Don't fear asking questions

These days, a few peers of mine and I are working on a software development client project involving a React Native mobile app, an Express.js API, and a React web admin. While I’ve been developing Web applications using JavaScript for some time now, this is their first project using JavaScript.

This implies learning a new programming language and its tooling, as well as a adapting to a completely different mindset than their object-oriented background. I have to say, I applaud their enthusiasm and motivation to go through the hoops of starting a completely new project with a new programming language.

Naturally, this leads to my peers hitting roadblocks that they first try to fix by themselves. After a few attempts and little bit of frustration, they usually turn to me for help, which I’m more than happy to give. This usually happens after ~15 minutes (see Intercom’s 15 Minute Rule).

The other day, I had earbuds in, and I could just feel that one of my peers had trouble with an issue, so I removed one earbud and gently asked “What’s up?”. They explained the issue, asked if I could help, and I then explained I didn’t know how to fix it… yet.

The first thing I do after I’ve gone through my mental catalog of past issues and fixes, is ask Google. I usually just plug in the error message plus a few related keywords in the search bar, and hope for the best. Most of the time, I find something within ~5 minutes. Great. Problem solved. Let’s move on to the next thing.

So after I told him I didn’t know how to fix it (yet), I did what I usually do: I said “let me see what I can do”, and turned to Google.

That’s when they said something that surprised me. It went a little like this:

“You know, when I ask you a question and you drop everything you’re doing to start searching for my issue, I feel like I’m distracting you from whatever you were doing. You can just tell me you don’t know and I’ll keep debugging.”

I then realized that I might have unintentionally communicated that I was feeling distracted when others were asking for help and that I did not want to help, which would lead them to feel bad about asking for help. To me, it’s quite the opposite: I then explained to them that when I help others out, it’s a win-win situation—the person facing the issue gets and can continue working, and both parties get to learn from whatever the issue at hand.

Of course, asking questions every 10 minutes or asking questions before even trying to fix the issue is a step in the wrong direction. It’s all about balance between proactive problem solving and knowing when to seek help.

Key takeaways:

  • When facing an issue, don’t fear asking questions;
  • When helping others out, make sure your vocabulary and body language communicate that you’re willing to help.

Questions ⇒ knowledge.