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tags: career product management communities

How to Know Nothing

A couple of months ago I started a new job as a product manager at Stack Overflow. This blog post is about how to know nothing in a new job. It’s about that whiplash-like experience of going from confidently knowing everything there is to know about your work to coming to a grinding to halt so you can start all over again from scratch.

Okay, maybe it’s not so dramatic as that, but the insecure feelings I was having inspired me to ask for advice from my Twitter followers:

To give some more background, I was feeling especially daunted by my own lack of knowledge for a couple of reasons, I think:

First, at Kaggle (my previous job) I worked through a really exciting high growth period. When I started in 2016, they were focused mainly on competitions and towards the end of my time there we had massively expanded the community, the product, and the team. We even lived through a successful acquisition by Google. I was present as a participant, either as a “witness” or “creator”, in all of this change. I felt that I could competently answer just about any question someone (internal or external) could ask me about Kaggle.

Second, the company I’ve joined (Stack Overflow) is quite a bit like Kaggle in that it has a large, technical userbase with a rich history of cultural norms and past product decisions. That rich history has made Stack Overflow the household brand it is today, but it can feel intimidating as someone who wasn’t an active participant in it over the years. It’s a lot of tribal knowledge to catch up on!

Anyway, for this blog post I wanted to summarize some of the great advice I got from folks on Twitter.

1. It’s normal and okay to feel insecure

This is worth mentioning up front! I got a number of replies from people either expressing solidarity or assuring me it’s a normal feeling for anyone starting a new job.

2. Remind yourself you were competent and you will be again

This is for those of us that laugh at the idea of ever succumbing to the Dunning–Kruger effect when it comes to evaluating our own competence. I’ll admit that I requested my personnel file when leaving Google so I have my performance reviews to remind me that I can kick ass at my job in some objective-ish sense.

I like this reply from someone else who recently changed teams:

3. Lean into your newbie perspective as superpower

This was probably my favorite reply (from a former colleague at Google):

It was also stated nicely by another person who replied with this quote:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few Shunryu Suzuki

Because I know I have a lot to learn in my new role, I’ve had an amazing opportunity to ask “Why?” so many times. I’m definitely going to keep wearing this hat for as long as I can as I talk to both coworkers as well as users.

As someone else replied, by challenging assumptions you’re “both learning about the environment and moving it forward.”

4. Be vulnerable

People can only help you if they know what you’re struggling with or how you want to improve. Maybe it wasn’t comfortable for me to tweet the world about not knowing everything, but it got me some amazing replies that can hopefully help even more people than just myself. Plus, as someone replied, “If you don’t feel uncomfortable you’re not learning.”

This also ties in well with some other advice I got to request feedback early and often as a newcomer to a team.

I’ve distilled the advice I got into the several different themes I wrote about above, but at the end of the day my two biggest takeaways are:

  1. Be patient with yourself
  2. Be inquisitive

And eventually you will know something again.

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