On expertise, self confidence and job hunting

Every time I go through a job search as I am going through right now, it is always surprising to me how much of an humbling experience it becomes. Reading job descriptions is a good way to quantify and effectively gauge what you have accomplished, that you might not even value as actual skill, and how to express it to a potential employer. My own conundrum is, to express it in a medical allegory, that as far as my web development background, I am a generalist, I’ve dealt with different architectures, frameworks and languages, and reached a point where I am trying to become a specialist. It is a little like trying to go from being a family doctor, to a foot surgeon.

I am trying to focus on front end development techniques, and especially Javascript, which I think that off all languages I have worked with, feels more like a natural fit to me because of its mix of flexibility and power. I just think that Javascript is cool.  The problem now lies in the fact that for the most positions I am considering, and given my length of experience, most companies are looking for “experts” and the way it translates is somebody that has been doing daily Javascript programming for the past let’s say five years. My experience is varied, the type of 5 years of 5 different experiences compared to 5 years of the same 1 year experience, and when given a skills matrix by a recruiter for example, I don’t feel comfortable giving myself a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 in Javascript because I don’t feel I know everything there is to know about Javascript, not even remotely close. The truth is as far as job functions most companies are trying to gauge is you are good enough to handle all of the client side scripting their application will require, which for most front end developers and designers is definitely possible, the main differences being in quality and style of coding. So strictly from a technical point of view, I definitely know I could handle the job but I just have a hard time labeling myself as an 5-level expert on a 1-5 scale  in Javascript.

That brought me to this excellent article here I ran into today called “Do You Suffer From The Dunning-Kruger effect“,  by Jeffrey Waywhich to makes a long story short, totally related to what I am feeling right now. The Dunning Kruger effect, as defined in the article:

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.”

and  it manifests itself through “self-proclaimed” experts in a way that they:

  •     tend to overestimate their own level of skill
  •     fail to recognize genuine skill in others
  •     fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
  •     recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

The author really hits it home for me when he expresses that “to my personal web development heroes, I feel like a hack.”, which is how I feel most of the time when seeing some of the cool stuff that is getting done out in the web development feel and it pushes me to learn more and become better. I did run into technical challenges, of various difficulty level and did solve them, and for most I shared the solution on this blog, and it gives me an ego boost but I always have a nagging feeling behind of “Is this the best way I could have handled this?”. So even if 5 years down the line of absolutely working with Javascript on a daily basis I grow to be quite good, I still doubt that I will label myself as an expert. In the mean time, my personal challenge is not to downplay my own experience (“Actual competence may weaken self-confidence“) and being able to convince the right company that I can handle the job.

Read the full article here and also consult the Wikipedia entry on Dunning-Kruger.


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