The Dunning-Kruger effect and the impostor syndrome in the programming world

“Welcome to iOS development. You suck.” Does it sound familiar? It’s a phrase coined by Kevin “Purge” Godec, a personality in the world of the DotA 2 game, used* in order to cut off the enthusiasm of DotA beginners who thought they were better than they actually were and make them conscious that in order to be proficient, the illusion of knowing too much has to be replaced by an attitude of being open to learn and work hard.

This situation can be very frequently noticed in the land of developers as well. It is scientifically called the “Dunning-Kruger effect” and it is a cognitive bias which can generate quite destructive effects:

  • it slows or even blocks one’s progress
  • it may get one into a suffocating situation, where they would blame getting stuck on anything else than their inability to solve certain problems they claim to be proficient in
  • can make one establish certain deals or make them take engagements they cannot fulfil – for example, take a more technically difficult project they are not able to implement, hence losing clients, getting their reputation affected/destroyed

I am absolutely certain that anyone reading this article and has at least 1 year of work experience had worked with a person suffering from this before. So what do we do in case of such individuals? Do we have to care about them?

Well, we do. Not only because we’re human and such (even though they can be annoying at times), but also because it is bad for the teams we’re working in, due to the indirect effects it has – it can destabilize the team, it can break projects, it can slow progress or have an unrealistic perception over the quality of the work. Moreover, there are some side effects, such as one perceiving that some task has the same degree of difficulty for them as for anyone, regardless of their experience. Imagine someone giving estimates based upon that.

The solution for this in my opinion differs from one affected individual to another. What I think that the absolute minimum thing the average person can do in their team is start by challenging the problematic individual into certain discussions about the things they are supposedly skilled in. This should reveal some hiccups in their thinking process at least. If this does not wake at least some interest into those people, maybe it’s time to speak to someone up higher in the chain of command. It is in their best interest, remember that – they don’t need to be bashed, fired or such, but only put down to earth, in order for them to be able to become better.

Anyway, not all people think they’re more proficient than they actually are… There are some who are the complete opposite – those suffering from the impostor syndrome. One might say – thinking you’re worse than you actually are, can it be something bad? Does it really affect others? Doesn’t it constantly drive you to get better and such?

Well, from my perspective at least, I would say it isn’t, rather it is completely destructive to be affected by this. They think they’re constantly under the radar, that others are looking for their smallest mistake just to shut them down, once and for all. Also, the most important problem in this is the lack of confidence, which would make one overthink their work, endlessly review and change their code, sweating to death before pressing that code submission button. So what can we do about them?

I believe it is quite easy to spot such people. Take for example the case of interns. Those who are stuck to their chair the whole day, but deliver very small code at the end of the day, aren’t necessarily bad at coding. The same goes for other juniors. As in the case of the Dunning-Kruger effect sufferers, there’s a high chance you’ve met somebody suffering from this.

I think the best way to deal with such people is to make them well aware of their qualities. Talk to them, show them what they’re good at, praise them for their efforts. Give them more difficult tasks, let them know what they do is important. Finally they will get there and get more confident.

If you’re one of those suffering from this, well… you’re probably constantly looking for validation. Go ahead, ask the people you are working with about it. Look over what you had done up until this moment and keep moving forward.

* by replacing “iOS development” with “DotA 2”, of course

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