Learning to ask the right questions, or people | Caktus Group
Developer on a computer

I ask a lot of questions as a developer. Some of them have been more basic, like ‘How do I import a Python function from one file into another?’, and some more complex, like ‘How should we take an API request and return a dynamically-generated PDF as a response?’

As I have continued to learn, a couple things have been particularly beneficial:

  1. Learning to Google the question to find the answer
  2. Finding more advanced developers to answer my questions and guide my thinking

As I have grown as a developer, I have improved at knowing when to use each resource, and each remains an important part of my growth. I’ve gathered some points here that have been helpful to me during my learning, as well as some suggestions on how to help others become sharper developers.

At the beginning:

When learning to develop we oftentimes have direct questions that can be answered by another person, or by searching the internet. I remember having questions such as ‘What is a terminal and a shell?’ or ‘How do I know if something is a Python file?’. An experienced developer can answer these questions quickly, but can also point a beginner in the direction of how to find these answers on the internet. Some important things I learned at this point:

  • The answer to my question is most likely on the internet (Stack Overflow, Stack Exchange, etc.) and I should get better at finding it
  • Asking a more experienced developer may be faster, but figuring out the answer on my own can be more useful for knowing how to find answers successfully in the future
  • It is helpful to have a person help me think through the implications of my questions Thinking critically through my question and what I’m trying to solve is a lot more important than the specific answer

For people new to development, I recommend trying to Google your questions first. It may take some time to figure out how to look things up on Google or Stack Overflow, but these are useful skills that even experienced developers use every day. I also recommend finding an experienced programmer to provide any further clarification and direction - look out for meetups, or, if possible, ask a friend. For some Python meetups around Durham, NC, see TriPython.

For experienced programmers fielding such questions, remember that it’s a lot more important to become better at thinking through issues than to receive a quick answer.

With some experience:

As we gain development experience, we become better able to answer our own questions by doing internet searches, but we also encounter more complex questions, like ‘What happened to cause this timeout error?’ or ‘Is it possible to build an app that does...?’. Again, it’s important to do Google searches to see if other people have asked similar questions, or to ask these questions to more advanced developers. Some things I learned at this point:

  • Other people have probably attempted to use this feature, and either written about it, or documented it
  • There are multiple ways to accomplish what I am trying to do
  • Some features/libraries are better than others
  • It’s always helpful to ask myself, ‘What am I trying to solve here?’
  • More experienced developers oftentimes know how to solve my issue better, so I should ask their opinion

For people asking these questions, I recommend searching the internet not only to find what other people have asked or answered about specific features or libraries but also to ask questions about what a particular feature or library means for the project: What do we want to accomplish with this feature or library? How would this feature affect the user?

The answers to these questions can be beneficial in framing questions about the feature or library to more experienced developers.

With more experience:

Greater experience means that we can usually answer our more basic questions on our own. However, it also leads to different questions, oftentimes changing ‘Can I’ and ‘How does one’ questions into ‘Should I’ and ‘Why would one’ questions. An example may be considering a library and researching its issues, maintenance, and other people’s experience with it, or considering a feature for a project and whether it will lead to our own maintenance issues. Generally, the questions we ask can aid in deciding between the tradeoffs of different options, and this is something that a more experienced developer can help with.

Some things I learned at this point:

  • It is almost always possible to have a feature to do
  • Every feature has tradeoffs
  • I usually haven’t thought of all the tradeoffs or the historical reasons for using certain libraries and not others, but a more experienced developer may have

I encourage people with more complex development questions to come up with some options for solving an issue or adding a feature. Use a Google search or another developer’s experience to research these, and then ask a more experienced developer what the implications of each option might mean for the project.

A caveat:

When searching online, it is always possible to find outdated answers, especially for rapidly-changing topics like JavaScript, or when researching new libraries. While someone’s answer may have worked 5 years ago, the library may have changed and no longer supports the previous method, or the community may have moved along to use different development guidelines or frameworks. To combat this, I recommend limiting Google searches to just the past year or two, or try to see if older answers have newer comments with more accurate information. Another possibility is finding options on the internet and asking a more experienced developer which one is a better solution.

Further thoughts:

As I have continued learning as a developer, I have become better at knowing what to search for on the internet, and also at asking questions of more experienced developers. I still have lots of basic questions, and now also some more complex ones. While practice makes us better at searching for answers on the internet, I am particularly grateful to be able to ask questions of more experienced developers and to allow them to guide my thinking about certain topics. In fact, I have really relied on the expertise of more experienced developers to guide the way that I approach technical issues and figure out the best way to resolve them. I encourage any tech firm to support these kinds of interactions between developers, whether in a formal way (mentorship meetings, hosting meetups, etc.) or informally. I know it has made my time at Caktus both more enjoyable and more efficient.

Becoming a better developer is an ongoing process. Check out how to plan for mistakes as a developer to continue the journey.

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