Re: Coaching less experienced folks on asking good questions

Subject: Re: Coaching less experienced folks on asking good questions
From: Stuart Burnfield <slb -at- westnet -dot- com -dot- au>
To: Techwr-l <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 2 Mar 2011 14:18:47 +0800 (WST)

Phil said:
> If you think of your new, inexperienced colleague as rather
> in terms of an "apprentice" - someone who needs to learn the
> domain but quickly

Yes, this is exactly it. Every reasonable colleague will accept that a new person needs time and help to come up to speed. I'm suggesting that learners will do themselves an enormous favour if they try to *minimize* the amount of time and help they ask from others.

> - the idea of telling them they have
> "a question budget" strikes me as the worst kind of policy.

I'm not saying "Don't ask questions" or "Agonize before asking questions." Just as we hope the SME will show consideration for a new starter's nerves and inexperience, I'm saying the newbie should show at least as much consideration for the busy SME's time by not using it unnecessarily.

In my experience the smartest and most capable people in an organization, the very people you're most likely to learn from, are often the busiest. They have 15 hours of work to fit into their 10-hour day. How much additional time are you asking them to pile onto that 15 hours? 10 good minutes? Or the same 10 good minutes spread over 30 minutes?

When the newbie asks for a follow-up session, will the SME say "Sure, any time" or "I'm pretty busy right now..." It depends a lot on what impression the newbie gave in the first session. Does the SME think, "hmm, asks thoughtful questions, understands the background to the project"? Or "time waster, not well-prepared"?

The budget idea applies to lots of things. Your newbie won't have time to read every page that has some bearing on their project. They'll have to skip some, skim others, read others in full, perhaps reread the really important ones. Just as they would try to get the maximum benefit from the limited time available for background reading, I'm suggesting they plan and prepare to get the maximum benefit from the not unlimited time available for Q&A.

Bad question: "What are the requirements again?" when they are listed in the project docs.

Not good: "What does requirement (iv) mean?"

Better: "I'm not sure I understand requirement (iv). It sounds like it covers the same ground as (vii), unless the admin shell and console are different things. Can you explain the difference?" "... I see, so the console is used by operators to do X, whereas..."

Nerves are perfectly natural but they belong on the inside. On the outside: polite, professional, prepared.


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