being those less opportunistic, formally trained professionals that spent last 10-15 years working hard and – indeed -  some times, inevitably …. have to face your results
I hope that, at least,  you love this trade so … hopes are for better ! :-)

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

I'm starting to think competence is like sanity - so long as you question it, you're okay.
There was a study about three years ago that found that people who are incompetent don't realize it - part of the "competence" is recognizing one's own deficiencies.

Take a deep breath - you know the work you've done, you know what you can do. Recognize that very few people could make it through a CS degree. But for the most part, don't worry about it. Work on the areas you feel weak in, and never stop learning.

But I'd have to say the best thing you could do for your self-confidence, and this is vital - NEVER post on this board about what a good day you've had.


Tuesday, April 20, 2004

I second this. Stronger predictors of success would include:

Your height
Straight teeth
Fresh breath

Many of my friends who've been laid off have learned recently that sometimes doing a really great job has almost nothing to do with success and continued employment.

Name changed to protect the innocent
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

"NEVER post on this board about what a good day you've had. "

Right. Post about what a GREAT day you've had. :-P

Tony the Tiger
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Sorry. I second what anon had to say above. The action on this board is just too fast at times.

Name changed to protect the innocent
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Philo, you're my hero.

Spike Jonze
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Your self-deprecation and personal self doubts actually do conspire to keep you "down", so to speak. Those who unabashedly proclaim their own greatness, and who have absolutely no doubts about their own abilities (however marginal) and absolute confidence in whatever they propose (even if the confidence is entirely baseless), generally get respected and listened to, while those who hesitate to provide an answer, or who temper their answer with a caveat or a "but...", are considered incompetent and less worthy of consideration. There are few fat/ short/ bald/ minority/ stuttering/ lazy eye/ etc people in the ranks of upper management, but I think that it isn't a direct correlation (i.e. not tha management says "Yeah, but he walks kinda candidate!") but rather is that the tall, handsome white guy who was the top of his college varsity team is most likely to have absolutely no self doubts or reservations, and will propose the most outrageous things with absolute resolve, and hence will be most likely to be promoted.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Spike, sign-up to on any number of the tech forums, preferrably, where newbies hang-out and help out others. It really boosts your self-image and you'll learn many many new things along the way.

Teaching is the best form of Learning, plus you get to hear a lot of "Thank Yous". You get the best of both worlds

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

"NEVER post on this board about what a good day you've had"

A good day is fine, a great day we can stomach, but an awsome day ... ;-)

Just me (Sir to you)
Tuesday, April 20, 2004 did get a little unpleasant back there Philo.  It's only a pity that Sathyaish's response felt the wrath of elves.  A bit too satirical perhaps...

Anyway, Spike yes I feel vaguely like this a lot of the time.  I wouldn't worry too much as long as no one catches on.

a cynic writes...
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Wow, Spike, and "." (whoever you are).  This is one of those core issues in our industry.  Here technologies evolve so fast that a 15 year veteran doesn't HAVE 15 years of experience in one thing -- he has 15 differerent 1 year experiences in different things.

You are both right.  It takes time (and our industry does NOT seem willing to train people, much) to learn and apply these technologies.  Since training is tight, you learn on-the-job, on-the-project.  This means you can keep a pervasive sense of your own inadequacy.

Yet the confidence "." is recommending is absolutely necessary.  People want to hire people who solve problems, who get things done.  The fact that the technology shifts under us like sand does not change that.

Joel helps a lot with this.  Try to keep track of the 'Leaky Abstractions' -- they'll bite you if you don't.  Keep reading.  Keep learning.  Develop a core set of skills and competencies, and then port them to each new technology as quickly as you can.

In the end, it is your own confidence in your ability to adapt, to deliver ANYWAY, which can make the difference.  Yes, it is frustrating, and seems to take a long time to get the new technologies.  But this is a good as it gets.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Here is a link to the study mentioned above...

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

> sign-up to on any number of the tech forums

I second that. Hardly a day passes by without me reading a "puzzle" in may area of expertise, to which I do not know the answer.

I spend half hour (or longer, depending on how complicated the puzzle turns out to be) solving it, and at the end I've learned something new, and maybe helped a fellow programmer.

Another option is to sign up to teach a class in a local (community) college. This will take a lot more time, but there is no better way to learn a subject then teaching it to someone else.

Employed Russian
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

If you're a person that has an issue with self-doubts, this is a really tough industry to be in. I say this from experience, as I grew up with a serious self-doubt problem. This materialized in my constant belief that every success was a fluke -- if I aced that advanced math exam it must have been luck, and maybe I had a better breakfast than everyone else, and maybe... I don't know what the roots of this are, but it makes it difficult to savour successes because you always undercut your own achievements by disclaimers, making excuses for everyone else.

In this industry this problem is exacerbated because no matter how good you are at something, there is some related technoloy that you won't know entirely (if at all), so you'll always question what you know given how much you don't know. If you're in a senior capacity, malicious juniors can use this against you by using a classic "fire and motion" technique of picking obscure competitive solutions and knowing just enough to toss techno grenades out at meetings.

Personally I got over it, after lots of stress and wasted time racing to learn and be an expert at an absurd array of technologies, and now I'm quite satisfied zeroing in on relevant technologies, and maintaining a surface knowledge of all others.

Dennis Forbes
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

"Don't waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour's duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it."  - Ralph Waldo Emerson

- former car owner in Queens
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

If you're incompetent, then what am I? It took me almost 24 hours to make the connection between and

Just me (Sir to you)
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

I was also like that. Most of the times I always felt that I was not as smart as my friends were due to my bad grades in uni. It was the hardest period of my life and a learning experience. It was absolutely the opposite way of my high school day, a self-proclaimed genius (well, my friends thought so).

I "broke" it this few months by doing more than an average students would do. My purpose is simply to get a job, have more friends, networking around. I attended some networking events for software developers (microsoft/sun tech days, local developer organization, etc), joined volunteer organization, toastmaster, etc.

Now I have already received a job offer from a startup company, and still waiting for some other interviews which previously impossible to get in even for the "good" students.

I can't say that now I am free from this experience. However I am sure that I will be in a short time and do not regret of this "enjoyment". I also have the habit of writing my experience in my blog.  (check old Joel's posts for my blog site)

Richard Sunarto Yu
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

>The problem is, I can't shake the useless feeling. That
>feeling that I'll be forever flawed, forever unable to move
> upwards, to carry my own weight

Interestingly people who are good at what they
do have this mindset. It is was helps them never rest
and always get better. Incompetent people don't know
they are incompetent and think well of themselves.
So it could be your weakness is your strength.

The useless feeling is hard to deal with. In the end
we are doing nothing of enduring worth so we are
useless. Or you can say if someone will pay you then
it is useful. Or you can say surviving is what is of
worth so if you are doing that, it is ok. It might be
a bit much to solve the meaning of life issue
just this moment.

You will be forever flawed. How could it be otherwise?

"move upwards" is an interesting metaphor. It
means you think of your future in vertical terms where
higher is better. That now you are lower. That
overtime you must progress upwards, even though
you have no idea what that means. Higher is better
and there is no ceiling so you will never be best.
You will never be happy.
Expectation is the root of unhapiness.

son of parnas
Tuesday, April 20, 2004


I've been there.  Dennis's advice and the Emerson quote are dead on. 

Personally, I've gotten over this by realizing that if I fail after trying my best...well, it's no big deal.  Life goes on.  I'm still alive and well, and I can learn from my "failure".  It's only when I "fail" and I know I haven't given a good effort that I really get on myself.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Awwww Spikey!

It is heart-breaking to see a fellow colleague so upset.

Come on man! Collect yourself. You've got so much that others could die for. You got 2 eyes that see, don't you? It looks like you have a few fingers too since you can type. You should see what people who have no arms and hands can draw! Presumably you can walk. If you can, Christopher Reeve is one admirer of yours. Even if you can't, look at Stephen Hawking. The man can barely breathe, yet his mind is bigger than this universe. And don't even get me started with people dying of hunger and all that!  :)

In a book I read once that if you want to be something, you gotta do the things that you would do if you were already that thing. Eventually you will become what you do.

You wanna be happy? Do as happy people do. Do you want to be successful? Do as successful people do. Do you want to stop being useless? Then do what useful people do. Make a list, and just start doing without letting your mind get in the way, or others telling you you are useless.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

"Never trust a person who, when left in a room by themselves with a tea cossie, doesn't try it on"

Not relevant. Just felt like saying it.

Jack of all
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

>> You got 2 eyes that see, don't you?

He's probably blind, you insensitive clod!

Anon-y-mous Cow-ard
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

"He's probably blind, you insensitive clod!"

His father just died when a chunk of clay hit him, you uncaring oaf!

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Hey Spike,

People's self image changes much slower than their abilities.

Take your story for eg: You didnt do well when begining your career but now your a capable mature developer who can do things on his own.

By your own words you HAVE changed but that negativity is still sitting in your head! And as long as its there, it will cause problems.

You need to accept the new you. Devising a task to prove to yourself that you arent useless, wont work due to the very fact that you still believe your incompetent.

What you CAN do is look at what you did right in the past few months and then ask yourself, if you had been given this problem at the start of your career what you would have done with it.

And then you'll realize you've changed! Cause you did it well now but you would have screwed it up years ago.

You do need to keep testing your abilities but its also improtant to understand that negativity can be an entity on its own....  ie an artifact of previous feelings. No longer does it reflect anything about you ... just let it go ...

Thursday, April 22, 2004

JackOfAll what is a 'Tea Cossie'?  I couldn't find it on  <shrug>

Greg Kellerman
Sunday, April 25, 2004

Spike, it really is amazing how many people I've known who go around saying everything with absolute conviction, and who apparently never suffer one iota of doubt.

If you know these people for any length of time, sooner or later they will start talking claptrap about a subject you really do know something about, and then you will see through them.

It's not only that they're good at fooling people, it's that confidence is seen as a virtue in itself. Projecting a confidence you do not feel is quite hard, and if I had a pound for every time I've been turned down for something where I was frankly told "yes, your work was excellent, but you don't show confidence, therefore you don't deserve the job/promotion/raise/prize" I wouldn't *need* the job/promotion/raise/prize because I'd be rich.

Try imitating the claptrap-talkers, but being careful only to make bold statements that you know to be true. If it works, let me know ;-)

Fernanda Stickpot
Monday, April 26, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home