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Unit 1, Lesson 1
In Progress

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

An outstretched hand.

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.

An eye


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.

A man with hands clasped in front of him


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.

A sparkling firecracker


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:

A tunnel

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.

A blackboard with Math equations

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”

A mountain trail


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.

A man pointing his finger

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.

People talking to each other

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

A projector


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?

An annoyed seal

Huffy person

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.

A clock

Time boxing

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.

A "# JUST DID IT" graffiti

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.

A "Closed Down" sign


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.

Pencils in a metal pencil cup


Here are some tips for asking for and responding to requests for help.

Two children giving food to a soldier


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?"

A "For Hire" sign

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.

Road signs with a down arrow pointing left

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.

A planner

Office hours

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.

A ceiling with abstract triangular mirrors

The internet

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.

Rubber ducks in a tub

Rubber Duck

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.

A hand holding a panther silhouette paper cutout


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.