update: my boss turns it into an ordeal every time I ask him a question

Remember the letter-writer who thought her boss wasn’t helpful she asked him questions? I suggested that she instead view his behavior through a different lens, and thought he might be trying to teach her how to find answers for herself. Here’s the update.

Thanks for your advice. I think between your response and the comments it helped me have a better perspective on things. I’ve realized I was struggling with a lot of impostor syndrome and insecurity about my abilities and that was making me take things personally that weren’t.

I’m still at the same internship and feeling much better about it. I think a few things have really helped: 1) learning a whole lot about programming, not just in the particular languages and packages we are using but also “learning how to learn,” figuring out my own best practices for solving problems, 2) talking to other programmers and learning that a lot of the anxiety I’m feeling is very normal, and 3) learning how to effectively communicate with my boss.

Instead of saying “I don’t know how to do the thing, HALP” I try to say something like “I’ve tried X, Y, and Z, and that solved problem A but I’m still seeing some weird issues with B when I do C. I’m thinking of trying D but not sure about E, what do you suggest?” This has also helped me clarify my own process–sometimes I’ll be halfway through typing a question for him and realize there’s something I haven’t tried yet.

Thanks so much for your help! If I could give one piece of advice to someone in my situation it would be to try and make some friends who aren’t involved in your particular workplace but who have done similar work and can help you figure these things out.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte

    Somebody made what I thought was a great observation late in that thread–that the OP was coming from humanities and that there can be a real culture gap between humanities and CS/STEM approaches, which might be part of what the OP was negotiating. Getting to know other people in the field, as the OP suggests, would be particularly helpful for people in that situation, since they can clue you in on the cultural norms a workplace might expect you to come in knowing.

    1. Ellie H.

      I totally agree. I feel like a lot of the time in the humanities, if you ask a question, you will get a 30-minute response with a lot more information than you thought you were interested in in the first place – pretty different!

  2. KR

    I’m super glad this worked out. I agree that sometimes drafting out the email really helps you come up with ideas on how to fix the problem. It also helps for IT/programming professionals because they can narrow down the problem and what works and doesn’t work first off.

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      Yup. The other thing that really helps is trying to distill the problem down to its essence, so you can post it on Stackoverflow. Often that makes the problem clear enough to solve without the help.

    2. Stone Satellite

      +1, writing a detailed email about everything I’ve tried is a staple troubleshooting technique for me.

  3. The IT Manager

    Awesome update, LW! In this case you mostly had to change your own thinking rather than someone else’s but it sounds like you did an amazing job with it. Congrats and best of luck in the future!

  4. Rachel

    “Instead of saying “I don’t know how to do the thing, HALP” I try to say something like “I’ve tried X, Y, and Z, and that solved problem A but I’m still seeing some weird issues with B when I do C. I’m thinking of trying D but not sure about E, what do you suggest?” This has also helped me clarify my own process–sometimes I’ll be halfway through typing a question for him and realize there’s something I haven’t tried yet.”

    Classic rubber duck debugging! That’s a perfect way to frame a question/request for help. So happy to read this.

    1. ChelseaNH

      For a while, I was working in a completely different state from the rest of my team, with time zone differences. When I got stuck, I would think about what I’d say when asking for help: I tried X, Y and Z to no avail. Almost every time with this imaginary conversation, I’d “hear” a response of “What about Q?” And then I’d go try Q. It didn’t always work, but it got me over the stuck hump.

      I work a lot in technical support, and I’m on the other side of this equation a lot. People start describing or showing me the problem, and it hits them what the answer is.

    2. Liz

      My boss and I often tell the other, “I need a duck” before asking questions for this very reason! It sets out appropriate expectations on both sides too :)

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        Oooh, good thing you don’t work at a place with a duck club. That could set out all sorts of inappropriate expectations!

    3. neverjaunty

      I always hear this as “rubber chicken” debugging/problem fixing, especially when some weird solution you didn’t expect to work fixed the problem. “Wakeen waved the rubber chicken over it and it boots up fine now.”

      1. Kyrielle

        Yep, I first met it as rubber chicken as well. (Although I’ve also heard rubber duck, and, um, one other inanimate object that I’m amazed the person even mentioned in an office setting. Well, half-mentioned…he didn’t finish it before he looked at me and flailed for another term. Suffice to say, the duck club would’ve appreciated it.)

    4. AW

      That’s the best part of the update. Learning how to debug your own code, how to approach a problem in order to solve it, and how to communicate your problem so others can actually help you is so important.

      This works outside of IT too. In general, the people I know just refer to it as “thinking out loud” and I have a few people close to me who’ll ask if they can pose a problem to me because it helps them figure it out themselves.

      OP, consider yourself high-fived!

  5. MashaKasha

    Yay for a great update!
    I’ve deleted many half-written emails/IMs for this reason too. (still do sometimes, as a matter of fact!)

  6. Sascha

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with the solution for my problem while right in the middle of asking for help. Just writing or saying it out loud helps me, as other commenters have mentioned.

    Glad to hear things are getting better for you! As a fellow humanities person who is now a programmer, I totally understand the imposter syndrome. You can do it!

  7. dancer

    This is a great update! I’m one of the people who suggested that OP needed more debugging experience and I’m really, really happy she was able to figure out what works best for her.

  8. KVaren

    “…sometimes I’ll be halfway through typing a question for him and realize there’s something I haven’t tried yet.”

    I’ve been writing code almost every day for the last 12 years. And this kind of thing still happens on a nearly daily basis.

    1. WorkingFromCafeInCA

      Came here to quote this exact thing. SO true for me. I used to think that all the time I’d just spent writing the email was “wasted time” because I never actually sent the email. But now I realize that it’s time well spent. It’s just another approach to finding an answer.

  9. Corporate Cynic

    Props to you for hanging in there and successfully working through this situation, LW! I was in a similar boat with a boss a few years ago when I first started my current job, and wish I’d come to these types of realizations sooner. (Although it didn’t help that my boss’s responses to my questions were much snarkier, but I digress… :) )

  10. LBK

    This is great! I’m so happy this turned into an opportunity to learn. I think many people in this situation wouldn’t have had the humility or the patience to put their perspective to the side long enough to experience this kind of growth. That willingness to give the benefit of the doubt will take you far, OP.

    1. Not So NewReader

      The willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt will carry you far, OP. Hold things in the best light possible and you will find that many people will like you and you will reap benefits from that.

  11. Mark in Cali

    Can’t tell you how many time I’ve resolved my own problems while typing an email asking for advice. Sometimes you have to think through what you did “out loud.”

  12. Vorthys

    I’m so happy to see this follow-up! Rock on, OP. You’ve knocked out one of the bigger obstacles in learning how to solve programming challenges.

  13. Shishimai

    Yay! Go you, OP! “How to learn” is one of the best skills you can have, especially in a computery* field. You’re already rubber-ducking** like a champ, so it sounds like you’re on the right track!

    *technical term. Yes, I’m computery too.
    **quack

      1. Shishimai

        I have to stifle a snicker every time I see a reference, honestly.

        Which is awkward when my young nephew is quacking for the heck of it.

    1. Purple Dragon

      I nearly wrote Hanukkah balls in an sms earlier, and stopped when I realised the other person would not understand the reference !

  14. Hermione

    Yay! Glad to see this update! I bet your boss will notice that you seem happier debugging that you were before as well.

  15. Penelope Pitstop

    Such an encouraging update. FWIW, especially the fourth paragraph of your update gives such a clear indication of professional growth, maturation and development. Major kudos to you and can only imagine it’s onward and upward from here for you, no matter where your career takes you.

  16. Susan

    ” 2) talking to other programmers and learning that a lot of the anxiety I’m feeling is very normal,”

    I think this is one of the most empowering things about reading this blog for me, knowing that we’re all worry warts and just not showing it.

    1. Not So NewReader

      This site does kind of level the playing field doesn’t it? We don’t know each others ages, job title, education back, etc. All we have to go on is the words people chose to type. I am sure many of us have said things that we would never let be known at work, but the reward is that we get to see everyone as a human being first and foremost.

  17. Kyrielle

    OP?

    You are AWESOME. Seriously, you are awesome. Turning around reactions to something like this is hard work, and you did the hard work and it sounds like it has served you amazingly well. You rock, and I’m so glad to see such a wonderful update. :)

  18. Quirk

    I like this update. It sounds like OP has really progressed as a programmer. I think it’s very hard to understand, when starting out in software development, how much of the job is improvised day to day. It is a demanding job, and “learning how to learn” is very much what it’s all about.

    OP’s last piece of advice is, I think, excellent: you can gain an immense amount of insight from having friends in the same field, particularly more experienced ones. So many frustrations of the workplace can be mitigated by getting advice from someone who’s gone through similar experiences. The only real downside of making such friends is the dangerous tendency to descend into shop talk at parties.

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