What’s a Good Question?

Questions are fundamental. In my previous carrier as an English teacher, interrogative present simple was the first lesson. example: Are you hungry? Does she work in finance? Does that make sense? It’s super useful!

We use questions every day to discover new information, ask advise, and encourage others to think. With so many obvious benefits, why do many young developers struggle with asking questions?

Successful people do exactly the opposite.

Think about any successful professional. Asking good questions is fundamental to their work.

Lawyers pursue lines of questioning to build arguments for their case. Doctors ask patients about symptoms to prescribe treatment. Marketers ask questions to engage their audience. Teachers ask questions to encourage thinking.

Do they apologize for asking questions?

No. They get paid to ask questions. Actually, their income is directly linked to the quality of their questions. As programmers, questions help us accelerate personal growth, get unstuck faster, and mentor people around us.

That sounds pretty valuable. So how do you ask a good question?

5 steps to a good question:

These five steps are originally from a Pycon talk by Sasha Laundy. My post was also heavily influenced by this guide for emailing busy people.

  1. Find a good environment. The people you surround yourself with can be your best asset, or biggest liability.
  2. Ask early. There’s a theory in software development called the 1–10–100 rule. It states that spending $1 at the concept phase is equivalent to $10 at the design phase, and $100 at the after it’s already been built. Basically, the sooner you get feedback the better.
  3. Demonstrate competence by using active direct communication. Don’t ponder passively that, “I thought the solution might be to…” No, that’s a terrible start.
  4. Tell them what you want. Be specific when defining your your problem. For example, if your goal is to develop a minimum viable product, that’s going to require different feedback than a rapidly scaling product. The more specific you can be the better, while keeping it concise.
  5. Tell them what strategies you’ve already tried to get the answer on your own. This last step is very important because experts like giving advise to people who they believe can run with it. Show that you are contacting them as a last resort, after trying many other paths. And just a little help will stat you on your way again.

Remember, if you’re contacting successful people, chances are they had to ask many questions to get where they are today. Most of the time, they are happy to give back. They want to see others succeed.

Altruism might even have a biological component: “One path to happiness is through concrete, specific goals of benevolence — like making someone smile or increasing recycling — instead of following similar but more abstract goals — like making someone happy or saving the environment.” — Stanford Report, April 14, 2014

With these five rules, your questions will propel you past your expectations. Asking better questions can help you speed up your personal growth, and tackle bigger challenges. If you’re already an expert in one field, you can start answering questions based on you expertise. Through helping others, you build a thriving community and network.

In addition to asking good questions, understanding how to give advise is another essential soft-skill. Knowing how to give good advise makes you better able to evaluate the advise you receive from others. That’s why I’m going to write another blog article about giving good advise.

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