I recently wrote about asking questions. On a similar vein of thought a common characteristic I see with inexperienced professional software developers is the fear to ask the “dumb” question.
What I’ve found is usually not asking the question is worse than asking it. For instance, I remember having a graduate developer in my team once who rarely said anything in team discussions but kept a notebook and would regularly write things down in them. On some probing I discovered he was writing down key words from conversations and then staying up all night researching those topics so he could become an “expert” in them. The problem with this approach was many of the topics were fringe topics that you didn’t need to have an in depth knowledge on - his nights were being wasted away on learning the wrong things. What was taking many hours of researching on his own could have been accelerated by a 2 minute conversation at the whiteboard with someone who had knowledge in that area and was aware of the blind spots he had!
So what causes this fear? It’s definitely multifaceted. Some of the facets include:
- You open yourself up too potential negative responses if the person you are asking is a jerk
- You want to be seen as a contributor and as someone who “gets it” and asking the question may loose the credibility you desire
- You see everyone around you as experts on everything
Seeing everyone around you as an expert
Often they see everyone around them as an expert on everything, looking something like the diagram on the left. The reality is we all have our niches of expertise but are not experts in everything so our knowledge is more like the diagram on the right. We know that, we know that others around us are experts in other things and so we are comfortable asking the “experts” the “novice” questions but they don’t.
What to do?
So, if asking questions sooner is better for their learning and growth, how do you get them to be comfortable to ask questions sooner?
Make them aware of the value of asking questions
First off, make them aware of the value of asking questions early. If you feel they are holding off on asking valuable questions make them aware of it.
Make them an expert on something
Next, help them change their mindset on seeing everyone as an expert on everything. Empower them to be an expert for a period of time on something.
One way to do this is to give them a topic that they are passionate about and get them research it and to present a talk on it. Make sure it is a topic that others know little or nothing about. They are now the expert. When they present the topic ask appropriate questions (keep it genuine).