82

Short version: I want to look professional even in the situations where I'm unable to help other teams in the office. I don't care about creating shallow impression of being more skilled than I actually am but I also don't want to downplay my actual skills by exposing my lack of knowledge on topics which are not strictly part of my job. How can I achieve that in the given situation?


Longer version: Around 5 months ago I got my first job in IT sector as a webmaster in a small company. Initially there was another coworker with the same position who had over 4 years of experience in the company, and even more years outside of it, who has left for another job around 2 months ago. As far as I got to know him I got an impression that he could solve almost any problem anyone in the office ever had, and if he couldn't help he had exact knowledge of why he can't do that and what else should be done.

Now I am the only webmaster and I have big shoes to fill as I don't have nearly as much experience and knowledge as he did. My boss said that he knows I probably won't be able to do the work as efficiently as he did and told me not to worry about it. Also my contract has exactly listed things that are part of my job, and I know that the previous webmaster was going far out of what he was required to help others.

Now the thing is that we also have a SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) team, and the leader of that team often relied on the coworker whom I am now replacing. So the SEO team leader sometimes asks me an in-depth questions on SEO/SEM (Search Engine Marketing) topics, on which I have limited knowledge.

I'd like to learn more about it and I do every day but honestly I don't care about it that much to spend my free time digging into inner workings of it rather than just coding my personal projects. Also it is not in my contract to handle SEO tools and analyse their data, but as a webmaster it is important for me to have at least general knowledge on the topic. Also, if I could I would like to help the SEO team especially when I don't have a lot of work but sometimes I'm just not capable.

Now I probably am sensitive on this topic because at the begining of the job I had few "f*ck ups" and don't want to make impression that I am incapable of helping the other team as previous coworker did. I know that except for that I usually do my job well and I'm actually hoping to get a raise in the near future (I've been talking about it with my boss and he was affirmative that could happen if I do my job right) and the SEO team leader might have a big impact on judging my skills even though I'm in another team. So now I don't want to undermine my image by saying I don't know something most of times when I'm asked for help. It was never a problem that I was unable to help but I know the impression persists.

The company I work for is very small (less than 10 people) so it is usually clearly visible to boss how helpful to others I am.

  • counter question: have your coworkers in any way indicated that they distrust you or expect the same of you that they did with your predecessor? because if they don't then there is not really a problem. – Borgh Jun 27 '18 at 7:36
  • @Borgh they didn't do that explicitly, but I feel like they do that implicitly by often reaching out to me with their problems – aMJay Jun 27 '18 at 7:44
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    By personal projects did you mean projects you personally decided to do or projects assigned to you personally? – HLGEM Jun 27 '18 at 13:52
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    @HLGEM I ment my own projects that I do for fun in my free time that i personally decided to do, in sense that i'd rather do that than learn things i'm not that interested with and which are not a huge part of my job, sorry if it wasn't clear – aMJay Jun 27 '18 at 13:59

15 Answers 15

217

It's perfectly ok for you to admit that you don't know something. It's a lot better than covering up your lack of knowledge/skills.

If something isn't strictly part of your role, then you can pass that on to someone else - or you can ask that someone else for some guidance (without monopolising their time any more than is neccessary).

The key thing here is to know how you're going to address the issue - either by asking someone else or investigating further.

  • 169
    TBH I tend to find (and assume) that it's the people who admit to not knowing things that come across as more competent and capable. They're clear on the boundaries of their expertise, where people who 'know everything' come across insincere. – Sobrique Jun 27 '18 at 10:07
  • 46
    @Sobrique I totally agree. I prefer people who tell me when they don't know something. But I also need them to think of possible solutions. "I don't know, but ..." is a very professional attitude from my perspective. – Altoyyr Jun 27 '18 at 12:39
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    @Sobrique (Publicly known) Capable people have the self-confidence to admit when they don't know, they have "nothing to lose" – FooBar Jun 27 '18 at 16:01
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    Always ask about things that you don't know. Given enough time, if you always do this, you will eventually know everything. If you do additional research and find out later, go back to the guy and tell him you figured it out. If he goes and does further research, ask him to tell you what he found. – woodvi Jun 27 '18 at 17:00
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    In my first job, after about a year, my bosses boss took me aside and told me that what he liked most about me was that when I didn't know about something, I said that I didn't know but I'd look into it and find out. – RedGrittyBrick Jun 28 '18 at 14:07
27

Be straightforward and help to the extent that you can. That's essentially it, but let's examine that in more detail.

By now it's almost common knowledge that people who admit to not knowing something are often perceived as more confident and reliable. The problem of course is that you can't say this to everything people ask of you, which you can do by either making sure you have the answers to the questions people will ask you, or ensuring that you don't get questions where you don't.

The latter is often easier and something you can accomplish by being clear about where your strengths do lie. This is part of establishing your professional reputation and visibility in the office and while that's not something you can fully control, it is something you can and should manage. I could write a book about how you do that but it boils down to showing your experience and skill where you can and using both to make valuable contributions. Over time people will realise that you're the go-to person for X, Y and Z. That will automatically mean that you'll get a lot more questions about those topics and far fewer about unrelated topics. If your ambition is to become a Subject Matter Expert this is the road to take.

Harder but no less valid is to make sure you develop your skills and experience to the point that you can answer the questions people expect you to handle. Certain topics might be outside your core area of expertise or your past experience but become relevant to your profile as you change jobs or as time passes. And if you're in Teapot Design you'll be expected to know something about how the Handle works even if you're more of a Spout guy.

Of course sometimes you'll be asked questions that are wildly outside of your area and you can't really be expected to know everything. Then it's important to simply say so. Use whatever professional variation on "Sorry, I don't know" that you prefer, but where possible try to help people any way. Especially when you're still defining your role at a new team or company, you're going to get a lot of questions on similar themes that should be asked of someone else. You should make sure that you figure out who that someone else is so that when you get a question about Teapot Inspections you can refer them to Gary from QA. At the same time you should mention that you're actually in Teapot Design to reinforce your role and skills. You can also refer people on when you know something, but not everything about their question. If someone asks you about Diaphanous Teapots but you're really only designing Opaque ones, use a variation of "I'm happy to see if I can help but your best bet is to ask Jack over there.". Overtime Jack will know to do the same thing when he's asked about Opaque Teapots.

But if you're stumped with a question about Transmogrifiers or Atomic Discombobulators, it's fine to simply say that you don't know. With simple professionalism it's easy to build a reputation as an expert on your chosen topics while also being known as collegial and willing to help out. You won't have to worry about being seen as incompetent.

  • 1
    1/2 - This answer is so insightful. Please vote it up, and do yourself a great service. Read it over and over until you get every nuance. The easy part is yes, you should be open and direct when you lack an answer, and it might even make you more credible. The hard part to grok is this is part of a bigger picture that is critical to managing how you are perceived by people, and hence the success of your career. For example, purposely steering your responsibilities to make yourself more visible where you add the most value (cont. below). – whitneyland Jun 30 '18 at 22:03
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    2/2 cont. Some resent this, call it politics, playing games, but it's not for multiple reasons. It's very different, as big picture reputation management can be (should be) done with integrity. It doesn't require lying, misleading people, or throwing colleagues under the bus. Crucially, it can be aligned with what's best for the company. The worst mistake is to think, “I don't care about that stuff I'll just work hard”. To think that just means you haven't thought through human nature on this subject, and could be making yourself, peers, and company more successful all at once if you did. – whitneyland Jun 30 '18 at 22:06
11

This is partially answered by reference to impostor syndrome, which can be described as an exaggerated concern about your known limitations. Being aware of your limitations is good, and being able to admit to them is even better.

When you come across a 'new' issue, you can make a judgement about how useful it will be to understand the issue in more depth, and maybe offer to look into it even though you haven't got an answer right now. This is actually how a lot of people learn new material, by solving actual problems. It does seem in this case that you need to be a little selective in the domain that you try to expand your knowledge so it furthers your own career (without becoming specialised in the SEO role for example).

6

I work in IT also, and when I don't know something, I say things like:

"Let me go look it up" , or...

"Let me go research it" ,or... ...

"Be right back" , or...

"I'm going to have to look into this"

There's a common theme in there... somewhere.

5

I don’t know anything about SEO either. I can’t see that it is part of your job. If the SEO team lead asks you questions about this subject, it’s his job to know, so if anyone is incompetent it’s him.

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    It does depend on the exact questions. e.g. "What is the best style of URL to rank highly in Google" is a question for the SEO expert. "How can I configure the site so that when a customer visits www.example.com/foo, they actually see www.example.com/index.php?page=foo is a question for the webmaster" – thelem Jun 27 '18 at 13:40
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    @thelem That wouldn't really be an SEO question then. The original post mentions that the OP is being asked SEO questions by the SEO lead. I think that's what gnasher729 is getting at. – Bryant Jackson Jun 27 '18 at 18:14
  • @BryantJackson There's a grey area, because it's webmaster work being done for SEO benefit – thelem Jun 28 '18 at 12:14
5

There is a subtle, but distinct difference between your experienced ex-coworker not knowing something for SEO and a younger professional such as yourself not knowing something.

It's important to realize that while your ex-coworker did not know the exact answer to the SEO questions, he had years of learning and experience in the web field. He definitely knew a lot about SEOs in general. This would apply to how he answers every other teams questions as well.

It is comparable to your boss asking you how to create a specific type of website. And while you have never done this particular task before, you can give him a general estimate of what research needs to be done, whether it is complex or simple, and how long it can take.

My advice would be that you shouldn't try to fill in your ex-coworkers shoes. He grew into those shoes over many years. You would be handicapping your own growth by trying to emulate him.

However, my answer for you would be that when the SEO guy asks you a question, think through it outloud. It will show your limits, but also show your growth as time goes on. Also it's likely that being a smart, responsive, and critical thinking person to bounce ideas and concepts off of was exactly what the SEO guy needed.

4

How can I achive that in the given situation?

This question is relevant to everybody who has a job; it is not specific to your situation.

My suggestions:

  • Always try to understand what they want. I.e., let them pose their question, think about it, give them some reflected feedback immediately that makes them see that you understood them. Or in other ways, don't be like... Them: "If in SEO, how ..." You: "Oh, stop, SEO is not my job".
  • If you have some idea, tell them in terms that makes it clear how definite your opinion is. I.e., if you have only very little information/experience to go on, just tell them so. "That's really not my expertise, but I believe bla bla".
  • Offer them to look into it, and give them a clear indication of when you will be able to start doing it, and how long it will take, and how likely you are to be successful with your information and experience. I.e., is it a small google session, or would you have to work for two weeks on their issue? Collateral: if you have no f**** idea what to do, tell them so, in professional terms (I can look into it, but it would take very long and really conflict with my other commitments).
  • If they need it sooner, and you just cannot provide it, have them tell to your boss in friendly terms, to have him help re-planning your tasks.
  • Never, ever tell them that you are not qualified or have no time. Your qualification and time are an issue of your direct boss; i.e., if he so wants, he should give you time to qualify yourself; or he can change your responsibilities so you have more time.
  • Never, ever tell them that you do not "want" to do it. If they ask you to clean the latrines instead of doing highly paid programming, then the issue is not you not "wanting" to do it, but that this would be a very bad decision for the company. With anyone else than your boss, your final line of defense is always "sure, I'll have to check with my boss first, I'll be back with you soon". If you instead tell them that you don't want to do it, you can be pretty sure that they will talk with your boss... which is always a bad thing.
  • Another possibility: find someone external who is an expert, and suggest your company engages this person as a consultant/coach/advisor. – RedSonja Jun 27 '18 at 12:07
1

First you say this:

“My boss said that he knows I probably won't be able to do the work as efficiently as he did and told me not to worry about it. Also my contract has exactly listed things that are part of my job, and I know that the previous webmaster was going far out of what he was required to help others.”

Then you seem to be tying yourself up in knots when you say this; bold emphasis is mine:

I'd like to learn more about it and I do every day but honestly I don't care about it that much to spend my free time digging into inner workings of it rather than just coding my personal projects. Also it is not in my contract to handle SEO tools and analyse their data, but as a webmaster it is important for me to have at least general knowledge on the topic. Also, if I could I would like to help the SEO team especially when I don't have a lot of work but sometimes I'm just not capable.

Look, you have a job and you have boundaries and limits. And in general—in life and in work—there are boundaries and limits. So if you truly want to make your job happy, rewarding and tolerable don’t work past these boundaries and limits.

If someone asks you a question that the previous person handled, be honest but firm and just say bluntly that what they are asking you is not what you have skills in. Offer to listen and possibly help, but again, if someone pushes you just say, “I would love to help, but I am not too sure what is happening.”

If people complain, you need to simply restate the same thing over and over: I am me and I am not that other person. I am doing this job the best that I can but I really cannot answer questions I have no deep skills in.

That said I am sure someone will whine about this… Complaining or implying you are not doing your job. So always put your skills forward and say you are not that other person.

Perhaps lightly discuss this with your boss. But if it gets too uncomfortable, look for another job. And if/when you get that be sure to state bluntly:

“I found a new job. I have new opportunities. And while I have enjoyed being here, the pressure to have me do work I am not skilled in—that someone else did in the past as a favor—really made me uncomfortable.”

At worst, this is ignored… But who cares? You’re gone. At best, your boss will realize something else is up and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And who knows? Maybe at some point in the future you will be offered to come back with staff knowing boundaries and limits of the role.

1

I frequently get asked questions about topics I am not strong in. The technique I use is to ask clarifying questions. Sometimes, I ask enough questions to be able to get back to my knowledge and actually help on the question. More often, what they really need is the rubber duck effect, and my questions help them answer their original question for themselves.

You really shouldn't underestimate the rubber duck effect. I've had conversations where my first question was essentially the topic's equivalent to "What is SEO?" where the conversation ended by people saying I was very helpful.

The other effect of asking clarifying questions is the other person knows more precisely where the limits of your knowledge are. If you tell them you don't know anything about SEO, they won't fully believe you, because people sometimes hide their knowledge to avoid extra work, or they know more than they realize.

If you start out by responding "What is SEO?" they will believe you, and if they want to continue receiving your advice, they will feel it is somewhat their responsibility to teach you, and they will have an idea of the effort required to do so. Of course, be honest and don't disingenuously ask questions to which you already know the answer.

1

I would not normally post an answer to this sort of question. I was actually looking for an answer to a technical question that I did not know the answer to (after 30+ years in the field) when I saw this in the sidebar. I was interested in the answers to this as I have managed groups of technical people also for over 30 years and owned several companies with large technical staffs. I currently employ several college interns and well as more experienced people and I also recently lost a really great tech guy after over 20 years. The answers above are pretty much all good advice although from the perspective of the owner of the company I would rate some of the lower ones much higher. The only reason I feel that I might have something to add is reading these it appears that nearly every answer is written by someone at a similar level versus how the owner of a small company would perceive the same actions. And if you want to succeed, your coworkers input does matter but what really matters is what the owner thinks in a small company.

That said, as an owner of the company what you are looking for is a person that is going to help your company succeed ….. period. That can come in many forms and those that can't recognize which is which fail. Its a lot tougher running a small company taking in only a few million a year than people think. Cash flow is always on your mind. So while you are talking to the owner about a raise (bad idea in my opinion, show him what you can do first) he is thinking the whole time whether he can get more value to his company from someone else for the same or less money.

As an owner, I frankly don't really care if you know the answer to something or not. What I care about the success of the company ENOUGH TO FIND OUT? I can pretty much teach anyone with reasonable intelligence to do anything but I can't make them care.

So, getting back to the original question, the correct answer is absolutely "I am not an expert on this but if (Owner Name) agrees that this is important I will research it and give you my best advice". This covers two items, not alienating your co-workers and also no overcommitting to work that the owner may or may not see as important or see as your responsibility. This need to be followed up with a conversation with your boss "(coworker) asked me about X, I am not an expert on this, would you like me to spend time researching it?". If this is overloading your available time you also need to add, "I have these other projects on my plate, where do you want me to put this on my list of priorities?"

If you really want to get ahead, and your boss tells you they do see value in these items you might consider spending some of your personal time learning about them, even if you aren't that interested. I once built a multi-million dollar company because customer asked me how search engines worked. This was before google even existed and SEO was not even a term. I told him exactly that … "I don't know but I will find out". So I used a small company I had started unrelated to the internet business as a test case and started reading .. yes, mostly on my own time but it was my company anyway. Honestly it was a lot easier back then but within a few weeks every major search engine pretty much was loaded with references to my pages and the phones started ringing off the hook. While I admit I didn't find that nearly as interesting as say writing code to control the LEDs on and around my house it was ridiculously more lucrative. sometimes you learn something about the world learning about something you didn't think was that interesting. I also helped several other businesses with the knowledge I gleaned become much larger companies. Those people in turn were loyal customers for the Internet Business for many years.

An not to be trite, but SEO that involves trying to game the system is a high maintenance exercise in futility. A well organized and written web site with relevant content and proper tags is the best assurance of consistent high search engine ratings, so don't waste too much time on the "trick of the day" if you research SEO. Just realize the owner is thinking that SEO is his ticket to success so be careful.

1

I realize this doesn't answer the question in the general, but...

SEO is special. Stay out of it... Mostly.

Fundamentally, SEO is a knife fight between search engines, who want web sites ranked fairly... And SEOmasters, who want their web site ranked fairly! I jest.

Normally there's a "gold standard best practice that's been established for a decade". Not here; the entire craft is an arms race. Techniques start innocently as valuable indicators (foo.com/hours.html), and this fact gets sussed out by SEOs who abuse the daylights out of it (URLs stuffed with keywords), to the point where the factor must be rejected wholesale because it's too exploitable.

It's a hard craft to learn because the best want to keep their secrets (not least, from Google and Bing). So you tend to run into a lot of yesterday's news: you learn to expend effort on methods already defeated, or worse, efforts now punished: because of your blundering, your site loses rank.

Your SEO team may bring the wrath of Google or Bing, but don't you do it - make sure if they do, you are deniably clear of the mistake. That includes things you do, and things you advise the SEO team. For instance the SEO team may tell you many different ways they'd like to tune the website, get every one in writing and do it as-described.

That said, I'll divide the SEO task into three portions relevant to you.

  • Portion 1: good webmastering in the normal ways (separate from SEO). I'm talking
    • broken links
    • sections of the website which nothing links to, and crawlers can't discover
    • botching meta noindex or robots.txt, keeping the search engine out of valuable parts of your site
    • high traffic pages that now 404 because you did a reorg (come on, seriously?) I'll touch more on this. First, it belies a wrong attitude that "all traffic comes from search engines" when a lot comes from bookmarks and posted links on the Internet. Second it costs you all the page level google juice the page earned legit. Search engines understand 301 and 302, use them.
    • failing to customise the "intended for humans" Title/Description for each page
    • having the page be unbookmarkable, e.g. If someone links an internal search result, someone uncookied clicks and get your search homepage. Ugh.
    • having the page jank downward while loading because you didn't use height/width attributes to tell the browser how much space to reserve
    • having way too many page components (I've seen 100) from many servers, causing the page to take forever to load for anyone but the webmaster on the localnet. Google notices, and has said that is a criterion. Can't speak to Bing. Both are eminently able to determine this.
  • Portion 2: the things Google, Bing and Baidu specifically ask you to do that relate to SEO, e.g. google sitemaps, webmaster dashboard, etc. Definitely do these things.
  • Portion 3: everything else you might do that is driven more by a motivation to rank higher in search engines, rather than to make the site better for humans. This is the SEO you should stay out of.
0

Along with the other good answers, I thought I'd share my experience. This relates to my IT jobs as well as other aspects of my life.

I've found that simply saying "I don't know" as a question is received better than saying it as a statement. Also, appending "but I'll get back to you on that" can have positive effects.

As long as you avoid even implying that you don't care to know more than you already do, you should be fine, most of the time.

Of course, there are people who expect you to know everything. Those are usually people who have been doing the same job "forever" and expect everyone to already know the things they took 20 years to learn. Another percentage of these people are ones who have the "impostor syndrome" mentioned in another answer. These people will often times spout random jibberish to make you feel bad or sound bad. These are also the people who will often defend their jibberish when you come back with a good answer days/hours/minutes later after doing real research.

Depending on the person, leave off the "IDK" and go straight to "I'll get back to you on that", as RandomUs1r mentions. I upvoted their answer, but they didn't get into the "why" this works.

It works because people want you to either know the the answer or find it out for them. If you make them find out for themselves, they will sometimes be mad at you, especially if it's something they should already know or should have already looked up. You boss can get mad, since they now think you aren't doing your job, but if you "get back to them", they'll (usually/often/sometimes) take it better.

0

It is often quite obvious when a person doesn't know the answer, but is trying to conceal this fact.

This doesn't make a good impression. By being evasive and trying to conceal the fact that you don't know the answer, it reveals 2 things to the person asking the question...

  1. You don't know the answer.
  2. You're concerned about the fact that you don't know the answer.

This shows a lack of confidence in your own knowledge and abilities.

I think a better approach is to simply be honest about it and admit you don't know.

You can't know everything. Nobody can reasonably expect that.

Having said that, even though you don't "currently" know the answer, doesn't mean that you can't find the answer.

Personally I would tend to answer it something like...

I'm not sure, but I can do some investigation and let you know.

or

I haven't actually used the software package 'xyz', but I can do some research, and install the trial to familiarise myself with it.

By doing this, you're accepting that you don't know the answer, which is fine, you're only human, but you're also showing that you're ready and willing to learn and improve your knowledge.

Just to be a bit specific now about your particular concern.

I would suggest that if you have an SEO team, it really shouldn't be necessary for you to have an in-depth knowledge of this. Otherwise, why have the team, if you can do it all yourself.

I think you should reasonably be expected to know how to implement the changes that the SEO team require/recommend. You shouldn't need to know specific details about how to improve SEO.

For example, the SEO team might advise you that a broken link that's currently resulting in a 404 not found, actually should do 301 redirect to another resource. You don't necessarily need to know why this should be done, but you should know how to do what they've suggested.

If you genuinely don't know how to do this, then you might want to say something like ...

I'm not sure exactly how to do that, but I will find out and get the redirect added.

0

I would do this: first be sincere and acknowledge you currently have zero knowledge about it, but also show that you're willing to learn (and you're someone who learns fast new things) and that you are confident you are able to do it.

Example of conversation:

— Can you work on this project ? You will need to use technology XYZ for it.

— I currently know nothing about XYZ (I only heard the name a few times recently), so I currently have no expertise about it (you know my expertise is more about ABC)... But it doesn't look so far to DEF, which I learnt last year in a few months. You know I'm always hungry to learn about new technologies, so, if you want to give me this project and at least x months to work on it, I totally think I can deliver the project.

-1

Admit you don’t know as the worse thing you can do is let the team down when you can’t deliver.

But go home stay up all night till you find the answer because it’s the test of fire that breads be purest of gold

protected by Community Jul 1 '18 at 0:40

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