Asking for help … – Jim Remsik
Have you ever puzzled over a programming problem for hours, then finally asked a teammate about it? And they helped you solve it in five minutes?
Asking for help can be surprisingly difficult. But knowing when and how to ask is one of the most important qualities a mature developer can possess. Today, guest chef Jim Remsik is here to talk about why we sometimes hesitate to ask for help, and to teach us how to overcome common obstacles to asking. Enjoy!
Video transcript & code
Asking For Help
The best developers I’ve ever worked with realize that software is communication.
They ask for help understanding the problems that lie before them and they do their best to respond to requests for help.
As someone who is responsible for people being both happy and productive it pains me to learn that someone has been struggling on a problem that could have been solved by simply asking for help.
Let’s start with a couple explicit assumptions.
- People don’t enjoy being stuck on a problem. - People enjoy helping get other folks unstuck.
There will be times that seem to call these assumptions into question but, more often than not they are the exception and not the rule.
Why would a person with resources available to them engage in that struggle? In fact, it's something I've found myself doing along with people around me. Why? I have a team of people around me, many of whom have talents and knowledge I don't. Why don't we ask for help? Here are some common scenarios:
End of the tunnel
A common problem facing folks is the feeling that they are moments away from solving their problem.
Even if they’ve spent hours or perhaps days working on the same problem.
We’re taught that being an adult means solving your own problems
Some folks simply don't know they can or who to ask and/or how to ask the question “correctly”.
We're often taught through our schooling that we can ask questions or there will be time at the end. But, “once you get in the real world™, you’re on your own”
Pride tells us that we should be able to do all of this on our own. A desire not to take others for granted is a laudable goal unless it means you’re depriving yourself from using tools around you as they were intended.
Worry of judgement
Other reasons to explain why people don’t ask for help range from shyness to not wanting to reveal your ignorance or inadequacies, worrying what other people will think about you.
Asking the room
These may seem like exaggeration if those aren’t experiences you have had or stories that you’ve told yourself but, for many people they are very real situations. How do I know? I asked for help while preparing this talk and these were answers provided by dozens of respondents
Most of us take our prior experience we’ve had asking questions and project it onto the current situation. How do those requests for help wind-up being unhelpful?
People who are helpful but busy may not deal well with the interruption. Instead responding with a exasperated sigh or other noise that comes off as disapproving to the asker.
When someone spends time trying to solve their own problem they might receive either of the following feedback.
- “Did you even try to solve this on your own?”
- “How long have you been trying to answer this problem on your own?”
Helpful people can provide conflicting messages around how long a person should spend trying to solve a problem.
Doer instead of helping
Well-meaning people occasionally mistake a request for help as someone asking them to take on a task.
This leaves the person asking for help with a solved problem and no knowledge or experience to reproduce the solution in the future.
Each of these scenarios involved helpful people being asked for help but, the situations left the person asking for help with an experience that makes them unlikely to go back.
We should expect to work in an environment where asking for help is desirable. And when asked a question you should do your best to direct people toward an answer that meets the expectations of folks involved.
Here are some tips for asking for and responding to requests for help.
A previous boss shared this maxim received from their therapist.
“Anger is a violation of expectation.”
When approaching someone for help state your expected outcome.
“Hey! I don’t want you to solve this for me but, I don’t understand what’s happening here. Can you walk me through it?”
“I’ve been stuck on something for the last 30 minutes, how long should I spend trying to get to the answer before I reach out?"
Ask for help
Don’t assume that if you state a problem that people are going to understand that as a request for help. Explicitly stating that you’re asking for help shares your intent that you need some sort of assistance.
“I’m running late today.” from a co-worker could mean that they’d like you to handle a task for them, or not.
“I’m running late today, would you be able to set up the videoconference equipment in room 2?” removes ambiguity and gives the coworker being asked a way out.
Huffy person tip
It’s OK to tell someone that you don’t have time to answer a question this very moment. Ideally, you can share when you’ll be in a position to help or aim them in another, helpful, direction to find the answer they are looking for.
Setting aside scheduled time to assist others with requests means they are more likely to approach you.
You will also be able to defer ad hoc requests to this scheduled time and in the absence of that time being filled you will reminded to assess the situation to uncover requests for help.
You may not have anyone in-person to ask for help. The internet is chock-full of people, some of whom can help you and have the time. Current tools allow remote pairing, screen sharing, and chat rooms to allow you work through problems with folks across the building, city, or globe.
You may have heard of Rubber Duck Debugging. Which is literally talking to, an anthropomorphized, object often a rubber duck.
Have you ever had the experience where you explain a problem your having to someone only to realize you figured out the answer by asking the question?
The neocortex portion of your brain handles speech and reasoning. Simply speaking your problem, whether to a person or a duck, and routing it through this section of your brain allows you to reason out an answer on your own. Just make sure to let your coworker know if you’re using them as a rubber duck.
Asking for help is sometimes easier said than done. We covered why that may be, how it can go wrong, and some tips to help you improve the experience on both sides of the equation.
Go out and be helpful.