A brief memoir on self-improvement through self-humility.
I learned one of my most important life lessons before my career officially started. From 2007 to 2009, I interned on-and-off for the Rational Business Developer team in IBM’s Software Group. The team was great and let me do everything: development, testing, automation, builds, and even fun Web examples. However, my junior-level experience often made me doubt myself (e.g., imposter syndrome), and there were “known unknowns” by the truckload.
For my own survival, I quickly learned to fearlessly ask questions. This was a big step for a shy guy like me. My team mates were more than happy to help me, which put me at ease. Asking questions was a good thing.
…Until one time, it became a bad thing.
I forget exactly when it happened and what my specific question was, but I do remember the person and the method. I “pinged” (IBM lingo for “send an instant chat message to”) one of the senior developers with a question, and he replied with a link. When I clicked it, the browser loaded Google, moved the cursor, typed my question, and clicked the search button.
He sent me to Let Me Google That For You.
I was horribly embarrassed. It was an introvert’s worst nightmare come true. I never knew about LMGTFY before, and the sarcasm didn’t hit me until after the search was complete. My fledgling confidence was shattered.
I couldn’t tell if the guy:
- Thought lowly of me
- Was annoyed with me
- Was trying to coach me
- Was having a bad day
- Was just a jerk
The reason didn’t matter, though. He made a valid point: the question was Google-able, and I could have searched for an answer myself before asking others. As I picked up the pieces of my confidence, I introspected on how to do better next time. Was it wrong to ask questions? No. It is never wrong to ask questions, and anyone who says otherwise is a jerk. Was it wrong for him to send me to LMGTFY? It certainly was unprofessional and harmful to our team dynamic. But, was there a better way to ask questions? Yes:
When faced with an unknown, pose it as a question. Then, ask yourself the question first before asking others.
How much time do I spend searching for an answer before asking somebody who knows? This is a popular interview question. When using the self-Socratic method, I’d say (a) when the first two pages of Google results yield nothing, (b) when I spend more than 15 minutes absolutely stuck in code (from the time of the last “epiphany”), or (c) when I hit a wisdom- or experience-based question.
I’ve used the self-Socratic method for everything from learning how Web apps work to learning how to cut my lawn. I learned my lesson the tough way, but I’m glad I learned it early!