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“What’s WebKit?”

Preface: I’ve kind of wanted to write some more personal and opinion-based blog entries for a while, but it’s been hard to start because I’m more nervous about self-expression than self-explication. And I think “Why would anyone want to read my random strange thoughts anyway?” And then when I think about some potential topics, it seems like I need to do a whole bunch of research and thought, that sounds like it would take a long time, so I don’t actually start to write. But there are things I’ve learned that I’ve wanted to share. So, time to give it a shot, start with something simple, and see how it works.

From time to time I read a blog post that says something like “One thing I’ve noticed about successful people is that they ask lots of questions, so they always keep learning. Ask questions.” All right, seems like sound advice, but the posts usually don’t bother to comment on why we don’t all already ask questions as freely as four-year-olds.

A story: When I started working for Mozilla, in late 2007, the first thing I did was go to a week-long meetup in Toronto [1]. Over dinner one night, conversation turned to ‘They do it like this in WebKit’ or ‘WebKit has this feature’ or some such. Just because I didn’t know any better, I asked “What’s WebKit?”

I saw a couple of cocked eyebrows. One of my dinner mates answered: “It’s the iPhone browser.” Me: “Oh”, thinking they’re thinking we just hired this guy and he doesn’t know what WebKit is? Well, I made it through dinner and I’m still here, so I guess it was OK.

The point is, it can be scary to ask a question. Is this a stupid question? Am I supposed to know this already? Does everyone else know it already? Will it make me seem like I don’t know anything? Will everyone think I’m wasting their time? To ask a question is to admit ignorance.

It makes me wonder if part of the reason “successful” people have a reputation for asking questions is that they have less to fear. If you’ve already founded a $100M startup or given a hit TED talk, you probably [2] worry less about anyone thinking you don’t know anything.

But maybe ignorance shouldn’t be embarrassing anymore: the universe of knowledge is huge and constantly expanding, so to a first approximation, no one knows anything anyway. If you don’t know fact X, maybe that’s just because you were too busy learning topic Y. And remind yourself that a bunch of smart, successful people ask lots of questions so you won’t look bad imitating them.

That’s what I did during a recent discussion where WebRTC came up. I didn’t understand the discussion, and I wanted to, but “WebRTC” sounded like a pretty basic thing that I was supposed to know about, being an web browser person and all, so I didn’t speak up the first few times I heard it. But when it came up again, I told myself smart people ask questions, took a second to calm myself, and said, “Hey, dumb question [3]–What’s WebRTC?” And I learned.

So I have a little suggestion: Next time you hear about something and don’t know what it is, and you’re feeling a little bold, feel free to ask “What’s WebKit?” And even more important, when you get asked that question, see not ignorance, but curiosity, and be sure to reward that person’s desire to learn, and their courage.

[1] The meetup was on “Mozilla 2.0”. Sounds pretty quaint today.

[2] Just speculation: I wouldn’t know.

[3] See what I did there?


Comment from mccr8
Time: March 12, 2012, 9:07 pm

One day I’ll build up the courage to ask what this “Javascript” thing is.

Comment from Justin Dolske
Time: March 12, 2012, 11:23 pm

Ok… What’s webkit?


Comment from Sebastian Redl
Time: March 13, 2012, 4:18 am

> One of my dinner mates answered: β€œIt’s the iPhone browser.”

The funny part: WebKit is the rendering engine behind Safari and Chrome. The iPhone browser is (probably a slimmed-down) build of Safari. So your mate is wrong, especially since various builds of WebKit may well have slight differences in the features they support.

Comment from Sheeri
Time: March 13, 2012, 5:58 am

I think actually the folks that are successful have *more* to fear – something like “You gave a TED talk and you don’t know what X is?”

However, questions are always good. If you don’t ask, you won’t learn. I ask a lot of questions, and I think I’m perceived as pretty smart, so you just have to get over yourself and figure it’s better to ask than to not know.

There is a “use your judgment” aspect, too – for example, if you’re already in front of a computer, do a web search for the term. Or if it’s something that came up in casual conversation, remember it to look up later (or, go to the bathroom and look it up on your smartphone while in there).

Comment from Chris Leary
Time: March 13, 2012, 3:03 pm

Nice entry! I really like blog entries that come from the gut, so I cast my vote to keep them coming. πŸ™‚

I can\’t help but add, \"To question or not to question: that is the question!\"

Comment from dmandelin
Time: March 13, 2012, 3:22 pm

I’m pretty sure they knew that…it’s possible that was their response and I’ve paraphrased it wrong after 4 years. Or else they were keeping things simple for me.

Comment from Friv
Time: March 13, 2012, 6:00 pm

well, personally, i always want to come to visit the blog whose owner usually write about his “personal and opinion-based blog entries”, because there’s always something that i have to thought about, something that i can learn from his experience. And tell you what, you’ve done it well so far, David. And i cant agree with Sheeri more, (s)he already told what i’m thinking, no one knows everything in this world, and just by asking, we get knowing. And for those who are afraid of asking, everything gets much easier with the help of Google πŸ™‚

Comment from Darcy Clarke
Time: March 14, 2012, 10:04 am

Great post David! I’ve had similar issues and actually, just recently, wrote a blog post much similar to this about the fear to ask questions and make mistakes ( Hope you keep asking questions and writing!

Comment from dmandelin
Time: March 15, 2012, 4:16 pm

Maybe you’re right–I’ve heard that even computer scientists on conference PCs (who I think are usually pretty established) can be afraid to ask questions about a paper that doesn’t explain itself so well. I clearly remember hearing that because I was kind of shocked that even they hadn’t escaped worrying about their how smart people think they are.

Comment from Witali
Time: March 19, 2012, 3:01 am

In such situations I take my smartphone and search for the answer. It is for me the best way to learn without asking.

Comment from Aristotle Pagaltzis
Time: March 19, 2012, 8:26 pm

Everyone starts out stupid. Smart people ask questions because they have confidence in having the facilities to work their way out of their stupidity. And with that same confidence in their judgement, they concern themselves with the evaluating the subject and its merits (β€œis this WebKit thing worth any of my attention or interest?”) rather than themselves and the expectations of others (β€œis this WebKit thing something I was supposed to know about?”).

I always feel funny about articles like the ones you referenced. They focus merely on the trappings of a smart person, and miss the disposition that drives and allows the resulting behaviours. (Or a creative person. Or interpersonally skilled. The same problem bedevils those articles all.)

β€œDo not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” β€”Matsuo Basho

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