How do I know what I seem to know?

Ever find yourself providing information to someone as an “expert”, where the point of view flows from your lips as easily as drinking a glass of water, and then after you’ve finished wonder where you learned all that?

Lately, that seems to be happening to me more and more. Someone asks me a question, and I can enter on a diatribe about best practices for creating passwords on application forms, the principles about building websites as best to leverage the content and the technologies, or the best practices in implementing content management when you’re not even sure what architecture you’re dealing with.

Where the hell did I learn all this?

I think back to my university education. I went to the University of Waterloo. I went there because my high school counselor suggested it. I wasn’t originally even thinking of Waterloo. I was going to Trent! I wanted to take computer science and rule the world. In Ontario, though, you can only apply to three universities. (There’s a huge student population, and a lot of universities. Everything goes through a central agency. It’s weird, but it works.) Waterloo was my #3 choice (I think York was my #2).

I went to Waterloo because they offered me residence, and my parents were adamant about me living in residence. I had no idea what the impetus was for their desire to have me cooped up with 25 late-teen men, but in retrospect I know what they were trying to achieve. My first year at Waterloo remains one of my more memorable. Even today the smell of stale beer still bring back visions of walking down halls in Village 2.

Anyway, I went to Waterloo for computer science. At the time, it was part of the Mathematics faculty. Which meant that you had to take an inordinate number of math classes just to take one lousy computer science class. And let me tell you — anyone who complained about their math courses at university didn’t attend Waterloo. Remember — it was the Math faculty. They didn’t teach calculus — they taught you how calculus worked. I got 12% on my first midterm.

Ouch.

That should have been my first indication that perhaps I might not be long for the Mathematics faculty. Despite getting into the computer science stream in second year, and doing reasonably well in my classes, it was clear by the end of my second year at Waterloo that either I switched to a different line of study, or my arse would be sporting skid marks before too long.

English Rhetoric and Professional Writing. Yep, I’m officially an Artsie. I took all sorts of wacky courses at Waterloo: psychology, philosophy, physics, calculus, algebra, statistics, literature (several versions), music appreciation, Latin, Spanish … most of them aimed directly at my new-found major, but I still took the time to take computer science. Management information sciences (which was a total waste of time — I could have learned that course by reading a text book), development methodology, and networking theory (I learned how the internet actually works). But very little programming.

In fact the most programming I did after going into English was learning how to write HTML — something I got from my English Rhetoric 209 professor, Neil Randall. He scribbled a few tags on the board and gave us the option of either turning our essays in traditional paper, or online. (Little did I know where that would ultimately take me…) But none of my university career taught me what I know now — certainly not to the depth that I seem to have acquired.

Out of university, I was a technical writer, taking the love of writing and my technical know-how and actually making a viable career out of them. But I bored of it. A lot. Soon, I couldn’t stand technical writing. It was dull, repetitive. Mind-numbing, even. When I worked for Radical Entertainment, I took it upon myself to build some web-based productivity tools (such as a room booking tool) to avoid going insane.

When I started here at Critical Mass, I was hardly a web development expert. I was green. But back then, I was a butt in a seat, earning the company money. It didn’t matter how much or how little I knew. It was that I could do something. I’d never heard of an application server, never worked with a content management system, had a clue about any formalized process whatsoever, could barely code enough Javascript to do anything useful, and CSS was the most minimal skill for me. (Were I to apply to Critical Mass today with the skills I had when I was originally hired, I wouldn’t make it through the resume review round, let alone get an interview.)

Green as bamboo, and just as inflexible. Sure, I could bend, but there was no way I could hold my own to the people who’d been working there longer than I and understood the industry a lot better. I had to give into requests — no matter how outrageous — and accept direction from others.

That’s what I think about — that kind of helpless ignorance — when I stop and wonder how on Earth I managed to say something I didn’t previously know. And to some degree, still wonder if I actually know it. I don’t know if any of you have been in this situation, but when I get to talking about things that a mere six years ago I wouldn’t have given a second thought to (even if I knew enough to do so), I feel like I’m in some kind of verbal auto-pilot. It just comes out on its own.

It’s truly strange. I’ll actually be thinking to myself, as my mouth is motoring along, how is it that I can be saying these things? I’m not even actually thinking about what I’m saying! It’s just coming out, as if someone else were in control of my mouth. It’s like some freaky version of Being John Malkovich, except I have no idea who’s in my head or if they get dumped out on the Jersey Turnpike. More likely the intersection of Barlow and 56th near the truck stop, I think.

I always seem to know what to say. So far, I have yet to put my foot in my mouth. I haven’t said anything truly stupid. But I’m sure that day is coming. That’s what I fear most. That I’ll be in the middle of a good oration on the best way to handle organic search implementation with one of our clients when something comes out that I didn’t expect. It’ll sound something like this:

“The goal is to make sure that the document structure properly contextualizes the content, and is seeded with the keywords from the analysis phase. Rumper gilford flamma-lamma-ding-dong walla walla *snort* willy come home and BANG!”

It’s going to happen. I know it. The facade will come crashing down and I will be exposed for the phony that I sometimes believe myself to be. I still think of myself as that naive web developer, hired to slap together promotional web properties. I didn’t care about the standards, how to manage people, the intricacies of client communication, or internal politics. I was a grunt. I still feel like I am, and that somehow I’ve gotten where I am without truly knowing what on Earth I’m doing.

The reality is that I do actually know. I just don’t know that I know. Over the years, I’ve written a series of handy managerial routines that kick in when needed. It’s an automatic process, digging out lots of stored bits of knowledge and experience. I suppose this is what it’s like to have experience — and dare I say it, wisdom. You just know it. Temet Nosce. The whole Neo-save-the-world thing. You don’t have to think about it. It’s there. It’s ready and waiting to come out. You only need tap the resource, like uncovering an underground stream — it just flows out.

Still, it’s weird. I wonder how long it’ll be until I get used to this?

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