How much do I know?

I’m in the midst of a lot of job interviews right now.  Of course, one of the many purposes of a job interview is to figure out how much I know about development.  That’s a difficult thing to get across in a conversation (which is why I have also been asked to do code tests).  But it has gotten me thinking about how to quantify my knowledge and skills.

My experience as a historian in academia helps out here.  When I first studied history in college, I assumed that by the time I had a degree in history, I would know a lot of history.  I would know a lot of names and dates and be able to tell you the accomplishments of each king of England.  But when I graduated from college, I didn’t feel like I actually knew much history.The same thing happened in graduate school – I was taking lots of courses and doing lots of research, but then at parties I would mention I was a historian, and someone would inevitably ask me a question about history, and I would have to reply that I had no idea.  It seemed that the more history I learned, the more I was aware of how much there was that I didn’t know.

I watched my professors very carefully, and it dawned on me that they didn’t really know that much history either.  In graduate school, we didn’t actually learn history in our classes.  We didn’t discuss battles and kings and events.  Instead, we discussed sources and schools of thought and research tools.  We weren’t learning history: we were learning how to be historians.  That meant learning how to find information when we needed it.  We learned how to do research, how to assess evidence, how to find our own biases in our arguments.

The same is true of development.  In fact, even more so, since the field is always changing so rapidly: every month there are new JavaScript libraries to learn, new deployment tools, new devices to optimize for.  So to even speak of how much I “know” about development is futile.  But how much I know isn’t the important part.  The important part is that I know how to figure out new things.  I am entirely self-taught, with the help of some amazing mentors. I know how to learn new development tools, how to find mentors to help me, how to research solutions, how to work my way through a problem I haven’t encountered before.  In the field of development, knowledge per se doesn’t really matter, but skills do matter.  The fact that I have gone from tinkering with CSS to developing plugins in a few short years shows that I have the skills to learn new things and rise to new challenges.