Guessing the Answer at Work and School

I had an interesting, and long, chat with someone who has as much experience with teaching as I have with computers. It focused what seems to be the toughest challenge I find with new grads; Getting them to realise they shouldn’t guess answers and say “I don’t know” instead.

We agreed that the many countries schooling systems penalise students for not guessing. If a student says “I don’t know” they will never get a mark for the question. If, however, they guess the right answer, they will, so it encourages guessing over admitting lack of knowledge.

In a work environment admitting you don’t know is hugely important. “Guessing” what you should do, or how you should do it, easily leads to bugs, misunderstandings, and all sorts of time-consuming issues.

It also makes you more of a team player; No-one on the team knows everything, so everyone on the team should be asking other folk when they don’t know something. Getting comfortable asking when you don’t know, or you’re not sure, helps the team work smoothly.

Asking is also a core part of passing most, if not all, whiteboard programming interviews. Many are designed to be ambiguous to see if you’re self-aware enough to admit not knowing something, or not being clear on it, and seeking answers before you start coding.

There will be times when nobody on the team knows, and everyone can brainstorm a most likely best path based on their knowledge and other sources of information. That should be a team activity, and not something one person does in isolation without asking around.

In the end we both agreed that most education systems create a problem for work environments with the “know or guess” based reward system, but, unfortunately, it’s unlikely to change when education is set up to provide certificates of knowledge.