In my daily role as Employee #1** of my startup, I have the distinct privilege of working with some smart, really young people — high school interns, college interns, fresh graduates and the like. While there are many different mental leaps they have to make from working on school projects to “professional” work, one of the hardest seems to, counterintuitively, be “asking others”.
I’ll relatively often hear sentences like I’ve been struggling to crack this problem for the last couple of days, or I’m stuck and not sure what to do next. And more often than not, I’ll only hear this when I ask them about progress. In other instances, there maybe a bug or a performance issue and when we dig into it, we’ll see a naive way of implementing something, which has a distinct “school project” feel to it — right from visual design to architecture choice to the software design pattern used (or the lack of it). And when I ask these young colleagues if they spoke with the other members of the team, I’ll often hear “no. I was just trying to solve it myself”.
This is of course admirable in some sense. A lot of learning comes from smashing repeatedly against a problem and persevering. But at some point, the costs outweigh the benefits. And for startups trying to drive at pace, often this happens quite quickly.
So I often hear myself saying “just ask someone else”, or “you guys are in the same room, ask X or Y” etc.
And I’ve come to realize that it’s not because they don’t want to talk to others, or they don’t like each other etc. — in fact quite the contrary, but it basically seems to come down to two things: (1) smart people want to crack things themselves and (2) our education system majorly dissuades NON project collaboration. The first one is obvious, but I want to spend some time on the second.
In our schools and colleges, we often hear we do a lot of group work to foster collaboration. But this is almost always in a scenario where everyone is working on the same project. In companies, this is often not the case. In a macro sense, yes, everyone is driving towards the same goal, but one level down, the guy who’s running against a wall in a webapp technical problem doesn’t really feel like he’s on the same project as the Android developer. In fact, our schools severely penalize these “outside-project” interactions, labeling them as collusion, or in a case of more direct help, plagiarism.
In a world where nearly every Developer’s first port of call is a google search for sample code on Github, or StackOverflow, I’m not really sure our educational approach is still cutting it. Maybe it’s time to redefine what collaboration in our schools and colleges is so that when students come into work, they’re more professionally ready.
“Just Ask Someone” — really simple…or is it?
** I heard Girish Mathrubootham refer to himself this way at SaaS BooMI and absolutely loved it
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