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Justin Landis
Justin Landis
/ Project Manager
Non-profit leadership, volunteer management, ad-hoc IT manager
Playing music , Trailer Park Boys, Nels Cline, playing "tickle monster" with my 2 kids
What I Don’t Know
January 4, 2012

I find myself walking in the dark quite often.  It’s early January in Sandpoint, ID and the days have just started lengthening again.  On December 21st, the shortest day of the year, the sun rises around 9:00 and sets around 3:00.  But until early summer when the sun peeks out before 7:00, I walk to the office in the dark.  I love these morning walks because they give me some buffer time between being at home in an environment filled with family, music, and art, to the office where the environment is fast-paced, electronic, and full of guys like me.  It is also inspiring.  As I walk alone in the relative solace that the darkness provides, my mind spins quickly in preparation for another exciting day. 

On this particular day, I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast on my Stitcher favorites station, and feeling inspired.  The piece that was impactful for me was about why “I don’t know” is so hard to say.  The hosts noted one of the primary differences between business and academia being the willingness to admit when one doesn’t know something.  Academics are supposed to always be learning which necessitates not knowing things.  (The caveat here, according to the Freakonomics crew, is people who are supposed to be experts in their field of study.  Then all bets are off.)  Businesses provide goods and services for individuals and other businesses and often, part of forging such engagements involves convincing the customer that you know more about something than everyone you’re competing with.  It’s a free-market, which (at least in theory) translates to a Darwinian model of success – the survival of the fittest.  And so we, as business people, find ourselves needing to prove our value constantly and this often looks like asserting our knowledge to others.

To qualify, I am not claiming that these assertions are fallacious or that we’re collectively just pulling the wool over each other’s eyes.  However, those of us who live in the business world are certainly incentivized to focus on what we know over what we don’t know.  And whether we’re talking about closing a deal with an important client or simply competing with peers for a limited number of positions in a given field, this holds true.  By highlighting what we know and tactfully hiding what we don’t, we present the illusion of mastery, and this is thought to (and generally does) inspire confidence in our ability to execute.

The incentive here is clear, and the results are pretty clear as well, at least in my experience.  The unintended consequence is that while we’re all focusing on what we know and making sure others are aware of those things, there is still a lot that we don’t know.  In some cases, we may not even really know what we don’t know.  And this is the most dangerous place to be in.  In the specific areas of my life where I have spent a lot of time learning, practicing and growing, I have found unequivocally that the more I know, the broader my horizons become, and the more I am aware of that I don’t know.  This is an interesting paradox of knowledge and goes to the intersection of knowledge and wisdom in that the more deeply one delves into a field of study, the subtleties and nuances become increasingly clear.  This leads to greater ambiguity when it comes to nailing down the details of a given problem and makes the contributing factors of each unique application of a similar problem crucial to finding the right solution.  The devil truly is in the details.  And this can only be understood and navigated with a proper appreciation for those details and discernment of the subtleties.

Right about now, I should be starting to convince you (I mean, you’re reading this blog on our corporate site – what did you expect?) that we here at PLAYXPERT are better at understanding all the subtleties and details and blah blah blah.  The trouble is that there’s no clear winning message here.  Either I claim that we’re experts and you should trust our extensive knowledge and experience, in which case I’m doing precisely what I just finished railing against, or I make a strong case that we really don’t know anything about what we’re doing and we’ll be learning right alongside you.  Clearly, both of these messages have significant flaws.

What I will say is this.  There is no “best” when it comes to choosing a custom software development firm.  What we do well, we do really well.  But the reality is that there are so many factors that go into the process that it would be ludicrous to claim that we are the best at all of them.  You may know exactly what you want and just need someone to write the code.  You may think you know exactly what you want and not have enough industry knowledge to be aware of better options.  You may have a spectacular idea but not know how to make it into reality.  The point is that depending on who you are, what the problem is that you need solved, and what your expectations are, there is certainly a great option out there for you.  Candidly, I hope we’re it, but I also have spent enough time trying to squeeze into a mold that doesn’t fit to know that it’s not productive for anyone involved.

The best way to move forward is to start the conversation.  Start several conversations.  Reach out to us and see how you like us.  Reach out to some other firms and see how you like them.  I can’t speak for others, but we have had some great successes and some great opportunities for growth (read failures).  We’ll share some of our stories with you and you can do the same.  Maybe you’ll be impressed by what we know…or maybe you’ll be impressed by we’ll admit what we don’t know.