I Wasted Days Because I Refused to Ask for Help

This week I have been working on a how-to article providing the step-by-step of building a Spring Boot starter. After reading through the documentation on the subject, I decided to start to put together my code example. A simple example of creating a starter to handle security configuration within an organization. Below is a live shot of me struggling with Spring Boot’s auto-configuration:

Person struggling to climb over fence instead of opening a gate

Like many developers, struggling with technology isn’t exactly an uncommon event as here is another occurrence from only last month:

After pounding my head on this auto-configuration issue, looking at the documentation, looking at other code examples, I eventually realized I needed help, so I “phoned a friend”:  Screen Shot 2019-12-19 at 8.42.07 AM

If you look at the timestamps, within a minute my colleague Ozzy Osbourne, yes that’s his real name, provided me with my answer. Like is so often the case, the problem was a trivial syntax issue, I incorrectly named a file spring.fractories instead of spring.factories.

Scope the Problem and Find an Expert

person saying they are an expertAsking for help is important, but there are better and worse ways of asking for it. In my case when I asked for help, I went to a slack channel devoted to Spring experts. I also knew the problem was with auto configuration. This gave my colleagues the information they needed to know where to look in my code. I scoped the problem, and turned to the people who knew the area well, leading to its rapid resolution.

Because IBM is a huge organization, I am fortunate in having many experts to turn to when I have a question. This is very different from my previous experience; most organizations I have worked at have numbered, in total, in the hundreds or low thousands, with the technical staff only a subset of that. If you work at a smaller organization where the number of “experts” you can turn to is limited I would recommend engaging in your local meetups to expand your network. I have gotten to many developers in my area, Kansas City, this way, which I have turned to for help on more than a few occasions.

Note: If you are a Java developer in the Kansas City area be sure to check out the Kansas City JUG.

Regardless when asking for helping either inside or outside of your organization you should be conscientious of those you are asking for help from. Everyone has their own priorities, so it’s important to scope a problem down as much as reasonably possible and also provide useful background information. This helps you as you don’t have to spend time re-treading tried solutions or chasing down red-herrings.

Pay it Forward

Humans operate on concepts of trust, reciprocity, and mutual respect. As you ask for help, it’s important to be mindful that you are asking someone else to take time out of their day to help you with something. When you scope a problem before asking for help, it shows a sign of respect to who you asked for help that you made a real attempt to resolve the issue yourself first (i.e. you value their time).

As you ask for help, you should also be attentive to others when they need help. I may not be in a position soon to repay my colleague directly by helping him with an issue, but I can still repay some of that goodwill by helping the next person who might ask a question in the Spring experts channel, or some other area I have expertise in.

Conclusion

Most of all what I hope you take from this article is it is ok to ask for help. Like many developers early in my career I was at times overly cautious about asking for help. I was afraid that by asking questions I might be revealing my ignorance and/or that I didn’t know what I was doing (see: imposter syndrome). It is something that every developer needs to works to get over. Even after a dozen years as a professional developer I still have been tripped up by a simple spelling mistake that cost me hours. Next time you find yourself spinning your wheels, scope the problem and find an expert.