Never stop asking “stupid” questions

When I joined Microsoft, the team running my NEO[1] session shared a piece of advice with my “class” of fresh-faced new hires:

“Think of your first year as a grace period where you can ask any question you want, without anyone thinking it’s a stupid question for which you should already know the answer.”

This sounded like empowering wisdom at the time, but the unspoken side of it was damaging. Between the lines, I heard this message as well, and it was this part that stuck with me:

“You’ve got one year to figure things out, and after that you’d better have your act together and know everything – because if you keep asking stupid questions we’ll know that we made a mistake hiring you.”

I hope it’s obvious that this wasn’t the intent of the advice, but I’ve spoken to enough people over the years to know that I’m far from the only one to take it this way.

bored-3126445_640
How Matthew pictures everyone reacting when he asks questions.

In retrospect, I believe that I should have known better, but I let this unspoken message find a home in my brain, and I listened to it. I remained quiet – and remained ignorant – when I should have been asking questions.

Over the past few years[2], I have finally broken this self-limiting habit. Day after day, and meeting after meeting, I’m the guy asking the questions that others are thinking, and wishing they could ask, but don’t feel comfortable or confident enough to speak up. I’m the guy asking “why” again and again until I actually understand. And people are noticing.

How do I know that others want to ask the same questions?

I know because they tell me. Sometimes they say thank you in the meetings, and sometimes ask their own follow-up questions. Sometimes they stop me in the hall after the meeting to say thank you. And on a few occasions people have set up 1:1 meetings with me to ask about what I do, and how they can learn to do the same.

How do I know that people are noticing?

A few of the people I’ve interrupted to ask “why” have also set up time with me to discuss how they can better communicate and prepare to have more useful and productive meetings.[3] These are generally more experienced team members who appreciate that my questions are highlighting unstated assumptions, or helped them identify areas where they needed a clearer story to communicate complex topics.

I’ve been with Microsoft since October 2008 – a little over 11 years. I’ve been working in the industry since the mid 90s. At this point in my career it’s easy for me to ask “stupid” questions because the people I work with know that I’m not stupid.[4][5]

This isn’t true for everyone. If you’re younger, new to role or new to career, or from an underrepresented group[6], you may not have the position of relative safety that I have today. My simple strategy of “asking lots of questions in large groups” may not work for you, and I don’t have tested advice for what will.

My suggestion is to ask those questions in small groups or 1:1 situations where the risk is likely to be lower, and use this experience to better understand your team culture… but I would love to hear your experience and advice no matter what you do. Just as your questions will be different from mine while still being useful, your experience and advice will be different, and will be useful and helpful in different ways.

Whatever approach you take, don’t be quiet. Don’t stop asking questions.

Especially the stupid questions.

Those are the best ones.

 

P.S. While this post has been scheduled and waiting to go live, there have been two new articles that showed up on my radar that feel very relevant to this topic:

  1. The Harvard Business Review posted on Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration and how leaders can build and encourage cultures where these behaviors are rewarded.
  2. Ex-Microsoftie James Whittaker posted on Speaking Truth to Power, which presents critical observations of three eras of Microsoft, with examples of how different generations of leaders have affected the corporate culture.

These are very different articles, but they’re both fascinating, and well worth the time to read.


[1] New Employee Orientation. Sadly not anything to do with Keanu Reeves.

[2] I wish I could say that this was a deliberate strategic move on my part, but it was more reactive. Credit goes to the rapid pace of change and my inability to even pretend I could keep up.

[3] Yes, that means meetings where fewer people interrupt to ask “why.”

[4] I’m waiting for the flood of snarky comments from my teammates on this one…

[5] Or in any event, my asking questions is unlikely to change any minds on this particular point.

[6] If you’re not a middle-aged, white, cisgender man…

Writing effective problem reports

If you build software or data solutions[1] you have probably encountered one or both of these situations:

  1. You’re trying to report a bug, but the developer doesn’t believe that there’s a problem.
  2. Someone is trying to report a bug to you, and you can’t tell what the problem is supposed to be.

The problem report has itself become a problem[2].

Fortunately, there’s a simple approach, and simple template, that can make reporting problems easier. This is the template I typically use when I’m reporting a problem and asking someone else to fix it:

Problem: Concise description of problem behavior

Steps to reproduce problem:

  1. First step
  2. Second step
  3. Third and subsequent steps, as necessary

Desired or expected behavior:

4. What I wanted to happen

Observed behavior:

4. What actually happened, including the full details of any error messages

That’s it – simple and easy.

It can also often be helpful to include screen shots, recordings, or other visual resources to supplement the text descriptions. If you use TechSmith Camtasia (commercial, paid) or ShareX (open source, free) or other screen recording software, it can be trivial to record and attach a video – but remember that the video does not replace the written problem report, it supplements it.

I should mention that if you’re a software developer working on a software development team, you probably have a heavier-weight process already[3]. Follow that process. This approach is intended for more casual problem reporting – the sort of thing that you might send to someone in an email asking for help. The sort of email where if you don’t communicate clearly and effectively, the recipient ends up spending more time asking for information than he spends actually answering the question or solving the problem.

Yes, this is why I wrote this post. I hope I never need to link to it…


[1] Or work in a technical field, or use software…

[2] Because I never metaproblem I didn’t like. Yes, this sounded funnier in my head.

[3] If you search for “how to write good bugs” you’ll find a huge number of excellent resources that go into much more depth than this post.

Managing email and work-life balance

I’ll probably never be the most consistent blogger, but WordPress recently made me aware of something: I only blog regularly when I’m taking time off from work.

Streak

I’m back in the office today after a week of part-time work from home[1] and I realized that without making a conscious to do so I ended up blogging every day that I was away from the office.

This insight got me thinking. Specifically, it got me thinking about how I spend my work days, and about how in recent months[2] I’ve been letting my inbox push me around. Although playing a defensive game can work in some contexts[3], I believe I need to adopt a more aggressive posture in this fight.

Starting today I’m trying this approach to Inbox Zero from MVP Luise Freese. I’m hoping that by managing my email more proactively and strategically I can not only be more productive at work, but also have more mental energy and time remaining for blogging.

My teammate Adam Saxton is doing the same thing; he’s a few days ahead of me and is pleased with his progress so far. I’ll check in with him – and with you – next week to see how things are going. Now back to Outlook; I have more items marked for follow-up today…


[1] Part time work from home and full-time feeling old: My older son graduated from high school last week. Where did the years go?

[2] Years.

[3] Please don’t tell Johannes Liechtenauer I said this.

Talking About Mental Health is Important

(If you’re only here for the technical content, please feel free to skip this post – but I hope you’ll read anyway.)

Imagine you’re building a BI solution, and you encounter problem behavior. You’re not sure if it’s an actual bug, but it is keeping you from achieving your goals. You search online, but can’t find any knowledge base articles, blog posts, or documentation that help. When you try to talk to other developers, none of them wants to talk about it, none will admit to having the same problem, and it seems like they treat you differently after you asked, like they think less of you because you couldn’t solve this problem on your own. Over time you develop workarounds to build a solution that meets your requirements. Some of the workarounds are quite elaborate, which impacts the performance and maintainability of your solution, but because no one will talk about the underling problems, you don’t have any way to communicate the impact of the workarounds to other stakeholders. It feels like everything is harder than it needs to be.

That sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Now imagine if this was life in general, not just a BI project.

I’ve suffered from clinical anxiety and depression since I was in my early teens. Both the anxiety and the depression have come and gone over the years, but each has also grown worse as I’ve aged. And to make things worse, until I was well into my 40s I didn’t realize what was going on.

I thought it was just me. I thought that I was just having a harder time doing things that were easier for others. I felt lessened, and inadequate. I felt broken.

But that was only when the depression and anxiety were present. When they receded, it was hard to remember how hard everything had been.

If this sounds strange, think back to the last time you were seriously ill, or injured[1]. The injury or illness was an ever-present part of your life, making it difficult to do some things and impossible to do others. If your recovery took more than a few weeks, it may have been difficult to even remember a time when you hadn’t needed to structure your life around your disability. But once you’ve recovered, even though you can remember the time you were sick or hurt, how well can you actually remember what it was like, how it actually felt at the time? It’s hard, isn’t it?

I didn’t start figuring out what was going on until mental health started being part of public discourse – until people started talking about it. Sadly, this typically meant some celebrity had taken his own life, and for a few weeks the news would talk about how the veneer of happiness and success had masked his sadness all along. Sometimes there would be meaningful discussion, but usually the news coverage was about as informed and meaningful as news coverage of complex technical issues, with all that implies.

In addition to this increasing public dialog, there were four specific resources that were incredibly helpful to me, and which empowered me to look differently at my own mental health:

  1. Actor Wil Wheaton’s epic blog post about depression: This raw and personal story had me in tears, because so much of it was my own story. The details are different, and it’s obvious that Wil’s struggles are more difficult than my own, but the themes and patterns were incredibly familiar.
  2. “The Anxiety Chronicles” on The Lily: This is a series of short articles by different women, each with the tagline “this is how I experience anxiety.” Again, while the details are different, many of these stories have strong and stark parallels with my own anxiety.
  3. The growing discussion about mental health in the tech field: I started noticing this trend this year, and I’m seeing more and more of it. When I spoke at the Craft Conference in Budapest there were a bunch of sessions including this one about depression and burnout from the amazing Gitte Klitgaard. And there is a wonderful community on Twitter including April Wensel and her “compassionate coding” efforts, and Microsoft’s Ann Johnson and Shona Chee.  Although I call out these three leaders by name, it’s not just them that help. What helps the most is that there is a discussion, an open and public discussion, that lets people know that it is ok to struggle, that it’s ok to admit that you’re struggling, and that there are people who want to help.
  4. Friends, especially younger friends: Most of the people in my martial arts community are much younger than I am, and it appears that the younger generation hasn’t picked up all the negative baggage that my generation did. Whether it is authors Joseph Brassey or Ed McDonald, coach and instructor Kaja Sadowski, or any of the awesome young people I train with, having people I know and respect who are openly discussing their trials and tribulations is incredibly valuable – because it shows me that I’m not alone in the challenges I face.

This is why I decided to write this post, and why I’m glad you took the time to actually read it. If even one person reading this post has felt as alone and lost as I have felt, and now realizes that it’s not just them, if this post can help even half as much as Wil Wheaton’s post helped me, that it was worth writing.

Please understand that this isn’t just about talking – I’ve taken concrete steps to improve my mental health. I exercise every day. I prioritize getting enough quality sleep every night. I eat well, and cook most of the food I eat. I quit drinking, and use a HappyLight during the winter months. I’m working to find a therapist to help me build better coping mechanisms for those times when life is overwhelming. I practice mindful self-care every day, building habits and routines when life is good so that I can keep them going when it is not.

But those steps only go so far in isolation. Knowing that there are other people out there going through what you’re going through is invaluable and empowering. Having a community, however loosely-knit, can make the bad times feel less lonely.

Don’t worry – I’ll keep posting about technical topics like Power BI dataflows, and metadata. But please realize that when things are dark and times are hard, those posts will be made possible in large part by the “elaborate workarounds” mentioned in the analogy at the beginning of this post. Like most[2] successful people who struggle with mental illness, I have over the years developed a set of coping mechanisms that let me keep going, keep creating and delivering, even when it is difficult to do so – and to make it appear like nothing is wrong. Please realize that there are people around you who are doing the same thing, and who may not be able or willing to talk about it – they’re struggling silently and trying to get by, fighting a battle that one one else can see.

So be kind. Practice being kind by default. It makes a bigger difference than you might think.

 


[1] I’m thinking back to the time in 2016 when I broke my right hand. I needed surgery to repair the break, and after surgery I was in a cast for two months, followed by months of physical therapy. Now, even though I still do physical therapy exercises every day, I can’t remember what it was like to have my mobility and function so limited for so long. It’s almost like it happened to someone else, because of the passage of time.

[2] I assume, but this assumption is based on personal anecdotes and observations, rather than on real data.