The junior programmer’s guide to asking for help at work

When you’re just getting started as a programmer and you need help frequently, asking for help can feel daunting, like you’ll lose either way. Ask too soon and you’ll end up feeling stupid for not having figured out the answer on your own. And if you don’t ask for help, your manager can get annoyed that you’re taking too long to solve the problem.

Asking for help is a skill, and a skill you can learn. Once you’ve mastered this skill you will be able ask questions at the right time, and in the right way. In this post I’ll cover:

  • Some ways you shouldn’t ask for help.
  • When to ask for help, so that it’s neither too soon nor too late, by planning your task in advance.
  • How to ask for help in a way that will maximize your learning and make you look better to your manager.

The wrong way to ask for help

There are two main failures when asking for help, asking too much and asking too little.

“Help help help help help help help help”: You will of course have many questions when you’re learning a new codebase or a new technology. But if you’re asking your lead developer a question every 10 minutes, you’re going to annoy them. A lot. You’re impeding their ability to work, and you’re probably not spending enough time learning on your own.

Instead of asking your questions one by one as they occur, write them all down. Then, when your local expert seems to have a free moment, or if it’s been a few hours since you last asked a question, go and ask them all your questions at once. This will be less intrusive, and chances are you will have figured out some of the answers on your own in the interim.

“I don’t want to ask for help!”: Asking for help can be embarrassing, it’s true. And trying to figure stuff out on your own can help you learn. But if you wait too long, or never ask for help, you’ll both learn less and annoy your manager, because inevitably you’ll end up spinning your wheels and wasting time.

Instead, wait until you’ve given it a reasonable try, and then ask. You’ll learn how to do that in the next section.

Knowing when to ask for help with timeboxing

So how exactly do you know when to ask for help? Advance planning. By knowing how long you have to spend on the task, and then setting a timebox, a limited amount of time to work on it on your own, you can have an alert (metaphorical or real) telling you “it’s been too long, time to ask for help.”

Here’s how the process works:

  1. When your lead developer gives you a task, ask how much time you should spend on it. They might say something like “we need that ready in a couple of days, but really it should only take you a day.” So now you know you want to aim to finish the task within a day. (Over time you’ll learn how to do this yourself, and also whether your manager is overly optimistic or pessimistic about their estimates.)
  2. Now that you know your deadline, set a timebox, a limited amount of time that is less than your deadline. If your deadline is a day, you might set it to three hours.
  3. Now start your task. After you hit your timebox (e.g. three hours), see where you’re at: are you making good progress? Great, set another timebox and keep working. Not making progress? It’s time to ask for help.

If your deadline is one day, and you ask for help after three hours, you’ve not asked too late: there’s still time to finish the task. And you haven’t asked too soon, either, you’ve at least tried on your own.

Learning more (and looking good) when you’re asking for help

You’ve hit your timebox, and you’re asking for help: how do you get the most value out of your questions?

Don’t ask yes/no questions: “is this how I do this?”

If your lead developer actually answers with “yes” or “no”, you’re only gaining 1 bit of information, the smallest amount of information possible. Instead, ask open ended questions: “what should the result be like?” “can you walk me through how this works?”, etc.

Always present a potential answer the question.

It doesn’t have to be the best answer, or the correct answer (if it were, you probably wouldn’t be asking for help, after all). But you should always say something like “my best guess is this works like this, because of X and Y, but I’m still a little confused - could you explain this?”

Providing an answer serves multiple purposes:

  1. It forces you to try to come up with an answer and learn more. Sometimes you’ll figure it out on your own!
  2. It demonstrates to your manager that you made an effort, making you look good.
  3. It helps your manager understand what you know and what you don’t, which means they’ll have an easier time helping you.

How to ask for help: a recap

Here’s the short version:

  1. Do ask for help.
  2. Batch up your questions.
  3. Set a timebox on tasks, and ask for help if you hit the timebox and you’re still stuck.
  4. Ask open-ended questions, and always provide a potential answer.

Next time your manager gives you a task, apply these guidelines: they’ll be happier, and you’ll learn more.

We all make mistakes, and I’ve got 20 years’ worth: from code that crashed production every night at 4AM, to accepting a preposterously bad job offer.

Every painful failure taught me a lesson—but only after it was too late.

You can do better! Join 2600 other programmers, and every week you’ll learn how to avoid another of my mistakes.

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