Nick Dejesus
About

How to ask for help without feeling like a burden.

One of the biggest issues people face when learning how to code is the problem of asking for help. I know I had this problem, and I don’t blame anyone for feeling bad about asking for help, especially with how this industry seems to foster tons of gate-keeping and elitism.

I work at Resilient Coders, a 20-week boot camp dedicated to bringing black and brown people into the tech industry by paying them to learn how to code. I’ve watched dozens of underrepresented people go from 0 to Software Engineer in 14 weeks (we’re now a 20 week program!). We encourage them, we urge them, hell, I’ve even begged students to ask me for help throughout the program. Yet, no matter how many times we have this conversation, they still say stuff like, “Oh, I know you’re helping others, I didn’t want to bother you”, “I felt like my question was stupid” etc.

My goal with this post is to help you understand why you shouldn’t feel bad about asking questions, and then walk you through some ideas on how you can ask more effective questions.

Why you shouldn’t feel bad about asking for help

First of all, if you’re in an environment where you feel like asking questions makes you look bad, you might be surrounded by assholes. On the other hand, there are people who actually genuinely care about your growth and understanding, but have trouble with explaining things in a way that works for you. These interactions could be awkward or uncomfortable and discourage askers from letting the team know they need help.

I’m gonna try my best to convince you that asking for help all the time is a great thing:

No one on a good team wants you to be lost in the sauce

You’re on a team. You are working towards a goal together. A good team will do what they can to support those who don’t feel like they are making significant contributions.

The earlier you express that you are having trouble, the sooner your team can adapt to the situation

— The last thing you want is to either ask for help a day before things are due or not have something complete the day of. This could negatively affect the entire team

Communication is probably the most important skill you can have on any job. If you look at every job description ever, you will see communication somewhere in there. Asking for help is communication. You’re exercising a very crucial skill!

— If you don’t communicate, people naturally assume nothing is wrong. When we see smoke, we assume fire. If you’re not putting out the signals you probably won’t get the help you need.

You never know if someone else should be handling it until you ask.

— Sometimes, you end up working with stuff that only one person at the entire company knows how to handle. When you’re stuck on something, it could be possible that this one person who made it work 3 years ago that one time is the only one who can get through it in a short amount of time.

Effectively asking for help

— Hopefully at this point, you now feel okay with shamelessly asking for help all the time. If you don’t, that’s totally okay because getting over that is REALLY freakin’ hard. These tips may help you feel more confident in seeking help.

Before asking for help, make sure you’ve tried everything you can imagine first.

— One thing I like to do when I’m stuck, I like to give myself a time limit before I ask for help. I’d say, “Okay, I’m stuck. I’m going to give myself 20 minutes to figure this out. If I can’t solve this in 20 minutes, I’m hittin’ up Slack”. This ensures that I don’t spend too much time trying to solve on my own. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked why I didn’t reach out for help sooner. I felt like I was being productive trying to solve something that was actually over my head, I just didn’t know it. There’s a lot to be said about troubleshooting and debugging, perhaps that’s a blog post for another time, but the idea is that you want to make sure you aren’t bringing something that was easily Google-able to whoever you’re asking for help.

Think of it like this: Try to predict all the questions they might ask you. Have them in a checklist or something. Run through them first. If you ask for help and they ask you a question that you didn’t have on the checklist, add that to your checklist!

Actually asking for le help

— We all know how hard it is to communicate technical issues, so many try to paint a lot of context for the sake of being understood. This hardly ever turns out well, as you end up talking through too many things and losing the attention of the listener before you get to the actual issue itself. At the same time, that context *is important, so how do you give them the context in a concise way?

Start with the immediate issue, work backwards from there to paint that context. For example:

“Help, the image isn’t displaying. According to the docs, I tried using the component this way…

It’s really a matter of sharing what you expected vs what’s actually happening (or not happening). You expected ABC, but you’re getting XYZ. When you open up with the immediate issue, whoever you’re asking for help will have an idea how they should be thinking. From there, you start telling them about the last 2 or 3 steps you took before reaching this point. Usually this will include things on your Questions-They-May-Ask-Me checklist. This helps because they won’t be asking you to try things you’ve already done (maybe they still will and that’s okay).

This type of communication takes so much practice, as you try to do things this way you’ll get better and better at it. One thing to keep in mind, is that everyone is unique. This approach may work super well for some individuals, not so much for others, part of this journey is understanding how people communicate best and keeping mental notes on approaching them for future reference.

I asked for help, I got help, I still need help. Help!!!!

This situation is probably the most uncomfortable. Nothing makes me question my intelligence more than someone walking me through exactly how to get something done and walk away feeling like I’ve learned absolutely nothing. Things get really awkward and difficult for everyone when you try to act like you understand what’s going on when you really don’t. It only gets worse as you try to maintain that whole thing for a while. The very best thing you can do is share this with your team ASAP. The longer it sits, the more you anxiety will probably eat away at you. Thank whoever helped you for their time, and let them know that despite their efforts, you still don’t have a grasp. If you can, shed light specifically on what it is you don’t understand. This might end up being a bigger lesson that doesn’t have to do with the task at hand at work, but more of a fundamental understanding of the technologies you’re trying to work with. I’ve booked time for managers to literally white board things around JavaScript with me and they were more than happy to help me. Of course, sometimes this means I have to do my own legwork outside of office hours to grasp something I really want to understand.

Takeaway

Asking for help is very hard. I promise you that communicating that you need help is infinitely better than staying quiet and letting your thoughts eat away at you. You want your team to trust that if you are in trouble, you will reach out, and you want to trust your team that they will be there to make sure you have everything you need.

This is definitely a two way street, I might follow up on this with the flip side. How to give help to those who are newer to the industry. I’d love to get an idea of how YOU ask for help, or tips for asking for help in general. Reply with your thoughts and feelings here

Nick Dejesus

Hi, I’m Nick, a React Native and Gatsby developer from Boston.
I’m the author of this blog, nice to meet you!

    slashes
    Nick Dejesus
    GitHubTwitterEmail Me