Friday, January 13, 2017

Yes is the right answer when someone asks for help

Working in agile projects, we tend to write a little less documentation. And working in a big project, whatever documentation we write, it tends to be dispersed.

Four months into the new job, I'm still learning to work my way around doing things and figuring things out. I'm happy for my little tools of finding the dozens of code repos that build up the product I'm testing, but there's a lot going on I just have chosen to not pay attention to. Quite often there's this feeling of being overwhelmed with all the new information, as by no means we stopped making changes since I joined.

In the past, I remember solving issues of documentation with two main ideas:
  • Draw on request. Whenever someone would want to understand our current system, anyone in the team could go on a whiteboard, draw and explain. 
  • Write on repeated requests. When same info is asked that does not completely change as we are learning, write instructions on the wiki. 
They are still relatively good approaches, except...

Yesterday, I was overwhelmed with many different directions of work and there was one particular thing I needed to learn to do: get started on testing against a REST API.

Some weeks back I had taken my first go at it, and postponed the work for missing information about some needed credentials. So this time I decided to approach it differently. I went and talked to a colleague, asking if he would join me to get one post working on my machine. But no.

I got an (outdated) wiki page describing content rules, but lacking the credentials I was unaware of.

I got a (not working) exported Postman script.

I've been thinking about this ever since. When someone comes talk to you and asks for help as in doing something together that you know well, the right answer would be yes, or yes, in two hours.  Not "here's the document".

I eventually got it working with the documents. But I'm now realizing that the feeling of being left alone is overwhelmingly more important than the fact that there was pieces of documentation that were eventually pointed out.

I miss more of a human connection than "create a pull request and someone will review it". How about us working together, really *together* for a change?

I guess I did not know to miss this before I had experienced Mob Programming. But now the individualistic attitudes make me painfully aware how things could be better.


  1. Great blog post Maaret. I think some people are just more inclined to help than others. The challenge is encouraging people that are not willing to help, to help. People who are not willing to help are potentially (like anyone else) a fountain of knowledge that we can draw on to aid us in our day to day work. Trying to get that knowledge however, can be tricky.

    I think people don't help for the following reasons:

    1) Feel threatened
    2) Don't have time
    3) Don't feel confident in trying to help someone

    In my opinion, overcoming these is a start to having a working environment where everyone is willing to help each other.

    1. In some cases, people believe advising you to documentation is enough. It might even be enough for them.

      I don't need just help, I need to feel I'm working WITH people.

  2. I was thinking Postman script worked for as you didn't come back :) And I had a few other colleagues nearby I've been said yes-yes-yes to, so just keep pinging.

    1. I too give the advice about myself that "keep pinging" but pinging takes energy. People (like me) have this fun way of moving on to other things when they have options when things become hard. Small things tend to be much harder for me than the bigger things.

  3. And sometimes, the answer is "no, try this document first, then come for help".
    My tendency when faced with a request for help is to go and sit with whomever asked for it until some progress has been made (or I've given up and said "I don't know") - but in some cases, when I know the documents are solid, I prefer to point the person asking for help to the documents (especially if that person is asking help with the same thing over and over). This way, I'm giving that person a future reference point and the confidence to do stuff themselves, and get time to work on whatever actually needs my attention.
    However, you do raise a point that I was completely missing: I act this way based on the assumption that if that person will have trouble, they will come and ask again - and I should make sure to explicitly say that.