How to Ask a Question
I have a lot of questions. My entire job as a developer is to ask the right questions.
“How do you setup a database?”
“What is the most effective day to launch this website?”
“What are the possible risks?”
With the sum of all human knowledge at our fingertips, asking the right question is key.
But with so much information on the internet, it’s not only about asking the right questions, but understanding the context and judging the answer for yourself.
Yes, ask the better question to get a better answer
But also know who is answers, trust them. Is this a trusted website with verified information? Is it user submitted content? Is the answer old and outdated?
This may sound a bit paranoid, but in a world of “fake news,” flexing the muscle to not take info for face value is important.
A big example for developers: Sometimes you need to find code for a project which involves installing libraries via the command-line. I’ve seen many developers copy and paste whatever code off an old blog article into their command-line, even with a “sudo.” This is a big leap of trust, which can involve some very grave security threats. It doesn’t necessarily have to be malicious, but just a lack of experience on the other side.
When you receive an answer, understand the context of who is answering and why.
Questions are the window to your mind
Asking questions exposes us. And that’s a good thing.
It reveals our current mindset and where there are gaps.
“What do you want to eat?” gives a good insight that you’re hungry. Pretty innocent.
But “How do I lose weight?” has completely different stakes.
We are taught all through school to not reveal yourself unless you want to get bullied. Any exposer is an avenue for a potential enemy to attack. In the adult world, that takes the form of politics and gossip.
Getting in the habit of asking good questions can show others you have your head in the game. At work, it shows you are thinking about all angles to a project.
During an interview, it shows you have interest and helps drive the interview where you want to go.
And most importantly, since most people are afraid to stick their neck out, it can show that you are fearless.
For those who would bully you for asking “How do I lose weight?” and wanting to better yourself, you can dismiss them. But there’s an entire group of people who would cheer you on.
And when you succeed, ask “How did you do that?”
How to ask a question to your mentor
Sometimes you get opportunities to work with people who’ve been in the field for decades. It’s a fantastic opportunity to gain insight.
But I’ve seen many people ask questions that aren’t really questions. They are veiled attempts for handouts. Sometimes monetarily, other times a simple request of “will you do this for me.”
A great question has a few different attributes that give it its greatness. When working with experienced people, help them work with you by coming to them prepared.
What have you already tried?
When you want to know how to do something, help them avoid answering with the absolute basics by providing details of what you’ve attempted and failed.
You haven’t tried anything yet? Then that’s where to start. With a wealth of knowledge out there, make the first attempt before going to an expert. It’ll not only show you’re serious about the endeavor, but will help you get help within your specific situation. You’ll get more detailed and specific help to your work.
Have they already answered this?
Many of these people have their work already on the internet. So a quick Google search and see if they’ve already answered this question.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your question, but it’ll give you an opportunity to build off that answer and get more details.
Anticipate the answer and follow up with the opposite
It’s helpful to also ask the reverse of your question. Sometimes that’s in the form of “Why not do…”
You may not want to pursue the directions of your reversed-question, but it will help you determine stakes.
What are the benefits are pursuing your mentor’s advice, and what are the potential risks to go a different way.
Sometime’s asking the opposite can reveal a better path by thinking about the problem in a different angle.
Always be thinking.
Asking questions is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.
We know how to ask a question, but asking good questions takes thought.
Asking great questions to those around us takes empathy. Understanding someone else’s mind in order to harness their knowledge.
If humans have a superpower, it’s to constantly be thinking about the world around us and to be curious.
And if you have a question for me, feel free to ask: @chuckwnelson