The Importance Of Saying "I Don't Know" In Software Testing

I saw a tweet this morning about a teaching from Jerry Weinberg

Which caused me to think, a lot, about the phrase “I don’t know”. Particularly its use in the software testing/QA roles. The potential to help development teams rather than hinder them.

I’ve always been worried that saying “I don’t know” will cause people to doubt my abilities. My thought process for this is “What if I say I don’t know but this person expected me to know and now they doubt all of my abilities.”

Reflecting on this and thinking about an upcoming talk from @ezagroba, I’m wondering if, in the longer term, this doubt might build trust.

I have a few different scenarios that make me flip-flop in my thinking on this though

  1. In an interview, I was asked a question that I genuinely did not know the answer to. I explained that to the interviewer saying I didn’t want to make up an answer that was not correct or helpful. I didn’t get that job. Feedback from the interviewer focused on that one line.
  2. In an interview, I was asked a question that I genuinely did not know the answer to. I explained that to the interviewer saying I didn’t want to make up an answer that was not correct or helpful. I got this job! The company said they appreciated my honesty and how I didn’t try to make up an answer I didn’t know.
  3. In our development team, we had a meeting (probably sprint planning or something). I didn’t know something but I didn’t tell the team. We wasted a lot of time figuring things out after that because I hadn’t said I didn’t know so nobody knew to help me and by the time they did, we were close to a release.

I’m wondering what are your experiences of saying “I don’t know”? Or conversely, what are your experiences of hearing people say “I don’t know”, particularly in a software testing environment?

7 Likes

Hi Heather.

It’s really difficult as I have always worried about how I am seen by others. I dont want to be seen as not knowing things that I think I should know, or believe others would expect me to know. Which is really silly - how on earth do I decide what I believe someone else thinks that I should reasonably know??

I used to struggle admitting when I didnt know things, and then over a period of time, came to care less about what people might think, and decided just to be more open about it. And people did not look at me as if I should know, as most of the time they didnt know either! I’ve found that being honest is best - always. There are ways to phrase it e.g. “it’s not something that I have come across yet, or had direct experience of, however I am willing to learn” etc. It shows a level of self-understanding.

Your job experiences are interesting - the first one wasnt right for you, if the interviewer was only concerned about what you didnt know. Would that person have given you the chance to learn and grow? In an interview, I will say if I dont know something, but with a context - e.g. I have not had to manage a budget for testers, but I’d be happy to pick this up with the right guidance.

The same thing applies within a team - most teams are agile, and should be happy to support each other in a continuous learning process.

When I managed a test team, if one of my team didnt know how to do something, they knew they could tell me, and I would ask where they could start from, any ideas they might have and give some pointers.

I’d say that honesty is the best policy - and if those around you dont appreciate it, then its not a healthy learning environment - which may mean time to move on!

5 Likes

Greetings!

I believe it is important to speak up when an idea or concept is unclear or unfamiliar. When the phrase “I don’t know” is used, it should be a sign of respect of both parties: one who wants to know and one who may need to provide context, depth, or examples. I wrote more on this a while back.

Thanks!
Joe

4 Likes

I’m in complete agreement with everything that others have written so far. In particular, Steve’s approach to handling the conversation is similar to mine.

I’ve always made a point in interviews of admitting where the limits of my knowledge are. My employers took me on in the full knowledge of what I did and didn’t know. They felt that what I did know filled a gap in their test team’s skills set, and the team could easily help bring me up to speed on things I didn’t know.

Obviously, to get to this point, I had to go through a lot of applications where I suspect what I didn’t know was the barrier to the application proceeding any further. But they were probably jobs where I wouldn’t have been happy anyway.

4 Likes

Of course, my CV is also clear about the limits of my skills set. I usually assume that if I’m being invited to interview, then the interviewer has actually read my CV and has taken a conscious decision to see me in a 1-2-1.

This only failed once. I was invited to an interview where the agency told me that the Head of IT was enthusiastic about what I had to offer, But when I got to the company, the interview was conducted by the Head of HR. who delivered the worst interview I have ever been to (despite claiming that “I’ve been doing HR for 30 years” - “Doing it wrong”, I thought.) The whole interview focussed on what I couldn’t do. I suspect that there was bad feeling between the two people.

I really appreciate the sincerity when someone says “I don’t know”. What you know matters of course but being willing to learn matters as well. And saying “I don’t know” is an essential step to learn.

I believe communication is the key factor on how easy people say it. In a team with good communication (where people are eager to learn from each other without ego wars) you can hear “I don’t know” more often.

About the interview scenarios. No need to say in an interview you should always be honest. If you don’t know then simply say it. However, besides your skills, interviewer tries to see your way of thinking most of the time. Therefore, I would prefer to say “I don’t know but here what I would do in such case”. Expressing what you would do to learn and how you would approach the problem depending on your somehow related skills is very valuable.

4 Likes

There are so many things I don’t know - and that is what I love about being a software tester. There is always so much to learn :slight_smile:

I have found that the more willing I am to admit that I don’t know something, the more questions I ask and the more I learn. Thinking about ‘I don’t know’ as a learning opportunity has helped me to grow and learn in many ways!

2 Likes

That is exactly my experience. Since I’m in a QA role I realised that asking questions is the most powerful skill for my job. Answers that we get always lead to new views and also questions. It is like a puzzle which is never complete but every question and answer gives you a new piece which fits to the whole picture.

5 Likes

I totally agree with all replies above. If we think ‘we know everything’, then we may be forced to ‘assume’ the answer or result or business request sometimes which is totally against the philosophy of testing. Assumption is the number one enemy of testers. As others experienced, it always worked in my favor to say ‘i don’t know’ and people respect it much more than when someone pretends to know but don’t deliver the expected in time!
And with regards to an interview, i would not fret to say that ‘i don’t know’ because even if we get the job by lying to them that i know, what if i fail to deliver that in time, i might lose the job and moreover i would prove my dishonesty to the employer. So it is always better to be honest and accept what we don’t know, we don’t know.
very good discussion…:slight_smile:

2 Likes

Heather - I’ve had many “I don’t know” moments. There have been a few times that I haven’t said that, so I ended up asking for help. I’ve never been one to shy away from knowledge gain in my job at the expense of saving face. I learned a long time ago that sometimes your pride has to take a back seat to the reality of the situation.

As for the interviews, if they ask you a question you don’t know, own up to it. You can tell them that you are more than willing to learn. If they appreciate honesty, you have a chance. If they want you to be able to do something now, and that is one of those somethings, you might not have stood a chance to begin with. In the long run, it’s better that you tell them up front vs. them finding out after they’ve hired you.

2 Likes

Hello @mario!

Yes indeed! QA stands for Question Asker! Also, Quality Advocate and Quality Accomplice!

Joe

1 Like

I appreciate when someone says I don’t know on an interview. However most of a time I like to ask what you think the answer might be. If the candidate after this still repeats I don’t know then that is a no no as I am curious about his problem solving skills and his critical thinking.

I personally have nothing against it even in the work environment but I appreciate people who say I don’t know but are already thinking about whom they might ask or where to look for the answer.