By now, we are all painfully aware of 2 concepts when it comes to skills:

The Dunning-Kruger Effect, which describes a situation where a person with a low proficiency/capability in a subject doesn't even know enough to assess their own capability. As a result, they assume that the little bit of knowledge they have in the subject is the full extent of what there is to know. Consequently they significantly overrate their ability.

Imposter Syndrome, which describes a situation where a person with high levels of proficiency underestimates their own capability, primarily because their in-depth knowledge of a specific subject has exposed them to many things that they have not yet mastered.

The above are, of course, over-simplified definitions and each have been the subject of many volumes. For the purposes of this article though, these definitions suffice because they clearly highlight a key fact: The Dunning-Kruger effect and Imposter syndrome are two sides of the same coin.

They're both a result of the relationship between:

  • How much I actually know about a subject
  • How much I am aware of how much there is to learn about a subject

Which means we can combat both sides of the coin if we can help people:

  • Build a better understanding of the full map of skills they can learn
  • Objectively assess their capability in a specific skill

This is, unfortunately, much easier said than done. I've been exploring this topic for months now and am starting to feel that I've identified a thread on which to pull. Here's my current (admittedly work-in progress) thinking:

Ball of Yarn
Photo by Steve Johnson / Unsplash

It all depends on the level of granularity that we use when defining a skill. For example, I know many developers who (when provided with a scale from 1-5, where 1 is Absolute Beginner, and 5 is Master) would rate themselves as a 3 or a 4 on a skill like "Java". In their minds the thinking is:

"I have been coding in Java for more than a year now and I'm confident in my abilities. Of course, I don't know everything, but that's why StackOverflow exists and that's why I'm not rating myself as a 5"

But the reality is that "Java" is not actually even a skill, it is an entire ecosystem of skills and it would be impossible to rate your skills in the entire ecosystem. In fact, the self-reasoning provided above would be perfectly valid for a seasoned Java tech lead as well, because the ecosystem is so large that only a narcissist would consider themselves a master of it all. So how can one then objectively differentiate between the different levels? The solution is to break "Java" down into its composing sub-skills. For example: Java SE (the core language), Java Build Tools, Jakarta EE, Spring, OSGi, etc.

At this lower level of detail, it becomes possible to assess your skills more accurately. For example: If you've passed a Java OCP 2 exam, then you can confidently rate your abilities in Java SE. But this is not the case for all of the sub-skills though: Spring, for example, is another Russian doll that breaks down into the Spring Framework, Spring MVC, Spring Security, Spring Data, etc.

Matryoshkas - Russian nesting dolls
Photo by Iza Gawrych / Unsplash

So where do we draw the line?

Like all interesting questions, the answer to this one is:

"It depends."

It depends on who the audience is, and what your goals are.

Since this article is focused on the technical learner, and their ability to personally assess their capability in an objective way, the answer is to draw the line at a level where a single topic can be learnt and mastered. We'll call this an "Atomic Skill" for now. An "Atomic Skill" is typically something that has:

  • An industry working group and specification, and/or
  • A Wikipedia page, and/or
  • An NPM package, Maven Group, etc.

Let's pick CSS as an example here. Much like Java, CSS is an ecosystem itself comprising the core language (which even has separate specifications), a large variety of pre- and post- processors, and many associated build and automation tools. As a first stab, I'd begin by breaking the CSS skills landscape into a hierarchy like this:

Notice the number of "etceteras" in this hierarchy, and we're only talking about the humble old CSS. Each of the leaf-nodes in this hierarchy represents an "Atomic Skill".

Once we've identified an "Atomic Skill", we can then decompose it into the concepts that comprise the skill itself. For example, the concepts that comprise "Core CSS" may include (among many others):

Rulesets Element Sizing
Selectors Element Positioning
Classes Floating Elements
Comments Clearing Floats
Web Safe Fonts Variables
Font Properties Overriding Styles / Specificity
Specifying Colours Responsive Images
Box Model etc.

You can really think of this breakdown approach as looking at a tree with its branches getting ever smaller. And like real trees, our tree doesn't live in isolation - It lives in a forest.

Tree in forest of plants
Photo by veeterzy / Unsplash

If we had a breakdown of granular-level of concepts like this, which together make up all the "things" a person could (theoretically) learn and master about a skill, this could be used by an individual learner to objectively assess their own proficiency in the "Atomic Skill". And it would also be useful to identify new areas of study.

In theory, if you had access to such a comprehensive list, you could complete a questionnaire in which you rate yourself in each of the concepts using the following scale:

  1. I don't know this word/concept at all.
  2. I've read about this, but don't understand it fully and haven't really applied it.
  3. I've used this, but it's a struggle with lots of Googling, copying and pasting.
  4. I understanding this and use it comfortably. I might Google some details, but I generally know what I'm searching for.
  5. I have a solid understanding of this concept and feel comfortable explaining it to other people.
  6. I have in-depth knowledge of this concept and can comfortably discuss/debate details with other experts.

Based on how you rated the full set of underlying concepts, it would then be possible to roll-up the numbers and provide an objective estimate of your proficiency level for the "Atomic Skill".

Of course, you could still lie, but you would be lying to yourself - because, remember, our goal is to provide a tool/process to an individual learner to objectively assess their own skills.

There are further benefits of building such a comprehensive ontology of skills. In particular, it would be possible to associate specific learning resources like blog posts, online courses and industry documentation to the correct node in the graph, therefore allowing a person to directly access learning material that targets the specific concept where they may have a knowledge-gap.

I will explore some of these benefits in future posts.

For now, however, it should be clear that the availability of such a graph would assist in addressing the underlying cause of both the Dunning-Kruger effect as well as Imposter Syndrome.

We just need to build it, and that is precisely what DevSkillDojo is currently doing. But it will have to be a community collaboration.

More on that in a follow-up article..

We were at this beautiful brige in murren , in the bernese Oberlan in switzerland with some friend, when i tell my friend to run like if he would catch the last ray.
Photo by Fabio Comparelli / Unsplash