Conscious Incompetence and the Importance of Internships

Posted by Cameron Taylor on 1/5/15 9:36 AM

“The four stages of competence” is a psychological model that describes an individual’s progress in attaining a given skill set.

 The model’s four stages are described as follows:

1. Unconscious Incompetence The individual lacks the skill set in question and also lacks the ability to recognize their own incompetence. The individual may also fail to recognize the importance of the skill set.

2. Conscious Incompetence The individual now understands their own incompetence, but has not yet gained the proficiency in the skill set in question. The individual also grasps that the skill set is important and is willing to learn.

3. Conscious Competence The individual has gained proficiency in the skill but performing the new skill takes effort and thought.

4. Unconscious Competence The individual has repeatedly practiced the new skill and performing tasks related to the skill are second nature. The skill requires no conscious thought and its difficulty may be underestimated by the individual.

Recently, I have become all too familiar with the first two stages of the model and the rocky road that connects them. I was given the opportunity to intern with the folks at Appscale Systems and as an aspiring software engineer, I was thrilled. At the time I had finished my first two years of undergrad and had been programming for about three years. During those three years, I had developed the typical overconfidence in my own programming skills that is common of novice programmers.

“Intro to python was a breeze, just call me Guido for short.”

It didn’t take long for my ego to be checked as I saw the Appscale team in action. It is quite a feeling to unexpectedly find yourself in an “I have no idea what I’m doing” state of mind.

i-have-know-idea-meme-1

As time progressed I learned an incredible amount about the software development process, from code review (complete with witty banter) to pull requests and documentation writing, as well as application deployment using Appscale. Each lesson learned was without a doubt of great value and will hopefully guide me these next years in school to the level of unconscious competence clearly possessed by the Appscale engineering team. That being said, I think the most valuable lesson of all was the realization of my own incompetence and the drive to learn resulting from that realization.

Internships offer students like myself the chance to break away from the hand holding learning style common to the classroom and ask questions that will lead to mastery in our respective fields. So here’s to all you Mr. Miyagi like mentors out there teaching us over-eager young ones how to “wax on, wax off”, we consciously appreciate it.

- Cameron Taylor, Software Intern

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