How to ask questions.

With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career. If it’s your first time, start here. Or, see all my posts about interview questions you should definitely be prepared for.

At some point in your life, you’ve probably been told that there are no stupid questions.

This is not always good advice.

The idea comes from a good place – to encourage you to ask questions if you’re not sure of something rather than making assumptions and getting things wrong.

While the sentiment is admirable, I’d like to encourage you to consider a few things before asking a question at work: the timing of your questions, their frequency, and what your questions say about you.

Consider the following example: you’re in your first few weeks at your new IT job and your entire department is in a meeting with your Chief Technical Officer. She’s presenting the road map for the forthcoming year to your team and expresses that the organization needs to start planning for the move to TCP/IP 6.

“Huh,” you think to yourself, “did she just say TCP/IP version 6? I didn’t know there were more than one version of TCP/IP.” You raise your hand and ask: “Excuse me; just how many version are there of TCP/IP anyway?”

Hopefully, you can see that the old adage about “no stupid questions” occasionally breaks down. There’s a time and place for asking questions, as well as the right and wrong people to whom you should reveal your ignorance. That’s because having the wrong person think you don’t know what you’re talking about can tank your career. In the example above, your CTO could think you’re incompetent for years after you asked your fateful and ill-timed question! During that time, you could be passed up for projects that you’d be perfect for. Or, you might be one of the ones let go during a time of layoffs. At best, you’ll probably have to spend years overcoming that bad first impression.

Note that not asking questions is just as bad – pretending you understand everything could lead to mistakes and having others (rightly) perceive you as untrustworthy.

So, you need to know when to ask questions. First off, before you ask a question, ask yourself this question: “Can I look this up on my own?” You’ve got two main sources you can consult: internal documentation and the Internet.

Let’s take another look at the situation above. Rather than ask your TCP/IP question during the meeting, you shelf it and look it up online immediately after the meeting. You find that the current version of TCP/IP is 4, but that there is a new version, TCP/IP 6. The new version has come about to accommodate a larger amount of IP addresses. Now, you’ve both answered your question and generated a new, much better question: “Why are we moving to version 6?” Is it that your company has too many employees? Is your company trying to stay ahead of the tech curb? These are the questions you should ask your supervisor or advisor.

These types of questions are appreciated. They show you’ve taken the time to educate yourself; then, you’ve thought about the topic and now have an questions you can’t look up the answer to.

Or can you?

While Google (or whatever) is certainly your friend here, don’t neglect a very powerful tool that is (hopefully!) at your disposal: internal documentation. Google will be able to tell you what TCP/IP version 6 is, but it won’t tell you why your specific company is considering migrating. Your internal documentation just might, though.

Consulting the Internet and your internal documentation before meetings is a great way to arrive prepared! If you had looked at the meeting invite topic and agenda (assuming there was one in the meeting invite) prior to the meeting in the example above, you might have done this research ahead of time. You might have generated much better questions to ask your CTO – and just like you can easily make a bad impression, you can make a good one as well!

Doing this kind of research also helps prevent you asking too many questions. When I first got my start, I asked so many questions that my senior co-worker gave me a three-question quota per day. If I needed to ask more questions, I had to pay a steep price – we had a foosball table and played a game or two every day, so I would have to give up one point per extra question asked.

You can imagine that I suddenly became very interested in figuring things out on my own! Before asking a question, I’d stop myself and have a thought process like this:

Can I look this up online? No, because it’s an internal process. Oh wait, I didn’t look at the internal documentation. Aaaaaaaand… there’s my answer.”

The fact that I was constantly asking questions I could look up said something about me: “I’m willing to interrupt your work because I’m too lazy to look this up myself.” That’s certainly not what I intended to communicate, but that’s what was going across anyhow.

So here’s my question to you. What you want to say about yourself?

Author: Silicon Wanderer

I'm a merry wanderer on the path to financial independence through IT. I'm doing it, and I want to show you how you can to!

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