Friday, May 15, 2009

Asking for Help

Ed keeps running into challenges at his new job (as one does) - things like needing to spend hours figuring out how to configure things to make them run properly. Such are the joys of a large software project, I suppose. And a question that comes up is, when do you ask for help?

Ed almost never asks for help. In fact, I've noticed that even in general life situations where contacting someone is obviously called for, he tends not to. (For instance, a while back, during his thesis work, he couldn't access the school server for a few days. "Have you asked anyone about this?" I asked. He had not.)

At my own job, I rarely ask other people for help with software. I did more often in the beginning, because it was the best way for me to learn about the programs I'd never used before. But these days, I know just about as much as the people around me, and I'd rather solve problems myself. (I guess in general, if I think someone else will just immediately know the answer, I'll ask, but if it's a matter of needing to sit down and figure it out, I'd rather do that myself than have help with it, for the most part.)

I have coworkers who ask me for help somewhat often. Over time I've become curious which way the arrow of causality points - do they ask for help often because it's hard for them to figure things out on their own, or is it hard for them to figure things out on their own because they're so willing to just ask for help rather than struggle? I've learned a lot over the years by struggling through things, and I've gotten better and better over time at the sort of debugging type of progress you go through to figure out why software isn't doing what you want. (I don't mean debugging code, but rather like figuring out why Excel isn't doing your chart right, etc. It is similar to debugging in terms of the general cognitive methods that you apply.)

The fact that struggling leads to learning and growth makes it extra-tricky to figure out when you should ask for help. It might save you time now, but make you less effective later. But on the other hand, you might learn something amazing now that you wouldn't figure out on your own, and thus avoid doing something in your own long and laborious way for years. And it depends on the people around you, too. If they know a ton of stuff you don't, or are smarter than you (in the relevant domain), then asking might make more sense.

How willing or reluctant are you to ask colleagues for help?


susan said...

I had a job in which my bosses often asked me to create reports that had so many parameters that the query could be quite difficult. I never told them I didn't know how to do it. I just went back to my desk and worked it out. Luckily, they didn't often ask for it like yesterday, so I could usually figure it out. I did have access to a computer person whom I could sometimes ask for help, but that was her job.

Sally said...

I think I'm pretty willing to ask for help with e.g. computer software, though it has usually been the case for software I use regularly that either nobody seems likely to know more than I do about a particular thing or it is just as easy/easier to look it up online. And I guess it depends on the task and whether it seems reasonable to spend the time to work on it alone vs. something I need to get done right now.

However, I would be extremely quick to call IT/whoever about problems accessing a server or a more general dysfunction with my machine/software. I might feel differently if that were more central to my own competencies, as it is for Ed as a CS person. I never felt bad at all getting help for trivial things, though I did know how to clean my own mouse. ;)

Debbie said...

I err on the side of not asking for help often enough. I don't like bothering people, even with questions that are easy for them. You'll see this in my blog--I often celebrate as victories actually asking people for help or favors.

I have to overcome this problem at work, of course. Once I am completely out of ideas and have researched everything I have access to, I have to break down and ask the programmer for help.

On the other side of the equation, I have somehow developed a reputation for being patient and helpful. I am helpful--I know that what people are asking me about is not easy and I like figuring out what they know and filling in the blank areas so that they understand what's going on.

I do have a problem with some people who ask for too much help. At work, it's the people who refuse to try to understand "why" and only care about "what." That doesn't work with the things I am asked about. You can't just write a list of everything that could possibly come up and memorize what to do in each situation--you have to actually remember what your goals are and what your tools are.

In dance, the people who bug me are the ones who demand that I teach them something when they haven't bothered to show up on time or when they have skipped classes and the people who won't listen. The same folks, usually, ask what to do, I tell them, they don't do it, and they say, "am I getting it?" And I say no and try to say it a different way.

So my experience is that people who are asking for too much help prefer socializing to having to think. The worst is when they keep not getting something, even things they got last week which are now gone again, and then smile at me and tell me that I'm so patient. One guy, I almost said aloud, "I'm not patient. I'm just polite. Until now."

Sally said...

Debbie, I would have paid a small amount of money to watch you actually say that to that guy.

(Note: I have been accused of possessing all kinds of traits, good and bad, but patience is not one of them.)