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Nov 22, 2019 - 11 minute read - Software Testing Evil Tester

How to Ask for Help

TLDR; Be clear in what you want. Do work and research on your own first. Explain your current position to provide context for what you have done. Do look for help to take the responsible next action.

I want to help people. Everyone who puts content online wants to help people. But often I am unable to help, due to the volume of contact requests and the way that people write their help requests.

Here are a few notes on how to contact people online from whom you want help and support. And how to make it easier for them to respond to your help requests. Including some notes on how I prefer to deal with requests.

People want to help others

I’ll just start by saying. People who create learning material via blogs etc. want to help other people. The output is a distillation of their experience, from their point of view, to help others with the same problem. When people who create learning material are contacted via questions and requests for support, they do want to try and help. But everyone is time constrained and some requests are hard to respond to with a useful response quickly.

Note: my preference approaches listed here are for adhoc and unprompted requests for help that I receive over the internet. Paid client work is face to face, prioritised, supported and documented.

  • I am interested in how other people handle these types of queries and how you prioritise your time to deal with them. So feel free to leave a comment or send me a link to a blog post where you explain it. I’ll happily link to blogs for other people explaining their approaches.

When you ask for support

Sometimes people have no-where to turn, and need support. If that is the case then you already have all the context required to prompt an informative response (your situation, what you have done, what you are struggling with, what specific help you think you need).

It is important to recognise that you don’t want to build dependence on the person you are asking for help. You want to to take a deliberate next step forward and you can be clear on what you think that step is, or what you want to achieve with your next step.

Support isn’t about dependency, it is about getting the resources you need to move another step forward.

  • There is nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it.
  • If you are asking for help from people on the internet, assume they are busy.
  • Make sure you do research first
    • research your question
      • ensure you have done research on the question before, don’t ask a question that can be answered with “let me Google that for you”
    • research the person you are asking
      • have they written about this before? In which case asking a question based on the specific material will probably get a more favourable response than a generic question.
      • Is your question the type of topic they cover? If not, you might not get a response.
      • Are they actually in a position to hire you, if you are asking for a job?
  • Frame your requests as specific questions to which you require answers.
  • Describe some context for your request so you demonstrate you are proceeding on your own e.g. what you have tried, what you have researched, what has not worked
  • Respect the communication channel
    • Don’t spam connect on skype.
      • Do use the public communication mechanism they list on their site.
    • Don’t cold call.
      • Do communicate in batch first
    • Don’t send a message saying “hello”.
      • Do write your full enquiry given the space constraints of the messaging system
    • Don’t prompt to change communication channels.
      • Don’t ask for a call if you are communicating via email, let them suggest a call if it will help.
      • Don’t accept a change in communication channel if you are uncomfortable with the change in communication channels. Look after yourself. Don’t accept a video call or face to face meeting if you don’t think it is appropriate.
    • Do add a message when you send connection request on LinkedIn, so the person you are connecting with understands how you found them, or how you think the connection can help. So they know you didn’t just click a [connect] button in a list of faces on a LinkedIn page.
  • Follow up.
    • the people you are asking for support are probably busy
    • your message may have slipped through the net
    • perhaps you are using a communication channel they don’t use, try a different channel e.g. contact form, email
    • when you follow up, assume the previous message got lost and repeat the context and question again.
    • Do accept “No” for an answer. If the person can’t help then don’t take offence and do stop following up on that query.
  • Respect their time
    • initially be very specific in your questions to avoid too much back and forward questioning and answers
    • accept possibly long delays in answers, the person might be busy and might not have prioritised your question. Sometimes a follow up can help, but accept that you might not get a timely response.

You may have to find multiple people to ask questions from. You may have to use multiple channels.

If you want to maximise you chances of a response then being as specific as possible in the first instance will help.

Questions can feel like a non-reciprocal exchange i.e. that there is nothing in it for the person answering the question. But I find that when the question is specific enough, and the answer is not widely available from a web search, then I gain by thinking more deeply about a specific problem and can create more content that might help other people beyond the person asking the question.

Patreon specifically has been very beneficial to me, to prompt me to think more deeply about my work, and approach to work, on a daily basis; to write down and share on Patreon the results of that reflection and hopefully help others.

When you create, you will be asked questions

I get asked a lot of questions over IM, Linkedin, email, etc. I’m sure many people do. When you put out blog posts, videos, tutorials, books etc. You are going to receive requests from people online for help.

This isn’t going to be restricted to questions prompted by your output, this will also be general life and career advice.

Different people handle this situation differently. And by people I mean: people who are asking for support, and people who are asked for support.

  • Some people like to jump on a phone call or a video call for a chat.
  • Some people prefer to work via instant messaging on specific platform
  • Some people prefer to work via email
  • Some people will respond instantly
  • Some people will take time to process and fit in responses when they have time

A few notes on how I handle it

Context: when I’m not working on client site I am working on my business. I am working on multiple business projects: books, courses, Patreon, software side-projects. I am pretty much always working. Time is a constraint.

Priority

I prioritise work as follows:

  • client work (onsite, remote, paid mentoring clients, training, etc.)
  • support of people on my online courses (via the forum facility)
  • Patreon supporters (IM or email)
  • support of people who have bought my books (email)

I sometimes do multiple strands of all of these in a single day.

I then look at (in no particular order) adhoc communication:

  • tickets in my support system raised via my contact forms
  • LinkedIn messages
  • emails
  • Instant messages

I prefer written communication for adhoc support

For requests I receive for adhoc support. I prefer written communication:

  • I find that phone calls, skype calls, zoom calls etc. take a lot of time
  • Calls can ‘lose’ information
  • Processing information on a call immediately can be hard, so questions are often based on immediately heard information, rather than information that has been processed and worked on.

This means that I usually decline requests for a call, skype, zoom.

I prefer written communication because:

  • it fits in with my time constraints and priorities
    • I can batch it and spread it over the time that I have
  • It creates a communication record that can be processed more slowly
  • it allows the person asking for help to do research prior to responding and take additional ownership of their situation
  • it can be generalised into blog posts, videos, patreon posts such that it can help others

When you ask for help or support, and your preferred mechanism to receive the support is not the preferred mechanism from the person you are asking for help, please don’t take offence. Either, accept that constraint, or ask someone else for help who does prefer that mechanism.

I prefer specific requests, rather than general

When I’m mentoring someone on a paid basis then I’m comfortable with a general approach to questioning and advice. Exploring a situation from their perspective, comparing it to how I have worked, comparing it to what I have learned from books and other people.

Mentoring is a growth relationship which targets general concepts, ambiguities as well as specific questions.

For adhoc communications I prefer to receive specific questions:

Because:

  • questions show that the person asking, is actually doing the work
  • questions are often based on the specific work and can be supported by context
  • the person asking the question has had to put thought into what they want
  • questions themselves can be explored to help the person gain clarity in what they want and need
  • questions can be a good guide to “what is my next action?”
  • questions can target specific blocks to proceeding with the work and research they are involved in
  • questions can be answered
    • sometimes with “I don’t know, but if I was trying to figure out, these would be my next steps”

My general response to generic queries is… phrase it as a specific question with enough context to allow me to understand the background behind the question.

I am conscious that there is a danger of building dependence on the support mechanism. I want to support people in their growth, by helping them push through their current blocks, and help them take the specific next action. I don’t want them to grow dependent upon me, that would be bad for both of us.

Other people may be happy to guide you through a generic situation and explore the context with you based on an adhoc online question. If you manage to find someone who can do that then don’t detrimentally mutate that situation by becoming dependant on them.

My Focus

When I receive an adhoc request.

I’m thinking:

  • Does this person know what they want to achieve?
  • Has this person taken action on their own?
  • Is this person working towards their goal?
  • Is this person working towards a goal that I think will help them?

If I receive a request that answers these questions in the message then I am more likely to be able to respond.

I try to create:

  • A response that moves that person forward
  • A response that nudges, rather than completely answers
  • A response that triggers action

Some of my responses will be questions. These are not intended to put the person off, or sway them from their position. The are intended to be a provocation towards taking ownership and responsibility.

They are intended to:

  • help ensure that the person owns their action and takes responsibility for it,
  • help clarify they are not doing it because I, or someone else said they should
  • help the person become clear on their reasons and beliefs about what they are doing

This approach is adapted from Brief Therapy processes.

Summary

People who put out content want to help others.

Adhoc requests from others, beyond the content they create, might not be written in a way that allows them to respond well, and they might not have a lot of time to respond.

The more clearly you can phrase requests for help, the more likely you are to receive a timely response.

I do respond to a lot of requests for advice and help, particularly through Patreon where I create content specifically around the questions I am asked.

The more that the support requests are phrased as questions for specific situations, the more I can create answers that move people forward.

This helps me because I have to think more deeply about specific situations and can create content that benefits not just the person asking the question, but content that can help be released publicly to help others.

Being clear in what help you need, helps other people respond in ways that might help you.

- in Software Testing Evil Tester


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